Interviews

Edward Lemon on Tajikistan’s Trajectory

A discussion of dams, terrorism, and nepotocracy in Tajikistan.

Catherine Putz
Edward Lemon on Tajikistan’s Trajectory

Tajikistan, one of Central Asia’s poorest states, rarely breaks into the international new cycle. This summer, as a car attack claimed by the Islamic State killed four foreign cyclists, Dushanbe used the moment to cynically peg the political opposition as responsible. Meanwhile, the country’s leadership looks to a massive hydroelectric project — the Rogun dam — to inject life into the Tajik economy, if international investment is forthcoming.

These issues, Dr. Edward Lemon, the DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School in Washington, D.C., notes in a recent interview with The Diplomat, had to be managed by a nepotocratic system, a kleptocracy based on nepotism streaming outward from the family of President Emomali Rahmon.

In mid-November, to much fanfare, Tajikistan celebrated the start of operations at Rogun dam, a project 40 years in the making. Does the project’s potential match the hype in Dushanbe? What challenges remain ahead?

There is certainly a lot of hype around Rogun, especially if you watch Tajik state media. It is the centerpiece of Rahmon’s 26-year presidency. If completed, the project would have the potential to improve Tajikistan’s fledgling economy. It would produce 3,600 megawatts of electricity, more than enough to end winter power cuts, provide electricity to the population and to export power to neighboring countries.

To be honest, looking back I was not sure the day when Rogun would produce electricity would ever come. The improvement of relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan since the death of Islam Karimov and the raising of $1 billion through a bond issuance were key in jumpstarting the project again. But challenges remain. So far just one of the dam’s six turbines is in operation. The dam stands at 75 meters, a long way from the 335 meters that the government envisages. I can’t speak to the technicalities of building the dam, but I can say that completing the construction will be costly. There is no concrete estimate, but the Ministry of Finance has stated a further $4 billion is needed, with Rahmon stating at the inauguration of the first turbine in November that more than half of this would come from the state budget. Finance has been a problem in the past, with Russia, the World Bank, and other potential investors all backing out or declining to become involved. The government faces a long path to actually realize Rogun’s hype.

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The Islamic State claimed one of its fighters was behind a riot in early November at a prison in northern Tajikistan. It was the second violent incident in the country claimed by the group this year. What’s your assessment of the Islamic State’s two claims and how should we fit these events into a broader understanding of terrorism risks in Tajikistan?

The claim by Islamic State that it was behind the deadly prison riot in early November is hard to verify. As has been the case with security incidents in the past, the government has tried to prevent any independent investigation of the incident and only made its first statements about the events a few weeks after the riot. We may never know what sparked the riot. What we do know is that over 20 prisoners and two prison guards are now dead, with their families left without an explanation.

The claim that the Islamic State was involved in the July attack on four Western cyclists is much more credible. The Islamic State’s news agency, Amaq, released a video with four of the attackers pledging allegiance to the group, indicating that they had prior contact. The government’s repeated claims that the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) were behind the attacks are baseless and part of a broader campaign to smear the opposition.

The July attack was something of an anomaly. It was the first terrorist attack on foreign targets in Tajikistan since the immediate aftermath of the civil war in the late 1990s. And it was also the first attack in Central Asia that was credibly claimed by the Islamic State. I think that this kind of attack, involving cars and knives, and people who seem to have been radicalized remotely, poses the greatest threat to Tajikistan. Such attacks are easy to plan and carry out and hard to prevent.

There has been some talk of returning fighters posing a threat. But I think this is a more remote possibility. New government estimates put the number of Tajiks who fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria at 1,900. Many of these have been killed or arrested. Over 100 have returned to be amnestied. Perhaps the greater threat of returning fighters is those who have been diverted to fight with the Islamic State in Afghanistan or Tajik-led groups like Jamaat Ansurallah. At the same time, we shouldn’t overestimate this threat. Climate change, authoritarian governance, and lack of economic opportunities actually pose a greater threat to local peoples’ livelihoods.

Moving east for a moment: President Emomali Rahmon paid a visit to the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in September, during which he heavily criticized regional officials for perceived lax security. Was Rahmon’s trip east significant? What measures, if any, followed his complaints?

