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In Tajikistan, a Bad Time for Unrest

8 MINS READSep 8, 2015 | 09:02 GMT
In Tajikistan, a Bad Time for Unrest
(LINTAO ZHANG/Getty Images)
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Sept. 2.
Forecast Highlights

  • Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon will continue to use the threat of Islamist terrorist groups, both real and imagined, to crack down on political opposition.
  • While security threats may persist, potential public backlash stemming from the country's economic decline will be a greater concern for Dushanbe.
  • Russia and the West will show greater military interest in Tajikistan, drawing the former Soviet country deeper into their standoff and risking further destabilization.

Tajikistan has been no stranger to significant challenges from Islamist groups, whether political opposition from domestic Islamist parties or threats by homegrown or transnational militant groups. However, long-serving Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has consolidated power, enabling Dushanbe to clamp down on such Islamist groups, and the political and security challenges these groups pose have decreased substantially over the past decade. Nevertheless, the Tajik government continues to use the potential threats from Islamist parties such as the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, and militant groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic State, as a rationale for cracking down on any domestic opposition, Islamist or not. Despite Rakhmon's strong hold on power, crackdowns risk further destabilizing Tajikistan — as a string of security incidents on Sept. 4 showed — just as the country encounters growing economic trouble and increasing attention from Russia and the West.

Islamist militant and political groups have challenged Tajikistan's government since the country gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country almost immediately descended into civil war as competing clans and factions vied to fill the power vacuum. The war, which lasted from 1992-1997, pitted factions from the Leninabad and Kulyab regions in the country's west, led by Rakhmon, against groups and clans from Gorno-Badakhshan in the east. Among the latter group was the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which sought to restore Islam's role in the country. Eventually, Rakhmon's group emerged victorious, but his power was based on a shaky cease-fire agreement that placed members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and other opposition groups in key political and security positions as part of a power-sharing deal overseen by Russia and Uzbekistan.

Another Islamist challenge emerged with the creation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which sought to forcefully establish a caliphate in the Fergana Valley region of Central Asia. Although the group originated in eastern Uzbekistan in the early 1990s, eastern Tajikistan became its primary base of operations because of the region's mountainous terrain and long, porous border with Afghanistan. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan conducted attacks from Tajikistan throughout the Fergana Valley into southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Afghanistan and Central Asian Militancy

The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, a country whose ultra-conservative Taliban government provided both material and ideological support to Central Asian Islamist groups, effectively curtailed jihadist activity and ambitions in Central Asia. The U.S. military, including special operations forces, helped drive the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan largely out of Central Asia. However, the movement found refuge in the Afghan-Pakistani border area. The Central Asian governments, including Tajikistan, were then able to crack down on the remaining Islamist militants. Attacks grew more rare over the next decade as militant Islamist groups struggled to survive in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan.

However, security challenges persisted for the Rakhmon government after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The Tajik government still encountered opposition to its rule, particularly in the rebel strongholds in eastern Tajikistan. In August 2010, several high-profile opposition figures (whom the government referred to as Islamist militants) escaped from a prison in Dushanbe, leading to several attacks as the escapees fled to the Rasht Valley. Security sweeps throughout the valley continued thereafter, and the Tajik government reportedly established a permanent security presence in the area. In July 2012, the death of a security official in Khorug, in the Gorno-Badakhshan region, prompted the military to deploy troops to the city, where clashes erupted between residents and security forces.

Meanwhile, although the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan did not pose a militant threat to Dushanbe, it became one of the major political opposition groups. The party had the second-largest membership in Tajikistan — more than 40,000 members, officially — and was the only legally registered Islamic party in Central Asia. However, as Rakhmon steadily reconsolidated his power in the country over the past few years, he placed members of his clan and political allies in key posts at the expense of the Islamic party and other opposition groups. The government also cracked down on the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan; several party officials were killed or went missing.

During the past year, the Tajik government has clamped down harder, ordering the closure of several Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan offices across the country and generally enacting anti-Islamic measures, such as shutting down mosques and banning the hijab, the veil largely worn by Muslims. In March, for the first time, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan did not garner enough votes in elections to pass the 5 percent threshold and earn representation in the legislature. The party said this was because the vote was unfair and rigged. In June, the party's leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, went into self-imposed exile in Moscow. On Aug. 28, the Tajik Justice Ministry announced that the party was banned altogether and would have 10 days to stop all of its activities.

Shutting the party down does not necessarily remove the threat it could pose — or at least the threat Dushanbe insists it could pose. The Tajik government has alleged that the party had links with the Islamic State and that Islamic State flags were found in some party offices. Rakhmon and other Central Asian leaders have issued warnings about the Islamic State's spread into Afghanistan and Central Asia and used the fear of the Islamic State to justify security and political crackdowns.

Threats Real and Imagined

Although Central Asian governments continuously use the Islamist menace to justify crackdowns, there has been little direct evidence of Islamist militant activity in Tajikistan in recent years. Islamist militant groups have not carried out any major attacks in Tajikistan in the past three years, and the attacks in 2010 and 2012 were never clearly linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Instead Tajikistan may have used them to crack down on opposition groups with no jihadist ambitions. Islamist militancy has been a useful justification for crackdowns by Dushanbe, especially when the names of transnational groups such as the Islamic State and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are invoked, but the true Islamist threat — while not altogether nonexistent — is likely greatly exaggerated.

The greater potential threat to Tajikistan is the country's economy, which has been dragged down by economic problems in Russia and other countries in the region during the past year. Remittances from migrant workers in Russia, which make up as much as 50 percent of Tajikistan's gross domestic product, have reportedly dropped by nearly 40 percent during the past year. Tajiks are finding fewer opportunities for work in Russia and Kazakhstan; some estimates indicate that nearly half of the working-age male Tajik population is unemployed. Moreover, Tajikistan's exports decreased by 20 percent in the first six months of 2015. These factors, along with inflation and a weakening currency, could foster greater social instability in the country. The Islamist threat could be a means of justifying crackdowns and distracting the public from domestic concerns, but Tajikistan's internal divisions and disillusionment among the public could pose a greater problem for Rakhmon.

A string of security incidents on Sept. 4 could be signs of growing instability. A raid occurred at a military base near Dushanbe that involved the looting of small arms and ammunition. Not long after, a local police station was attacked and four police officers were killed in the town of Vahdat near the capital, where police had previously beaten a student for his Islamic appearance. Another attack occurred Sept. 4 near the Dushanbe airport, where two special forces and one traffic policeman were reportedly killed in a shootout. In both attacks, the perpetrators are alleged to have links to opposition members who previously held government posts but had been dismissed and were disgruntled with the Rakhmon government. Such attacks could become more common if the government implements more crackdowns on religious or opposition elements in the country.

In the meantime, Tajikistan has not been unaffected by the standoff between Russia and the West that began in Ukraine but has spread across the former Soviet Union. Tajikistan has long been militarily aligned with Russia and hosts three Russian military bases, but Moscow has recently sought to integrate Dushanbe even more into its security alliance. On April 2, the commander of Russia's 201st military base in Tajikistan said Russia would increase the number of troops stationed there from 5,900 to 9,000 over the next five years and add more military equipment through 2020. However, the United States has also maintained an interest in Tajikistan; U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III visited Dushanbe in late August to meet with Rakhmon and discuss bilateral security cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism and counternarcotic efforts. Tajikistan may be receiving greater attention from Russia and the West, particularly regarding security and the threat of Islamist militancy. However, the true risk to the Rakhmon government could be the apparently growing backlash against the domestic crackdown.

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