Category Archives: Opinion

Noria: “The Dynamics of the Peace Process in Tajikistan: Power-Sharing and the Unravelling of the post-Civil War Status Quo”

by | Jan 15, 2018

Parts of Central Asia – a region where authoritarian rule has been the norm since the end of the Soviet Union – are liberalising, albeit modestly. In Uzbekistan, this has been the case since the passing of President Karimov in 2016. As for Kyrgyzstan, it experienced its first formal democratic transfer of power after the October 2017 presidential elections. Tajikistan, however, seems to go against regional trends and is steadily sliding towards consolidated authoritarianism. For much of the 2000s, this small landlocked country, located at the junction of Asia’s highest mountain ranges1, enjoyed a considerable degree of political pluralism (second only to Kyrgyzstan), and the highest degree of media freedom in all Central Asia.2 The end of this brief democratic opening coincides with the unravelling of the post-civil war power-sharing agreement. Tajikistan is still recovering from the bloody civil war of 1992-1997, which led to the loss of 60,000 to 100,000 lives and to the displacement of approximately 650,000 Tajikistanis.3

The conflict pitted regionally-based interest groups against one another in a struggle both for access to state resources and over competing ideological visions for the country’s future. The pro-government factions, drawn from the ranks of the Soviet-era bureaucratic elite and backed by the traditionally dominant lowland-dwelling Tajikistanis in the north and south of the country, were bent on defending the post-independence status quo. Independence had been thrust upon the Central Asian republics unexpectedly in 1991. Tajikistan’s political leadership, having with great reluctance shouldered their emancipation from Moscow, aimed to mitigate for these changes by preserving a degree of continuity with the Soviet era. This meant maintaining strong state control over the lives of the country’s citizens, especially in the economic, religious and national identity realms. The chief challenger of the status quo was the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), a loose coalition of Tajik nationalists, moderate Islamists, liberal democratic activists and advocates for greater self-determination for the linguistically and confessionally distinct Gorno-Badakhshan region. The Tajik opposition’s aims were the relinquishment of Tajikistan’s Soviet legacy and a partial reorientation of the country’s political ties from the post-Soviet space towards the wider Persian-speaking world. The UTO was backed by the inhabitants of the rugged mountainous regions of central and eastern Tajikistan, by their regional-identity-preserving kinsmen in the cotton-rich southern lowland Qurghonteppa region, relocated there by force during the Stalinist era, and also by the liberal-minded parts of the urban intelligentsia.

The armed conflict was the culmination of a series of domestic crises, starting with the February 1990 riots (triggered by the rumoured relocation of Armenian refugees to Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital). Large-scale opposition protests in mid-1991, in reaction to the failed coup in Moscow, culminated in the resignation of then President Mahkamov and the outlawing of the Communist party. The emboldened opposition took to the streets again the following year, after the dismissal of the Badakhshani minister of interior Navzhuvanov.4 Firearms found their way into the hands of the participants of opposing rallies and town square sit-ins and violence eventually broke out. The fighting then spread to most parts of the country, as returning protesters and counter-protesters alike brought belligerent zeal to their own respective home provinces. The first months of the war were also the most violent. A pro-government paramilitary group known as the Popular Front initiated “sub-ethnic” cleansing, singling-out civilians on the basis of on their regional origins, first in the mixed Qurghonteppa region, only to bring this tactic over later to the capital. Tajikistan’s neighbours and other regional powers played an important role in both the civil war and the eventual peace talks. The government received fluctuating degrees of support from the Russian Federation and neighbouring Uzbekistan, while Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance5 supplied the UTO with arms, training and logistical support. As for Iran, it provided the opposition with ideological backing, most notably supporting the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the UTO’s most powerful constituent.

The article maps the peace process and post-war power-sharing in Tajikistan. It shows how the post-conflict political order unravelled, with the creeping monopolization of the executive branch by pro-government forces squeezing out all meaningful opposition. Nevertheless, despite the political and economic challenges and persistent regional divisions, no renewed larger-scale armed conflict has taken place in Tajikistan so far.6


The end of the war in Tajikistan can be attributed to coordinated international efforts to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table. This reflected both new security developments in the region and an alignment of national interests among key regional players. This was most notably the case of Iran and Russia, brought together by the latter’s bid to complete the construction of a nuclear power plant in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr. In early 1996, Russian foreign minister Kozyrev had been replaced by the more proactive Yevgeny Primakov, an expert in the Middle East, and Russia’s “soft underbelly” to the south regained prominence in Moscow’s policymaking. In Afghanistan just next door, the rapid northward advances of the Taliban after the fall of Kabul that same year allowed for some Russian arm twisting of the Northern Alliance, compelling the latter to stop supplying the UTO with weapons.7 External interference thus ensured that none of the two warring parties in Tajikistan could secure a decisive victory and that the only conceivable outcome would be a negotiated peace deal.

“Track Two” diplomacy laid the groundwork for official meetings in Moscow, Tehran, Islamabad and other regional capitals. These meetings set the modalities for an indefinite ceasefire, the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the demobilization of the “armed opposition” or their incorporation into the national army. However, a serious shortcoming of those peace talks and the peace process at large was that they excluded very early on some of the major regionally-based interest groups. This was notably the case of the more hard-line Islamists within the UTO and of the largely pro-government Uzbek minority. Conspicuously side-lined was also the historically dominant Leninabad Region in the north of the country, virtually unscathed by a civil war roaring at a safe distance two high mountain chains away, which gradually lost its political dominance to the southern Kulob Region.8 These exclusions led to several violent attempts to derail the peace process. The most high-profile case was a series of armed incursions by rogue ex-army commander Khudoiberdiev, a member of the country’s sizeable Uzbek minority, carried out from neighbouring Uzbekistan in 1996 and 1998. Furthermore, in remote parts of central and eastern Tajikistan, a handful of former UTO commanders kept engaging in skirmishes with government forces until as late as the mid-2010s.9

In light of this limited inclusiveness, the civil war and subsequent peace process did little to resolve the structural causes behind the original outbreak of hostilities, namely weak state capacity, extreme regional imbalances in access to resources, a regionally fragmented and weakly consolidated national identity, and chronic side-lining of both Islamist and liberal voices. The only deep change the civil war brought about was the southward shift of the inter-regional power balance. This change had manifested itself in the replacement, half way into the war, of Leninabadi President R. Nabiev by Emomali Rahmon, the current incumbent. The latter had worked as a chairman of a collective farm in the Danghara District of the southern Kulob Region, half-way between Dushanbe and the city of Kulob itself. The appointment of then inconsequential and seemingly weak Rahmon was a compromise between the economically and politically-dominant North and the high command of Tajikistan’s armed forces, which traditionally hailed from Kulob. Leninabad’s isolation from the rest of the country, the lack of more active Northern involvement in the civil war and the South’s brandished authenticity as the home of true Tajiks (as opposed to the more “Uzbek-flavoured” North), all contributed to this side-lining.


The post-war arrangement granted 30% of the seats in the executive branch to the UTO. The necessity to “free up” the promised percentage served as an excuse for the newly dominant southern regional grouping to remove from positions of power the regional cliques that had been excluded from the peace negotiations.10 The ones bearing the brunt were the northern Leninabadis and the Uzbeks, but also to some extent non-Danghari Kulobis. Last but not least, none of the key ministries were ceded to former UTO commanders; they were all securely in the hands of the ascendant Southern political elites.11 Such repudiations from the executive branch, which the government could easily blame on exogenous constraints, like the implementation of an internationally-brokered peace agreement, were a sign of things to come.

