Voters in Tajikistan overwhelmingly backed constitutional changes allowing the authoritarian president, Emomali Rahmon, to rule indefinitely. But while the vote has strengthened Rahmon’s position in the short term, he presides over an increasingly fragile state.
Rahmon became head of state in 1992, soon after the outbreak of Tajikistan’s civil war, which ended in 1997 with a power-sharing agreement. But over time the regime has gradually stripped its largely pro-Islamist political opponents of their power, casting them as terrorist organisations.
The constitutional reforms voted on at the May 22 referendum further consolidate Rahmon’s grip on the country – official figures show 94.5% of the population supported the scrapping of limits on presidential office terms – and pave the way for the possible succession of his son, Rustam, while heaping more pressure on the opposition by banning the formation of political parties based on religious platforms.
Islamic radicalisation is a genuine issue. The government claims that there are over a thousand Tajiks fighting in Syria. The most high-profile of these is Gulmurod Halimov, Dushanbe’s former head of the Ministry of Interior’s special forces, who defected to the so-called Islamic State in April 2015. The defection of Halimov, who wielded huge authority over national defence, and is said to have participated in US and Russian anti-terror training, was a major embarrassment for the regime. However, Rahmon has exaggerated the threat of IS in order to justify a crackdown on opposition organisations.
In August 2015 the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), Rahmon’s main opposition party, was dissolved. A month later, IRPT was officially placed on a blacklist of extremist and terrorist organisations. Several former members are currently on trial facing charges of attempting to subvert constitutional order and organising a criminal group. Observance of Islam itself is increasingly threatened; in recent months, reports have emerged of men having their beards forcibly shaved by law enforcement officials, and Dushanbe’s mosques coming under increasing surveillance.
This crackdown signifies the end of the power-sharing agreement established in 1997. In March a group of Russian experts at the Valdai Discussion Club, a respected international debating forum, concluded that Tajikistan even risks a slide into civil war, because the new anti-Islamist measures are “a violation of the status quo, the basis of the peace concluded after five years of civil war”. Meanwhile, if he hopes to prevent Islamic radicalisation, limiting political and religious freedoms could be counterproductive, since terrorist organisations such as IS are at their most successful when targeting individuals who feel disenfranchised and isolated from society.
Poverty not extremism is the enemy
Although the result of Sunday’s referendum suggests that Rahmon is in a strong political position, Tajikistan’s precarious economic situation could yet undermine his authority. The regime’s attempts to distract the population through anti-Islamist rhetoric are not working. According to a US Commission on International Religious Freedom report published in 2015, most Tajiks continue to view poverty, not extremism, as the main challenge facing the country.
Already Central Asia’s poorest nation, the former Soviet republic’s endemic problems have lately been compounded by global developments. Russia’s contracting economy has led to a fall in remittances sent home by Tajik migrant workers. Accounting for 44% of Tajikistan’s GDP in 2014, these payments have dropped by a third in 2015, according to Central Bank of Russia data. Meanwhile China, Tajikistan’s main trading partner, is experiencing an economic slowdown that is likely to result in reduced Chinese direct investment. In February the International Monetary Fund said it would continue to back Dushanbe’s efforts to promote macroeconomic stability and growth, but talks over a $500mn bailout have so far proven inconclusive.
While Rahmon has unquestioningly strengthened his grip on power following the May 22 referendum and weakened his political opposition, the threat of instability in Tajikistan is on the rise.
Lorna Van Oss is an analyst at Alaco. Alaco Dispatches is the business intelligence consultancy’s take on events and developments shaping the CIS region.