Political Wrangling Amid Conflict in Tajikistan

oil companies
A few blocks from my house is the El Segundo Chevron oil refinery. Three police cars came while I was taking this photograph. They were very nice, and given that I was outside the premises, there is nothing illegal about it.

Political maneuvering and internal power grabs from within the authoritarian government of Tajikistan continue to shine a dismal light on president Emomali Rahmon’s record and legacy as head of state. Tajikistan, which for decades has scored at the bottom of human rights watch lists around the world, has endured heightened violence and tension from within and without, but arguably as the inevitable result of Rahmon’s despotic policies and the self-interest of his powerful inner circle. Amidst violent crackdowns on protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan region to conflicts along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border that threaten war, those in the government’s elite vie to align themselves with a potential presidential successor.

Since his claim to power in 1992 following the end of a bloody civil war, Rahmon has maintained control of the government by ruthlessly pursuing and eliminating any voice critical of the regime. Various ethnic groups, certain religious practitioners, and journalists have all felt intense persecution. Women, LGBTQ identifying individuals, and other vulnerable groups have also been deprived of rights and protections or specifically targeted for discrimination. For years, Tajikistan’s vast and remote Gorno- Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) region managed a slightly elevated level of freedom, with leaders from its culturally distinct Pamiri people being able to negotiate to some degree with the central government. But that too has changed.

In 2012 Rahom set his sights on total consolidation of power, when the president initiated a military campaign to remove various local leaders from the area. Then in 2018, martial law was established in the region, and under the pretense of an “anti-criminal campaign”, head of National Security Saimumin Yatimov was installed to run the Interagency Headquarters in the area. Widespread violence erupted again last year, when upon Rahmon’s order to “neutralize” anti-government agitators, police killed over 50 civilians and key community leaders in protest clashes. Police were even witnessed dumping bodies in the Panj river in order to conceal the true numbers of those killed.

2022 also saw tensions escalate elsewhere, along Tajikistan’s mountainous border, as long standing disputes with neighboring Kyrgyzstan over land, roads, and water resources came to a head. Over 90 people were killed in skirmishes, and a politically negotiated cease-fire lasted but a single day. Some areas of the Tajik-Kyrgyk border have been contested ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, but strong evidence suggests that the 2022 hostilities were premeditated on Rahmon’s order, even as the leader was meeting directly with Kyrgyzstan’s president. Not only were unprecedented numbers of weapons and Tajik military personnel deployed to the border area prior to any new conflict, the military specifically targeted Krygist civilian areas.

Meanwhile, back in the capital city of Dushanbe, Rahmon’s son and assumed heir to the presidency, Rustam Emomali, plays the role of mayor, and Rahmon’s daughter Ozoda runs the presidential administration. In Rahmon’s autocracy, the levers of power in Tajikistan are greased by cronyism and nepotism, with patronage to him and his family being awarded high positions. Corruption and a total lack of democratic process, coupled with a repressive politics that can find anyone in its crosshairs brew an environment where political conflict can easily spill over into negative effects on the populace. Tajikistan ranks as the poorest company in central Asia, and its centrally managed economy continues to falter under a leadership composed entirely of Rahmon’s elite network. Last year for instance, all of the deputy heads of Tajikistan’s national bank stepped down, their replacements mostly being their own sons and daughters, or others with family ties.

New speculation over internal conflict between GKNB-boss Yatimov and Rahmon has arisen, as Yatimov has been accused of intentionally using the GKNB to sow instability across the country in order to weaken Rahmon politically. Yatimov has in fact aligned himself with Rahom’s daughter, Ozoda, as a potential challenger to the presidency. How tensions over who is to eventually succeed Rahmon will affect civil society remain to be seen.

Government misrule and the elimination of democratic processes has left the Tajik people mostly powerless and captive to its ruling elite. Under a corrupt regime and burdened by a weak economy, perhaps the greatest danger in Tajikistan is voicing any form of criticism over the nation’s leadership. The country regularly bans political content on the internet, targets journalists, bloggers, lawyers, and activists for harassment or extrajudicial imprisonment, and has illegally kidnapped opponents abroad. But even among this stark landscape, many Tajik citizens continue to risk their lives in an effort to build a better civil society, and give voice to the truth.

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