The post-civil war power-sharing mechanism itself suffered an early blow in 2000, when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund pledged tens of millions of dollars of post-conflict economic assistance to Tajikistan under the condition that government spending will be noticeably slimmed down. Ministries, government agencies and state companies were thus disbanded or merged, in a way that consistently targeted those positions held by the opposition, rather than by the dominant, essentially Southern, power group.12 Disbanding existing ministries proved to be too limited of a tool in reshaping the post-war power balance. The post-conflict compromise was further undermined by a de-legitimization campaign against non-co-opted high-ranking members of the UTO still holding quota-related positions of power. The most common approach was the use of flimsy disciplinary or criminal charges against prominent ex-UTO commanders. This tactic was used in 2003 against Shamsiddin Shamsiddinov, deputy-chair of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT)13 and, in 2006, against Mirzo Ziyoev, minister of emergency situations.14

The slow pace of this marginalization suggests that Southern political elites had learnt from their Northern predecessors’ mistakes. Some experts claim that the escalation of violence at the start of the civil war in the early 1990s was set off by a full-on attack on the opposition by overconfident Northern political elites.15 The Southerners’ slow and cautious eviction of the opposition proved to be a more successful strategy. This explains why the IRPT was only outlawed in 2015, first by parliamentary vote and later again by a supreme court ruling. What begs an explanation, however, is the Islamic Renaissance Party’s surprising complacency.


Indeed, besides a handful of prominent exceptions, there does not seem to have been any serious backlash against the slow monopolisation of the Tajikistani state apparatus by an increasingly narrow regional clique. This self-restraint has been a striking feature of the post-civil war status quo in Tajikistan.16 It is true of the opposition in Tajikistan, but also of the bulk of the country’s adult citizenry, among which the desire to maintain peace seems to have trumped almost all other political demands. The still vivid memory of the anti-government protests in Shahidon Square in 1992, which set off a chain of events culminating in armed conflict, precludes any large-scale display of public discontent in an increasingly authoritarian state. Concurrent elections in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2005 were illustrative of the political apathy of Tajikistani citizens to cases of vote-rigging, while the same allegation in Kyrgyzstan led to the toppling of the regime.17 On a wider regional scale, the civil war in Tajikistan is used by autocratic regimes like Uzbekistan as a cautionary tale: it allows to present peace as incompatible with real political competition, let alone the legal existence of Islamist parties.

The people currently in power in Tajikistan seem to understand this deterrent effect very well. Moreover, the official narrative frames peace in Tajikistan as solely the President’s achievement. By imposing this narrative, Rahmon’s inner circle indirectly acknowledges that it can no longer simply rely on the fading recollections of Tajikistani citizens. Early on, primary school textbooks in post-war Tajikistan had included sentences like “We are fighting for peace”.18 More recently, a December 2015 law passed by the Parliament declared the current President “Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation” – local media outlets failing to write an unabridged version of this official title each time Rahmon is mentioned face hefty fines.19 As a legitimizing device, memories of the civil war and its atrocities had given way to a broader ideological narrative, hinging on the myth that Emomali Rahmon single-handedly ended the civil war in Tajikistan. Many state-commissioned posters and banners throughout the country convey this notion more or less explicitly.

However, these efforts might prove insufficient given Tajikistan’s demographic trends. While 7% of the population is between 18 and 25 years of age, a whopping 40% is under the age of 18.20 These cohorts have no personal recollections of the war of the 1990s. With time, the proportion of Tajik citizens with some degree of political consciousness but lacking the political self-restraint stemming from a first-hand experience of civil strife will increase dramatically. This will serve as a test for the credibility of the government’s one-sided narrative of peace-making, and could have a potentially destabilizing effect on the domestic situation – especially if the flow economic migrants, which is both crucial for Tajikistan’s remittance-dependent economy and a social and political “safety valve”, gets disrupted. The most important stabilising factor in Tajikistan’s political culture is thus slowly fading away. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s relative success in recruiting young Tajik migrant workers in Russia for their war effort in Syria and Iraq can serve as a red flag.21


Contrary to the prevailing official narrative, putting an end to the civil war in Tajikistan would have been hardly conceivable without an alignment of national interests amongst relevant regional players like Russia and Iran. While most short-term and medium-term goals of the peace process (the return of refugees and internally displaced persons and the end of hostilities) have been met, the erosion of institutionalised power-sharing mechanisms has greatly undermined the post-civil war status quo. With the structural tensions behind the war still unresolved, the only major stabilising force in Tajikistan is the considerable self-restraint of stakeholders, primarily of the opposition, which partly accounts for the IRPT’s passivity all the way until the recent government crackdown. All in all, post-civil war political developments in Tajikistan show a considerable degree of path-dependency, with wartime experiences and the peace process still determining political outcomes to a large extent. However, while this still holds true of the ruling elites, an increasing percentage of the population with no recollection of past hostilities would be less reluctant to refrain from violent contestation.


Jan Tomek

Jan Tomek is an Mlitt student of “Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asian Security Studies” at University of St Andrews and graduate of the SciencesPo Paris – Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) dual degree Masters’ programme in “International Affairs: International Security”. His areas of academic interest include regional politics and issues of identity, security and development in Central Eurasia (Anatolia, the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia). His current objective is to start a doctoral research focusing on Iran’s regional policy vis-à-vis its northwestern and northeastern neighbourhood.
  1. Namely the Pamirs, the Karakoram Range, the Hindu Kush and, not far away, the northernmost edge of Himalayas.
  2. According to annual reports of Reporters without Borders’ “The World Press Freedom Index” and Freedom House’s “Freedom of the World”
  3. Akiner, Shirin and Catherine Barnes. “The Tajik civil war: Causes and Dynamics”. Accord, 2001, p. 18.
  4. Splidsboel Hansen, Flemming. “The outbreak and settlement of civil war: Neorealism and the case of Tajikistan”. Civil Wars, 2:4, Winter 1999, pp. 1-22.
  5. The commonly used name of the anti-Taliban “United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan”, founded in 1996, is to be understood here as all political and military factions in Afghanistan loyal to Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani, including pre-1996 ones.
  6. This article is based on the author’s fieldwork in Tajikistan from mid-March to late May 2016
  7. Interview with Nurali Davlat, Dushanbe, May 13, 2016
  8. Iji, Tetsuro. “Cooperation, Coordination and Complementarity in International Peacemaking: the Tajikistan Experience”. International Peacekeeping, 12:2, Summer 2005, pp. 189-204.
  9. OSCE Centre in Dushanbe Spot Reports, 2010-2011
  10. Nourzhanov, Kirill. “Saviours of the Nation or Robber Barons? Warlord Politics in Tajikistan”, Central Asian Survey, 24:2, June 2005, pp. 109-130.
  11. ICG Asia Report N° 30 – “Tajikistan: an Uncertain Peace”, International Crisis Group. 24 December 2001
  12. Nakaya, Sumie. “Aid and transition from a war economy to an oligarchy in post-war Tajikistan”. Central Asian Survey, 28:3, September 2009, pp. 259-273.
  13. Asia Briefing – “Tajikistan’s Politics: Confrontation or Consolidation?”. International Crisis Group. Dushanbe/Brussels. 19 May 2004. p. 6.
  14. Heathershaw, John. “Seeing like the International Community: How Peacebuilding Failed (and Survived) in Tajikistan”, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 2:3, November 2008, p. 348.
  15. Tunçer-Kılavuz, Idil. “Understanding Violent Conflict: A Comparative Study of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan”. Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University, August 2007. p. 10, 154.
  16. There have been questionable government efforts to establish links between the IRPT and former Deputee Defence Minister A. Nazarzoda, the instigator of the single-most recent security threat: a short-lived revolt ending with a fatal shootout in a mountain gorge not far from Dushanbe
  17. Knyazev, Aleksandr, quoted in Almatbaeva, Žuldyz. “Aleksandr Knyazev: Tadžikistan – voina meždu regional’nymi èlitami” [Aleksander Knyazev: Tajikistan is experiencing a war between regional elites] Regnum. 9 September 2015.
  18. Mahkamov S. and Š. Qosimova. ‘Zaboni davlatī (Tojikī) – Kitobi darsī baroi sinfi 3’ [The State Language (Tajiki) – A textbook for the third grade] 2003. This is probably also a reflection of Soviet-era discourse.
  19. “Tajikistan: State Media Forced to Always Call President by Unwieldy Title”. EurasiaNet, April 24, 2017.
  20. Demographic projections for the year 2016, World Bank
  21. “Grazhdane Tadzhikistana lidiruyut po kolichestvu boevikov-smertnikov IG v Sirii i Irake” [Tajikistan’s Citizens are in the Lead in Numbers of ISIL Fighters-Suicide Bombers in Syria and Iraq]. Ferghana News. March 16, 2017.


