Tajikistan’s Islamists Back Secular Candidate to Send Message

Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon in Thailand, May 17
Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon in Thailand, May 17 (Presidency of Tajikistan)

The outcome of Tajikistan’s November presidential election is easy to predict. Emomalii Rahmon will be reelected in a landslide. However, the ballot will also list Oynihol Bobonazarova, a secular lawyer and human rights activist recently tapped by the opposition, including Central Asia’s single legal Islamist party, to run against the first and only president of the former Soviet republic.

Bobonazarova is at first glance an odd choice for the United Reformist Force, an opposition coalition comprised of Islamists, social democrats and several nongovernmental groups.

The Islamists boycotted the 2006 election and failed to put up a candidate for a 2011 by-election for a vacated parliament seat, saying in conjunction with the boycotting social democrats that until election laws were changed, government officials will always be able to manipulate the outcome in advance. Although the Islamists did not encourage their members to boycott the 2011 election, it is clear the opposition forces in Tajikistan are dejected about their chances of electoral victory in any settling.

The upcoming presidential election marks a potential breaking point for perennial president Rahmon. Elected in 1994 and again in 1999. A 1999 referendum extended the presidential term from five to seven years, and a 2003 package of constitutional amendments included a provision permitting a second consecutive term. Although the limit of two terms exists on paper, supporters of Rahmon argue that the limit only applies to elections following the 2003 adoption of the amendments. Rahmon is set to run again this November.

Even the coalition putting Bobonazarova forward doesn’t expect her to win. The Islamist leader said, “we might lose the election but we can use this opportunity to send out out message.” That message may fall on deaf ears internationally where the word “Islamism” tends to conjure up images of terrorism. The Tajik party’s support for Bobonazarova is therefore an image move — to prove its moderation and brevity; its willingness to “work with other democratic forces outside the country.”

The message might resonate outside Tajikistan but it is more likely that it will be lost in the global din. Despite the flurry of excitement around Bobonazarova’s nomination, and everything it represents — moderation, cooperation — the state controls the media and Rahmon is the only candidate with widespread name recognition. Although the political elites of Tajikistan will steer the election results anyway, the argument is ready made that Bobonazarova is a nobody, unknown beyond the human rights and NGO communities.

But Bobonazarova will run. Government tactics of pinning opposition candidates with trumped up criminal charges will not easily fly against a female human rights lawyer with a clean record (except for a conviction for being a member of an opposition party in the early years of independence). Akbar Turajonzoda, a religious figure in Tajikistan and former Islamist party leader, doubts that the government will move to charge Bobonazarova with anything, even if campaign staff report obstacles being put up to impede Bobonazarova’s run.

Other candidates have not been so lucky. In May, Zayd Saidov, a businessman and opposition leader, was arrested on charges of fraud and polygamy. The relatively unknown opposition leader Umarali Kuvatov was conveniently arrested last December in Dubai at the behest of the Tajik government, also on charges of fraud.

The Islamists, if they are able to reap any benefits from their support of Bobonazarova, will have to wait for many years for a real chance at electoral success. Either Rahmon dies or he serves two more full terms. At 61, it is plausible that Rahmon lives out two more terms and then faces the hurdle of amending the Constitution again. For the Islamists, building up evidence of broad appeal, political moderation and a willingness to cooperate with secular institutions will prove useful when a real opportunity at power emerges.

Central Asia: India’s New Strategic Neighborhood

Indian foreign policy has started to morph in recent years from the idealistic and sometimes naive notions of Cold War nonalignment into a more realistic strategy that recognizes the country’s changing interests. India’s alliance building in Central Asia is emblematic of this policy shift.

Walter Russell Mead recently blogged that in the past, Indian policymakers would list three enemies: Pakistan, Pakistan and Pakistan. But the old rivalry of South Asia now only has an emotional, not a rational connection with either the present or the future. India and Pakistan are working to improve their bilateral relationship. During his second visit to Islamabad last week, India’s foreign minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna reiterated his country’s wish to see a peaceful and prosperous neighbor.

