Tajikistan’s long-standing leader Imomali Rahmon is gearing up for a reelection bid. It is unsurprising that recent months have seem him quick to stifle opposition activities, particularly through a major crackdown on press freedom. Negotiations with Russia over the latter’s Tajikistan missile base have proved somewhat tricky. Security concerns regarding the border with war-torn Afghanistan, are particularly instrumental in discussion between the Kremlin, battling its own jihadists, and Dushanbe. Tajikistan’s imminent accession to the WTO is a major event on its ecomomic horizon.
In its post-Soviet incarnation, Tajikistan has witnessed numerous abuses of civil liberties and the freedom of the press. Rights abuses have been exacerbated in recent months as the country’s President, Imomali Rahmon, prepares for a re-election bid. Rahmon, who has been in power since 1992, has cemented a grip on the country’s political and financial apparatus over the last two decades. Back in 2010 Wikileaks reports revealed the extent of his family’s power. They control, it would seem, a vast network of virtually all of the country’s financial and physical resources. A recent crackdown on the media, purportedly to reduce extremism, is the result, analysts say, of the president’s own desire to quell opposition sentiment. Having said this, the country does have numerous security issues, hosting a Russian base which the Kremlin views as its first line of defence against drug trafficking and terrorist infiltration from Afghanistan, with which Tajikistan shares a border. With the withdrawal of NATO troops from the country in 2014, this topic is becoming increasingly real.
In an attempt, analysts say, to liquidate all of his political opposition, be they current or former, in February Ukrainian security officers fulfilled an Interpol arrest warrant for ex-Tajik Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdulladjanov who has been in exile for the past 20 years. The former politician, who stood against Rahmon in 1994, is wanted in his home country on a variety of charges dating back to the civil war that raged in Tajikistan in the 1990s. The charges are specifically: embezzlement, abuse of power, offering support to rebel colonel Makhmud Khudoiberdyev and being involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Rahmon back in 1997. Abdullajanov’s lawyer in Ukraine, Andriy Fedur, argues that the charges are a matter of political persecution. If he is convicted, he could face up to 20 years behind bars and the confiscation of his property. There have been accusations that Tajik authorities have manipulated Interpol in order to secure his arrest. Oldrich Andrysek, the regional representative in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has voiced his support of Abdullojanov. The news of his arrest was greeted with surprised in some quarters as he is seen to pose little active threat to the Rahmon regime. It is, some surmise, to do with his connection to government critic and journalist Dodojon Atovulloyev, who leads the Vatandor (Patriot) political movement. Atovulloyev himself has faced a number of assassination attempts indicating just how perilous the status of opposition politicians can be.
Another political opponent, Umarali Quvatov, a one-time ally of the President who left Tajikistan last year and formed a political group opposing Rahmon has been arrested abroad. Quvatov was arrested in the UAE at the request of Tajik authorities. The charge is fraud worth of $1.2 million. Again, the implications seem to be that the case is politically motivated. From a detention centre in Dubai, Umarali Quvatov wrote that accusations against him were “a direct consequence” of his battle against the “oppression of the Tajik people” by Rahmon’s government. Apparently Quvatov’s legal team plans to release a steady stream of information (including recorded and video conversations) in an attempt to prove that Rahmon’s relatives used threats and extortion to gain control of a company called Faroz that exports oil products to Afghanistan via Tajik territory. If noting else, the release of this material could prove highly embarrassing for the regime, if not downright incriminating.
It is little surprise that opposition politicians choose exile rather than remaining in this repressive regime. The stories emanating from Tajikistan’s prisons paint a frightening picture of the nation’s penitentiary service. In October of last year, Amnesty International urged President Rahmon to take measures “against widespread torture and other ill-treatment in Tajikistan’s detention facilities.” In the space of a few months, it was reported that two inmates were found dead in their cells in two separate incidents, in what may have been designed to look like suicides. Recent video footage, allegedly recorded on mobile phones inside a prison, showed prisoners severely injured from what they claim were beatings at the hands of guards. “Ordinary people get up to 25 years in prison for beating up someone. How can these [law-enforcement officers] beat people with impunity?” were the words of one prisoner. In a recent report titled “Shattered Lives: Torture and Other Ill-Treatment in Tajikistan,” Amnesty International outlined some of the horrifying abuses that prisoners are reported to suffer within the system. International organisations have been vocal in drawing attention to the problems, but for local NGOs, it is a struggle to survive within the regime. The EU has recently weighed in. It is funding a new program consisting of three projects in the framework of the “Development of non-governmental organisations” program, for a total amount of 700,000 euros, designed to foster the work of local charities and pressure groups.
The media sphere has been severely victimized by the regime of late. At the start of February, the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe expressed its concern over the Tajik Foreign Ministry’s refusal to grant accreditation to Radio Liberty’s Tajik service correspondent Abdukayum Kayumzod. This is not the first time that alarm bells have sounded about the regime’s commitment to freedom of speech. The government apparently also blocked access to the websites of Radio Liberty’s Tajik service at the end of last year and at the start of this year. Full service only resumed under pressure from the U.S. Embassy. “This is censorship, clear and simple,” RFE/RL President Steven Korn said. “This is a violation of the fundamental right to free speech, and governments, the media, the private sector, the human rights community and Tajik citizens should condemn it.” In the 2012 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders it was found that Tajikistan, “still has, to some extent, some degree of pluralism,” but is “struggling to catch up with its neighbors in terms of cybercensorship.” The Committee to Protect Journalists has noted that over the course of last year a number of websites have been repeatedly targeted and blocked at the whim of the authorities. Unsurprisingly, websites offering anti-government content have been those to suffer. On December 21, the communications service ordered the blocking of 131 websites, among them Youtube and Facebook. The authorities began by denying accusations of political censorship, but then began to acknowledge their restrictions. Beg Zuhurov, head of the State Communications Agency, told the press, that Facebook is a “hotbed of slander” and had been blocked at the request of what he called a group of “concerned citizens.” He did not divulge who this group consisted of exactly giving rise to the suggestion that they are simply state stooges. Again analysts suggest the timing of the crackdown has much to with the upcoming election.
