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Tajiks sink money into Soviet-style dam project

When Abdullo Bobokhonov's grandson was born in this Tajik village, he named the baby after a government-ordered hydroelectric dam and raised a small fortune to help fund it.

In the capital, Dushanbe, law student Alyona Arkhipova complains she was told she couldn't sit her exams unless she bought a share in the project.

two conflicting attitudes toward a $1.4 billion fundraising drive for a dam which the government touts as a cure for Tajikistan's economic woes and energy gap, and which critics fear will bleed Central Asia's poorest country dry.

even factoring in a possible fear of speaking openly — of a striking degree of acceptance and even enthusiasm for the Roghun dam.

Roghunshoh, or King Roghun.

The family, which lives in a humble and tidy homestead in this tiny village in northern Tajikistan, also raised almost $1,200 for the dam.

The history of the Soviet Union was littered with similar grandiose projects aimed at bending nature to man's will. Now, 20 years after Tajikistan became independent, Roghun is held up as an object of national pride and a generation-defining path to a better future.

a third of the average monthly salary and many, like the Bobokhonovs, are buying multiple shares. This raises concerns that the government's efforts could shatter livelihoods and stifle the country's anemic economy.

It has also provoked rage in neighboring Uzbekistan, which fears the dam on the Vakhsh River could reduce the flow of water to its farmers.

That's unlikely to bother many Tajiks. They tend to scorn objections from energy-rich Uzbekistan, which has repeatedly cut off natural gas supplies to Tajikistan over delayed payments during freezing winter months.

The capital's main streets are adorned with banners and placards trumpeting Roghun. State television, which Tajiks rely on for news, devotes entire chunks of prime time to updates on the progress of the share sale. Countless billboards feature a hardhat-wearing Emomali Rakhmon, Tajikistan's iron-fisted president since 1992.

Rakhmon vows that all investors in government-issued Roghun stock will get their money back and more. There are hopes of selling surplus power to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but some worry that once electricity grids are laid out, they could be prey to militants in those countries.

It is far from clear when the dam will be completed, and the government has made only the vaguest promises about when its electricity will reach households or when it might generate profits.

The dam is expected to cost $2.2 billion and is designed to include six generating units with a capacity of 600 megawatts each. Around $175 million had been raised from the share sale by mid-March, which comes on top of the $120 million the government invested last year, but the project is still far short of the $600 million that Rakhmon says will be needed to complete the first phase by 2012.

There is no foreign investment in sight, and the World Bank is noncommittal, saying it will take around two years to study the dam's technical feasibility and environmental impact.

The government insists that buying shares is completely voluntary, but Arkhipova, studying law at the Tajik-Russian Slavic University, tells a different story.

"When the university term started, people in our class who didn't buy shares were quite simply denied the right to sit their exams," said Arkhipova, 23.

"I wanted to avoid the same happening to me and I just wanted to do my test as normal, so I bought a share," she said.

Low-ranking state workers have had portions of their salaries withheld to buy shares, and there have been media reports of some villagers being forced to sell cattle to raise money.

"People talk about these things between themselves at the workplace, but they do not go to prosecutors out of fear of getting into trouble," said Sergei Romanov, a lawyer with the Dushanbe-based Bureau on Human Rights and the Rule of Law.

Authorities promise the hydroelectric plant will bring an end to Tajikistan's chronic electricity shortages.

many of them newborn babies in freezing maternity wards.

The Roghun project is meant in part to generate enough revenue to afford extra natural gas supplies when rivers freeze again.

It was designed to be world's largest dam when the project started in the mid-1970s, but it stalled as the Soviet Union collapsed, the economy went into chaos and a five-year civil war broke out.

aluminum and cotton — caused economic growth to shrink fourfold to 2 percent in 2009.

Economists believe the Roghun drive will only make matters worse in the immediate future.

"The equity campaign may temporarily dampen growth in 2010 by up to one percentage point, with households reducing consumption ... in order to purchase Roghun shares," the IMF said in a recent statement.

The Vakhsh begins in Tajikistan and flows into the Amu-Darya river, the key irrigation source for Uzbekistan's lucrative fruit, vegetable and cotton crops, and the neighbor's complaint is being heard loud and clear.

In a letter to his Tajik counterpart, Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev complained last month that tampering with river flows could disrupt the region's ecological balance and threaten the survival of millions of people.

"The Tajik government has displayed complete disregard for our repeated statements on this issue, and it has continued to pursue construction of this facility without considering the possible consequences," Mirziyoyev said.

But Nasrullo Baimatov, a 56-year old invalid retiree in the northern Tajik city of Khujand, is unmoved.

"All this time, we have depended on Uzbekistan," he said. "Once we build Roghun, we will rely on nobody."