One of the reasons for India’s continuous engagement with Pakistan is that it is on the road to Central Asia. The former Soviet satellite states in the region possess vast energy reserves and have attracted the attention of nearby great powers. Read more

Badakhshan-Tajikistan Clashes Risk Sparking Insurgency

A Tajik Air Mil Mi-8 helicopter, February 6, 2007
A Tajik Air Mil Mi-8 helicopter, February 6, 2007 (Brian Harrington Spier)

The response by the Tajik government to the murder of a security official last week — sending troops into the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan — may cause more harm than they anticipated.

Major General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of the regional branch of the State Committee on National Security (formerly the KGB) was apparently stabbed to death on July 22. Two days later, Tajik troops marched into Khorugh, nominally seeking to arrest Tolib Ayombekov, the head of a border post on the Afghan-Tajik frontier and an opposition commander during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war, who has been accused of the general’s murder.

Last Wednesday, a ceasefire was declared but the two sides remain at an impasse. Ayombekov’s forces refuse to surrender their weapons or their leader while the Tajik government, headed by autocratic President Emomalii Rahmon, is not perceivably ready to “save face by collecting some weapons and withdrawing.”

Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow, was quoted as saying that “any campaign that does not end quickly risks getting bogged down in the harsh mountain winter.”

A letter confirmed accurate by sources close to EurasiaNet paints a grim picture in Khorugh, effectively held hostage by the cease fire.

99 percent of local people support these commanders. It’s a small town. Everyone is related. Everyone is family, friends. There is not a specific group the government is fighting: All local men are involved.

Reports on casualties are varied. Government figures estimate seventeen troops, thirty militants and one civilian while other estimates are higher — particularly concerning civilian deaths. Opposition sources cite two hundred overall casualties.

The most recent reports out of the region are inconsistent. Reuters reported that some rebels have begun to surrender after government threats to resume their assault but the report has not been picked up or corroborated by other news sources and only cites Tajik government officials. The situation remains tense in any event.

The shutting off of Internet, mobile and telephone services to the region makes it all the more difficult to decipher precisely what is happening. Early in the conflict, authorities severed access to YouTube in particular and as of Sunday, the websites of at least one Russian television channel and the BBC were blocked.

Analysis

The situation in Tajikistan is at best murky. No single narrative can fully explain and contextualize what is happening.

The sudden unrest in Tajikistan’s poorest region is the byproduct of multiple coincidences, situations and events. It cannot be explained simply with one line or another. Leftover civil war grudges and Islamists? Contested control of lucrative Tajik drug routes? Pamiri ethnic autonomy? Another Shia-Sunni split? The true reasons behind the explosion of violence in Gorno-Badakhshan must be nuanced and incorporate, as appropriate, these various strands.

The situation in Tajikistan is complex, made more so by usually poor coverage of the region and the shutdown of communication services, attributed to a stray bullet hitting a telephone line.

The suspected mastermind behind General Nazarov’s death, Tolib Ayombekov, was one of many opposition commanders in the Tajik civil war who was bought off with money and position. In recent years, though, President Rahmon has been reneging on some of those deals, removing former opposition commanders from their jobs. One possibility is that Ayombekov’s lucrative position as head of a border post (and thus a chief smuggler of Afghan drugs) was under threat from the central government.

This conflict may not have started due to ethnic and religious differences between the autonomous region and the core of Tajikistan but they could help escalate it.

Gorno-Badakhshan is populated primarily by Shia Ismailis of the Pamiri ethnic group, both minorities in Tajikistan. The region supported the opposition in the civil war. Given the porous border with Afghanistan, there is a high potential for insurgent and terror networks to take root. Differences in ethnicity may keep the Taliban from moving north but won’t preclude them from taking advantage of a porous border, as indicated by Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network, a Kabul based think tank.

Rahmon is in a difficult position. Official reports that rebels were handing in weapons are meant to convey control which the Tajik government may not actually be able to exert in the region. As Central Asia’s preeminent strongman, backing down is difficult to do but while Ayombekov’s forces refuse to surrender and government forces demand it, there are a dwindling number of alternative options. Should violence resume, the region may be ignited. And what seems to have started as the manhunt for an accused murderer of a regional security official could create — out of a heap of dry kindling — a fiery insurgency.

