Wednesday, 02 July 2014 12:32

Free Media Struggles in Tajikistan

By Oleg Salimov (07/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The fact that free media in Tajikistan is subjected to persecution was once again confirmed earlier this spring by a Tajik court ruling against the local media outlet Asia-Plus. In June 2014, Asia-Plus submitted a supervisory complaint to Tajikistan’s Supreme Court after its appeal was rejected by the city court of Dushanbe. The Supreme Court is the last authority to decide on the Asia-Plus case. There is little hope that the Supreme Court will annul the previous decrees.

The case, which became known as “Intelligentsia vs Asia-Plus,” was initiated by a group of Tajik intellectual organizations in the summer 2013 and was intended to protect them from a supposed insult published in one of Asia-Plus’s articles. In her editorial column, the author, Olga Tutubalina, criticized the country’s public figures of fawning upon President Rakhmon. However, the intelligentsia was insulted not by the accusation of fawning but by Tutubalina’s citation of Vladimir Lenin, who infamously compared the intelligentsia to waste products. Avoiding expressing her disgust for Rakhmon and his entourage directly, Tutubalina veiled her antipathy to the country’s elite with a metaphor borrowed from the Bolshevik leader. Tutubalina’s article denounced the Tajik intelligentsia as serving as a trumpet of authoritarianism. According to her, the Tajik intelligentsia has abandoned its primary mission of constituting an intellectual driving force of democracy in favor of personal gain.

The central theme of Tutubalina’s article discussed the poet Bozor Sobir’s return to Tajikistan from exile in the U.S.. Sobir was one of the founders of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan and a member of the now non-existing opposition movement “Rastokhez” (the Renaissance), and was personally invited to return by Rakhmon. Tutubalina was indignant with Sobir’s first public statement after his arrival on the superfluous and harmful number of political parties in Tajikistan, including the largest opposition party Islamic Renaissance. To the surprise of many, Sobir openly attacked his former political companions. Previously a vocal proponent of democracy in Tajikistan, Sobir revived himself as Rakhmon’s personal eulogist, autocracy advocate, and the highest appointed leader of Tajikistan’s intelligentsia. Sobir appealed to the Tajik intelligentsia to unite around Rakhmon and provide him with unreserved support.

Although the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Tajik Constitution allows Tutubalina and Asia-Plus to deliver their interpretation of political realities in the country, the government restricts this right through censorship and control of all published materials. In the Asia-Plus case, Rakhmon, acting through the intelligentsia, signals that negative information with reference to the president or government in Tajikistan is unacceptable.

Notably, on the initiative of Tajik National Communication Council in 2012, the government authorized a special unit within Tajikistan’s security services which censors all information about Tajikistan flowing in and out of the country with the purpose of creating a positive image of the current regime. The unit filters online publications, monitors social networking websites, and controls the national mass media. Tajikistan’s public is fed only materials deemed appropriate. The Asia-Plus case is a clear example of the authorities’ information filtering and image-building activities.

The use of influential public figures is the latest invention designed to reinvigorate Rakhmon’s withering image of the country’s “savior” and the current authoritarian style of governing as the only way to ensuring prosperity and stability for Tajikistan. The intelligentsia, including the representatives of four social, scientific, and professional organizations – though not including Sobir, the only intelligentsia representative directly named and addressed in the article – quickly rebounded with a lawsuit against Asia-Plus and Olga Tutubalina. The intelligentsia refrained from protesting their alleged behavior but instead quoted the crude quotation of Vladimir Lenin as an insult.

In February 2014, the district court ruled in favor of the intelligentsia and obliged Asia-Plus and Tutubalina to publish a disclaimer and pay around US$ 6,000 compensation to the plaintiffs. Later, the city court of Dushanbe contended this decision. Concerns regarding the Asia-Plus and Tutubalina case were expressed by Human Rights Watch, the chairman of the guild of Tajik journalists, Tajik human rights and social activists, and the U.S. embassy in Tajikistan. However, none had any apparent effect on the protection of press freedom and freedom of expression. Instead, Tajikistan’s government works zealously to improve and maintain the “appropriate” image of the country’s president and regime.

Published in Field Reports

By Oleg Salimov (06/18/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon visited Belarus on May 23-25, 2014. The stated purposes of the visit were to improve socio-economic cooperation and to develop an agrarian-industrial complex in Tajikistan. The secondary agenda of the Tajik president’s visit appeared to be the enlistment of military support from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko after the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan. Rakhmon’s arrival in Belarus coincided with an unofficial visit by Vladimir Putin to Minsk and a meeting between the three leaders on the sidelines.

