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Posts Tagged ‘Somoni’

Wanna change money? Buy a suzani?

I walk to work in the center of Dushanbe every day, and, along the way, I pass dozens of places to change money.  Most of them have signs identical to the one pictured above giving the exchange office’s buy (ХАРИД) and sell rates (ФУРЎШ) for the day on a variety of currencies against the Tajik somoni.  Invariably, the US dollar is one of the currencies listed.

Last week, the dollar took a real dive against the somoni.  Now, I don’t get paid in somoni (or dollars for that matter) and I make enough that most currency fluctuations won’t hit me too hard.  That said, it was a bit odd to see the somoni go from approximately 4.88 to the dollar on last Thursday, down to about 4.60 to the dollar by last Sunday.  I wasn’t aware of any macroeconomic event causing the shift, and I didn’t even hear anyone comment on the change.  Just — poof! — and almost 6% of the value of the dollar disappeared in a few days for no apparent reason.

The only thing I can figure is that the streetside exchange offices like the one above offer a market rate for money exchange that is often fairly different from the rate set by the National Bank of Tajikistan.  I know this because our contractors at work often whine that they are getting less than than expected when they get paid according to the National Bank rate rather than the market rate for contracts denominated in dollars.  Hell, I whine about that too when I get my dollar-paid reimbursements back in somoni.  So, I wonder if someone from the National Bank, or elsewhere in the government, leaned on the money changers for having a better exchange rate, which then caused the exchange offices to overcompensate with a rate worse than the National Bank rate.

Just conjuncture, who knows?  All I know is that this morning on my walk to work, I spied the market rate above, 4.81 somoni to the dollar.  Not exactly back to where we started, but it is quite a two-day rally for the dollar against the somoni.  Maybe it’s time to short the somoni, if you could do such a thing.

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When Tajikistan became independent in 1991, it had no history as a nation state.  Before being overrun by the Tsar’s armies in the nineteenth century, the area that now comprises Tajikistan belonged to a variety of emirates and principalities.  Most prominently, the Emirate of Bukhara vied for control of the region with the King of Afghanistan and the Khan of Kokand.  Of course, none of those places were based in the current territory of Tajikistan, whose crazy-quilt borders, along with those of the neighboring states, were drawn to deliberately destabilize Central Asia by Stalin in the 1920’s.  Along with the jigsaw shape of the country, Stalin’s machinations insured that Tajikistan and the Tajiks therein had no common heritage or heroes upon its independence, as the historic seats of Tajik power and culture were outside of the new nation’s borders.  Enter Ismoil Somoni:

The Ismoil Somoni statute in downtown Dushanbe

The Ismoil Somoni statute in downtown Dushanbe

Ismoil Somoni was an emir who unified a goodly chunk of Central Asia around 900 A.D., and was the first local ruler in the region to be de facto independent of the Arab caliphate, in this case from the Abbasids in Baghdad. Upon Tajikistan’s independence, while groping for a unifying figure, the Tajik leadership seized upon Somoni. Somoni was refashioned by the Tajik political class, changing from an obscure leader from a millennium ago, known mainly by scholars, to the proud ruler of a proto-Tajikistan, free from outside control. Part of this nationalistic transformation of Somoni included the construction of the enormous Somoni statue in downtown Dushanbe.

Close up of the Somoni statute, notice the symbols of independent Tajikistan held by the old ruler

Close up of the Somoni statute, notice the symbols of independent Tajikistan held by the old ruler

According to one journalist,

The Somoni monument, which cost $20m, was inaugurated in 1999, when the state budget was $250m. Symbols are highly valued in central Asia, and the cult of this long-lost dynasty is taken seriously in Tajikistan and beyond.

Signs of Somoni are everywhere in Tajikistan, as the national currency is named after him and he appears on its largest bill, the 100 somoni denomination (which is worth about $23).  One of Dushanbe’s main streets, and the one on which the U.S. Embassy is located, is now Avenue Ismoil Somoni.  Restaurants, shops, you name it, are now called Somoni.  Even my credit card from Orienbank features the iconic Somoni statute.

The Visa Classic from Orienbank

The Visa Classic from Orienbank

Has all this nation building by creating a national mythology worked?  That’s hard for me to gauge not speaking the language and being so new to the country.  Maybe to an extent it has worked, the country has been relatively peaceful for over a decade.  But when I see Lenin statues throughout the countryside and hear taxi drivers wax nostalgia for Soviet times, I wonder.

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