By Oleg Salimov (15/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Tajikistan’s government initiated yet another set of internet blocking measures in the country on October 4. Several popular social networking websites were blocked for a week following speculations of planned anti-government protests in Tajikistan on October 10. As reported by local media, the northern part of Tajikistan was completely cut out of the internet and access was blocked to Facebook, Vkontakte (the Russian version of Facebook), and several opposition and media websites in the rest of the country until October 11.
The government denies any involvement while internet providers refer to unofficial orders from the Tajik State Communication Services requiring blockage of certain websites. Tajikistan’s government recurrently blocks internet and opposition websites during political events and public discord (see the 03/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst).
Asomiddin Atoev, the head of Tajikistan’s internet providers association, is convinced that the blockage of internet was a preventative measure against opposition “Group 24” which called for a protest action in Dushanbe on October 10.
Dushanbe city police conducted anti-protest exercises on October 4, which coincided with the start of the internet blockage. According to Tajik officials, the anti-protest exercise is a part of the scheduled routine. During the exercise, police in full military outfit armed with shields and batons circled the main city square Dousti and moved forward dispersing the supposed protest crowd.
At the same time, the Political Advisory Council of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan appealed to its supporters to refrain from attending the planned protest action. The party reminded of the bloody consequences of Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war, which started as anti-government protests and left about 150,000 Tajiks dead. The Advisory Council also threatened to expel members who will attend the action. A similar plea to the Tajik public was announced by the leader of the Communist Party of Tajikistan Shodi Shabdolov, who also warned about the possibility of protests spiraling out of control and the inadmissibility of another civil war in the republic, while dismissing the idea of unauthorized protest actions.
Soon after the blockage of internet, the Tajik Prosecutor General’s office sent a request to the Supreme Court to designate Group 24 as an extremist organization attempting a coup in the country. Two days later, on October 10, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court approved the request, designating Group 24 as an extremist organization and banning all its actions and activities in Tajikistan. Tajikistan’s government also accuses the leader of Group 24, Umarali Quvvatov, of fraud, kidnapping, and theft. The case was opened in 2012 with damages estimated to millions of dollars. The investigation of Quvvatov’s case is conducted by the Anticorruption agency, infamous for its persecution of persons seen as dangerous to Rahmon’s regime, the most prominent of which include Zaid Saidov and Mukhiddin Kabiri. Quvvatov was arrested in December 2012 in the United Arab Emirates at the request of Tajikistan’s government. He avoided extradition to Tajikistan and was freed ten months later. Quvvatov lives in exile since 2012 and his exact whereabouts are unknown.
According to Quvvatov, Group 24 is named after 24 Tajik businessmen, politicians, and public figures who founded the opposition organization in 2011, united by the idea of replacing Rahmon and changing the course of political development in the country. However, Quvvatov refuses to release the names of the Group’s founders. A staunch critic of Rahmon, Quvvatov states his vision of economic and democratic development in Tajikistan, including reform of the agricultural and taxation sectors, elimination of corruption, improvement of educational system, and revision of international agreements unfavorable to Tajikistan.
Eventually, no unsanctioned event took place on October 10. Group 24 failed to attract Tajiks to the protest action for several reasons. First, there is lack of clarity in whose interests the Group represents. This obscurity hindered Group 24 from building a platform of supporters in Tajikistan. Second, due to the high level of labor migration (almost one million according to Tajikistan’s Ministry of Labor) Tajikistan does not have the unemployed masses that played a significant role during Arab Spring revolutions. Third, Quvvatov, the only known face of Group 24, is not yet perceived as a leader of Tajikistan’s opposition. The large opposition parties and groups, including the Islamic Renaissance party, the Communist party, the Tajik Labor Migrants group, and the Tajik Youth for revival of Tajikistan group, all rejected the calls for public protests. Finally, although Tajikistan’s government took swift actions to prevent protests, which also a included high number of policemen and military vehicles in Dushanbe on October 10, memories of the relatively recent civil war remain a firm argument against engaging in street protests to many Tajiks.