Although not widely publicized, the issue of military cooperation appears to have been an important topic in the conversation between the two leaders. Lukashenko and Rakhmon discussed regional security, Afghanistan, coordination between the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and Belarusian military assistance to Tajikistan. Lukashenko publicly assured Rakhmon of material-technical military support after the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Rakhmon is actively seeking military assistance from its partners in the CIS, CSTO, and SCO. The timing of the visit and the unofficial meeting with Putin coincided with several major military events taking place in Belarus and Tajikistan.

First, Russia recently decided to expand its military presence in Belarus through additional provisions of the anti-aircraft and S-300 anti-missile system (NATO-indexed SA-10/20), based on an agreement from September of 2005. In addition to existing systems in Belarus, Russia will deliver additional S-300 units as Lukashenko announced in an official press conference on April 25 this year. Lukashenko pointed out that these systems will protect not only Belarus but also Russian territory in the northwest.

Second, Russia will launch its “Window” space defense monitoring system in Tajikistan into full operational readiness in summer/fall 2014. The system protects Russia’s southern and southeastern boundaries from intercontinental ballistic missiles. The launch takes place alongside the recent 30-year extension of Russian basing permits in Tajikistan. Russia’s military base in Tajikistan is its largest military force abroad with significant authorities and capabilities. The armed and technical capabilities of the military base were reinforced with machinery and drones, among other, soon after the extension. According to Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s military base in Tajikistan will be also enlarged in manpower and rearmed with the latest weaponry by the end of 2014.

At the same time, Rakhmon intended to expand socio-economic and political cooperation with Belarus during his visit. The official statement by Rakhmon and Lukashenko presented highly successful negotiations that resulted in about 20 signed agreements and contracts. Among others, agreements were concluded between the countries’ National Olympic Committees, Belarus’ and Tajikistan’s agrarian universities, Belarus’ Ministry of Architecture and Tajikistan’s Committee on Architecture, Belarus’ State TV and Radio Broadcasting Company and Tajikistan’s Committee on TV and Radio, Belarus’ light industry complex and Tajikistan’s Ministry of Industry and New Technologies. A series of agreements on cooperation in trade and economy, culture, and science and technology were signed between various cities and regions in the two countries. The two sides discussed the possibility of transferring some of Belarus’ industrial capacities to Tajikistan. In particular, they referred to the assembly of Belarus-made agricultural equipment and the organization of centers servicing equipment imported from Belarus.

In their public statements, both presidents stressed the benefits of mutual ties between their countries, which are based on their personal friendship and solidarity in opinions on issues in international politics. They also expressed their long-term commitment to maintaining and expand their existing relationships.

A comparison of the two regimes’ political structure, their systems of governance, and their political associations reveals other aspects of where Tajikistan and Belarus converge. Among the post-Soviet republics, Tajikistan and Belarus are among Russia’s closest and most consistent partners. The two are highly influenced by and dependent on Russia politically, economically, and militarily. Tajikistan and Belarus have entered into various political agreements with Russia; they were among the first post-Soviet republics to sign dual citizenship agreements with Russia and to allow a Russian military presence on their territories. Tajikistan and Belarus also partner with Russia in regional political, economic, and security organizations.

In a number of ways, relations between Belarus and Tajikistan are sustained by Russian involvement and influence, most prominently in their political and military components. While the latest agreements between Belarus and Tajikistan could have been reached on the ministerial level, without presidential involvement, Rakhmon’s official meeting with Lukashenko and the unofficial one with Putin were necessary in order to coordinate military cooperation between the three countries. In this connection, the initiated talks on military cooperation between CSTO and SCO members are likely to move forward in the nearest future.

Published in Field Reports

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. 

Published in Field Reports

By Kirgizbek Kanunov (06/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On May 21, 2014, a shooting incident occurred in Khorog, the capital of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), involving local residents and law enforcement personnel. As a result of the shooting, three people were killed, including a law enforcement officer, and several were wounded.

According to witnesses, the incident began when three residents of Khorog were shot at in their vehicle, presumably by officers of the Special Police Force (OMON). However, the official statement of the Tajik Interior Ministry claims that the police officers wanted to detain suspected criminals whom they believed were in the vehicle, and that the police officers had to use force because the driver and passengers resisted arrest. Concurrently, it was reported on May 20 that Taliban insurgents took over the county of Yamgan in the Afghan province of northern Badakhshan across the river from Khorog. 