Rahmon’s televised speech in Khorog in September was an important symbolic event. The state in official discourse in Tajikistan is described with the imagery of the family. Rahmon, as the patriarch, was effectively telling off his children, warning them he will discipline them for their behavior. The Pamirs has always been distant both geographically and symbolically from the center. Its people speak local languages, often with Tajik as their third, or fourth language. They have a different religion; they are Ismailis who revere the Aga Khan. During the civil war, most Pamiris sided with the opposition. And it is the process of post-war state consolidation that helps explain the current standoff. After the war, the government made a compromise deal with the opposition, allowing them to take up 30 percent of positions within the state. Given how deep corruption runs in Tajikistan, these positions were lucrative. Gradually, as part of the process of authoritarian consolidation, these people were then purged from the state.

Efforts to remove powerful former commanders often provoked a backlash. Protests broke out in 2008. In July 2012, Dushanbe sent troops to Khorog to try to neutralize the commanders, known locally as “the authorities,” after one of their leaders, Tolib Ayombekov, was accused of murdering the local head of the security services. Dozens of civilians were killed and one of the local leaders murdered. But their informal influence over the local economy and politics remained, as did tensions between the local population and the government. In May 2014, two locals were killed by police, resulting in further protests. These latest threats by Rahmon are part of this ongoing process by which the central authorities are trying to assert their control at the periphery and meeting local resistance. I think it is certainly something to watch in 2019.

Rahmon’s son, Rustam, is often seen at his father’s side. Do you see this as positioning Rustam as a possible future leader of the country?

Rahmon is currently 66 years old. He has ruled since 1992. When he became “Leader of the Nation” through constitutional amendments in 2016, limits on his term as president were abolished. But there are signs he is thinking of transition. His priority will be to maintain his family’s stronghold over the country’s economy and politics. He has a vast extended family, with nine children. Many more have married into the family, gaining positions of prominence. Rahmon’s brother-in-law runs the largest private airline and one of the largest banks. His son-in-law is deputy head of the National Bank and allegedly owns the toll road between the country’s largest cities. Tajikistan is a nepotocracy; a kleptocratic system based on nepotism. Rahmon’s family have grown rich through this system and they will seek to maintain it.

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Rahmon’s eldest son does seem to be his chosen successor. At 31, he has already held senior positions in the Customs Service and the anti-corruption agency. He has been the mayor of Dushanbe since 2017. Tellingly, the 2016 constitutional amendments lowered the age of those who could run for the presidency to 30 years old. This would allow Rustam to run for president at the next election, scheduled for 2020. Rustam is the leading contender, but his sister Ozoda, who has been her father’s chief of staff since 2016, is also a powerful force and seen as a potential successor in some circles. Other powerful factions that Rustam may have to contend with for power include the powerful Sohibovs, who married into the presidential family and have been slowly taking over important sectors of the economy, and those linked to the president’s brother-in-law Hassan Asadullozoda. Rahmon has done a relatively good job at balancing these different factions, and his successor will have to do the same.

After Shavkat Mirziyoyev became president of Uzbekistan, that country’s often frosty relationship with Tajikistan began to thaw. What is the impact of a friendlier, regional-connection promoting Uzbekistan for Tajikistan?

I think the effects are widespread. Economically, as I mentioned, the end of Uzbek opposition to the Rogun dam has emboldened Tajikistan to intensify efforts to forge ahead with the project. Trade has surged as 10 border posts have reopened. At the local level, families who had been divided can now visit one another and attend important life events and rituals. A reconnecting Uzbekistan will help Tajikistan counteract its isolation. Tajikistan has begun to export electricity to Uzbekistan after nine years, railroads have reopened and flights resumed for the first time since 1992. This will allow Tajikistan to better position itself as a transit country, taking advantage of projects on China’s Belt and Road.

The political effects may be more concerning to Dushanbe. If economic liberalization is successful in Uzbekistan, then there may be calls for Tajikistan to open up. At present governments in the region point to the perceived failure of Kyrgyzstan’s economic and political opening, which they blame for causing two revolutions and ethnic violence. They use this as a justification for the status quo: stability and control. Yet if Uzbekistan does manage to open up without incurring instability, Tajiks may wonder why their system remains so stagnant.