The Tajik election—Stick not twist for Moscow

The Tajik election—Stick not twist for Moscow
Vladimir Putin with Emomali Rahmon after awarding him the Order of Alexander Nevsky three years ago. /
By Nizom Khodjayev in Bishkek September 5, 2020

Just over a month from now, Tajikistan will hold its presidential election. That’s right, it’s time to keep a straight face—Central Asia’s poorest nation likes to keep up the pretence that it is a democracy and “Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation” Emomali Rahmon, who has been president or equivalent since 1992 and will turn 68 one week before the October 11 polling day, will inevitably ‘win’—but the build-up to the poll will at least offer observers a chance to catch up on some of the big issues not yet resolved for the now coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic-crippled country. 

Some initial intrigue took hold amid anticipation that Rahmon might push for his son to pick up the presidential mantle and start a “dynasty”. Strongman Rahmon has since a May 2016 referendum introduced some new powers and rules. One change has given him the right to seek as many terms in office as he wishes, another has lowered the age threshold for a presidential candidate’s eligibility to 30 years—the president’s son, Rustam Emomali, turned 32 in December. But whatever the truth about him being groomed to succeed his father, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Tajikistan on August 26 formally announced Rahmon’s nomination for the election.

Interestingly, there is even a question as to whether the son will ever gain the chance to inherit the presidency. Analysts see the interests of the Tajik elite trumping any secret hopes of family power that Rahmon might have.

“The son is too young, and given the local mentality, this may cause too much irritation among the local elite. Therefore, for now, Rahmon will run the country himself,” Russian Central Asia and Middle East expert Alexander Knyazev told Russian newspaper NG early in August. Knyazev sees Rahmon’s continuous rule as a “calming factor for the local elite."

“Rahmon himself is a guarantor for most of the elite, if not for the entire party involved in power,” Knyazev added. “[The elite] have gotten used to it, they have adapted, all the redistributions that take place within the elites—financial flows and positions—follow an established tradition. [Wishes to] change the rules and get more preferences under a new president, if desired by anyone, would only apply to a tiny fraction of the elite."

Even if he did turn out to have the backing of the rich and influential, Rahmon’s standing in the country might be at odds with the standpoint of Tajikistan’s former colonial master, Russia. Moscow’s voice has always carried considerable weight in Central Asian politics, as the Kremlin strives to continue wielding its political and military power and influence over former members of the USSR. Russia is seen as having the capacity to help replace leaders if it proves absolutely necessary. 

Russia’s priorities and Rahmon’s failures

"In Moscow... they see growing discontent with [Rahmon] and his numerous relatives who are in power in Tajikistan. And they probably understand that very soon Rahmon will be unable to prevent a social explosion,” an anonymous Tajik expert told Russia’s REGNUM news agency in 2019. 

Tajikistan's proximity to conflict-torn Afghanistan might make it a regional security threat should political and social instability set in (Image: Hausibek).

In the event of political instability and a collapse caused by social unrest, Tajikistan could become a major security threat to the region given that the militant conflicts in war-torn Afghanistan could spill over into the neighbouring country. Russia’s standing military presence in Tajikistan would not likely be sufficient to swiftly prevent ensuing chaos. Hence the Kremlin's desire for a competent ruler in the nation of 9.5mn.

Rahmon is under fire from international human rights groups for a perceived growing disregard for civil society, religious freedoms and political pluralism. Tajikistan lags behind other former Soviet countries in both social and economic development. Since Rahmon emerged victorious from the bloody civil war in the 1990s that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Tajiks, the country has struggled to achieve any significant economic development. Today, most Tajiks still make a living of less than €1,000 ($1,180) a year within Tajikistan’s $30.5bn economy (132nd in the IMF GDP rankings). Meanwhile, corruption, poor governance and repression remain characteristic traits of Rahmon’s regime. And all of the above adds up to a tense relationship between the government and its people. One that could end badly if mismanaged.

The aforementioned anonymous Tajik analyst argued that “the only legitimising factor [for Rahmon’s rule in the eyes of the Kremlin] may be the presence of a threat from radicals”. As such, Rahmon has continued to crack down on what remains of the Tajik opposition under the guise of clamping down on radicalism, the analyst observed. This mainly applies to former members of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), seen once as the only formidable opposition force in the country. The party was banned and declared a terrorist organisation in 2015.  

“The regime of the current president of Tajikistan has exhausted its external legitimacy, especially in front of Moscow,” the analyst said. By pointing to an internal threat of a radical insurgence, Rahmon “shows Russia” that “[if you] take me away [you’ll] get bearded men”.

“The current government in Tajikistan has created an atmosphere in which the only alternative to it comes in the form of radical Islamists,” he concluded. This, in a sense, lets Rahmon hold his power hostage. If he stays, things could go badly in one way; if he leaves, things will go badly in a different way that will be harder to stomach for the Kremlin. 

Yet radicalism is possibly not the only source of concern for Russia. Tajiks are unlikely to have infinite patience with the Rahmon regime, especially given the new economic stress brought about by the pandemic. Opposition groups, including the exiled Group 24, have attempted to rally people against Rahmon, albeit unsuccessfully. But there is some speculation that the decision to bring the election forward to October—traditionally Tajikistan holds its presidential contest in November—may have been taken due to some anxiety over emerging challenges to stability. 