When security forces revealed the suspect in an attack on the St Petersburg metro that killed 14 on April 3 was likely a Kyrgyz national, attention turned to the Central Asia region, the source of several attacks on Russia in recent decades. After Friday’s truck attack in Stockholm that killed four, the region made headlines again. Swedish police said the suspect, who has confessed to the attack, was Rakhmat Akilov, from Uzbekistan.

Though Russian authorities believe the St. Petersburg suspect Akbarzhon Jalilov, 22, was a suicide bomber, they arrested eight people in connection with the attack on Monday, and chief of Russian intelligence Alexander Bortnikov said they were also from Central Asian republics.

Both attacks have drawn attention to region with a history of separatism, and in recent years, a source of Islamist extremism. Though neither attack has been claimed by any group so far, both have mirrors in those by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The group coordinated similar bombings at train stations in Brussels in March 2016 that killed 32, and a suicide attack on Ataturk airport in Istanbul in June that killed 44 civilians, in which the suspects were also from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. ISIS’s propaganda wing has encouraged its “soldiers” to attack western targets by using vehicle rammings, and an ISIS-inspired attack in Nice in July 2016 killed 86.

There are concerns about the growth of religious extremism in Central Asia—since the rise of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in 2014 experts estimate up to 4,000 people from central Asia have gone to fight for the group in Iraq and Syria. Russia’s shared borders with much of Central Asia have made it nervous. In a speech to the U.N. general assembly in September 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern over the growing threat of international terrorism in the region.

Much of Central Asia was formerly part of the Soviet Union, under which sources of identity such as religion and nationality were repressed. “In the 1990s when Communism collapsed, tradition withered away, and there wasn’t much prosperity. Conditions were ripe for a new ideology, and some people, especially young men looking to become heroes, were drawn to that,” says Anna Matleeva, visiting senior research fellow in the department for war studies at King’s College London.

A variety of extreme religious movements operate across Central Asia including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islam (Party of Islamic Liberation, HuT) the Jamaat of Central Asian Mujahidin and the Uyghur Islamic Party of Eastern Turkestan separatist group. Foreign organizations banned across the region include al Qaeda, Afghanistan’s Taliban, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Recruiters for ISIS are present in cities across the region. They target mostly poorer regions, suburbs, towns, areas with big bazaars, a crossroads perhaps, with a good communication network; places that allow a mixing of people anonymously,” Matleeva adds. There are several hotspots of extremism in the central Asian region, within the republics, as well as in regions with a strong separatist bent, such as Xinjiang in China.


Uzbekistan, an authoritarian country, led by the dictator Islam Karimov until 2016, borders Afghanistan to the South, Turkmenistan to the west, and Russia to the north. The largest single group of people joining ISIS from Central Asia is from Uzbekistan, say Crisis Group experts.

A 39-year-old Uzbek man is in custody over an attack in Sweden which killed four in the capital, including a Belgian, a Briton, and two Swedes. Police said that he had “expressed sympathy for extremist organizations” including ISIS.

Reuters reports suggest that Uzbek recruits for ISIS could be in the thousands. The International Center for Conflict Resolution ( ICSR ) estimates that more than 500 Uzbek nationals have traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS in its self-styled caliphate. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan became part of ISIS in 2015, and is active in northern Afghanistan alongside the Taliban. The IMU wants to overthrow the Uzbek government and create Turkistan, or an Islamic caliphate which stretches from Xinjiang to the Caspian Sea.


The home of Jalilov, the alleged St Petersburg attacker, has experienced a “slow arc towards fundamentalism,” according to a June article in The Diplomat, a magazine specialising in Asian affairs. One of the bombers of the Boston marathon in 2013 was born in Kyrgyzstan, as was one of the attackers who hit Ataturk airport. Recruitment for extremist groups, particularly ISIS, is a concern for the tiny country. Estimates vary on the number of citizens that have gone to fight for ISIS, but several reports put the figure at around 500.

Of those who left to fight in Iraq and Syria, around 40 jihadists have returned and authorities are concerned about the influence they may have, and have cracked down on suspected extremist cells as a result.

Through 2015 and 2016 authorities carried out several raids in the capital Bishkek, and in Osh, on targets suspected or terror-related activities. They killed four during the anti-terror operation in July 2015, and detained several more, claiming the black flag of ISIS was flying above the house. In August 2016, police said they had broken up a suspected ISIS cell in Bishkek, and later that year the 10th Main Directorate, a government arm that usually deals with terror-related investigations, conducted weapons raids in Bishkek and Osh.

Other extremist movements besides ISIS have been active in the country, including a domestic arm of Iraqi Shia group Jaishul Mahdi that the government held responsible for bombings in 2010 and 2011. In 2011 the security services highlighted the emergence of an organization called the Islamic Movement of Kyrgyzstan (IMK) and analysts at the Crisis Group believe it has grown and provides assistance to people aiming to fight in Syria with ISIS.

Xinjiang, China

China is convinced that Xinjiang, an autonomous territory located in the far west of the country, and home to Uighur separatists and a Muslim-majority population, poses a threat to the country’s stability to such an extent that entering Urumqi, the capital, feels like entering a warzone. Armored vehicles and riot police line the streets, and there are constant alerts of possible uprisings. The government blamed the minority Uighurs for a knife attack in Xinjiang that left eight dead in February. Ethnic tensions between the Uighurs and China’s majority Han population have been exacerbated by Beijing’s crackdown on rights and civil liberties in the region.

In late February Chinese authorities were on high alert after an ISIS video released by the Al-Furat division of ISIS, their propaganda arm, suggested an attack in the region was imminent.

Since then Beijing directed that all cars in Xinjiang must have GPS, claiming that the form of monitoring was to protect against attacks. The army also marched through Urumqi, in a show of anti-extremist strength.