Wikistrat Bottom Lines

Opportunities

Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist organizations can take advantage of the situation to gain a foothold.

Well timed assistance can help solidify Russia’s position in the country.

Risks

If the Tajik government cannot quickly solve this issue, it risks getting bogged down in an insurgency that could become another civil war. If Russia gets too involved, it might result in another costly and deadly commitment.

Dependencies

How quickly can the Tajik government end the situation and how costly will it be? How long will it take for the terrorist and insurgent networks to take advantage of the chaos?

Eric Black, Michael Breen, Thomas Frear and Cuneyt Yilmaz contributed to this analysis.

Russian-Tajikistan Base Deal Revealed Prematurely

Colonel General Vladimir Chirkin, commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, inspects a military parade
Colonel General Vladimir Chirkin, commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, inspects a military parade

Russian Ground Forces commander Vladimir Chirkin said recently that Russia and Tajikistan will soon achieve “results that will be advantageous for both sides” from the protracted talks between the two on the fate of Russia’s military base near the capital of Dushanbe.

Chirkin went on to claim that the draft agreement allows for Russian retention of the base for 49 years, rent free, as it has been for the past decade.

The Tajik Foreign Ministry, however, stated that General Chirkin’s claims were “premature” and “groundless,” stressing that negotiations continue behind closed doors.

Tajik foreign minister Khamorokhon Zarifi indicated in a statement on Monday that the negotiations were progressing. He was disparaging about Russian defense officials revealing details of the talks to the public, saying that “in a normal, law governed state, there is a specific responsibility for these actions, as this is disclosure of state secrets and important information.”

When the Soviet Union dissolved at the close of 1991, the 201st Motorized Rifle Division was stationed in Tajikistan. Inherited by the Russian Federation, the division remained in Tajikistan throughout its civil war at the request of the Tajik successor government, headed by Emomalii Rahmon who is still president.

In 1999, Russian and Tajik defense ministers signed a deal allowing for the construction of a new base for the 201st with a ten year lease. The base, which opened in 2004, is Russia’s largest outside of its borders with about 7,000 servicemen stationed there permanently. The agreement is due to expire in 2014.

A point of contention between the two sides has been Tajikistan’s demands that Russia pay at least $250 million per year for the site. Under the current agreement, Russia does not pay rent but contributes military and technical assistance to Tajikistan.

An unnamed Tajik source, cited by Reuters, claims that General Chirkin is correct: Tajikistan has agreed to lease the base free of charge for 49 years. Russian assistance in training and arming the Tajik military plays a role in the agreement but the deal will be based upon the fact that Tajikistan “has no trump cards in its play with Russia.”

The poorest among fifteen former Soviet republics, Tajikistan has an unstable border with Afghanistan, an at-times unfriendly border with Uzbekistan and a flailing economy propped up by cotton, drugs and corruption.

Additionally, 45 percent of the Tajik economy is dependent on remittance from Tajik migrant workers in Russia. Dushanbe indeed has few cards to play against Russia, though it is seeking assistance from all corners, including China and the United States.

Modern Russia is no stranger to using its size and history to pressure the Central Asian states but in this case, the crushing weight of the scheduled NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan will bring Tajikistan to Russian terms in due course. Central Asian leaders have little to gain from denying Russian power in the region — though they are trying to maneuver themselves into favorable positions by 2014.

As Russian deputy prime minister Dmitri Rogozin said recently, “the forces of NATO in Afghanistan are not eternal but Russia will be an eternal partner of these countries and if, God forbid, the situation deteriorates for security and the people of the countries, they will remember Russia.”

Tajikistan: Between a Rock, a Hard Place and Iran

The head of United States Central Command, General James Mattis, held talks with Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon last Saturday to enlist commitments of continued support for American and NATO operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

Rahmon told Mattis that “Tajikistan would like to see further strengthening of the development of ties with the United States in the sphere of security and the establishment of peace and stability in the region.”

On Monday, Rahmon met with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who came bearing promises of pipelines and railways during the fifth annual Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan.

Ahmedinijad came away from the talks pleased, telling reporters that Tajikistan and Iran are culturally “parts of the same body.”