"[The polls] will be held for the first time not in November, but in October. Parliament, at the suggestion of the president, set the date a month earlier than usual,” the leader of the banned IRP, Muhiddin Kabiri, told DW in August. “The economic crisis is affecting the situation. There are already regions where limits on electricity use are in effect [following poor rains], and cold weather begins in November. Emomali Rahmon wants to hold elections while there is still electricity in the country and the people are more or less loyal. Without electricity, the mood of the population would deteriorate sharply."

The pandemic-driven and climate change-induced troubles likely tie in to greater fears of instability around the country. One primary risk is the ex-Soviet state’s reliance on deteriorating hydro-energy infrastructure. The regime’s inability to address the compounding impacts of the critical issues thus joins the list of factors signifying Rahmon’s incompetence from the perspective of Moscow. 

Ageing energy infrastructure

In 2016, Tajikistan jump-started construction of the controversial 3,600 MW Rogun hydropower dam. It’s a mega infrastructure project—billed as aiming for the world’s tallest dam structure—seen as important to both the country’s energy security and Rahmon’s popularity. The first two turbines of the Rogun hydropower plant, each adding 600 MW to the country's total capacity, which stood at 5,190 MW at the start of the project, have gone into action. But ageing surrounding infrastructure leaves Tajikistan unable to use Rogun’s full capacity, which means the country still suffers chronic winter electricity shortages.

Rahmon at the Rogun dam construction site in 2016 (Image: VoA).

The situation has deteriorated this year. Tajik state-run energy company Barqi Tojik is set to impose restrictions on electricity supply due to a dramatic drop in water levels at the Nurek reservoir used to generate hydroelectric power. The water level in the reservoir stands 17 metres lower compared to last year, due to 50% less water in the Vakhsh and Panj rivers that feed into it.

The importance of the dam lies in its ability to “regulate the flow of water into Nurek’s reservoir, preventing it from filling up with ores and minerals”, Farkhod Aminjonov, deputy director of the Almaty-based Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies, told bne IntelliNews in 2016. “The water entering the reservoir flows along with various minerals and river clays which clog up the bottom of the reservoir, leading the bottom of the reservoir to grow taller year by year.” In several decades’ time, the reservoir could prove incapable of holding water to sustain the plant’s electricity production. This, coupled with low water levels, makes overall electricity infrastructure upgrades an urgent matter for Tajikistan, but the regime has been unable to address the issue in a timely and adequate manner. Rogun is thus seen as 'do or die' for Rahmon's continued rule.

But the fate of the project is already unclear. Sources of funding are a major hindrance to the dam construction. It is not sure that Tajikistan will be able to continue borrowing internationally to fund the project further. The $500mn inaugural Tajik eurobond, issued in late 2017, helped bring the first two units of the Rogun plant online, but with total project costs estimated between $3bn and $6bn, a second attempt to tap into the international bond market is unlikely to bear fruit.

Reliability in paying off debt is certainly not what comes to the minds of international lenders when describing Tajikistan: the International Monetary Fund's (IMF's) experience is a telling example. Back in 2008, the IMF had to ask Dushanbe to repay more than $47mn in IMF loans as a penalty for false data the Tajik authorities had provided to it. Blinded by hopes of securing priority loans, the impoverished country had listed its international reserves at $450mn when in truth they stood at $115mn, if not less.

Volatility in the Pamir Mountains

Another elephant in the Tajik room is the ethnic Pamiri population who reside in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO). 

GBAO is a volatile region located amid the Pamir Mountains. It fought against government forces during the Tajik civil war that lasted from 1992 to 1997. Prevention of destabilisation in the region is a priority for Russia.

The government cracked down on GBAO in 2018, according to unofficial reports. Fitch Solutions was prompted to say in October of that year that “reports of a government crackdown in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of eastern Tajikistan highlights the lingering threat of civil unrest to the country's political stability”.

The Fitch report followed a similar analysis conducted by American geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor the previous month referring to how the government had reportedly deployed troops to the eastern city of Khorugh, the capital of GBAO, for a “special operation”. While both Fitch and Stratfor saw the possibility of a new regional conflict, Fitch maintained that the heavy presence of Russian troops and Chinese military support made such a prospect unlikely.

Some elements of disquiet in the region were revived in May this year when hundreds of residents in the mountain town of Rushan gathered in front of the local security service headquarters. The incident appears to have been triggered by officers of the State Committee for National Security executing an operation to detain a Rushan resident, Sharof Qobilov, suspected of trafficking drugs from across the Afghan border and leading an organised criminal group. The tense situation was relatively minor compared to previous reported showdowns and crackdowns, but as the coronavirus outbreak takes a toll on people’s lives, the Pamiri population could be prone towards bolder collective action against the centrally directed authorities. 

Tajikistan under Rahmon may find itself creaking upon feet of clay as Tajiks realise the election will only produce more of the same.

Elections in the mountainous republic have of course never been considered free or fair by foreign observers. Rahmon officially won the last contest with 84% of the vote. A similar victory in October is a foregone conclusion. What’s not clear is whether Rahmon may run out of luck further down the line.