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Does Tajikistan need a regime change?

by Leilani Sengtavisouk
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New York, Brussels, Paris (15/2 – 67)

Led by authoritarian head of state since the 1990s, a regime change for the people in Tajikistan might take a while.

In any case, changes and growth often take too long. Especially when we are talking about the change of a commanding ruling power in the country. History recorded that power shifts happened due to factors not necessarily through any kind of violent revolution. One key factor that influences such power shifts is the role of the army in the country.

Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon seems unshakeable in his presidential seat, at least till the year 2027. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Tajikistan was unable to improve its status as Central Asia poorest country since the dissolution of Soviet Union. The country’s Gross Domestic product (GDP) and its military strength remain the lowest amongst its neighbors. Additionally, the human rights issues and civil liberties index for Tajikistan kept deteriorating since 2013.

Tajikistan has been dominated politically since 1992 by President Rahmon and his supporters. The government has historically obstructed political pluralism eventhough the constitution provides for a multiparty political system. In a 2016 national referendum, constitutional amendments approved and outlawed religious-affiliated political parties and also abolished presidential term limits for the “leader of the nation”, a title that has only been held by the incumbent. Thus, allowing President Rahmon to further solidify his rule. Following his father’s footsteps, it seems that next in line is Rahmon’s 34-year-old son, Rustam Emomali. Rustam is the oldest of nine offspring and the presumed successor to the presidency.

“Since 1992, Tajikistan has been dominated politically by President Emomali Rahmon. In a 2016 national referendum, constitutional amendments approved and outlawed religious-affiliated political parties and abolished presidential term limits for the “leader of the nation”, a title that has only been held by the President Rahmon.”

Human Rights Watch reported that “Tajikistan’s human rights record continues to deteriorate amid an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and the political opposition, as well as the targeting of independent lawyers, journalists, and even the family members of opposition activists abroad.”

Under President Rahmon’s ruling, the Pamiris are experiencing decades of repression in their homeland in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). The Dushanbe government insistently accuses the Pamiris to be involved in acts of extremism and separatism against the government. There was a constant onslaught of assaults and human rights violations on the Pamiris, including persecutions, detention, convictions, torture and sadly for some, reports of murder.

It is indeed unfortunate and somewhat fatal for Tajikistan and its people how President Rahmon’s regime act towards the voice of improvement.  

Mary Lawlor, United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights defenders, cited that there is limited understanding of the concept of human rights defenders in Tajikistan. She reported and objected that Tajikistan authorities are labelling human rights defenders as extremists, terrorists and/or foreign agents.

“I also heard with sadness that being considered a human rights defender often carries a negative connotation, and some members of civil society even avoid being referred to as defenders,” Lawlor said in December 2022 after she visited the country.

Urgent Structural Reform  

How Dushanbe regime responded to its protracted internal conflicts is in reverse to what the world sees its neighbor, Kazakhstan. After Kazakh’s nationwide unrest in January 2022, President KassymJomart Tokayev immediately vows for structural reform. Aiming for ‘New Kazakhstan’, President Tokayev not only progressively and consistently move towards implementing economic reforms, but also made changes in bureaucratic policies and politics. He stripped the old authorities in his government of political privileges, including his predecessor former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The Kazakh president announced that, “The era of oligarchic capitalism in Kazakhstan is ending as the country is entering an era of greater social responsibility to its citizens. Our citizens need an efficient and socially responsible business that occupies a leading position in the country’s economy.”

President Tokayev is fully aware that Kazakhstan has everything to lose if the country fails to stay relevant as Central Asia’s richest. Thus, he implemented such urgent, open and transparent reforms to maintain his country’s reputation. This mindset rewarded Tokayev his second presidential term in a snap election in November 2022.

President Rahmon on the other hand, chose to remain the same after decades of decadences. As BTI Transformation Index writes on its Tajikistan 2022 report, “Tajikistan is a consolidated authoritarian state which enjoys a complete monopoly on the use of force over its entire territory.”

While his neighbors were busy tasking and developing their countries, Rahmon however believes that progress can be achieved by demanding it instead of earning it through collaboration and cooperation. His viral reaction to Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 14 at a summit of leaders from the former Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, somewhat showed his leadership style.

A video of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon complaining to Russian President Vladimir Putin about his lack of respect for the countries of Central Asia that were once part of the Soviet Union has struck a nerve on social media, where it has been viewed millions of times. Rahmon, then addressing Putin directly, said that Tajikistan and other countries in the vast region have been treated like outsiders and indicates that the region deserves more investment from Moscow. Putin appears uncomfortable in the seven-minute video posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed around 4 million times. The video also also shows the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan looking on silently.

Temur Umarov of Carnegie Politika interpreted Rahmon’s actions as the Tajikistan wanting to emphasize its loyalty towards Russia but now they are ‘isolated’ because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Umarov wrote on Twitter, “Rahmon wants to play his card right. At this point, he invested a lot to keep [Russian] influence high in [Tajikistan] and did much less than other [Central Asian] states to diversify its ties [with] partners besides Russia. Now, Rahmon wants to be rewarded.”

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