Bordering China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan is a majority Muslim country but follows a secular political institution. In November 2016, the U.S. told visitors to be wary of terror attacks, and to avoid public gatherings as growing religious unrest continued in Tajikistan, with its porous border with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Though the government has claimed that around 1,000 Tajiks have gone to fight for ISIS, analysts are skeptical, as the government has linked unrest to Islamic extremism when quashing dissent. Previously it was only Central Asian country with Islam represented politically, but President Emomoli Rahmon succeeded after 2015 in concentrating power in his hands after closing the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan. In July that year, Gulmorod Khalimov, the head of Tajikistan’s special forces became a high-profile defection to ISIS—he appeared in a propaganda video for the group, criticizing the Tajik government’s policy toward Islam.



Hafiz Boboyorov: “Tajikistan: Between security and objectification of female body”

After a long political struggle against the Islamic opposition, Tajikistan’s government initiated a “traditional-national” policy, according to which women should wear “traditional-national” garments. This objectification of female body serves to perpetuate the political power of the ruling elite.

Zarina works in a private company to be able to pay for rent and maintain herself and her two children, while her husband works in Russia. He is saving money to build a new home for the family. Just like many other Tajik women, in order to protect both her marriage and her job, Zarina has to wear the hijab.

Meddling by state and religious officials in people’s personal and family affairs is commonplace in Tajikistan. The authorities set restrictive rules on public prayer for the youth, on wearing beards for men and garments for women. A number of western countries, human rights organisations and activists claim that these restrictions are against the principle of the freedom of conscience and citizens’ individual choice.

Human Rights Watch, among others, relates the restrictive rules set by the Tajik government to silencing opposition forces, especially the Islamic opposition represented by the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

Post-war struggles

After the 1997 peace accords ending the civil war, the leaders and fighters of the Islamic opposition were integrated into state structures. Both the post-civil war government and its Islamic opposition divided the state offices among themselves with the share of 70-30, respectively. The post-reconciliation period was initially peaceful even though each side sought to extend their control over public offices and resources and each had a different ideological provenance. While the government promoted “secularism”, the IRPT adhered to Islamic values.

However, the divide over traditional and religious norms deepened in the following years, which took place in three stages. The first stage ended with a parliamentary election in 2010, in which the Islamic opposition won a considerable proportion of votes. The IRPT’s success reflected not only the religious needs of some segments of the population, but also the fact that it was the main opposition party, and thus the only alternative to the government. In response, the government set restrictive measures on political Islam and co-opted some key religious actors into the official structures.

In September 2015 the security forces crushed the rebellion of the deputy Minister of Defence, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, the former leading member of the Islamic opposition, and eliminated him in the aftermath. The court recognised IRPT as a terrorist organisation and most of its leaders were detained and put in jail, while hundreds more left the country in fear of their lives.

The upheaval marked the beginning of a new stage, in which the exiled Islamic activists resumed their ideological struggle abroad, mostly in the European Union. In this period, the government switched from a straightforward “secular” campaign to the ambivalent “national-traditional” ideology. The goal was to restore the state’s religious reputation. As part of the strategy, the government also alleviated its once uncompromised position on certain practices, including wearing beards and the hijab – this time using different arguments.

New rules, old game?

In early August, president Emomali Rahmon introduced amendments to the Law “On re-ordering traditions, celebrations and customs” which were approved by the parliament on August 23rd 2017. Although the law keeps and extends the restrictions, the official narrative has changed and begun to justify the measures from the viewpoint of traditional practices.

During his visit to the Khatlon Province in August, president Rahmon explained the law with reference to fundamental norms of Islam. Some opponents claim the justification had a lot in common with the one offered by Salafi groups, now banned in Tajikistan.

The change in rhetoric is visible on many levels. The Chair of the regional Department of Internal Affairs in Sughd Province, Sharif Rahmon Nazarzoda, who used to be intransigent to wearing beard and hijab, now claims that “[t]here should be an order, a culture to wear them”.

In addition, a short video has recently appeared in the social media showing the president talking with religious notables about the acceptable norms of beard wearing. This manoeuvre demonstrates that the conflict of interests between the government and its Islamic opposition is not based on any real ideological differences, but rather on the changing balance of political power between the two sides.

In this new stage of the struggle, the government carefully seeks to blend religious practices with the “traditional-national” norms. Rules and practices change in order to preserve the regime. Thus “normalising beard” replaces the beard shaving campaign, and “national and traditional clothes” replace the “alien garments” or “non-traditional dress”, including black hijabs and European skirts.

These seemingly concessive manoeuvres are aimed to save the reputation of the president, so far referred to as the “Tajik Peter the Great” – a pejorative title that compares him with the Russian ruler who introduced beard tax and imposed Western suits upon his Russian subjects in the 18th century.

Promoting traditional practices seeks to legitimise the authority of the president in light of the supposedly increasing “foreign threats”. It also seeks to enforce the authoritarian and paternalistic power of the “Leader of the Nation” (president Rahmon) as well as the wealth of his own family vis-à-vis the increasing unemployment and radicalisation of youth.

The law “On the founder of national peace and unity – the Leader of the Nation” adopted in November 2015 legalised the supreme status of the president over people and state and secured him and his family immunity from prosecution.

Tradition above all

The PR team of the Leader of the Nation has tried to counterbalance the rhetoric of the Islamic opposition which portrayed him as anti-Islamic. As part of the campaign, the Leader of the Nation and his family went on Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca – editor’s note) and promoted it via TV channels and other mass media.

Moreover, the Leader of the Nation regularly visits the country’s regions to manifest his support for traditional and religious norms and practices. The exposition of the docile role of women particularly strengthens the president’s new image. On his last visit to the Bokhtar district on August 16th 2017, he ordered the local authorities to find a bride and arrange the wedding of a young history teacher who recited an ode for him. The groom promised that his new wife will not have to resign on her job as a nurse.

Moreover, universities which promote the politics of the Leader of the Nation also offer exemplary female graduates to cover their wedding expenses. These and other similar programmes are aimed to promote the paternalistic figure of the Leader of Nation and his role in fighting the invasion of “alien culture and traditions” – in part reflected by Islamic hijab and the European skirt.

According to the new rules, women should tie white or colourful scarves in a traditional Tajik way, behind the head, exposing the neck under the chin. In early August, more than 8,000 women in Dushanbe were stopped by state officials and asked to remove the hijab, while six million mobile phone users received text messages on September 6th 2017 promoting traditional dress. The instructions to observe and respect traditional Tajik clothes have been part of the government’s policy to protect national culture and traditions.

Objectifying female body

With the new policy, the Leader of the Nation on the one hand deprives the religious opposition of arguments demonstrating his anti-Islamic policy, and on the other, meets the secular expectations of the regional powers – Russia and China – backing his government.

Indeed, the lingering struggle between the political elite and their Islamic opposition has shaped the female body as a convenient object of the traditional and/or religious norms. The way in which the two sides of the divide treat the female body exposes their relation to these norms. Consequently, the struggle between tradition and Islam shapes the public opinion and the expectations of the image and functions of the female body.

It also influences the choices of women, although these reflect not only the hegemonic discourse, but also everyday security practices. Hijab protects women in their everyday activities and ensures good family relations.

Young women often wear the hijab to secure their bodies from verbal and physical assaults. It is the central component of the hegemonic Islamic norm of iffat (chastity), which provides that women belong to mahram (husbands and unmarriageable kin, including fathers and brothers). According to this hegemonic masculine interpretation, hijab protects women’s iffat from non-mahram men.

In his recent article, a Tajik Islamic activist claims that non-mahram men are destined by God to sexual aggressiveness. “To struggle against Islamic hijab is thus to support rape”, he wrote. The alien European garments reflect the fashion of sexual wrongdoing, while the hijab is the guard of women and an antidote against sexually corrupt society. He further judges that only women wearing the hijab belong to their husbands while uncovered women often commit crimes, especially sexual perversion.

