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  International relations and internal repression: the connection in Tajikistan

Fabio Belafatti, Coordinator of the Centre of Contemporary Central Asian Studies (Vilnius University, Oriental Studies Centre) and lecturer of Central Asian Politics
2014 09 08

Recent months have seen a constant increase in political violence and repression in Tajikistan. Far from being a mere coincidence, this phenomenon may be related to changes in the regional environment in Central Asia, as well as Russia’s increased efforts to promote the expansion of its Eurasian Economic Union.

Tajikistan: sliding towards even more repression?

Of the five Central Asian republics, Tajikistan used to be one of the least repressive. This was due not to lack of will from the regime’s side, but mostly to state deficiencies and inability to apply full-scale repression. State violence tends to concentrate on radical Islam rather than targeting the population as a whole. Recent signals however indicate that things may be changing.

Back at the end of May, clashes broke out again in the restive, remote and impoverished Gorno-Badakhshan region, following a shootout between drug dealers and police; this seems to have been a follow up on a previous episode of violence that took place in 2012 in the same region. Back then, the government surprised observers with its ability to cut a whole region off from external reporting, effectively managing to isolate it from the outside world while repression was being carried out. Around seventy people were reportedly killed.

This time, violence was more concentrated, but by no means less concerning. Local people who gathered to ask for an independent investigation into the May events were met with violent response. The situation calmed down at the end of the month, leaving however an overall impression that following the 2012 clashes, and despite international observers’ hopes, the Tajik regime has not softened its position on Gorno-Badakhshan and is actually even more willing to re-establish full control over a region that for most of the last two decades has been largely left to its own devices.

Later in summer, another signal of tension emerged when a crowd of people attacked the British Embassy in Dushanbe, resulting in a large number of arrests. Other signals of repression and tension include the arrest of the lawyer of an imprisoned opposition leader, whose previous lawyer had also been jailed on what are believed to be politically-motivated charges. In July, a local opposition leader from Gorno-Badakhshan was in turn jailed for 5 years. His supported claim the allegations against here are inconsistent.

Again in July, the Tajik authorities temporarily blocked the popular social networking site “Odnoklassniki”, often used by Tajiks to discuss politically sensitive topics. There are even anticipation circulating that a new social network will be launched to replace Odnoklassniki, with the promoters of the website already making it clear that differently from Odnoklassniki, the new “Tajik” social network will have limitations on a number of topics deemed offensive for Islam or “Tajik traditions”, a deliberately vague expression that many fear will include every form of political dissent. On the same front, during summer Tajik authorities have allegedly blocked websites such as YouTube and popular news websites, a move that was previously fairly uncommon in the country.

A further episode of repression involved PhD researcher Alexander Sodiqov, a Tajik national working for the University of Exeter, who was arrested in mid-June upon accusation of spying for an unidentified “foreign country” while he was carrying out research on the 2012 clashes in Gorno-Badakhshan; such a move came as a complete surprise to international observers as Tajikistan is usually considered a relatively safe place to carry out research, if compared with countries like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Sodiqov’s arrest sparked large international mobilization until he was finally released on bail after weeks of detention, but only after being paraded on national television as a kind of warning to the population. The fact that Sodiqov was probably arrested in connection with his investigation on the 2012 events indicates that the Tajik regime is becoming less and less willing to let information filter and is trying to increase its ability to control what it sees as sensitive political information.

Tajikistan’s repression in context: election and international relations

The reasons behind the increased level of repression in Tajikistan are probably connected to recent developments in international relations in Central Asia, as well as the presidential elections that took place at the end of last year. Until then, Tajikistan lived in a sort of complex and delicate balance whereby the population refrains from destabilizing the regime for fear of a second Civil War, while the regime itself refrains from implementing a full-scale authoritarianism for fear of popular revolts, preferring a very gradual, “softer” approach to centralize political power. Now the balance seems to have altered and the regime appears more and more assertive in its use of repression, daring to do much more than it used to do in the past.

On the one hand, last year’s elections confirmed the impression that the regime is becoming less and less willing to leave political space to the opposition. This follows years of attempts by President Emomalii Rahmon’s administration to sideline the democratic and Islamist opposition despite the peace agreements of 1997 that ended the Civil War granting at least 1/3 of political posts to opposition members. This summer’s events all confirm this tendency and once again show that the Tajik regime is more interested in filling the state deficiencies not to provide better services to its citizens but in order to concentrate more political control in the hands of the President’s inner circle.

The other factor that may explain the increase in repression is the change in the regional environment. Tajikistan has long been fairly isolated in Central Asia, with its main political allies being all located outside of the region: Russia, with which it has an uneasy relationship based mostly on necessity, and Iran, with which it could have far closer and far more profitable connections. Things however seem to have changed in recent months: as talks of Tajikistan joining the Eurasian Economic Union intensify, the Tajik regime probably feel more and more confident in Russia’s support in case of future unrest. Moscow has consistently implemented a conservative foreign policy in Central Asia aiming to defend existing regimes from internal challenges and there are good reasons to think it will keep doing so especially with members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

Equally important, Tajikistan’s long-lasting rivalry with neighboring Uzbekistan is giving signs of relaxation. The two countries have long been divided by deep disagreements over the management of water resources in Central Asia, disagreements that have often led to undeclared trade wars between them. Uzbekistan in particular opposes the construction of hydroelectric power plants in upstream Tajikistan, a move that would decrease water supplies to downstream countries, Uzbekistan in particular. Now, as Tajikistan seems to have received relatively positive feedbacks on its hydroelectric projects, including some signs of interest from Russia, Uzbekistan seems to be forced to act accordingly and accept what seems to be the beginning of the failure of its strenuous opposition policy.

During summer, meetings have taken place between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s ministers of Foreign Affairs. Such meetings are all but unheard of between the two countries and should therefore be seen as signs of a potential rapprochement. More broadly speaking, these fit within a broader picture of a Tajikistan that acts more proactively in international relations trying to escape its geographic isolation, resulting in more external support for the regime.

Implications and conclusions

Tajikistan seems to be better placed in international relations than it was one year ago at the time of the presidential electoral campaign. It hasa fairly realistic chance of joining the Eurasian Economic Union, membership of which would guarantee Tajik immigrants continuous access to the Russian work market and may potentially attract profitable Russian investments in the country’s hydroelectric sector. The country also seems to be busy improving its relationship with a previously hostile neighbor. This provides the Tajik regime with a potentially broader external support that it could use in case of trouble at home. Better relationships with Moscow and Tashkent mean that Rahmon’s regime has its back covered and can engage in a more iron-fisted internal politics.

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