Emomali Rakhmon, the leader of Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet Republics, won yet another seven-year term last November. That was not a surprise for anyone.
Rakhmon came to power in 1992 as the leader of the popular front countering the Islamist opposition. Legitimately, he became the president in 1994. In 1999, he won for the second time and then again in 2003 and 2006. Before each election he would conveniently clear the electoral field of any serious opponents.
The question going forward then is: What are the factors which make Rakhmon the Tajiks’ only political choice?
Repressive measures are not the only explanation for the survival of his presidency. Despite the economic and social decay that the cronyism and mismanagement of his presidency has led to, the prospect of instability is too dangerous for the population to demand a regime change.
A migrant nation
Nepotism and cronyism are flourishing in the Tajik system of power. Rakhmon’s relatives and his countrymen occupy key positions in the government. Although the industrial growth is insignificant in the country, his family remains rich, controlling all essential economic areas and the import of goods. Regardless of any legal changes meant to create better conditions for domestic businesses, the clans create neither opportunities nor incentives for entrepreneurs. While Tajikistan’s powerful keep enriching themselves, the gap between the rich and the poor keeps growing.
In fact, Tajikistan is the indisputable leader in terms of the number of labour migrants per capita: 1.5 million out of the 7.5-million population work abroad.
And the poor in Tajikistan, indeed, find it hard to make ends meet. The regime is following recommendations of international financial institutions, which forecast the macroeconomic growth at the level of 6-7 percent per year. However, such “growth” might seem good on paper, but the inflation (which stands at 6.5-7 percent) and dormant domestic industry make it hard for ordinary Tajiks to feel it. The volume of imports is twice higher than exports, while the unemployment remains at least 10 times the levels of 2.6 percent which the government reports.
The bleak economic prospects at home send many Tajiks outside the country to look for employment. In fact, Tajikistan is the indisputable leader in terms of the number of labour migrants per capita: 1.5 million out of the 7.5-million population work abroad. According to the World Bank, Tajikistan is also a global leader in terms of remittances, which constitute 47 percent of the national GDP (data from 2011).
These numbers are so shocking that the authorities have prohibited commercial banks from revealing data on foreign transfers. After all, the regime wants to present itself in a better light in the eyes of international donors and development organisations.
At the same time, education and health care have been completely neglected. The most prestigious professions in Soviet times (doctors and educators) have become infamous for their low pay. The average monthly salary of a school teacher, a university professor, or a physician ($70 – $150) is far beyond the average living standard. The Tajik non-state media has also reported on corruption in universities where students often have to pay bribes to pass exams. Medical care is not free either; unofficial payments from patients to doctors and nurses have long become the norm.
The situation in the area of human rights and the freedom of expression is not any better either. There is an obvious and alarming process of “turkmenisation” of Tajikistan (Turkmenistan is the most authoritarian state in Central Asia), as public officials and the government media have increased their obsequiousness and adoration of the nation’s leader. Torture remains an instrument within the police and prison systems to extract confessions from defendants. Very seldom, the authorities grant access to places of detention for international observers (such as ICRC) and local NGOs. The Tajik authorities have also tighten restrictions on religious freedoms.
The Tajik non-state media are pretty strong, and criticism of the authorities is quite vocal, but the regime disregards such publications and sometimes resorts to clampdown on media outlets and beatings of journalists. Quite frequently the government communication agency orders domestic Internet providers to block access to certain news portals and social networks, such as Facebook.
Rakhmon’s trump card
Although Rakhmon has neglected his people’s prosperity, his presidency has at least provided them with relative stability and has ensured the support of Russia and the West. The president is by far not an amateur. The former chairman of a collective farm, he has gone through all stages of governance in the harshest years of challenges and hardships. Rakhmon is quite charismatic, and he knows how to speak with those he depends on (Russia, the US, and the EU).
A regime change or an inexperienced president can easily let this situation slip out of control.
He has been quite adept at handling Russia and recently struck a profitable deal over the long-term presence of the Russian military base on the Tajik territory. He kept bargaining with Moscow, demanding essential economic privileges, exemption from taxes on the Russian oil products, as well as big investments in Tajikistan’s economy (the hydropower sector in particular). After long delays and certain diplomatic scandals, the Russian military base agreement was ratified – right on the eve of the presidential elections.
Rakhmon remains on good terms with the US and Europe. The Western powers are interested in keeping their presence in Tajikistan because of its geopolitical strategic importance and natural resources. The forthcoming withdrawal of the coalition troops from Afghanistan forces foreign diplomats to turn a blind eye on numerous human rights violations in Tajikistan. Western diplomats also “do not notice” high-profile economic crimes committed by Tajik high-ranking officials – namely, embezzlement and misuse of huge loans and grants provided to Tajikistan by the international financial institutions. Tajikistan’s territory and the air space (potentially or expectedly) will be used during the exodus of the Western military alliance from Afghanistan.
Rakhmon holds the key to the alignment of Russian, American and European interests in his country: stability. The proximity to Afghanistan and a long common border (1,400 km) makes Tajikistan prone to a whole lot of troubles: from drug trafficking to potential aggression from Islamist groups. The latter is the subject of constant controversial allegations and speculations among political experts and geopolitical strategists in the country. In 2005, the Russian border guards left the Tajik-Afghan border. Despite the logistical assistance and training being provided by the US and the EU, the border remains largely porous.
At the same time, Tajiks still bear recent memories of the destructive civil war which took the lives of some 100,000 people. Although Rakhmon signed a peace treaty with the opposition in Moscow in 1997, civil war scars remain. Just last year the region of Gorno-Badakhshan witnessed clashes between the government forces and armed groups which led to the death at least 70 people. The regime has long feared instability in Afghanistan spilling over through the border into the restive region. With the upcoming withdrawal of the US and its allies from Afghanistan, this danger is ever more real.
A regime change or an inexperienced president can easily let this situation slip out of control. For many Tajiks, who already suffer under the dire economic conditions and limited prospects, Rakhmon’s authoritarian rule is preferred to another civil conflict. Relative stability is better than a dubious future.
Konstantin Parshin is a journalist based in Dushanbe, a media expert, and a member of the National Association of Independent Mass Media, Tajikistan (NANSMIT).