Men, who support women’s free choice to wear whatever they like, are stigmatised as indifferent to rape of their female relatives. Without the hijab, women are less mobile, insecure in public places, at universities and at work. Many assert that aggressive or non-mahram men consider women without hijab as potential sexual objects. When they wear the hijab, men change their attitude and address them as sisters.

Islamic norms demand that women wear the hijab, build family and bear children. Women obey this demand not only because of their docile submission to the norms, but also because of their need to protect themselves from sexual assault, domestic violence, polygamy and divorce. Family connections ensure better opportunities for mobility and employment of women, which means both financial and sexual protection. In a situation, where up to one million Tajik men go to Russia for work, their left-behind wives and sisters are often allowed to leave the house and work only if they wear the hijab. The individual choice and taste of women is less important.

After a long political struggle against the Islamic opposition, the Tajik government has initiated a “traditional-national” policy, according to which  women should follow some unwritten but clearly defined rules of wearing “traditional-national” garments. These differ from both the Islamic hijab and the Western skirt. The objectification of female body serves to perpetuate the political power of the ruling elite vis-à-vis both their Islamic rivals and secular regional powers.

Hafiz Boboyorov, PhD, is an Alexander von Humboldt fellow currently living and working in Germany. His research interests include collective identities, social changes and existential security of the people in Tajikistan and other former Soviet republics.

New Eastern Europe

Hafiz Boboyorov

November 13, 2017

Opendemocracy: “Tajikistan: so close, no matter how far”

From humanitarian aid to desperate refugees, Tajikistan and Europe are more closely connected than you might think. How will international organisations react as Emomali Rahmon’s regime entrenches itself further? RU



My country is a small, mountainous place on the southern fringe of Central Asia, sharing a 1,400 km long border with restive Afghanistan. Europeans generally know little about where I come from, although it’s regularly received financial and technical assistance from the European Union over 25 years of independence.

I’m talking about Tajikistan, a faraway partner to the west. In my last essay, I told the story of Tajikistan’s brutal, and often forgotten, civil war, which tore our country apart from 1992 to 1997. It led to mass civilian casualties, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to neighbouring states, and finally the peace accords of 1997, which are now being violated by the regime of president-for-life Emomali Rahmon.

The civil war, alongside the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan by the late 1990s, led to close ties between Tajikistan and various European institutions. Tajikistan is the poorest of all the former Soviet states; according to the World Bank, its GDP per capita last year was a mere $1,022 (£790). Overall, the amount of aid transferred to the country by western organisations over the last 20 years could be as high as €1.5 billion.

The political motivations for European aid to Tajikistan vary: from preventing a post-conflict humanitarian catastrophe to guaranteeing European security in a state that neighbours Afghanistan.

Since 2004, the Tajik capital of Dushanbe has hosted a representative office of the European Commission (which since 2009 has functioned as a plenipotentiary of the European Parliament), dozens of embassies of European states, together with representative offices of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Recent years have seen the introduction and implementation of a multi-year indicative programme for 2014-2020, under the auspices of which the EU has allocated some €251m to Tajikistan. At the same time, the trade turnover between the EU and Tajikistan is now two times lower than it once was. Why does Europe need this distant partner — seemingly so close, yet so far away?

In the name of security

The presence of European institutions in Tajikistan can of course be explained through the prism of security. That’s why the largest OSCE mission in Central Asia is based there, with five field offices and over 200 employees. From the very beginning, officials in Dushanbe were very pleased with this European presence — it helped legitimise a weak government, indirectly helped attract wider financial, humanitarian and technical support, and also allowed the Tajik authorities to manoeuvre between the biggest players in the region: China, Russia, the US, Iran and Uzbekistan.

Relations between the EU and Tajikistan are troubled. Our state media have started openly accusing the EU and OSCE of supporting the opposition

By 2010, these economic and political ties culminated in the ratification of the Agreement on Partnership and Cooperation between the EU and Tajikistan, which had been prepared for as early as 2004. In 2011, Tajikistan received its first credit from the European Investment Bank, and the following year European institutions aided Tajikistan’s entry into the World Trade Organisation. Dushanbe also received the right to export goods to EU member states with lower tariffs and and import duties.

A government armoured column during Tajikistan’s bloody 1992-1997 civil war between supporters of the central authorities and the United Tajik Opposition. Photo (c): R. Mangasaryan / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

But in 2012, the Tajik authorities felt strong enough to start sweeping competitors out of the political arena. Opposition parties, independent media outlets, human rights activists, lawyers and civil society actors were all punished for “disloyalty”. The partnership which with western organisations was now on shakier ground.

State media have started openly accusing the EU and OSCE of supporting the opposition. Negotiations on extending the OSCE’s mandate in the country beyond 2017 did not go smoothly, and it soon became crystal clear exactly what Tajikistan’s authoritarian leader wanted in return.

An unavoidable ultimatum

From the end of 2016 until spring this year, the OSCE’s office in Dushanbe awaited a decision on the continuation of its work in Tajikistan. In early March, the Tajik authorities gave the green light on extending the mandate — but only for six months. At the same time, there were already rumours afoot that the eventual downgrading of the OSCE mission in Tajikistan was being discussed in government circles in Dushanbe.

The decision in March was taken unilaterally by Tajikistan’s 65-year old president Emomali Rahmon, a former collective farm chairman who has ruled the country for 24 years. Ironically, Rahmon benefited the most from the presence of the OSCE and other European organisations in the country — they helped broker the 1997 peace accords which kept him in power after the civil war. The outbreak of peace helped Rahmon cement power, instituting a cult of personality and dictatorial regime on a nearly North Korean scale, ruthlessly crushing any sign of dissent.

This is Rahmon’s ultimatum — he is prepared to work closely with the EU and other European institutions in exchange for refusing to protect basic human rights and liberties

President Rahmon and his security services, which have also received financial and technical assistance from the west, staged a protest on 19 May last year outside the EU’s representative office in Dushanbe. That same autumn, more aggressive protests occurred outside the embassies of a number of European countries. For example, in September 2016, a group of “outraged young people” burnt portraits of Tajik opposition leaders outside the gates of the OSCEin the capital. They then attempted to break into the compound (Russian link).

Emomali Rahmon and Catherine Ashton, the European Commission’s high commissioner for foreign affairs meet in Dushanbe, 2012. Photo CC: European External Action Service / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Then, in October 2016, the public council of Tajikistan’s presidential administration spoke out, in finest Soviet tradition, “in the names of and on the request of” 60 civic organisations, issuing a “condemnation of the OSCE’s activities.” The declaration was signed by representatives of six pro-government puppet parties, all of whom had taken part in programmes run and financed by the OSCE’s social partnership.

As the declaration makes clear, the Tajik authorities were enraged by the presence of Tajik human rights defenders, journalists and refugees at the OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting held in Warsaw in September 2016. Among their number were several relatives of political prisoners behind bars in Tajikistan. Little wonder that Dushanbe then refused to take part in the OSCE’s regional conference on criminal justice several weeks later.

These events reflect Rahmon’s ultimatum — he is prepared to work closely with the EU and other European institutions in exchange for refusing to protect basic human rights and liberties. He’ll accept financing for reforms, without guaranteeing to carry them out. This is all despite the fact that the activities of the EU’s representative office in Tajikistan are based on the 2015-2019 action plan for supporting human rights and democracy, 2012’s EU strategic framework on human rights and democracy, and the EU-Central Asia strategy for a new partnership. And as Tajikistan’s government violates the human rights of its citizens with abandon, the EU now faces the challenge of defending them within its own borders.

