Tajik opposition-in-exile Group24 came to prominence last October when it used social media to spread a call for street protests in Tajikistan’s capital city Dushanbe against longtime strongman Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since the end of the bloody civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1990s. Local authorities promptly retaliated, labeling Group24 as an “extremist organization” and preventing any protest from happening.
Group24’s founder and leader Umarali Kuvatov, a Tajik businessman once close to Rahmon’s family before falling from grace and fleeing into exile in 2012, was shot dead in Istanbul a few months later. Turkish police detained three Tajik men soon afterwards, but the circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Sharofiddin Gadoyev, who succeeded Kuvatov as head of Group24, admits in a bittersweet remark that Kuvatov’s assassination only gave the movement new momentum. “The number of followers spiked after his death,” Gadoyev tells The Diplomat. With the Tajik government facing growing economic and social woes at home, and rising tensions along the Afghan borders, Group24 now pledges to be ready to seize any opportunity to weaken and eventually overthrow Rahmon’s regime.
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The news of his assassination only encouraged more people to join. We have a channel on Zello [a mobile application that allows direct communications and radio streaming] where we communicate with our followers. Prior to Kuvatov’s assassination we were working with 40,000 contacts; after his death their number went up to 48,000 in a matter of a month. Today, we have around 25,000 followers inside Tajikistan, and the remainder is located outside the country – mostly in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. There are probably more than 15,000 followers based in Russia alone. However, we think that around 80 percent of the Tajik population would follow us because they are all fed up with Rahmon. If we wanted to organize chaos in the streets of Tajikistan, we could easily do it tomorrow, but because we are dedicated to peaceful demonstrations and the concept of civil disobedience, we would need time and caution to organize properly.
What is Group24’s agenda?
We want to use unarmed protests, rallies, and other similar methods to force the current authorities out of power. Once they are out, we are planning to hold democratic elections leading to a new government in charge of introducing constitutional reforms that meet international standards, as opposed to the constitutional norms that are in place right now.
Group24 called for protests in Dushanbe last October, but the government stepped in and prevented them from happening. What are you planning to do next?
We are planning to call for new demonstrations in Tajikistan soon. Currently, we have formed an alliance of opposition movements called the Union of Constructive Forces of Tajikistan. A decision regarding any upcoming protest will be made by the union as a whole. We are hoping to pull all of the political opposition parties together and unite our forces against Rahmon. Our demands are clear: We want Rahmon to step down. There is no alternative. We won’t give him any choice, but to resign.
Tajikistan’s economy is slowing as the Russian economic downturn hits the flow of remittances from migrants working in Russia, which accounted for more than 46 percent of Tajik GDP in 2014. Are growing economic and social woes at home providing Group24 with new opportunities to increase its following?
Yes, any economic crisis makes it easier to bring the population out into the streets to protest on our side. Especially if we consider that thousands of Tajik migrant workers are coming back home unemployed from Russia, and they are definitely not going to side with Rahmon and government authorities. Besides, we are observing growing divisions from within the government itself and within Rahmon’s own family. Even officials from the local secret service agencies are not too fond of him any more at this point. We are going to use anyone who can help us overthrow him. The current political situation in the country will definitely allow us to turn as many forces as possible against Rahmon, and all of these government agencies will assist us in overthrowing him through a peaceful social revolution.
The government is cracking down on Islamic habits and customs at home, while trying to maintain some control over the 1,350 km border with Afghanistan, with the Taliban reportedly increasing their leverage over frontier areas. Do you think radical Islamic groups pose a serious threat to the government?
Given the current economic and social situation, a Taliban insurgency within Tajikistan is inevitable. The prevention of the Taliban threat is directly related to the pace at which we will be able to replace Rahmon. The faster we overthrow him, the smaller is the chance of a Taliban-backed insurgency in Tajikistan. Once he is out of power, we will start strengthening our borders.
Jacopo Dettoni writes on business and current affairs.