Tag Archives: Economic Troubles

RFERL: “The Happiest Member Of The Rahmon Family”

The nine children of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, seven daughters and two sons, are doing quite well.

For example, oldest daughter Ozoda Rahmon, 40, is the head of the Tajik president’s executive office; third daughter Rukhshona Rahmonova, 26, is the deputy head of the Foreign Ministry’s international organizations department; sixth daughter Zarina Rahmon, 23, is deputy head of Tajikistan’s largest commercial bank, Orienbonk; and oldest son Rustam Emomali, 30, is the mayor of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe.

They undoubtedly have good lives, but the member of the family who seems to be having the most fun lately is President Rahmon’s second son, Somon Emomali. Or at least the photos and videos posted on his Instagram page indicate this 18-year-old is having a great time.

But, before you look, remember: Tajikistan has the lowest average monthly salary of the former Soviet republics — the equivalent of about $175. Some people, especially some pensioners, are living on much less than that.

Officially, Tajikistan’s population is some 8.6 million, out of which probably more than 1 million working-age citizens are migrant laborers in Russia or Kazakhstan, legally and illegally, because they could not find decent employment in Tajikistan. Only about a half of Tajikistan’s population has access to clean drinking water.

And, to be fair, Somon does not have a wristwatch collection that could compare to the wristwatches Ibabekir Bekdurdyev, the 28-year-old husband of one of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s nieces, owns.

February 10, 2018

rferl.org

Crisisgroup: “The Rising Risks of Misrule in Tajikistan

1`With his seven-year term set to end in 2020, uncertainty is growing over whether Tajikistan’s long-time ruler President Rahmon will handpick a successor or continue his reign. Growing troubles at home and abroad ensure both scenarios are fraught with risk and must be managed prudently, lest the country become another source of regional disorder.

I.Overview

Tajikistan’s 25 years as an independent state have been marred by poverty, endemic state corruption and the steady narrowing of political power to a single family. Its patriarch is President Emomali Rahmon, 64, who has ruled the country since 1992 through a carefully calibrated system of patronage and brutality. With Rahmon’s current seven-year term set to end in 2020, many observers believe he is now planning to hand over power to a close family member, probably his eldest son, Rustam, 29. This transition plan is fraught with risk, however, and will play out in a country riven by internal frailties and external vulnerabilities. The outside world has few levers in this Central Asian state of 8.7 million people. But its pivotal position in Central Asia, where it borders on both Afghanistan and China, should prompt external actors, especially Russia, to engage as far as possible to avoid a new source of regional disorder.

Over the past two years, President Rahmon has cleared the political space, removing any group or individual, ally or adversary he considered a potential threat. This provides him with a powerful argument against any international or domestic political actor tempted to call for change. Other than the president and his family, there are no organised, functional political forces left. It is his regime or nothing, with even parts of his own traditional powerbase increasingly marginalised. The resentment this produces could lead to a destabilising and potentially violent internal backlash. The fallout likely would be felt throughout Central Asia.

The international community has few options. Central Asian neighbours, including Russia and China, should focus on securing the vulnerable Tajik-Afghan border and China in particular should take steps to help revive Dushanbe’s failing economy. The European Union (EU), an important donor to Tajikistan, should push for an orderly transition even if devoid of democratic credibility. In taking these steps, all parties need to bear in mind the one overriding factor that constrains their influence: for now, Rahmon’s own personal interests dominate the country’s agenda.

II.Internal Uncertainties

A.Family Feuds

A key question for Tajikistan today is whether President Rahmon will forego power in 2020 and, if he does, whom he will choose as a successor. Rahmon, still relatively young at 64, is putting a transition plan in motion, if not for 2020 then later. Constitutional amendments passed in 2016, particularly one that lowers the president’s minimum age, suggest Rahmon’s son Rustam is the favourite. Rahmon has been pushing Rustam into high-profile, powerful posts, such as that of mayor in the capital city of Dushanbe. If Rustam joins the senate as its chairman after he turns 30 in December 2017, as analysts and media have speculated, he could become president should his father die or became incapacitated.