New refugees

In recent years, Tajiks fleeing persecution have started to seek safety in EU member states. Although they are many in asylum seekers’ camps in Austria, German, and Poland, their stories rarely make it into the European press, eternally indignant about the “tide of migrants”. No official Europe-wide statistics on their numbers exist, but there are national data. Poland alone recorded around 1,300 Tajik refugees in the country in 2016 alone. Various estimates place their number across Europe at between three and five thousand.

Activists of Tajikistan’s outlawed Islamic Renaissance Party believe that roughly the same number are spread throughout Belarus, Turkey and Ukraine. Due to the significant number of Tajik labour migrants in Russia (who number anywhere from 800,000 to 1.5 million), nobody knows how many political refugees may be living there, though it is hardly a safe destination for them. Their road to the EU, and to safety, lies through Belarus.

For several years now Tajik dissidents have been fleeing west, seeking security in the EU. This small but steady flow won’t stop any time soon

The authorities in Tajikistan had started attacking dissidents and oppositionists in earnest in 2003-2005, to the deafening silence of European institutions. Few Europeans paid attention to the arrest of former interior minister of Tajikistan and founder of the Republican Party, Yaqub Salimov, in Moscow in 2003 at the request of the Tajik authorities. Two years later, when the exiled chairman of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan was kidnapped in Moscow and sent back to Dushanbe, the international community was also silent.

Just before presidential elections in 2006, European institutions confined their criticisms to voicing concern about the closure of opposition publications such as Ruzi NavOdamu Olam, and Nerui Sukhan. These declarations, as well as a demand of the European Court of Human Rights to “restore justice” to Tajikistan’s media landscape, were ignored by the authorities.

Tajik opposition activists protest against political repression in their homeland outside the OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Summit in Warsaw, 2016. Photo: Group24. All rights reserved.

This situation repeated on the eve of presidential elections in 2013. Constitutional amendments made in 2003, opposed by Salimov and Iskandarov, allowed Rahmon to run as a candidate (of course, he won). Attempts by the famous dissident and journalist Dodojon Atovulloyev to unite oppositionists behind one candidate during these elections resulted in an attempt on his life in Moscow in January 2012. Atovulloyev miraculously survived and fled to Germany.

This relentless campaign against the opposition culminated in the banning of the country’s most potent opposition force, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), in 2015. A leak recently emerged on the Russian-language internet of an allegedly official document known as Protocol 32/20, which mandates Tajikistan’s security services to destroy all remnants of the party (Russian link). Although the authorities have refused to acknowledge the existence of the protocol, state television continues to present the ban against the IRPT as necessary, accusing the party of “threatening peace.”

Tajikistan’s state media have also broadcast a number of secretly-recorded pornographic videos featuring spiritual leaders denounced by the authorities as Islamists and members of the IRPT. In a sarcastic nod to the party, the series has been named “Nuri Nahzat” (“light of the renaissance” in Tajik). Neither the interior ministry nor the state committee for national security have denied nor even hidden their involvement in producing these video clips.

On 24 June 2012, a riot broke out involving high-ranking, criminal officials of the security services in Khorog, the capital of the mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region in the east of the country. In response, the army launched an assault on the town in an apparent attempt to get rid of the region’s remaining opposition leaders. Locals took up arms in response, and it was only after the intervention of the Aga Khan (the spiritual leader of the Shi’a Isma’ilis, the confessional group to which many in Badakhshan belong) that the bloodshed ended.

Imumnazar Imumnazarov, a disabled local opposition leader, was killed in his own home, as were several civilians. It later transpired, during the presentation of the report on Tajikistan before the UN’s committee for human rights, that 23 civilians were killed during the assault on Khorog, alongside 18 soldiers and state employees. Experts described the events as an act of intimidation against the disgruntled civilian population (Russian links).

The arrests continued. In May 2013, chairman of the New Tajikistan Party, Zaid Saidov, was arrested and sentenced to 26 years’ imprisonment, being suspected of presidential ambitions. Local media believed all the charges against him to be falsified (Tajik link). Meanwhile, the leader of the Group 24 opposition force Umarali Quvvatov was labelled “insane” by the authorities, who urged Interpol to issue a warrant for his arrest. In March 2015, Quvvatov was shot dead in the streets of Istanbul in front of his wife and children. The murder was never solved.

An activist from Group 24 gives a speech on camera beside the grave of the movement’s assassinated leader Umarali Kuvvatov in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo CC: YouTube / Group24. Some rights reserved.

The IRPT continues to suffer. From September to October 2015, some 12 members of its political council were handed long jail sentences (two were imprisoned for life). The party’s leader Muhiddin Kabiri fled to the EU, where he received political asylum. Even lawyers have faced repercussions for working with victims of political persecution; among them Buzurgmekhr Yorov, who defended imprisoned IRPT party members and their relatives. The lawyer was sentenced to 25 years behind bars on trumped-up charges.

The prospect of abduction and disappearance haunt political exiles from Tajikistan. An activist for the Youth for the Rebirth of Tajikistan movement, Maksud Ibragimov, was abducted in Russia and sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment upon his forced repatriation to Tajikistan. The fate of the young opposition activist and blogger Ehson Odinayev, who disappeared in St Petersburg in 2015, remains a mystery (Russian link).

The authorities’ new approach to troublesome dissidents who have done a runner is now to target their families in Tajikistan

Tajikistan’s regime has started blocking local and international websites, at times including YouTube and Facebook. Last November saw the closure of the independent information agency TojNews, as well as the independent newspapers Ozodagon and Nigoh. According to Reporters without Borders, the Tajik government took five steps in 2016 alone explicitly aimed at restricting freedom of speech in the country.

And even those who do get away may have put their relatives in danger. Many human rights activists stress that the authorities’ new approach to troublesome dissidents who have done a runner is to target their families in Tajikistan. This includes attacks against their homes, as well as discrimination in allocating housing, at study and at work. These events compelled the European Parliament to pass a resolution “on the situation of prisoners of conscience in Tajikistan” on 9 June 2016.

The dear leader and his dear successor

After 25 years of Emomali Rahmon’s rule, over 2.5m of the 8.5m-strong population live below the poverty line, and 1.5m of the 3.9m economically active Tajiks are labour migrants in Russia or Kazakhstan, where they do not enjoy basic rights. Until recently, remittances from this group constituted up to 46% of Tajikistan’s entire GNP.

Other sectors of the country’s economy, from metallurgy to mining, transport to energy infrastructure and cotton to the banking sector, either directly belong to Rahmon or are controlled by his close allies and family members. Tajikistan’s public services are, relative to income, some of the most expensive in the world — getting accredited for a driving licence alone costs €80.

Politics are even bleaker. It’s generally accepted that Tajikistan has not held elections which meet international standards of transparency since 1994. There is no freedom of speech nor assembly. Independent media are suppressed, if not entirely liquidated, and human rights advocacy amounts to treason. Criticism or any “disrespect” towards the Leader of the Nation can land you with a five-year jail sentence.

