Jacopo Dettoni in Almaty -
Recent actions by Tajikistan’s strongman president, Emomali Rahmon, appear to show the authorities are growing increasingly nervous about the security risks posed by radical Islamic groups active along the troublesome Tajik-Afghan border and within the country. So are many others.
The Tajik authorities have often exaggerated the risks from Islamic movements to create further room for crackdowns and tighter controls on the Tajik population. Yet today the precarious situation along the Afghan border, combined with mounting economic troubles at home and the first defection at the highest ranks of the military to Islamic rebels are piling pressure on the regime that has ruled the country for over 20 years.
This has prompted the Tajik opposition in exile to sound the alarm bell. “Soon enough Tajikistan could become a new Afghanistan,” Dodojon Atovulloyev, a Tajik journalist in exile and one of the leaders of opposition Vatandor (Patriot) movement, tells bne IntelliNews.
There is mounting evidence that security along the 1,350km border with Afghanistan is becoming increasingly fragile. As fighting between the Taliban and local government forces in Afghanistan’s northwestern provinces intensifies, the Tajik authorities are strengthening border security and sealing off the whole of the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region to tourists and foreigners.
“Unfortunately, the situation is quite unstable,” news agency Interfax quoted Foreign Affairs Ministrer Sirodjiddin Aslov as saying on May 14. “Naturally, we express our concern… The border runs along a difficult mountain terrain. In this regard, we have to spend great efforts to protect it.”
Meanwhile, President Rahmon has repeatedly called for his allies in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to back his government’s efforts to maintain border security. About 2,000 CSTO troops suddenly arrived in Tajikistan on May 12 to run spot checks on the combat readiness of the armed forces of the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (CRRF). Russia alone is committed to providing Tajikistan with military assistance worth around RUB70bn (€1.14bn) to strengthen its ability to handle border and internal security. But that may not be enough.
“The Taliban realized that most of the Tajik population is unhappy with Rahmon,” Sharofiddin Gadoyev, the leader in exile of opposition Group 24 movement, tells bne IntelliNews. Gadoyev replaced Umarali Quvatov as leader of Group 24 after the latter was shot dead in Istanbul in March.
“The reason why we need to act fast is precisely due to the fact that, if we don’t take advantage of the current situation to overthrow Rahmon, the Taliban will do it instead. They will bring the people to their side and set up a Taliban regime,” Gadoyev believes.
Group 24, the Vatandor movement and other opposition forces in exile teamed up in May to launch the Union of Constructive Forces of Tajikistan and are now linking with opposition forces within the country to stage protests against the regime. Group 24 called a protest in Dushanbe through social media and internet websites back in October, forcing the authorities to limit internet and mobile telecommunications to prevent protesters from organizing. The protest eventually failed and Group 24 was officially labeled as an “extremist organization”.
The threat coming from the Taliban across the border somehow augments the risks deriving from the growing leverage of radical Islamic organizations like the Islamic State (IS) over parts of Tajik society. Despite the lack of official numbers, it is believed that a couple of hundreds of Tajik men are fighting with IS in Syria and Iraq. “Rahmon’s dictatorial regimes is forcing people to become extremists,” Vatandor’s Atovulloyev says. “A lot of young men join terrorist organizations, because they have no economic alternatives in sight. They are just frustrated and unemployed.”
Defections extend to the highest ranks of the military; a commander of the Tajik Interior Ministry's OMON riot police, Col. Gulmurod Khalimov, apparently left to fight in Syria at the beginning of May, as confirmed by sources at the Interior Ministry to local news agency Asia-Plus.
The government is retaliating by cracking down on widespread Muslim habits and customs. Local authorities reportedly are forcing men to shave their beards, have labelled hijabs as a garment for prostitutes, and even discussed laws to ban Arabic names and limit the Haj pilgrimage to persons over 35.
On a political level, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the only recognized Islamic party in Central Asia, failed to clear the 5% vote barrier to the secure a seat in parliament at the last elections held in March, widely recognized as unfair and flawed by international observers.
“Instead of improving their message to the population, Central Asian governments just tend to make laws tighter,” Tatyana Dronzina, an expert in terrorism from Sofia State University in Bulgaria, complains. “This does not stop people from joining IS. On the contrary, I think that state repression increases the number of people ready to join the IS. Islam is not the problem here. The problem is the poor standards of living of thousands of people across the region, especially in rural areas, who mostly lack access to any sort of public service and opportunity for social and economic development.”
Tajikistan lags behind other former Soviet countries in social and economic development. Since Rahmon emerged victorious from the bloody civil war in the 1990s that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Tajiks, the country has struggled to achieve any significant economic development. Today, most Tajiks still make a living off less than €1,000 a year. Meanwhile, corruption, poor governance and repression have emerged as characteristic traits of Rahmon’s regime.
Tajik households find some relief from the remittances sent back home by the thousands of migrants working in Russia, which made up an astonishing 45.6% of GDP in 2014. This makes Tajikistan the world’s most dependent country on remittances. Yet the economic slowdown in Russia is reducing the flow of money sent back home by Tajik migrants – total remittances are set to plunge by 30% y/y in 2015, the IMF estimates. And many of those migrants have even been forced to come back home, where they face a bleak future and thus become easy targets for the propaganda spewed by radical Islamic movements.
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