This scenario is far from certain, however. Rustam faces internal competition and is hampered by his own lack of skill as a government administrator and manager of patronage networks. But he has consolidated informal power over the security services, which ultimately will be the decision-makers in the event of a contested succession.Moreover, although Western observers and members of the urban intelligentsia often describe Rustam as reckless, aggressive and lacking leadership qualities, the pool of potential successors is small.

 [A]lthough Western observers and members of the urban intelligentsia often describe Rustam as reckless, aggressive and lacking leadership qualities, the pool of potential successors is small. 

That pool consists of family members. Media speculation focuses on internal rivalries, mentioning Rustam’s sister Ozoda, 39, who runs the presidential administration and is reputed to be competent. She and her banker-businessman husband Jamollidin Nuraliyev at times are mentioned as a possible power couple, though Tajikistan’s patriarchal society works against her. Conflicts involving members of the extended family and could also trigger instability in the context of a succession. Rustam has struggled with his uncle (the president’s brother-in-law) Hasan Asadullozoda for control of revenues from the Tajik Aluminium Company (Talco), which provides up to 70 per cent of the Tajikistan’s foreign currency earnings. Other family members feature in local conflicts over state resources. Without careful management, these internal family feuds could be destabilising, especially at a time of uncertainty over the presidency’s future.

B.Local Rivalries

The president’s regional power base is showing signs of disaffection. President Rahmon’s winning faction during the civil war (1992-1997) was based in Kulob, part of the cotton-growing area of Khatlon, on the country’s southern border with Afghanistan. Kulobis consequently dominate the most lucrative businesses and hold the most important positions in security structures, at the expense of those from other regions who feel they occupy subservient positions. That circle of power has narrowed, however, as money and resources have dwindled. The effect has been to sharpen fault lines among Kulobis, undermining the political unity that had allowed them to prevail. For example, Kulobis from other parts of Khatlon are losing out to Kulobis from Rahmon’s hometown, Danghara. This is feeding anger among many previously loyal supporters, who may not need much persuasion to take a stronger stance against the Rahmon clan.

 The trouble brewing in Rahmon’s loyalist heartland is a bellwether for ten-sions in Tajikistan’s politically peripheral regions. 

The trouble brewing in Rahmon’s loyalist heartland is a bellwether for tensions in Tajikistan’s politically peripheral regions. Any perception that President Rahmon’s power is about to weaken could tempt areas suspicious of Dushanbe’s central power – such as the eastern area of Rasht and the mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) – to take further steps toward autonomy. Rasht has long been known for its distrust of Dushanbe’s authority. Former United Tajik Opposition (UTO) members there have used force to retaliate against efforts by Dushanbe to enforce its writ, leading to killings of Tajik security and military forces. In GBAO, too, infringements on local autonomy resulted in bloody flare-ups in 2012 and 2014.

Clashes in both Rasht and GBAO have embarrassed Rahmon, demonstrating the limits of his power. His response to the unrest in both regions was to cut deals and co-opt leaders by granting access to resources and other forms of patronage. Given Tajikistan’s weak finances, this is far from sustainable. Moreover, Rahmon’s successor may not have the skills required to navigate a fraught political environment.

C.Economic Troubles

Tajikistan’s systemic economic problems are part of the reason government resources are shrinking. Many sectors are suffering: confidence is low in Tajikistan’s currency; remittances from Russia decreased in 2016; the real-estate market is crashing; and half of all bank loans are non-performing. The Tajik government this year issued high-yield bonds to raise revenue, which has allowed them to avoid working with international financial institution or donors who ask for reforms.

