Tag Archives: Migration

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

EURASIANET: “Tajikistan: International Callers Hit by Move to Throttle Hi-Tech”

Ilhom Nodirov, 25, has been working in Berlin for the past three years, but technology has made keeping in touch with his family in Tajikistan a low-cost affair. As of earlier this month, that all changed.

Authorities are resorting to a heavy-handed method to crush money-saving methods for long-distance communication, citing purported security concerns. Sources inside the state agency responsible for regulating the telephone and Internet sector say that the government’s real motive is to ramp up revenues.

A hugely popular technology known as the next-generation network, or NGN, has for several years enabled phone users to avoid racking up huge bills. People in Tajikistan can open an account with one of several telecommunications service providers and then pass on the log-in details to relatives and friends abroad. The foreign-based caller installs an app on their phone and whenever they are connected to the Internet, they can make their call. All that is then charged is the amount it would cost to make a local call inside Tajikistan.

The appeal is obvious. Nodirov told EurasiaNet.org that at tariffs of 0.10 somoni ($0.01) per minute, he has been able to chat with his relatives for endless hours. If somebody made a regular phone call from Tajikistan to Germany, meanwhile, it would cost 1.40 somoni ($0.15) per minute.

The particular attractiveness of this method is that only one side in the transaction needs be connected to a reliable Internet network. In Tajikistan, the quality of Internet connection is often poor and the penetration patchy in the regions, so programs like Skype are not always feasible.

The ability to save money on long-distance calls is particularly important in Tajikistan, where hundreds of thousands of people travel abroad every year for work. Around 1 million people in the country used NGN services, according to official figures.

On December 18, the Communications Services Agency informed all telecommunications companies in the country to suspend access to NGN accounts.

Authorities had hinted strongly that this was coming a few weeks earlier. On December 15, they decided to drive the message by having bailiffs seal the main premises of Vavilon-T, an Internet provider prized for its particularly good speeds. They cited concerns over the company’s NGN services as their motivation. Within three days, the company complied. Almost all the other industry peers have fallen in line too.

Nodirov’s parents are elderly and struggle to master the intricacies of using smartphone messaging apps. The only way they will be able to keep in touch with their son now is by returning to much more expensive, old-fashioned phone calls, Nodirov said.

These days, Nodirov speaks to his parents in brief bursts, to make sure all is well with them. “If before I spent about 30 somoni a month on speaking to my parents, in the five days [after December 18], I already spent 50 somoni,” he said. “We don’t talk the way we used to, for ages and ages, to find out everything that is going on, but just for five minutes.”

Tajikistan’s communications regulators have devised multiple ways to put the squeeze on telephone companies and their clients over the years. In 2016, they claimed to have created a telecommunications node dubbed the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, or EKTs in its Russian language acronym. This system purportedly funneled any type of telecommunications-based exchange – be it by phone or Internet – through a powerful computer.

It is not known beyond all certainty, however, if this system actually exists or whether the government has simply claimed it does to convey the illusion of powerful surveillance capabilities.

More significantly, immaterial of whether the EKTs is actually real or not, the communications agency levies 0.20 somoni ($0.022) for every minute of outgoing phone calls to fund the upkeep of the would-be node.

These stories are grist to the mill of those critics of the Communications Services Agency who grumble that this government body is little more than a money-making racket.

The agency is run by Beg Sabur – né Beg Zukhurov; he adopted a new moniker in line with a craze a few years ago for refashioning names to more closely fit Tajik custom. He is a relative by marriage of President Emomali Rahmon, and his agency’s access to copious sources of revenue has seen it branch into multiple other areas of business, including construction and the hotel industry.

Attempts by the media to gently probe the agency’s activities are met with intense hostility. When an article about the imminent change of policy on NGN appeared in the local media earlier this month, representatives of several telecommunications companies were summoned to the communications regulator’s office for a dressing-down and faced veiled threats of prosecution in the event of more leaks to the press.

All industry insiders that spoke to EurasiaNet.org for this article did so on condition of anonymity.

Trends in the industry would appear to illustrate why the government is eager to quash a cost-saving form of technology. In 2016, Tajik mobile phone subscribers made 150-million-minutes worth of international calls every month. That represents a big drop. According to official data, over the past four years, the volume of international calls has fallen by 70 percent.

Fewer long-distance calls mean lower revenues for the communications agency.

“International voice calls are already yesterday’s news because after the appearance of NGN, [and messaging apps like] Viber, WhatsApp and so on, the volume of international calls has fallen sharply,” one manager at a telecommunications company told EurasiaNet.org. “Rather than call Russia at 1.2 somoni [a minute], it is easier for customers to have megabytes and to talk to their relatives for free. If we used to make our money through voice calls, now we are concentrating more on the Internet, and that is a global trend.”