The developments in Khorog beg the question of whether they were the result of a localized confrontation between law enforcement and the public or part of a larger destabilization of GBAO, and perhaps of Tajikistan more broadly. It is important to note that even before the details of the incident were confirmed, the Russian media, including one influential Internet source presumably associated with the Kremlin, hinted of Western involvement in the Khorog unrest.

Prior to the incident in Khorog, a message from an anonymous source, claiming to be a resident of Khorog by the name Shakarmamadov, was disseminated in social networks and media collaborating with the Tajik special services. The message mentioned a meeting between Muhammadbokir Muhammadbokirov, a local leader and former opposition warlord, and representatives of the Delegation of the EU, accusing them of destabilizing the situation in GBAO, in a fashion similar to what recently took place in the Ukraine. Simultaneously, the influential MP and former State Advisor of the President of Tajikistan Amirkul Azimov openly accused the EU and NATO of attempting to destabilize the situation in Khorog.

Yet despite open accusations of the EU and the U.S. being involved in the Khorog unrest, Tajik authorities officially demonstrate support for their policies in the region. For example, on June 3, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and daughter of Tajikistan’s President, Emomali Rahmon Ozoda, who leads the annual review of political consultations between the Tajikistan and the U.S., emphasized the U.S.’s role in the international coalition against terrorism in Afghanistan and its impact on security in Central Asia as a whole. She also praised the work of USAID in Tajikistan. It is notable that USAID, along with the Soros Foundation, is a frequent subject of criticism in Tajikistan’s state media.

According to observers, individuals directly connected with the secret services created social media accounts, particularly on Facebook, prior to the incident in Khorog and initiated discussions aiming to discredit Tajik opposition leaders and former warlords in GBAO.

A full-scale military operation involving all Tajikistan’s law enforcement agencies took place in Khorog on July 24, 2012, which resulted in numerous victims among the civilian population. Until now, according to Tajik human rights activists and local residents, the authorities have failed to carry out an objective investigation into the 2012 incident. Locals believe that the officials responsible for the deaths of civilians have not been punished. On the contrary, many civil society activists taking part in peaceful demonstrations during the 2012 incident have since faced continuous harassment and prosecution in spite of an agreement between security forces and civil society representatives in 2012 promising all protestors amnesty.

Observers argue that no major social issues have been resolved in GBAO in the last two decades. Since independence, the state has not created a single company in the region and the small number of industries established there during Soviet times have declined. In the context of the general unemployment rate, young people are forced to leave GBAO to work in Russia, where they face arbitrary law enforcement and violence from nationalist groups such as skinheads.

In light of this bleak socio-economic situation in the region, the potential for public protest is growing. The same sentiment exists in other regions of Tajikistan and analysts claim that some radical forces in Tajikistan are even considering the possibility of cooperating with the Taliban.

Some analysts are pessimistic about the prospect for dialogue between the government and protesters in Khorog. According to Tajik journalist Marat Mamadshoev, Tajik authorities are not ready for dialogue with civil society as they consider any concessions as a sign of weakness. “Other regions of Tajikistan face similar problems. Tajik authorities are unwilling to set a precedent, by agreeing to the wishes of residents of Khorog, in fear of the so-called domino effect” says Mamadshoev.

Nevertheless, following talks between the government and protesters a joint commission was set up, including government and civil society representatives, to investigate the recent events, and an agreement between the government and protesters in Khorog was signed on May 31. The authorities recognized 7 out of 9 of the protesters’ demands. However, the key points demanding the resignation of security officials and an amnesty for rioters still hovers in the air, and the possibility of a new escalation cannot be ruled out.

The decision of the Tajik authorities to make partial concessions to the protesters could either mean that they are seriously concerned over stability in the country, or as another tactical maneuver in order to gain time and gradually neutralize the protest and opposition sentiment in the area.

The most recent incident in Khorog took place shortly ahead of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan and Tajikistan’s 2015 parliamentary elections, both of which heighten the risk of destabilization in Tajikistan. 

Published in Field Reports

By Oleg Salimov (06/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

This year, Tajikistan presides over the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The center of strategic research under the president of Tajikistan held a conference titled “SCO and the provision of regional security: problems and perspectives” in mid-May, 2014. The conference was devoted to expanding the SCO’s ability to provide regional security, and the merger of SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was a primary topic of discussion.