The government points to the Russian economic crisis as the primary cause of its woes, but fiscal mismanagement and predatory economic policies have also played a significant role over the past decade. Diplomats say the lack of accountability remains a major hurdle for international financial support. In 2016, the Tajik government declined an offer of up to $200 million in the form of grants and loans from the World Bank, because of the pre-conditions attached, which involved reform of the banking sector, currently largely controlled by Rahmon family members and associates. Nor did the EU or International Monetary Fund (IMF) provide financial support to the Tajik budget in 2016. Tajikistan’s successful foray into the bond market arguably has weakened the leverage of donors seeking to impose political conditionality on aid and loans.

The public bears the brunt of these persistent economic difficulties. A third of Tajikistan’s population is undernourished and malnutrition is the underlying cause of about one third of child deaths, a higher proportion than in any of the other former Soviet republics. But the economic crisis also affects the corruption and patronage networks behind Rahmon’s rule. Citizens and private businesses increasingly are unable to pay bribes to law enforcement officers and government officials. These officials, in turn, have become increasingly aggressive as they struggle to pay debts incurred to finance the bribes they had to pay to obtain their jobs. In short, economic realities are placing an increasingly fragile power structure under strain, raising questions about its long-term viability.

D.Migration

Migration is the main outlet for Tajiks suffering from social, political and economic tensions. More than a million Tajiks live and work in Russia, which helps defuse a potential source of instability by absorbing working age men who might otherwise be under- or unemployed at home. But there is a flip-side as Moscow could force the migrants to return, which gives it important leverage over the Tajik president and serves as a considerable constraint on his dealings with Russia.

 Moscow’s priority is to have a compliant partner and an ongoing military presence in Tajikistan. 

Moscow’s priority is to have a compliant partner and an ongoing military presence in Tajikistan. A senior member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), an opposition party banned in October 2015, said, “Russia tolerates, not supports, Rahmon, because there are no other options really … whether Russia will support his eldest son, Rustam, [in his succession bid] will depend on how Rustam behaves”. Although it seems unlikely at this stage, Moscow could threaten to expel Tajik migrants should bilateral relations deteriorate, presenting the current or incoming president with an enormous crisis.

Emigration from Tajikistan also concerns the EU as the number of Tajik asylum seekers is rising. In 2016, 3,230 Tajiks applied for asylum in EU countries, up from 1,160 in 2015 and 605 in 2014. An IRPT member living in Europe said, “if something happens in Tajikistan, Tajik refugees will come to Europe. It is cheaper and easier for Tajiks to get to Europe than for Syrians”. European officials express fears that Russia could use an influx of Central Asian migrants to heighten tensions over migration in Europe.

III.A Jihadist Threat?

A.Afghanistan

For years Tajikistan has confronted the risk of jihadist spillover from across its 1,400km border with Afghanistan. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province or the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), an affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has led both Russian and U.S. officials to express concern that the movement may reset its priorities northward and attempt to make inroads into Central Asia. The presence of Central Asian militants within IS-K ranks, albeit as a minority, aggravates such fears. So too does increasing instability in Afghanistan’s north east, close to the Tajik border.

The immediacy of the threat remains open to debate, however. Although the situation in northern Afghanistan is deteriorating, most incidents along the Tajik-Afghan border appear to be related to smuggling rather than incursions into Tajik territory or attempts to attack the Tajik state. Though its emergence is worrisome, the IS-K is still dwarfed by the Taliban, which remains by far the largest armed opposition group and whose leaders express no territorial interest beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The Taliban arguably has been the main check on ISIS’s growth in Afghanistan, often moving quickly to crush IS-K factions. Moreover, the core of the IS-K remains in eastern provinces closer to Pakistan than Central Asia. Whether the small militias in the north that claim to be part of IS-K have direct operational ties to forces in the east is unclear. Nor is it clear, for now, that the Central Asian militants fighting alongside the Taliban, including in the north east, have Tajikistan in their sights.