Products for sale at Dushanbe’s Green Market, 2013. Photo (c): Alexey Kudenko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

Amidst all this, Emomali Rahmon passed amendments to the constitution last May which enable him to run for as many presidential terms as he pleases. These changes also allow his older son, 29 year-old Rustami Emomali, who holds the rank of general but has not served a day in uniform, to run for president in 2018. The president’s son has already held two ministerial positions – chairman of the state committee on customs and, ludicrously, director of Tajikistan’s anti-corruption agency. More recently, Rahmon nominated his son as mayor of Dushanbe, dismissing his long-time ally Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloyev.

Constitutional amendments also guarantee immunity to Rahmon and all the members of his extended family, from his seven daughters and their husbands (and their parents) to his two sons and brother Nuriddin Rahmonov. “The family” or “Oila” as they are known in Tajik, control every sphere of Tajikistan’s economy and hold the highest political posts.

Authoritarian regimes in Central Asia are not isolated Khanates, but are deeply integrated into international legal and financial systems

Many commentators in the west portray authoritarian regimes in Central Asia as isolated Khanates, repressive and insular by virtue of their supposed isolation from the modern world. Yet dictators and those near and dear to them have long used European financial and judicial systems to entrench their positions at home and access institutes and influential networks abroad, providing them with both international legal recourse and symbolic capital.

The “Oila” is no exception. Rahmon and the system he has built is an inextricable part of the relations between Tajikistan and EU member states. With that in mind, what more can we wish from Europe?

Perhaps, all we can do is wish European partners better luck, and a better relationship, in working with Tajikistan’s next Dear Leader, representing a bright new generation of autocrats in Dushanbe.



7 July 2017

RFERL: Tajikistan’s Deadly Export

State suppression of unofficial Islam, the humiliation of having to work as migrant laborers abroad, and a former special-forces commander flipping to the Islamic State group: these are the main factors behind why Tajikistan finds itself the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to Islamic State (IS) battlefields.

Experts singled out these factors when assessing how the impoverished Central Asian state came out on top in a recent report listing the origins of suicide bombers sent to Iraq and Syria, on whose territory IS’s diminishing so-called caliphate stands.

The report by The Hague-based International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) claimed that 27 Tajiks had carried out suicide operations in Iraq and Syria from December 2015 to November 2016, the highest among all foreign individuals whose country of origin had been identified.

The report — War by Suicide: A Statistical Analysis of the Islamic State’s Martyrdom Industry — has put the spotlight on Tajikistan’s struggle against extremism and why Tajiks would be so significantly represented among IS suicide bombers.

As if to underscore the findings, the IS’s Aamaq news agency has claimed that two Tajiks were among those responsible for the suicide bombing and gun attack on a military hospital in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on March 8 that killed at least 49 people. The claim from the extremist group, which has made inroads in Afghanistan since 2015, has not been verified by either Tajik or Afghan authorities.

 ‘Disproportionality’ Of Tajiks

Tajik’s Interior Ministry said in January that around 1,100 of its citizens were fighting in Syria and Iraq. At least 300 of them have reportedly been killed there, according to Dushanbe, while more than 60 have returned home voluntarily and been pardoned by the authorities under a blanket amnesty.

Charlie Winter, the author of the ICCT report, says Tajiks are “disproportionally represented” on the list of suicide bombers — the number of Tajiks joining IS pales in comparison to that of citizens of some other countries. For example, 6,500 Tunisians and 2,500 Saudis are estimated to have joined IS.

Winter says that the statistics suggest that “Tajiks were being singled out for use in suicide attacks at least in part because of their nationality.”

Flipping To Islamic State

Analysts say the case of a high-ranking, U.S.-trained, Tajik special-forces commander who vacated his post and defected to IS in Syria could help answer the question as to why so many Tajiks are being used as suicide bombers.

Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, the former commander of the Tajik Interior Ministry’s special forces known as the OMON, reportedly joined the IS extremist group in 2015. Counterterrorism experts believe Halimov has risen through the ranks to become the top IS military commander.

“Why Tajiks have been used so frequently could be because Halimov is reported to be the IS supreme military commander,” says Edward Lemon, a fellow at Colombia University who researches Tajikistan. “It is possible that Halimov is behind the move to use Tajiks more frequently by persuading them to volunteer.”

Halimov, dressed in black IS garb, appeared in an online propaganda video in May 2015 saying he had joined the extremist group to protest the Tajik government’s ban on Islamic dress in schools and offices, and limitations on public prayer.

Under Pressure

Analysts also suggest pressure exerted by Tajikistan’s government on Islamic political and religious groups and unsanctioned Islam has played into the hands of IS recruiters.

As part of the peace deal ending the country’s 1992-97 civil war, the united Tajik opposition was guaranteed a place in government. That gave the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the dominant opposition force and the lone Islamic component, a prominent role in Tajikistan.

A screen grab of former Tajik Colonel Gulmurod Halimov in an IS propaganda video from 2015.

A screen grab of former Tajik Colonel Gulmurod Halimov in an IS propaganda video from 2015.

The inclusion of the IRPT, the first officially recognized Islamic party in Central Asia, was seen as a sign of openness on the part of Dushanbe and as giving moderates the upper hand within the party itself.

But over the years the Tajik authorities increased their control on all things relating to Islam, supporting only state-approved mosques and Islamic leaders, and shutting down hundreds of unregistered mosques across the country. In 2015 it banned the IRPT altogether and arrested its leadership.

The effort to deter citizens from Islam not in keeping with the official line, analysts note, may have pushed some believers to more dangerous streams of the religion.

“When the IRPT was part of the [government] one of their main tasks was to educate people not to go to IS,” says Sophie Roche, a researcher at the University of Heidelberg, in Germany. “Once [the party] was forbidden we had an enormous increase [of Tajiks joining IS] — students and, in one case, 40 people from one village.”

Migrant Humiliation

Analyst Lemon says IS recruiters often target individuals who are socially isolated or have experienced some form of trauma or personal crisis.

He adds that the vast majority of recruitment takes place in Russia, where millions of Tajik citizens work as migrant laborers.

Researcher Roche says the sense of “humiliation” they feel over their situation plays an important role in recruitment in Russia, where migrant workers often perform menial jobs and are often targeted for abuse and harassment.

“Most of the migrants do work which is very post-colonial and they have a loss of status in that country,” says Roche, who has researched Tajik migrants in Russia.

“If you fail in Russia because you don’t have a job or you don’t earn enough to really build a status you turn toward religion to gain respect,” says Roche, although she adds that few who turn to Islam join the ranks of IS militants.



Frud Bezhan

March 12, 2017

Moderndiplomacy: “Tajikistan: transition to monarchy completed?”

The mayor of Dushanbe, Tajikistan`s capitol city, was sacked by Presidential decree. Had such a case happened in a Western country, it would have been accepted as something quite ordinary. Especially if the dismissed person had served 20 years in office. But in Tajikistan, Central Asia`s landlocked nation, with its own mentality and features, that go is more than a discharge. It might be the last move in the struggle of power and signal the completion of transition to monarchy (still unformal though).

Who was Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev?

Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev had been governing Dushanbe for uninterrupted 20 years. Labeled as No. 2 person in Tajikistan, he was reckoned the main rival to the country`s uncrowned monarch Emomali Rahmon.

A typical product of the Soviet party system, Ubaydulloev could make it into higher levels of the power at relatively a younger age in the 1980s.

Even after Tajikistan`s emergence as an independent nation as a result of the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Ubaydulloev remained in the government as deputy prime minister and managed to undergo the turbulent years of the civil war unharmed. In 1996, he was appointed mayor of Dushanbe, an office he would hold for another 20 years.