Caught between the Americans, a thousand kilometer border with Afghanistan, and a cultural connection to Iran, Tajikistan is indeed stuck economically and politically between conflicting interests and allies.

Tajikistan is landlocked, mountainous, and the one of Central Asia’s poorest states. Its government is nominally a republic. In reality, Emomalii Rahmon has been ruling the one party dominant state since 1992.

A political survivor, Rahmon held on to power throughout the Tajik civil war of the 1990s and secured a third term in an election in 2006.

The country is dependent on Russia and Uzbekistan for energy. Its main sources of income are the aluminum industry, cotton growing and remittances from Tajiks working abroad.

Uzbekistan recently announced that it will be stopping the flow of gas into Tajikistan, reportedly in order to meet commitments to larger buyers such as China. Regional analysts believe there is more politics to the stoppage than practicality. Tajikistan’s gas demand annually equals about what Uzbekistan produces in a single day.

The Tajiks are looking for ways to diversify their energy sources and the Iranian promises sound tempting.

Iran and Tajikistan share a cultural and linguistic history but little else. Ideologically and politically they diverge and economically, neither can quite afford to pay for the Iranian promises.

Both countries are predominantly Muslim but Iran is a bombastic Shia bastion and Tajikistan mostly Sunni of the Central Asian persuasion.

Tajikistan is politically secular, as is the norm in Central Asia. Political secularism in the region derives from the Soviet system and is also influenced by Sufism and pre-Islamic regional history. The 2006 election was boycotted by “mainline” opposition parties such as the Islamic Renaissance Party, which receives moral support from Iran and is the only legal Islamic political party in Tajikistan.

To further illustrate the ideological divide, Tajikistan has been criticized by Iranian representatives for imposing “Islamaphobic rules on the population” such as banning the hijab and preventing underage children from attending mosque.

Ideological differences are complicating factors not deal breakers but Iran’s promises remain pipedreams because of economics and security.

Rahmon and Ahmedinijad, joined by Afghan president Hamid Karzai released a statement after talks in the Tajik capital city of Dushanbe which read that the three had “reached an understanding on how to cooperate more productively to accelerate construction of a railway from Iran to Tajikistan through Afghanistan.” They also announced plans to build an “energy line” across the three countries.

Delegations from Dushanbe and Kabul are scheduled to meet in Tehran in two months to discuss the implementation of the projects, according to the same statement from President Rahmon’s office.

The reality is that Tajikistan cannot afford the projects. The technical and security challenges of building a pipeline or railway across Afghanistan are unlikely to be easily surmounted. Iran, the target of multiple international sanctions because of its nuclear program, is also unlikely to be able to fund its promises or attract many investors for the risky venture.

Tajikistan is in a tight spot. Uzbekistan, reportedly irked by Tajik hydropower projects upstream, is squeezing the state by cutting off the gas supply.

Iran is under siege and scrounging for allies. It hopes to exploit the cultural connection with Tajikistan by offering promises which the Tajik government must realize are pipedreams.

The war in Afghanistan goes on and while the Americans plot their exit by 2014, they have made efforts to reenlist Central Asian support for the cause.

Clinton Visits Tumultuous Central Asia

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is greeted by Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on December 2
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is greeted by Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on December 2 (US State Department)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited different countries in Central Asia to push for improved political freedoms in the former Soviet republics and affirm their role as security partners of the United States. As the war in Afghanistan drags on, these countries, many of which are battling internal disorder, remain significant as part of America’s supply routes.

Clinton attended a summit of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe in Kazakhstan Wednesday where she also spoke with the country’s president and foreign minister. She thanked Kazakhstan for cooperating with the West in the realm of nonproliferation. Earlier this year, she pointed out during a press conference, along with the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan and the United States secured over ten metric tons of highly enriched uranium as well as three metric tons of weapons grade plutonium. “That is enough material to have made 775 nuclear weapons,” she said. “And now we are confident it will never fall into the wrong hands.”

The secretary visited Kyrgyzstan next which has been site to considerable political upheaval in recent months. This spring, violence in the small Central Asian republic forced its president to flee to Belarus while the interim government subsequently struggled to hold on to power. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced as a result of the unrest.

