Events outside Tajikistan may be delaying Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s plans to hand over power to eldest son Rustam Emomali.
Rumours of an impending dynastic transfer of power have swirled around for several years now. Some are surprised the succession has not happened yet. It could be that Rahmon intended for it to occur, but postponed his plan given how world events have impacted Tajikistan.
Emomali Rahmon is 70. He’s led Tajikistan for more than 30 years. There are questions about his health.
Last September, social network posts claimed he’d suffered a stroke. Earlier, when Rahmon was not seen for several weeks in March 2021, there were rumours he had health difficulties.
President Emomali Rahmon, still at the helm after more than 30 years (Credit: Flickr).
One thing’s for certain. Rahmon’s years of fondness for strong drink have not done his health any favours. It’s unlikely he can carry out the duties of office for much longer.
For more than a decade, there have been preparations for Rustam Emomali to take his father’s place.
In early 2011, when Rustam was 23, he was appointed head of the customs service’s anti-smuggling department. By 2013, he was heading the customs service.
Tajikistan’s May 2016 referendum cut the minimum age for a presidential candidate from 35 to 30. Rustam became eligible for the presidency when he turned 30 on December 19, 2017, nearly three years ahead of the next presidential election.
In 2017, he was appointed mayor of the capital Dushanbe, and in March 2020 he was elected to the Majlisi Milli, parliament’s upper house. Very soon after, he was elected its speaker, Tajikistan’s second highest post.
It did appear that Rustam would be elected president in the October 2020 election, but the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to give his father second thoughts.
Tajikistan responded poorly to the pandemic. The existence of cases was initially denied, while public events such as the nationwide Navruz celebration and football matches went ahead.
When covid cases were acknowledged, their number was suspiciously low. But for Rustam, the recognised pandemic did at least give him the publicity of leading the campaign to contain the coronavirus.
Such attempts at boosting Rustam’s popularity during his long and winding journey on the road to the presidency date back to at least 2011. They have formed part of the grooming process, not only for Rustam, but for the Tajik public.
Events, however, continued to work against implementing a leadership change in Tajikistan.
In late April 2021, Tajik and Kyrgyz troops fought a brief border war. Another such conflict occurred in mid-September 2022.
The Taliban returned to power in neighbouring Afghanistan in August 2021. Rahmon’s government was opposed to the Taliban when they held sway in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. His stance did not change when they formed their second regime.
The other Central Asian governments have engaged with the Taliban, but Dushanbe has kept its contact limited to electricity exports. Tajikistan remains the only Central Asian nation openly hostile to the Taliban.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago had a strong effect on Tajikistan as Russia is its leading trade and security partner.
And Kazakhstan’s “Bloody January” unrest last year surely played a role in postponing Tajikistan’s power transfer. Kazakhstan’s managed transition of power, though not dynastic, fell apart. It appears loyalists of the first president attempted to oust the second.
Even more recently, Turkmenistan’s father-to-son power transfer hit problems. Former president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov orchestrated a change in the structure of government that kept son Serdar as president, while shifting most powers to a People’s Council that the elder Berdimuhamedov heads.
The president, heir apparent and family pictured 12 years ago (Credit:Sulton1987, cc-by-sa 3.0).
For Tajikistan, there has been no opportune time in recent years to switch power from father to son. But all the indications are that a dynastic succession remains the plan.
The last formidable political opposition in the country was removed in late 2015 when the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the country’s second largest registered party, had its registration revoked. Tajikistan’s Supreme Court later declared IRPT a proscribed terrorist organisation.
Some analysts feel the harsh crackdown in Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) was in part connected to clearing away the last potential resistance to the Rustam succession.
GBAO’s Pamiri peoples differ ethnically from Tajiks and sided with the government’s opponents during the Tajik 1992-1997 civil war. Located high in the Pamir Mountains with only two poorly maintained roads connecting it to the outside world, plus a small airport, often closed due to mountain weather, GBAO has proved difficult to control for Dushanbe.
Occasional protests against government policies and appointments continued in GBAO after the political opposition in the rest of Tajikistan had been eliminated. But the demonstration over the killing of a local man by local security forces in November 2021 would turn out to be the last.
Ahead of a planned May 2022 rally, Dushanbe responded with a security operation, ostensibly to thwart a terrorist attack planned by outside forces. Dozens of locals were killed, including prominent community leaders. Hundreds of Pamiri activists, journalists, bloggers, lawyers and others, were arrested. Many are languishing in prison.
There were likely many reasons for the campaign to neutralise opposition in GBAO. One result, though, is the at least temporary removal of a potential problem for the future president.
Can he stand on his own?
Despite all the preparations for Rustam’s ascension, he still faces significant challenges.
Though Tajikistan’s people know Rustam, they know little about his personality.
State television shows him giving prepared speeches, but he does not give press conferences, nor does he mingle with the public for impromptu conversations.
More importantly, it is unclear how other powerful figures will act if Rustam is president and his father is dead.
Rustam has one brother and seven sisters. Most of his sisters’ husbands are connected to lucrative businesses in Tajikistan.
One sister, Ozoda, who is nearly 10 years older than Rustam, has headed the presidential administration since 2016. Some people see her as a potential president, but Tajikistan’s patriarchal society makes that unlikely.
However, any of Rustam’s siblings or their spouses could oppose him if they perceive their share of Tajikistan’s wealth is jeopardised by his presidency.
There are also relatives of Azizmo Asadullayeva, Rustam’s mother, to consider. Her brother, Rustam’s uncle, Hasan Asadullozoda, is head of Tajikistan’s Orienbank and owner of Somon Airlines and various other smaller companies.
Another maternal uncle is Amonullo Asadulloyev, head of Somon Sughd, a construction materials producer and flour and wheat dealer. Asadulloyev was previously a top official at Barqi Tojik, the state power company.
A third maternal uncle, Amirullo Asadullo, was mayor of Bokhtar (formerly Kurgan-Tobe).
Powerful government figures include Saimumin Yatimov, the State Committee for National Security chief since 2010.
Yatimov and Rustam Emomali are said to be on bad terms. Unconfirmed reports a year ago claimed Rustam shot and wounded Yatimov because Yatimov failed to launch a GBAO security operation.
In 2008, reports claimed Rustam shot his uncle Hasan Asadullozoda (pictured above).
Rustam, besides having to watch out for ambitious relatives, must also contend with the military. There was talk that when Rustam was given the rank of general in November 2013, many high-ranking officers were displeased. Rustam has never served in the armed forces.
Most of those officers have been replaced in the past 10 years, but resentment might linger. That would bode ill for the military’s loyalty towards the heir apparent.
There is little doubt that Rustam Emomali is on his way to becoming president. But he might not be able to count on the support of the people closest to his father, including those related to him by blood or marriage.