Tajiks Are Asked to Give Up Month's Salary to Build Dam

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan -- Residents of Tajikistan, Central Asia's poorest nation, were asked Tuesday to give up a month's salary to help build a desperately needed hydroelectric dam.

The Tajik authorities' request comes after an unusually cold winter caused widespread electricity shortages and claimed hundreds of victims nationwide.

Mayor Makhmadsaid Ubaidullayev of the capital, Dushanbe, has calculated that if all the city's residents give up half their salaries in May and June, more than $10 million could be raised for the Rogun dam, his spokesman said Tuesday.

Ubaidullayev's appeal echoed a similar call made by Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, who said last week that the entire project would cost around $550 million and called on Tajiks to help fund it.

The Rogun project dates back to the 1970s. It lay dormant after the Soviet collapse until Russian metals giant OC Rusal expressed interest in reviving it as a way to tap the mountainous nation's sizable hydroelectric potential.

The dam's fate was thrown into doubt last year after Tajikistan canceled Rusal's contract because of disagreements about how the project would be implemented.

Rakhmon said the government had allocated $40 million for the construction and the sum will be doubled in 2009.

Although the proposed residents' funding initiative has been described as entirely voluntary, there are concerns that workers will be coerced into giving up part of their wages under threat of tax audits or regulatory checks.

Tajikistan's economy was ruined by civil war in the mid-1990s. It is now among the world's poorest countries, with an average monthly wage of around $50.