By Kirgizbek Kanunov (06/18/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Recent weeks have seen a number of kneejerk reactions on the part of the Tajik authorities that indicate a mounting suspicion against Western engagement with local civil society. The fear is especially palpable in the aftermath of the events of July 2012 and May 2014 in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in eastern Tajikistan that have seen mass protest rallies prompted by unprecedented heavy-handedness on part of the authorities.
After the events in Ukraine and especially the annexation of the Crimea, the authorities see an existential threat in independent contacts between the West and civil society in Tajikistan.
A recent example is the detention of Alexander Sodiqov on June 16 in Khorog. He was allegedly conducting a reconnaissance mission for a foreign government. Sodiqov is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto (and a frequent contributor to the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst –ed.). But Tajikistan's National Security Committee (KNB) maintains that he was deployed by a foreign government to negotiate with Alim Sherzamonov, leader of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan (SDPT), along with civil society actors in GBAO. The KNB report states that Sodiqov was arrested while transferring "biased" materials to Sherzamonov. Sherzamonov, however, claims that Sodiqov’s only fault was to speak with him.
Even prior to the May 2014 events in Khorog, the authorities reacted extremely negatively to an EU delegation’s visit to Khorog in early May and its dialogue with local civil society.
After the incident in Khorog on May 21, several high-ranking Tajik officials were quick to accuse Western countries of destabilizing the situation in the region, and in June, the government introduced travel restrictions to GBAO for representatives of international organizations and diplomatic missions.
During the same period, the Head of the Russia’s Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov, released a statement to the media in Minsk at a meeting of the Council of heads of security agencies and special services. The FSB chief claimed that there are illegal forces in the CIS countries, which are funded by certain western non-governmental organizations and recommended that actions against them should be tough.
On June 10, the British Ambassador to Tajikistan, Robin Ord-Smith, travelled to Khorog as a tourist due to the imposed restrictions on diplomatic travel, demonstrated that blocking contacts between Western diplomats and representatives of civil society is becoming a routine. The obstructionist behavior toward the British Ambassador by members of the National Security staff effectively cut off his access to local civil society groups. According to representatives of civil society scheduled to meet the UK diplomat, the local Serena Inn hotel where Ord-Smith sojourned had been surrounded by law enforcement personnel and access to it had been completely blocked.
According to SDPT leader Sherzamonov, despite the fact that this was not the ambassador’s first visit to Khorog, the security measures introduced this time were unprecedented. At the same time, in spite of perceived security threats, Ord-Smith was allowed to meet with representatives of law enforcement agencies and local authorities.
During Ord-Smith’s stay in Khorog, in the afternoon of June 10, a few residents of Dushanbe rioted and threw rocks at the British Embassy in Dushanbe. The Protesters offered no reason for their dissatisfaction and made no mention whatsoever as to their demands. But according to local media, they constantly chanted “Pamir,” thus making clear their disagreement with the British Ambassador’s visit to Khorog.
Since President Rakhmon’s rise to power, he has never tolerated rallies in Tajikistan, and the authorities have reacted harshly to protests in Dushanbe. For example, on August 29, the District Court of Dushanbe imposed heavy fines and ordered administrative arrests of participants of a mob in support of Zayd Saidov, the leader and founder of the political party New Tajikistan. However, over the past two years, the authorities have decided to employ paid mobs to deal with the opposition.
The rent-a-mob tactic was tested for the first time in April 2013. Then, around a hundred people gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe. The protest action was held in connection with the release of Tajikistan’s former Prime Minister, Abdumalik Abdullodzhonov, now a U.S. citizen, from detention in Ukraine. Protesters demanded his extradition to Tajikistan. The authorities then spoke about prosecuting the protesters, but nothing has happened to date. Subsequently, several participants of this rally were seen on December 10, 2013, when a group of 20 people attempted to disrupt a press conference in Dushanbe of the SDPT.
The June 10 attack on the Chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (PIVT), Kabiri in Kulob, indicates that this kind of premeditated actions are systematic. During a debate on the incident in Parliament, Kabiri and a representative of the Communist Party of Tajikistan stated that all these events are interrelated and their patrons are the same people.
One of the government’s ideologists, the lower chamber MP Suhrob Sharifov, deems it necessary to create a special order for trips of ambassadors and other foreign diplomats to Tajikistan’s border areas. Also, the Assistant to the President for Defense Issues, Sherali Khayrulloyev, said that the authors and masterminds of events that occurred in Khorog on and following May 21 are located outside the region.
Moreover, only during the first half of June, Internet providers in Tajikistan blocked access to YouTube, Google, and Gmail services.
Rakhmon’s regime has periodically resorted to pressure tactics and even repression. However, according to observers, pressure of this magnitude on the media, the Internet, and the opposition has not been seen since the run-up to the parliamentary elections in 2005, which took place against the backdrop of the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, and the overthrow of President Akayev in Kyrgyzstan. Then, the crackdown included closing a number of non-governmental newspapers and the office of the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Authorities then seriously believed that NDI was preparing a color revolution in Tajikistan.
Observers also note that with the exception of the statements of OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, Western countries still prefer to ignore unfriendly accusations and actions.
It seems that the pressure on civil society in Tajikistan will increase and that all these actions constitute test balloons in anticipation of a large-scale offensive against the opposition on the eve of parliamentary elections.