Aside from issues pertaining to trade and infrastructure, the conference focused on new threats and challenges to regional security and the implications of the U.S./NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The SCO’s members presented a declaration containing provisions on increasing the organizations’ security potential, including integrated security measures for all states based on a common interpretation of current realities; a strategy for the SCO’s development and influence in the international arena; the development of regional infrastructure, industry, transportation, and trade; and the expansion of SCO; all aimed to increase the SCO’s political weight in the world. 

The most notable statement at the conference was made by the host country’s representative, Khudoberdy Kholiknazarov, who called for a consolidation and merger of SCO and the CSTO, which he presented as being of key importance to regional security and stability.

The statement was a preceded by a meeting of the executive deputies of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the CSTO, and the SCO on April 24, 2014 in the CSTO Moscow headquarter. For the most part, the four organizations unify former Soviet republics and are commonly seen as alternatives to Western international organizations. The attendees of this meeting discussed means for improving coordination and interaction in conditions of growing international confrontation, with reference to the current Ukrainian crisis and regional and global security threats. The CSTO’s Secretary General, Nikolai Borduzha, announced that the CSTO has halted its contacts with NATO as a result of NATO’s position on the crisis in Ukraine, and will instead search for partners in the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, the CSTO will seek closer ties with the SCO and its partners, particularly China and Iran. Hence, the recent SCO conference in Dushanbe became a platform for further probing into the possibility of merging the SCO and CSTO. 

The calls for such a merger highlight the growing rift between the West and Russia. The members of these organizations have either expressed their support of Russia’s position on the crisis in Ukraine, like Kazakhstan and Armenia; made ambiguous statements, like China; or refrained from defining their position at all, like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Some long-term Central Asian leaders, who observed the toppling of Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych, will welcome the extra security measures that can be employed in case of democratic upheavals after the proposed SCO – CSTO merger. Although the CSTO’s main provision guarantees an embattled member military support from other members in case of external aggression, the 2010 additions to the agreement allow military assistance in cases of militant attacks, illegal armed forces, and other internal conflicts which can include democratic protests.

The expansion and improvement of transportation and communication infrastructure and logistic hubs discussed during the SCO conference are consistent with the needs of the CSTO, which focuses on creating effective military forces that can rapidly be deployed and moved around the region. One of the CSTO’s main declared tasks is the creation of an integrated military system in Central Asia, which will include air defense, intelligence information gathering, railroad protection and supply.

The merger discussions follows on the statement by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow on May 1, 2014, that Russia is now considered less as a partner and more as an adversary, which in turn came after the CSTO decided to stop its contacts with NATO.

Russia holds leading positions in the SCO and CSTO and could extract substantial economic and political benefits from the merger. Russian influence would be multiplied by the inclusion of China, as a member of SCO, into the CSTO with the imposition of certain obligations which extend beyond political or diplomatic support and require direct military assistance. The widely discussed natural gas deal recently concluded between Russia and China bear the characteristics of leverage in Russia’s attempt to convince China on a SCO–CSTO merger. In part, it explains the rapid conclusion of a gas deal that took 10 years to negotiate.

Russian officials, particularly Gazprom’s CEO Alexei Miller, are unwilling to reveal the conditions or pricing policy of the 30-year gas deal. Even if the effect of the U.S. and EU economic sanctions urged Russia to conclude the agreement, the actual reasoning behind the move was to secure China’s support on the international arena. China has previously expressed support for Russia on Syria, and sought a middle ground between Russia and the West on Ukraine. An SCO-CSTO merger could form the next step in this relationship.

The obvious losers in this development are the people of the Central Asian SCO and CSTO members, whose interests will hardly be considered in the bargaining between Russia and China, and who will become even more dependent on their powerful neighbors. The exit of the U.S. from the regional political arena after the withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves Central Asian countries no other option than to conform to the powers filling up the political vacuum. The SCO conference in Dushanbe potentially marks the start of this process.

While an SCO–CSTO merger could potentially give rise to an extremely powerful international organization and an outright rival of NATO and the EU in the Eastern hemisphere, Russia and China still have a number of conflicting interests that they need to work through, including territorial disputes, rivaling claims to dominance in Central Asia, and Russia’s effort to balance between China and Japan. The intensified appeals for an organizational merger would also require Russia to increase its dependence on China in an attempt to exclude the U.S. and EU from its historical zone of influence. Hence, it remains to be seen whether the SCO–CSTO will move beyond political rhetoric.

Published in Field Reports

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.


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