On May 22, Tajik people voted for 41 different amendments to the Constitution, three of which are to affect significantly the country’s political landscape. The paradox is that people were asked to answer a single question on the ballot form, which was: “Do you support the amendments and additions to the Constitution of the country?” The answering options were only “yes” or “no.”
The turnout rate claimed by the Tajik authorities–94.5 percent–is absurd, taking into account the number of migrants that have left the country in search of better lives. Tajinfo, a foreign-based opposition portal, cited a source on the election commission as saying that the real turnout figure might have been as low as 20 percent and all members of election commission were given instructions to hide the real numbers.
The Tajik president has never bothered to think about conducting democratic elections; most polls in the country have been described by international observers as far from democratic. Emomali Rahmon, who is currently serving his fourth term, has cemented his power gradually through the years by election fraud, cracking down on democratic movements and freedom of speech, and eliminating his opponents. The recent amendments codify his ambitions into law.
The first amendment made by in the May 22 referendum has given the current president the right to to be elected as many times as he desires. The second amendment to the Constitution reduced the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30. Rustam Emomali, the president’s son, will turn 33 in 2020 and will be able to run for the presidency if the circumstances should change. When Rahmon’s current term ends in 2020, both he and his son have a clear path to the presidency, making the family ready for any scenario.
The third significant amendment to the Constitution, which banned faith-based political parties, came as a part of a crackdown campaign on opposition movements. This amendment is a continuation of the campaign to eliminate the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) from the political scene. A campaign that intensified last year. Following the referendum, on June 2, the Dushanbe court sentenced the IRPT’s deputy leaders Mahmadali Hayit and Saidumar Khusaini to life in prison, and 11 other party members were given prison terms of between two and 28 years. Even their lawyer, who was doing his professional job by defending IRPT members in court, has been sentenced and charged with forgery and fraud.
Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party, fled the country to escape imprisonment and is currently living somewhere in Europe. The Tajik government has confiscated his property and systematically targets his relatives, harassing, detaining, and interrogating them. Even his 95-year-old father was detained and later was prevented from traveling to Turkey for medical treatment.
Kabiri has criticized the latest referendum in Tajikistan as “against democratic principles … it will ensure that power remains in one hand.” He describes Tajikistan as “being on the brink of violent revolt” and told BBC News that his party was shut down last year because they were the only group that “could prevent one-man or one-family rule.”
Chronic stagnation? Not for Rahmon family members
Tajikistan, the poorest country in the region, has been described by experts as a country in chronic stagnation. International Crisis Group describes Rahmon’s 23-year rule as marred by violence, lack of accountability, corruption, and mass migration. In 2014, the country’s per capita GDP was estimated at $2,700 — roughly on par with the African states of Lesotho and Ivory Coast, as Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has pointed out.
According to the World Bank, Tajikistan’s economy heavily depends on remittances coming from migrants, which account for 49 percent of the country’s $9.2 billion GDP. However, migrants are no longer able to save the country’s economy as Russia itself is hit by economic crisis. Thus remittances from Russia dropped by 65 percent in 2015. Recently, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service reported that thousands of migrants are returning home due to the crisis in Russia; Tajik authorities urgently need to find a way to keep them busy.
Meanwhile, many of Rahmon’s relatives hold important official positions or control lucrative businesses in the country and they do not seem troubled with economic turmoil. Ozoda Rahmon, Rahmon’s daughter, worked as first deputy minister of foreign affairs, then head of the presidential administration, and recently has become a senator. Ozoda Rahmon’s husband, Jamollidin Nuralizoda, works as a deputy head of Tajikistan’s National Bank, the central bank, with the status of the first deputy finance minister. Another two son-in-laws are enjoying missions abroad. Shamsullo Sohibov works as Tajikistan’s trade representative to Great Britain, and another son-in-law, Ashraf Gulov, is Tajikistan’s consul general to Russia.
Many other relatives control and own businesses, including Tajikistan Aluminum Company, the country’s largest employer and industrial asset. Hasan Asadullozoda, a brother of Rahmon’s wife, owns the country’s largest commercial bank, Oriyonbank, and controls sales of aluminum and other commodities to the main importers.
The best known example, however, is the president’s oldest son Rustam Emomali, who is groomed to be a possible successor to the throne. When he was 25 years old he was appointed as head of the state agency of custom services. Now 29, he is working as head of the anti-corruption agency. Here is something ironic, given the fact that Tajikistan is the one of the many corrupted countries in post-Soviet space. Transparency International’s newly released 2015 corruption perception index confirmed Tajikistan as a country with rampant corruption, ranking the country 136th out of 161 countries on the list.
