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

Bakhtiyor Sobiri
7 July 2017

The presidential palace in Dushanbe, capital of the Republic of Tajikistan. Photo CC-by-2.0: Kalpak / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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 OSCE in 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 Nav, Odamu 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.

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