Communications regulators insist the move against NGN is strictly about security.

“People buy accounts and go to Afghanistan and Syria, and their relatives talk to them as though they were in Tajikistan,” a communications agency representative told EurasiaNet.org.

There is mounting speculation that next in line will be messaging apps like Viber and WhatsApp, which operate on a slightly different principle than NGN. While the communications service representative would not confirm whether they would try to block those apps outright, he said that they needed to be strictly regulated to “preserve stability.”

Attempts to implement outright blockages of Internet-based resources have proven quixotic in the past, however. Facebook has been blocked on several occasions in Tajikistan, only for a growing number of people to learn how to use simple ban-circumventing techniques. Clamping down on one app simply drives telephone users to another, as a source at another Tajik mobile company told EurasiaNet.org.

“Voice communication on WhatsApp was blocked in the [United Arab Emirates], but you could still talk perfectly normally through Telegram,” the source said. “The more smartphones there are around, the more services will enter our lives, and limiting them is not possible. People who are not willing to overpay for voice communications will find some way to get around the restrictions.”

Eurasianet

December 22, 2017

Tajikistan: Asylum Seekers Stranded in Limbo on Polish Border

By Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

On the 8.28 a.m. train to Terespol, a Polish town at the border with Belarus, Ali watches the barely changing landscape with indifference. This might be the twentieth time he has taken this train with his wife and three kids. Or maybe the twenty-first, he cannot quite remember.

Ali, a well-built young man with dark eyes and a doleful smile, is a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). He is also one of countless Tajiks forced to flee his homeland due to a wave of political repression, including a ban of the IRPT in September 2015.

Escape from Tajikistan has taken people like Ali through Belarus and up to the edge of the European Union, where they have found the door slammed in their face.

The unwritten rule for those without visas and hoping to claim asylum in Poland is to travel in the crowded final sleeper carriage. Some of the passengers chat in the dark, others are frozen, anxiously waiting. Maybe this will be the time they are allowed into Poland. Ali’s children play and misbehave. They have taken this route so often it has almost become a daily routine.

Ali and his family spend their days in Brest, a Belarusian city whose outskirts push up against the western Polish border. The kids do not play outside, nor do they go out much at all. For reasons of security, they live, play, sleep and eat in a hotel room rented out by their parents.

According to data provided by Poland’s Office for Foreigners, a growing number of Tajik nationals began claiming asylum toward the end of 2015, as the crackdown back home was picking up steam. Most chose the border crossing at Terespol, as it is easily accessed by train from Moscow or Minsk.

The number of claims peaked last May, when 129 individuals applied for international protection — compared with 18 the same month a year earlier. In recent months, the number has been declining. Only four asylum applications were registered in November. At the same time, according to data provided by the Polish Border Guard, between January and October 2016, 5,503 Tajik nationals were denied entry into Poland, a surge from 1,896 over the same period in 2015. The figure covering Russian nationals, mostly of Chechen origin, is even greater, standing at more than 68,000 in 2016.

Since the summer of 2016, Poland’s border with Belarus has been experiencing its own small-scale migration crisis. And while the right to seek refuge is a universal right provided under EU and Polish law, the Polish border agency began a large-scale refusal of entry for asylum seekers, claiming that they tried to enter the country without a valid visa, which is not required when applying for refugee status.

Marta Szczepanik, an immigration expert with the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, said the number of people being turned away at the Polish border in 2016 reached unprecedented levels. Human Constanta, a Belarusian human rights organization that assists would-be asylum seekers in Brest, has said that during the peak months of drama in August and September, up to 3,000 people were living in the city hoping to be allowed into Poland.

As Russian citizens, Chechen migrants have been able to rent private accommodation and stay in Belarus without registration for up to 90 days. The situation for those from Tajikistan is more complicated. Tajiks are forced to stay in overpriced hotels that can officially register their stay in Belarus. After 90 days, they are no longer allowed to remain in the country. Tajiks can, in special circumstances, apply for a temporary residence in Belarus for up to one year, but few either know about the loophole or choose to avail themselves of it.

In December, Ali and his family were coming to the end of their allowed period. With one day left before their stay in Belarus legally expired, they were again turned back at the border with Poland, and denied the right to claim asylum.

The reasons why migrants are not allowed to claim asylum in Poland are unclear. According to Dariusz Sienicki, a spokesperson for the Border Guard, there were no instances of people being refused the opportunity to apply for refugee status. But human rights groups working with the migrants, as well as the asylum seekers themselves, contend otherwise.