Hunt for the opposition: die or surrender
While cementing his family’s politic status, Emomali Rahmon has also kept busy jailing or even killing his political opponents. Some of the key opposition figures fled Tajikistan to escape prison or mysterious deaths. However, the Tajik authorities do not forget them and have been successful in finding their whereabouts, capturing, repatriating, and jailing them. In 2005, opposition member Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, who was in Russia, was captured there and brought to Dushanbe. The Supreme Court of Tajikistan sentenced him to 23 years in prison on charges of terrorism, the embezzlement of state funds and the illegal storage of weapons.
Another opposition member, Umaraly Kuvatov, fled the country and moved to Istanbul in 2011, and in exile he organized the opposition movement Group 24. The group, which was initially a clandestine group of 24 activists, and later gained popularity among migrants and activists abroad who shared their calls for justice and democratic reform in Tajikistan. Tajik authorities started to track down and jail members of Group 24; March 6, 2015, Kuvatov himself was shot dead in Istanbul by an unknown attacker. Tajik authorities banned Group 24, branding it as “extremist,” and jailed dozens of members for their affiliation with the movement. Dozens of migrant laborers, who occasionally participated in meetings with Group 24 or disseminated information through social media, have been arrested and charged with extremism either upon return from Russia or after being captured abroad.
Another activist of Group 24, Sobir Valiev, was detained on August 11, 2015 in Chisinau by Moldovan migration police, at the request of Tajik authorities. After pressure from Human Rights Watch and other international organizations, Moldova released him. However, Rahmon’s regime is still pursuing his extradition to Dushanbe on extremism charges and threatening his family members and relatives, saying that he should return and surrender.
Another activist, Maksud Ibragimov, was stabbed six times by unknown attacker in Russia. When he recovered several people kidnapped him on a Moscow street, brought him to the airport and forcibly sent him to Dushanbe, where he was arrested when he landed. Later, a Dushanbe court sentenced him to 17 years in prison on extremism charges.
Former industry minister Zaid Saidov, who established the opposition New Tajikistan Party in 2013, was neutralized by Tajik authorities, sentenced to 26 years in prison on charges of rape and polygamy. Another outspoken government critic, Salomboy Shamsidinov, disappeared mysteriously in March 2013 and later his body was found on the shores of the Amu Darya.
According to Human Rights Watch, some 200 members of IRPT have been arrested, while others and their relatives are under house arrest. Kabiri said in his interview that they had held the first meeting of IRPT’s Political Council abroad and have set goals for the near future. “We will keep our peaceful tactics,” he said “although it is becoming more difficult to control people’s emotions. No wonder, why more and more young protesting people join radical and terrorist organizations. But we are doing everything to prevent the radicalization of our supporters.”
Distrust and ruling by fear
Tajikistan experienced a five-year bloody civil war between government forces and the United Tajik Opposition. After this conflict, in which 100,000 people died and 1.2 million people were displaced, Tajik people know very well the price of peace. Subsequently Rahmon has been using the security card to justify his authoritarian one-family rule. The situation in Afghanistan is a main issue, as the 1,400 km-long Tajik-Afghan border has been a primary concern. Events in Afghanistan, where ethnic Tajiks make up 30 percent of the population, will have a spillover effect on Tajikistan, and further on the whole Central Asian region. Thus Tajik people are overwhelmed by security threats rather than economic problems. In 2015, the Taliban’s capture of Kunduz province, which is only a hundred miles away from the Tajik-Afghan border, left Tajik people scared.
Such security alarms help the Tajik authorities to proactively promote an ideology that Rahmon is the only choice to preserve peace in the country. Anyone who criticizes the authoritarian regime, whether for corruption, poverty, or unemployment, will be labeled an extremist and convicted on terrorism or extremism charges. Following his Uzbek neighbor President Islam Karimov, Rahmon sees threats of Islamic extremism in every corner of his country, in every man with a beard and in every woman wearing a hijab.
While Rahmon uses security threats for his own political interests, he does not tend to understand that indeed injustice, corruption, and unemployment are internal threats that become root causes of radicalization. The 13,00 beards that have been forcibly shaved on the streets by Tajik police do not provide any solutions to eliminate the causes of radicalization. Taking hard lines against Islamic movements will not contain them, but might promote radicalization and militancy. Unfortunately, Tajik authorities deny any linkage between flourishing injustice, impunity, and poverty in the country and the discontent of people in the society.
In Tajikistan, criticism of the current status quo has become increasingly dangerous. Since 1992, more than 17 journalists have been killed in Tajikistan, and the country is on the list of deadliest places of the world for journalists. The country has over 2,700 NGOs registered, but very few of them are operational and engaged in projects; overall they are having little impact on the society. The reason is that political atmosphere is not favorable — the “foreign agents law” copied from Russia is successfully working, and in recent years many NGOs have paid high prices.
Rahmon’s pursuit of absolute rule has gone to absurd lengths, with Tajik authorities increasing the level of paranoia. And they do not seem ready to stop here.
Cholpon Orozobekova is a Geneva-based journalist and analyst specializing in Central Asia.