Tajikistan’s inherent weakness and porous borders make it vulnerable, however. Traffickers have been moving large volumes of drugs across the Afghan border for over two decades, providing revenue to security officers who, in turn, support Rahmon and his inner circle. The governing elite’s role in cross-border narcotics smuggling may help it manage the border informally for now, but in the longer-run such activities undermine efforts to secure it. So long as corrupt officials have an interest in keeping the border porous, there is a danger that militants – not just drugs – will spill over from Afghanistan into Tajikistan.

B.Radicalisation

Under the guise of combating jihadists, authorities in Dushanbe have quashed internal dissent and repressed Islamic practices. The government restricts its citizens’ ability to display piety and publicly adhere to Islamic norms. Police have forcibly shaved men’s beards, and registered or even arrested women who wear hijabs. The government also forbids anyone under the age of eighteen from attending a mosque and prohibits anyone under 35 from making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Tajiks resent these policies, which apply only to certain citizens. The economic or political elite faces few such restrictions. Young members of criminal gangs and the sons of government officials are seen wearing beards and the wives of government officials wear hijabs, sometimes because their husbands order them to. While the security services claim the bulk of militants travelling to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of ISIS come from the opposition IRPT – thereby linking Islamism in Tajikistan to jihadism abroad – a prominent Tajik expert on radicalisation disputes that:

We have this stereotype that people who leave for Syria are usually from areas that were pro-opposition during the civil war, but it is not true. It is actually the opposite. People from the areas known for being pro-communist [pro-Rahmon] during the war leave more. A lot of Uzbeks leave, a lot of Ku-lobis leave. Even Gulmurod Khalimov who left, is Kulobi, always fought on the government’s side and was never in the opposition.

The government’s refusal to distinguish violent jihadists from non-violent individuals who are visibly devout or hold anti-government views risks making all of them enemies. This contributes to popular frustration, which with the right trigger could bubble over into street protests, other types of resistance – or even violence.

IV.Conclusion

Tajikistan’s current trajectory is cause for concern. In less than three years, the country’s president is – in theory – obliged to transfer power. Whether President Rahmon will do so is uncertain, but either continuation or succession could result in turmoil. Feuds inside the ruling family and rivalries among Tajikistan’s various regions, including those that have previously supported the president, form a turbulent political backdrop. The regime’s margin for manoeuvre is narrowing in the context of a troubled economy, institutional dysfunction and growing instability in Afghanistan. The next president will inherit a fragmented state with low levels of trust in government if not deep hostility toward the state. Many constituencies possess a capacity for violence.

Foreign powers have little leverage over Rahmon’s government, which is hostile to any external criticism. Western powers appear reluctant to expend limited political capital pushing for reforms that might over time strengthen Tajikistan’s institutions but whose prospects for now appear remote.

Russia and China hold more cards, but have decided so far not to play them. As the main outside power engaged in Tajikistan, Russia has a major interest in securing the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border and ensuring Tajikistan does not become a victim of jihadist violence. Yet despite occasional signs of impatience, Moscow tolerates Rahmon if only for lack of a viable alternative. China, which holds over half of the country’s debt and wants to protect its growing economic assets, is also concerned about Afghanistan and has therefore stepped up security cooperation with Tajikistan. Most of all, China seeks to counter Islamic extremism, separatism or terrorism in its restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders Tajikistan and is home to a small minority of ethnic Tajiks. Yet despite these interests, Russia and China are even less likely than Western powers to press for meaningful political or institutional reform.

Foreign powers have few good options, but they share an interest in a smooth transition whenever it occurs. Central Asian countries, Russia and China, with help from the EU and U.S., should focus in the interim on bolstering vulnerable borders to prevent violence from spilling throughout the region. With the limited leverage they have, EU and U.S. political engagement should stress the risks of political exclusion urging Dushanbe to refrain from repressive measures that could undermine the transition, triggering instead instability and violent conflict.

Crisisgroup

Bishkek/Brussels, 9 October 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.

opendemocracy

BAKHTIYOR SOBIRI 

7 July 2017