Tajik Government Takes Out Critics

A campaign targeting opponents and critics of Tajikistan’s government could be seen as a short-time move to eliminate any chance of a challenge in the November presidential election. But to some analysts, it suggests that authorities are going through a bigger existential crisis, perhaps out of a fear that Russia is tiring of President Imomali Rahmon and looking to back someone else.

Zayd Saidov, a former industry minister, was arrested on May 19, a month after setting up a political party called New Tajikistan. (See Emerging Force in Tajik Politics Arrested for more on this case.)

Six days later, opposition politicians, human rights defenders and media activists set up a group called the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, which in turn established a committee in support of Saidov. Almost immediately, participants begin warned off.

Journalist Mavjuda Sohibnazarova, a founding member of New Tajikistan and a participant in the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, said in media interviews that she had received death threats on Facebook and by phone. The messages told her to leave the party and stop supporting Saidov. On May 28, she was questioned by the national security service about her party membership. At this meeting, she said, intelligence officers also promised to investigate the threats against her.

Another member of the coalition, Ramzia Mirzobekova, a journalist working for the leading news agency Asia Plus, was summoned by the security service the following day. In media interviews and on Facebook, she said she was questioned about her views on Saidov and her reasons for joining the coalition. She was warned that certain “external and domestic forces” might use her for their own ends.

This prompted another coalition member, Social Democratic Party leader Rahmatillo Zoirov, to publish an open letter condemning the pressure placed on fellow-members.

Saidov’s arrest followed official moves against Umarali Quvvatov, who was forced to leave for Russia when his business was taken over – grabbed, he claims, by influential elite figures. Last year, Quvvatov set up Group-24, which made public allegations of corruption in government.

He was detained in Dubai in December at the request of the Tajik authorities, on charges of business malpractice. In April, a court in Dubai approved an extradition request.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International expressed concern that if Quvvatov was forcibly returned to Tajikistan, he would be at risk of torture or other forms of ill-treatment.

His lawyer Nikolai Nikolaev told IWPR that Quvvatov was being held pending an appeal hearing in August.

Unlike Saidov, Quvvatov did indicate he was interested in standing in this year’s presidential election. He was backed by a group of government opponents and businessmen, and was seeking support among the many Tajik voters who are working in Russia.

A political analyst in Dushanbe who wished to remain anonymous noted that Quvvatov used to work with people close to the president’s inner circle and had threatened to publicise compromising information.

What makes Saidov and Quvvatov interesting is that they represent a younger generation of politicians who might have been able to reinvigorate the opposition.

The legal action against Quvvatov sinks any chances of him standing, although the incumbent president’s grip on power more or less guarantee his re-election.

The government also attempted to secure the extradition of Abdumalik Abdullojonov, a once-powerful figure who was prime minister in 1992-93. On this occasion, the bid failed as Ukraine – where he was visiting from the United States – decided to release him.

Analysts say what the authorities feared was not that Abdullojonov would return to Tajikistan and run for the presidency himself, but that he might lend his support to a candidate like Quvvatov. Ultimately, though, the concern is that foreign powers – meaning Moscow – could be looking for a candidate to unseat Rahmon after his two decades in power.

“Neither of them [Abdullojonov or Quvvatov] is an important political leader with a significant following inside the country,” political analyst Parviz Mullojonov told IWPR. “There is a view, perhaps shared by the Tajik authorities, that behind these opposition politicians stand more serious foreign players that have financial and organisational capacity and leverage.”

Mullojonov said this gave rise to the perception that Tajik opposition groups in exile were being sponsored by foreign governments with a grudge against the current administration. “This might explain the Tajik authorities’ urge to swiftly neutralise the threat,” he added.

Arkady Dubnov, a leading Central Asia expert in Russia, noted that the Tajik government’s jumpiness about “foreign interference” mirrored what was going on in Russia itself.

“Tajikistan hasn’t reinvented the wheel; it’s behaving like the Kremlin, using the logic applied by any authoritarian regime, that opposition cannot exist unless there is foreign backing for it, from [the regime’s] enemies, of course,” he said. “It’s funny that for the Kremlin that means the United States, while for Rahmon it’s the Kremlin itself or institutions close to it.”

Tajikistan is dependent on Russia as a security and economic ally and also as host to the large numbers of migrant workers who work there.

Moscow has backed Rahmon over the years, but analysts say it has grown increasingly unhappy with him over a number of issues, such as a delay in ratifying an agreement on the continued presence of Russian troops, and Dushanbe’s reluctance to prevent re-exports of petroleum products which the Russians supply at subsidised prices.

Lola Olimova is IWPR’s Tajikistan editor.