The regime has a convenient pretext for its use of censorship, particularly Internet based, which is that it fears the rise of extremism. There is reason to fear an Islamist insurgency gaining momentum in the region. At the end of January, six suspected members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were arrested in the south of Tajikistan. The same month, it was reported that unknown gunmen killed one police officer and wounded a second in the northern province of Sughd near the border with Uzbekistan. The movement, which hopes to establish an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia, has been banned in Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries. It now operates from Afghanistan. Another incident saw one terrorist killed and nine others arrested. A special operation to arrest suspected members of the outlawed movement is under way in the country’s north. Some speculate that extremists have also become more active because of the upcoming election. The government is making serious endeavours to address the situation. On February 7, Tajik Interior Minister Lieutenant General Ramazon Rakhimov and Kyrgyz Ambassador to Tajikistan Urmat Saralaev agreed on increasing cooperation in the battle against drug trafficking and improving cross border control. With Kyrgyzstan, there are also currently discussions to improve security across the 970-kilometer-long border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
This issue is also particularly relevant to Russia and relations between the Kremlin and Dushanbe. Tajikistan has maintained close, if sometimes strained relations with Russia. A contentious issue is that of Russia’s 201st military base which is based in Tajikistan. Moscow considers this base particularly important as a safeguard against Islamist militancy and drug trafficking from Afghanistan. Last year a 30-year extension on the lease, which hosts 7000 troops, was signed by the two countries’ Defence Ministers. Following the US’ departure from Afghanistan it is anticipated that this base will help Russia to gain a stronger foothold in the region. Tajikistan, is, it would seem, driving a hard bargain. Part of the agreement includes a deal tightening economic ties, by establishing better terms for Tajik migrant workers in Russia, lifting customs duties on 1 million metric tonnes of Russia’s annual oil petrochemical exports to Tajikistan, allocating $200 million to rearming the Tajik army and making investment in small-and-medium-sized hydroelectric power plants in the country. It seems that Tajikistan will only ratify the lease agreement once Russia guarantees the two first measures. Moscow prefers a ‘synchronized’ approach.
Tajikistan is equivocating on the terms. It is particularly exacting on the migrant issues since it is heavily reliant on remittances, which apparently account for nearly 50% of the state’s GDP. The rights of migrant workers from central Asia in Russia are often a course of concern for the Tajik government. The Tajik President is of course also considering how to position himself for his next presidential bid. A successful deal with Moscow would add extra clout to his campaign. One Dushanbe-based political analyst, Zafar Abdullayev, even commented that “the Kremlin’s support will be decisive.” For Russia, the security issues are all long-term concerns. It hopes to reinforce the porous border with Afghanistan in 2014. Most of the drugs in Russia (parts of which have high rates of heroine usage) stem from Afghanistan. There are also fears that a porous border facilitates the transfer of weaponry and support from Afghanistan to the Islamist insurgents in Russia’s North Caucasus, the thorn in the Kremlin’s side.
Whilst trade ties with Russia remain important, it is far from being Tajikistan’s only trading partner. On March 2, 2013, Tajikistan will become the 159th member of the WTO after 11 years of negotiations. It is hoped that this will dramatically increase the state’s access to world markets. It will also mark a clear embracing of the market economy. On December 10, 2012, the president of Tajikistan explained his priorities for Tajikistan’s membership at the General Council meeting in Switzerland on accession to the WTO. He stated, “Tajikistan’s major strategic goals are to achieve energy independence, food security and to tackle communication deadlock challenges it faces as a land-locked country. In order to attain these goals, Tajikistan has embarked on a process of domestic economic reforms and modernization. The immediate objectives of this process have been the establishment of a market economy, an investment-friendly environment, and integration in the global economy.” The state would also like to reduce its dependence on remittances from guest workers in Russia. Whilst the money is currently invaluable to GDP, migration creates social problems. Apparently 74,000 Tajik citizens under 18 years of age are working in Russia as migrant laborers. Many of these younger people are vulnerable to trafficking or exploitation as well as missing out on an education. In addition, workers within Russia can feel isolated and are a frequent target of abuse for Russian ultranationalists who, because of the problem of Islamic terrorism, tar all of those of a Muslim background with the same brush.
Overall, the news from Tajikistan is not entirely negative. Tajikistan said its economy grew 7.5% last year, slightly faster than in 2011. Accession to the WTO marks an important step toward greater global integration and the nation apparently hopes to join non-permanent members of the UN Security Council in the next 10-12 years. On the domestic front, in December, Tajikistan’s parliament passed the country’s first law specifically targeting domestic violence. Nonetheless, reports of rights abuses, a lack of political pluralism and corruption remain prevalent. Tajikistan still lingers at the bottom of the rankings in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index, which was released at the end of last year. Upcoming months as the elections approach will doubtless see more turbulence in the country.
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