Ubaydulloev`s strong links with Moscow gave ground to rumors about him being Russia`s man in Tajikistan. At home and beyond, he was regarded as the sole and most serious person to challenge Emomali Rahmon`s unlimited rule, due to absence of normal opposition, although he always publicly supported the incumbent president and remained in his shade, satisfied with a modest status of the second person in the country.

Royal family

The present leader, Emomali Rahmon, has been leading Tajikistan de facto since 1992, as president since 1994. Although a military mutiny was launched against his clan in the mid-1990s, he could effectively manage to end the civil war in 1997, by making compromises and meeting some demands of the insurgents.

Throughout the 1990s and entire 2000s, Emomali Rahmon strove to firmly consolidate the power in his hands, by effectively diminishing the opposition`s influence and moving his main rivals out of the way. To further legitimize his unlimited and infinite rule, Tajik president initiated several referenda that lifted the limit on presidential terms, abolished the maximum eligibility age for presidential candidates and increased the period of presidential tenure. This process has been accompanied by human rights abuse and a high degree of corruption in almost all spheres, according to a number of international organizations. The U.S. diplomatic cables leaked in 2010 noted that members of Rakhmon’s family and inner circle are widely viewed as being the most corrupt people in the country.

The wealthier Rahmon has become, the poorer Tajikistan has downgraded. The Gross Domestic Product per capita in Tajikistan was recorded at 2661.38 US dollars in 2015, when adjusted by purchasing power parity (PPP). 32% of the population lives below the national poverty line, according to an ADB report. Mass unemployment has driven many people out of the country in search of job and better welfare outside. No surprise that the impoverished country has, therefore, long been the most remittance-dependent in the world, with cash transfers accounting for approximately half of the economy. Migrant transfers totaled more than $4 billion in 2013, the equivalent of 52 percent of GDP. That figure was 45.5 percent in 2010 and 48 percent in 2012.

Those, who travel to Tajikistan repeat that the country, especially its provinces seem frozen in the 1980s and no change in the country`s lifestyle and people`s welfare has occurred. The situation might have even worsened compared to the Soviet period.

Emomali Rahmon might not be quite successful in advancing his nation into the 21st century, but there is something he has done quite well. Having mastered the Soviet-time power style and imitating the leaders of his wealthier neighbors, he has built a personal cult, which may seem bigger than his own tiny country. Since 1994, Tajik president proudly bears the title “Peshvoi millat” (Leader of the Nation). In December 2015, Tajikistan`s parliament granted him another designation which sounds more solemn: “Founder of Peace and National Unity”.

A cult of personality centered around Emomali Rahmon is now extending to other members of his family. In recent years, Rahmon has strengthened his family`s position as he penetrated his children into important posts in the government. In 2016, Rahmon`s daughter Ozoda (39) became chief of the Presidential administration, a key government position in many post-Soviet countries. In the same year, she was also elected as a senator to the upper chamber of Majlisi Oli, Tajikistan`s Supreme Assembly. Prior to that, she had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, having reached the position of deputy minister.

Ozoda`s brother, Rustam Emomali (29) is the eldest son in Tajikistan`s first family. Rustam is known as one of the youngest generals in the world: in 2013, he was appointed head of the Customs Service and received a military rank of major general. In March 2015, President Emomali Rahmon appointed his son to head the country`s principal anti-corruption bureau, the State Agency for Financial Control and Measures Against Corruption.

The new post as the mayor of Dushanbe may seem as a trampoline for Rustam to a higher position as it was long speculated that the young man is being prepared to substitute his father on top. In addition to high-level training at senior government positions, Rustam`s path to the throne is also cleared and facilitated by the authorities. For example, in May 2016, a nationwide referendum gave a consent to a number of changes to the country`s constitution. One of the key amendments reduced the minimum eligibility age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30, effectively enabling Rustam Emomali to succeed his father in office after 2017.

In this context, the change in Dushanbe`s mayoral office could be the last move on a chessboard, at which Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev, No. 2 in Tajikistan with likely higher ambitions, was finally checkmated. By firing Ubaydulloev, Emomali Rahmon not only won the major struggle and kicked him out of political arena, but obviously pointed to Rustam as his successor.

In a country, where nepotism and corruption is a normal phenomenon (according to a widespread belief, any other person in place of Emomali Rahmon and/or other senior officials would also serve first to their pockets and promote their relatives), the recent developments may not generate any shock in local society and could be seen a logical event in the succession process.

Although other post-Soviet Central Asian neighbors of Tajikistan have also similar regimes with unlimited power of the strongmen, who would reign until their last days (Kyrgyzstan is a lucky exception with some signs of democracy) and have their family members enjoy great influence in the country, neither Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan nor Saparmurad Niyazow of Turkmenistan did not (or could not) manage to transfer the power to their children. But Tajikistan is completing a transformation to monarchy with certain steps.


January 29, 2017

“Tajikistan is turning into the new Province of China”- Eurasianews

In recent years, the government of Tajikistan pays special attention to the replenishment of the state budget deficit. Especially, in this way the government of the country has succeeded, which is trying to patch up all budget holes in every possible ways, including such an extraordinary way, as the sale of age-old Tajik lands to foreign countries.

Two years ago, our country’s officials have solemnly signed a contract with Chinese partners for the sale of 1500 square kilometers of the Murghab district. Then Members of Parliament from every platform that portrayed the deal as a regular victory of the Tajik diplomacy. Parliamentarians boasted that they were able to sell to the Chinese less territory than demanded by foreigners for this pay. In fact, the lands sold to China are in repayment of external debt, however, statesmen, of course, do not admit it openly.

Only in the years of Tajikistan’s independence more than two million square kilometers of disputed territories turned over to the Chinese, and it is almost one percent of the total area of Tajikistan.

A recent trip to the Murghab district greatly disappointed me when I am personally convinced that the Chinese frontier guards have already established border posts, some of which are 20 kilometers deep into the territory of Tajikistan, while Tajikistan and China agreed on the transfer of only 1.5 thousand square kilometers of the area.

Today in Murghab district there are some Chinese experts by hydraulic structures. As noted by people in the know, the Chinese experts familiar with the riverbed of the Zerafshan and study the terrain to give expert assessment on the possibility of constructing here next reservoir and hydroelectric power plants, which foreigners have promised to fund generously. However, the reverse side of these agreements is not as advertised to the public, because in return the Chinese intend to continue to expand its territory at the expense of the Murghab district.

I should add that the Chinese company ‘Zuntai Khatlon Xing Silu’ has the right to 49 years free of rent of 15 thousand hectares of the land in the south of Tajikistan. Local MPs have motivated their decision that it’s been given wasteland to the Chinese, which will now be grown cotton there. Additionally, they rented 6.3 thousand hectares of arable land in Dangara district of Khatlon region.

It must be said that 93 percent of Tajikistan’s territory is covered by mountains, the total area of productive land is only 865 thousand hectares.

Today, Tajiks have not enough fertile lands, and the ‘father of the nation’ does not get tired to give our lands to repay foreign debts. In their defense officials from the highest offices voicing false information that the land leased to local farmers who Chinese experts in consultation engaged in their cultivation, but coming on the field, you can see with your own eyes that there is no Tajik around, thousands of Chinese are wandering in our lands instead.

If agreement on the aforementioned issues will be achieved, we can confidently say that in the future Tajik people with many children will be forced to seek refuge in other countries, because narrow-spirited government of the republic, guided by the short-term economic success, admits such a thoughtless squandering of their lands.


Bakhtiyor Atovulloev, Dushanbe


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