Failure is sometimes the outcome of procedural errors.

According to the Terespol monitoring mission of the office of the Polish Ombudsmen for Human Rights, which is the only body allowed to observe the interview process at the border, the majority of migrants fail to directly request asylum in conversations with the border guards. A number of those who do ask are denied entry to Poland anyhow.

This constitutes a clear violation of international refugee law and the right to asylum, especially since Polish law dictates that the Office for Foreigners, and not the Border Guard, is responsible for handling asylum applications. The Border Guard, therefore, is making decisions outside its purview, while the Polish Office for Foreigners has no representatives at the border.

Szczepanik said denying that a migrant has expressed his or her will to claim asylum has become a common explanation used by authorities. Another problem, Szczepanik added, is methodological. “The questions asked by the border guards are often put in such a way to prove the preponderance of economic factors behind migration, while the part of the story suggesting persecution is usually not pursued,” she said.

As Anna Cieślewska, a Central Asia expert from the Jagiellonian University, explained, the persecution in Tajikistan of the IRPT and its supporters dates back several years, to around 2010, when the government sought to set strict rules on religious life under the pretext of combating Islamic extremism. Repression reached a new level of intensity in September 2015, after an alleged coup attempt by a disaffected deputy defense minister was linked to the party.

The Polish government’s reluctance to acknowledge this downturn has exasperated rights advocates.

Tajikistan’s human rights crackdown “requires the European Union, including Poland, to provide protection for those who have been persecuted on political grounds,” Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch’s Central Asia researcher, told EurasiaNet.org. “It also requires that the right to asylum be protected and implemented consistent with Warsaw’s international obligations, rather than the blatant attempt to do an end-run around refugee law.”

There are multiple examples of Tajik authorities taking their hunt of the opposition beyond their own borders. Maksud Ibragimov, a young Russia-based opposition activist, was stabbed in Moscow in late 2014, and weeks later forcibly deported to Tajikistan, where he was charged with extremism and imprisoned for 17 years. In March 2015, the leader of the anti-government Group 24, Umarali Quvvatov, was assassinated in Istanbul after Turkish authorities refused his extradition to Tajikistan. Rights activists suspect Quvvatov’s killing was the handiwork of people working at the Tajik government’s behest.

Other times, the government in Dushanbe has used international extradition treaties to repatriate critics.

In June 2015, Polish authorities denied Shabnam Khudoydodova, who came to the attention of Tajik authorities for social media postings critical of the government, entry into Poland. Upon her return to Brest, Khudoydodova was stopped by Belarusian police and detained on terrorism charges. The Tajik government had placed her name on an Interpol wanted list, and requested her extradition. Khudoydodova claims that after her arrest she was visited in her cell by Tajik special services officers and beaten.

It took nine months of interventions from international human rights groups and the United States Embassy in Belarus to secure Khudoydodova’s release and passage into Poland, where she is now awaiting a decision on her asylum application.

Cieślewska said there are a few possible factors behind Poland’s hardline position on Tajik and other asylum seekers. One is a perception that large numbers of economic migrants have sought to ride the coattails of people subject to political repression. Economic decline in Russia has left its toll on conditions all across the former Soviet Union, including in Tajikistan. The economic fallout is compelling many would-be labor migrants to look further afield for places to live and work.

Also, Cieślewska noted that in 2015 around 90 percent of the 500 or so applications for asylum submitted by citizens of Tajikistan in Poland were withdrawn, most likely because the applicants moved onward to other western European countries, where salaries are higher and Tajik communities are more vibrant. Given that Berlin hosts the headquarters of the IRPT, the majority of political dissidents aspire to move to Germany.

The stricter admission policy adopted by the Polish authorities could be a response to pressure from within the EU, in particular from Germany, which is struggling to cope with its own massive influx of refugees. Many view Poland as merely a transit point on their way to other destinations, namely Germany. While experts have speculated on the possibility of behind-the-scenes diplomatic wrangling, there is no hard evidence to prove such a claim.

According to the data provided by Poland’s Office for Foreigners, in 2016, 13 Tajik nationals were granted refugee status or another form of international protection in Poland. Another 633 applications were discontinued, most of them due to the absence of the applicant. Six people were sent back to Tajikistan.

This is clearly bad news for Ali and fellow dissidents trying to reach Poland. While the number of families remaining in Brest is slowly declining, and it seems that the worst crisis is over, those escaping Tajikistan in search of international protection remain bereft of escape routes.

Editor’s note:

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a freelance journalist covering the post-Soviet space.

EurasiaNet:

© Eurasianet

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