As I wrote Tuesday, Tajikistan has been having a terrible year. Human rights advocates and opposition figures call the ongoing crackdown — which spans the religious and political spheres — a true crisis.
My previous article touched on the bulk of the conversation this week at an event hosted by Freedom House, but I did omit a few points worth exploring. Specifically, the stability of Tajikistan, the threat of violent extremism in the country, and recommendations as to what external powers, particularly the United States, should be doing about the overall crisis.
Muhiddin Kabiri, the exiled leader of the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), concluded his remarks by saying that Tajikistan is not as stable as the government says it is. He said it was as fragile as many other hotspots in the world. This is in line with a common narrative that argues that states like Tajikistan engage in oppressive policies because they are unstable — crackdowns are essentially a symptom of a weak state. This line of argument often ends in a functionally weird place, however: it implies that Central Asia is on the brink of collapse but the collapse never seems to come.
Sarah Kendzior actually touched on this exact topic in an early 2013 article for Foreign Policy. She pointed to the International Crisis Group’s inclusion of Central Asia in its 2013 list of 10 conflicts to watch and remarked, “The problem is that this not only describes Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in 2012. It also describes them in 2007, 2002, or 1997, making the region a perennial player in conflict forecasts. What experts tend to underestimate is how long a nation can remain on the brink.” She goes on to say that “corruption, brutality, and censorship are not necessarily signs of vulnerability, but indicators of the lengths a government will go to preserve its power at the expense of its people.”
Indeed, the Tajik government itself uses the impending threat of instability — usually at the hands of violent Islamic extremists — to garner aid (both economic and military) and coax Western nations into staying relatively mum on its crackdowns on the freedoms of its own people. The government, as it did with both Group 24 and the IRPT, often labels opposition political movements as extremists regardless of whether they are linked to violent activities or not.
Interestingly, the opposition leaders speaking at the Freedom House roundtable also mentioned the threat of extremism, but as motivation for why the international community should do something about the crackdowns. After a question targeting the future outlook for Tajikistan, Kabiri said that he does not see anything positive in the near future of the country. He mentioned brain drain, persistent economic deterioration, and further crackdowns on civil society as likely to continue. He implied that if the international community does not act, the tragedies that have happened in the Middle East will happen in Central Asia too.
ISIS is the threat du jour, to which regional governments point as their key threat (in the past this role was played by Afghanistan and still is, with ISIS added). Estimates of the numbers of Central Asians who have joined the conflict in Iraq and Syria are believed by many regional watchers to be overblown because these figures are often provided by regional governments with something to gain by inflating the numbers. Still, there are Central Asians fighting with numerous different militant groups in the Middle East. Analysts say many of them are radicalized and recruited in Russia.
In her closing remarks, Catherine Cosman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted, as other speakers did over the course of the discussion, that Central Asian labor migrants are “prime targets” for recruitment attempts by extremist groups like ISIS. Tajikistan — the world’s most remittance-dependent country — sends an estimated 40 percent of its working-age population abroad for work, mostly to Russia. Because of Russia’s own economic troubles, remittances have dropped and many of the migrant workers are returning to a country without jobs, an excellent recipe for discontent.
Tajikistan’s best-known ISIS member, however, was a special police commander immediately before disappearing in April. Gulmurod Halimov showed up in late May in an ISIS recruitment video. The case of Halimov seems to be an outlier, but it belies a larger point: that there are many roads to the same destination. This nuance of understanding is decidedly missing from Tajik government warnings about impending instability — they worry about the draw of a war in a distant land but not about the detrimental effect of crushing opposition parties. As noted above, opposition leaders say the state is already unstable — a claim that also lacks nuance.
Previous flare-ups similar to the September Nazarzoda affair — the 2012 events in Gorno-Badakhshan and the 2010 events in the Rasht Valley — did not precipitate a sudden collapse as some believed they would. Certainly, the closure of the IRPT is a new move, a clear departure from the past and a worrying sign. It is perhaps, as Freedom House suggested with its event, evidence that the crisis has actually arrived.
Whether the crackdowns are the thrashings of a weak state or the calculated moves of a regime either carefully consolidating its power or preternaturally aware of future threats, is immaterial to the very real suffering caused to the people of Tajikistan. As is the differentiation between whether Tajikistan is unstable now or could become unstable if the tight hand of the state loosened its grip.
But these arguments aren’t immaterial to the international community, which so far has chosen to keep relatively quiet about what’s going on in Tajikistan. In my view this stems from an acceptance of the Tajik government’s preferred narrative that instability is approaching and the existing heavy-handed regime is the only reliable defense. Kendzior, in that 2013 piece (which you really should read), comments that framing the region as on the brink of collapse, while perhaps not quite accurate, is a way to get people to do something. “Collapse calls out for engagement, for intervention, for concern,” she writes.
When asked what the U.S. government can do at this point, other than issue statements, Cosman replied, “Well, it would be helpful if they issued a few statements.” The audience chuckled; it’s a gallows kind of humor. She went on to say that it would helpful if Tajikistan was designated by the U.S State Department as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). In the cases of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which have been designated as CPCs, the U.S. has waived the opportunity to levy sanctions, sending a message, as Swerdlow said, “that consequences are more symbolic in nature.” Still, with regard to Tajikistan it would be “an important development… and were those sanctions not to be waived there’s a panoply of tools that the CPC provides the U.S. government to review various forms of assistance.”
Swerdlow listed further measures: monitoring and publicizing which Tajik police, prosecutors, and judges are involved in systematic abuses like long interrogations, denial of access to lawyers, arbitrary sentences, and so on; alerting Interpol that Tajik notices should probably be disregarded, as has happened with Uzbekistan; and having U.S. embassies in countries to which Tajiks have fled — places like Moldova, Belarus, Turkey, and Kyrgyzstan — actively engage with exile communities, listening to them and helping keep them safe “before they are kidnapped or worse.”
But ultimately, Swerdlow agreed that “if there aren’t public statements, if there isn’t a strong message that this is a crisis, then I think it is going to go on happening and get worse.”