On a vast fairground in the middle of the city, as the band quits the stage and the sunstruck mid-August Sunday begins to dim, a fleet of flame-lit sky lanterns waft into the night sky. Rising, they illuminate the rapt faces of hundreds of 20-somethings below. It could be a scene from any outdoor festival in the U.S. But this is Summer Fest in Dushanbe — and it’s a pointer both to a millennial-led transformation taking root in the capital of Tajikistan and of entrenched power interests looking to grab control of that movement.
The Central Asian country of 8 million people is still scarred by its brutal 1992–1997 civil war that left up to 100,000 dead and 20 percent of the population displaced. Its economy is in the drain, with the Tajik somoni losing close to half its value against the dollar in the past five years. Most families live on less than $1,000 a year. Hundreds of thousands of Tajiks work abroad for a pittance, leaving behind a parentless generation. Now, a generation of millennials is trying to rebrand Dushanbe as an oasis where it’s possible to ignore the debris of war — at least sometimes. They’re relying on the tools millennials know best: digital media.
Take 30-year-old Ahmadali Tojiddinov, who in December 2011 started tonight.tj, an online platform that promotes cultural brands, events, nightlife, restaurants and bars in Dushanbe; his competitor, 29-year-old Parviz Ruziev, who helped launch the similar site menu.tj in late 2012; or 25-year-old Rustam Nazaroff, who authors a witty cultural commentary blog.
The search for a car led to the creation of an ad site for the search and sale of cars.
Jahongir Zabirov, digital entrepreneur
Meanwhile, Facebook groups like “We’re Tajikistanians” — started in 2015 — and “I’m a Dushanbintsi,” which began in 2014, now have tens of thousands of members who share details of cultural events and political news. And then there’s somon.tj, a free classifieds service started in 2013 by entrepreneur Jahongir Zabirov — who was also a co-founder of menu.tj — after he was frustrated trying to buy a car in a local marketplace. For Zabirov, digital media offered a fix to what he saw as an antiquated drag on a modern city: the city’s noisy, garbage-filled bazaars. His free classifieds service has faced challenges from regional players, especially from Ukraine, but it remains the fifth-most popular address in the country — although more and more Tajiks, especially women, are setting up beauty and fashion retail ventures on social media.
“The search for a car led to the creation of an ad site for the search and sale of cars,” says Zabirov. Now, it’s a platform “where you can buy or sell almost everything,” he adds.
In many parts of the world, the achievements of these first-generation digital entrepreneurs may not stand out. But given the challenges, the very emergence of digital startups in Tajikistan is surprising. The country has some of the slowest, most expensive internet in the world. A 2017 World Bank report found that a 512 kbps internet package in Tajikistan costs about one-eighth of an average Tajik’s monthly consumer spending. If Americans were buying internet at Tajik prices, they’d be spending close to $550 each month on service so slow that most U.S. service providers no longer offer it. The expense, low coverage and lack of digital literacy mean that only 17 percent of the country’s population — mostly in Tajikistan’s cities — uses the internet regularly. “Tajikistan is one of the poorest-served countries for internet in the world,” writes Tim Kelly, the author of the World Bank report, in an email. “And it is not succeeding in catching up.”
For a while, these barriers to entry meant that the internet was a zone of relative freedom for those Tajiks who could afford it. But after an alleged coup attempt in 2015, the government has employed increasingly heavy-handed regulations to throttle the internet. In August, it blocked Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and even Google after four foreign cyclists were killed by ISIS extremists in southern Tajikistan.
On social media, Tajiks “have been subjected to enormous authoritarian pressure,” says Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. The government polices citizens’ every action — including imprisoning people who criticize the government online. “It’s become an incredibly docile social media world, one driven by fear and government fake [accounts],” says Swerdlow.
None of those hardships were in evidence at Summer Fest, which in online promotions drew parallels between Dushanbe and the haunts of the global millennial elite: Coachella, Dubai, the Aegean coast. Concerts by some of Tajikistan’s biggest pop stars were interrupted by paragliders tumbling out of a biplane to land among the crowd below. Three hot air balloons moored on park grounds ferried festivalgoers above the city. The food was cheap, the tea was free, and carnival prizes were handed out liberally. “This kind of event is a novelty for us. Everyone knows why we haven’t had things like this for 20 years,” wrote attendee Amirbek Isayev on Facebook.
But while Summer Fest was the latest brick in a wall dividing how different generations of Tajiks think of the city, it was also an example of the challenges facing digital startups in a country where competing against government-backed firms is one of the biggest risks of doing business, according to local entrepreneurs. Summer Fest was organized by the office of the mayor, Rustam Emomali, who is also the president’s son and heir apparent. Sponsored by Coca-Cola and Turkish Airlines, the event’s promotion was handled by a firm that’s part of a sprawling conglomerate with ties to the president’s son.
Still, Dushanbe’s digital natives are thriving, finding larger partners and opportunities beyond Tajikistan’s borders. Tojiddinov has launched a new digital firm called monday.agency — the name is a nod to Dushanbe, which translates to “Monday” in the Tajik language — that offers branding and marketing solutions, public relations assistance and event management to some of the country’s largest businesses. Tojiddinov says he’s exploring taking tonight.tj to Kazakhstan. Menu.tj’s founding team sold the business to a local beer magnate. Ruziev heads digital marketing for a powerful local telecom group with ties to the Aga Khan. Zabirov, who returned to Dushanbe in January after 18 months working with a Kazakh competitor, updated somon.tj three weeks ago to allow people to pay by credit card. Being at the top of your field can be a treacherous game when the government wants to play too. But these millennial Tajiks are battling hard to keep their dreams alive.