After meeting with Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva, Clinton praised her for forming a coalition government two months after the country held parliamentary elections. “There are many who say parliamentary democracy, true parliamentary democracy, cannot work in Central Asia or in many other places in the world,” said Clinton. “We reject that and we think Kyrgyzstan has proven that it can.”

Neighboring Tajikistan has also witnessed waves of armed rebellion in recent months. As the central government appears unable to suppress the uprising, Joshua Kucera at The Diplomat warns of a “power vacuum in a part of Tajikistan that borders northern Afghanistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, both of which are themselves becoming more and more unstable.”

Despite the mounting instability in the region, the United States are preparing a range of strategic construction projects throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The largest project entails the construction of an anti-terrorism training facility in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Currently, the only American base in operation in the region is the transit center at Manas, near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek and close to its border with Kazakhstan. Last year, the now ousted president attempted to close the air base with parliament’s approval. Only the intervention of American and Russian diplomacy managed to reverse that decision in June 2009. In return for continuing to operate the Manas facility, the military increased rent payments from $17 to $60 million a year to the Kyrgyz government.

Clinton’s last stop in the region was Uzbekistan, the most populous republic in Central Asia but also its least republican. The country has never held an election judged fair by international observers while the executive wields most actual power. Dissidents are persecuted. Opposition parties are not allowed to exist and foreign media have been driven out of the country. Clinton urged the president, Islam Karimov, who has been in power since 1990, “to demonstrate his commitment through a series of steps to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are truly protected.”

The State Department has defended Clinton’s visit to Uzbekistan as a chance to promote political reform but it is also an opportunity to affirm security cooperation. Uzbekistan is one link in what the United States call their Northern Distribution Network which brings supplies to Afghanistan through Russia and the different states of Central Asia.

The increased American presence risks exacerbating what some observers have dubbed the “New Great Game” which sees China, Russia and the United States competing for influence in Central Asia — very much like Russia and the United Kingdom used to quarrel over the region during the original Great Game in the nineteenth century.

There is moreover a danger of straining relations with Iran whose strategic orientation has shifted northward since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “In the past fifteen years,” according to Dario Cristiani of World Politics Review, “Tehran has been particularly active in trying to create a deep net of institutional and economic links in the region, in part to counter the increasing reach of Turkey, perceived as an American proxy, and of Pakistan, historically an enemy of Iran.” This, he pointed out, explains the strong attention paid by Tehran to nearby Afghanistan and Tajikistan, “which represent cornerstones of the Iranian strategy in the region.”

Iran’s ultimate goal is to become a technological and economic power in the region, and to this end, Tehran is supplementing its cultural and historical links with a more resolute economic presence, including investments in massive infrastructure projects.

Besides the dangers of geopolitics, Central Asia is a tar pit filled with confusing micro-nationalities, borders arbitrarily drawn without regard for ethnic divides, and a geography that is bound to frustrate any attempt at military intervention.

Up to the early twentieth century, Central Asia had no real borders. Rather the region was one large frontier separating the Russian Empire from the British Raj in India. With the emergence of the Soviet Union however and its aggressive attempts at spreading communism abroad, the former khanates of Central Asia were quickly absorbed and divided into neat little socialist republics. Neat, except that their borders were drawn with the express purpose of keeping the populations there divided lest they rise up against the Soviet usurpation.

The borders were redrawn several times during the 1920s and 30s, prompting violent demarcation disputes after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Separating the five newly independent states are Soviet borders; linking them are Soviet era roads, pipelines and electricity grids.

The Russian influence continues to pervade up to this very day. Kyrgyzstan for instance is desperately divided, with an Uzbek minority living in the west near the Uzbekistan border while north and south seem different countries altogether. The north, around the capital of Bishkek, is more developed, with some industry and a semblance of Russian culture. The south, largely agrarian and more Islamic, is cut off by a mountain range through which just two usable roads traverse.

When north and south clashed most recently, the country’s interim president asked Russia to intervene but so far, even Moscow hasn’t shown a willingness to submerge itself in this quagmire.