What does the loss of political status for the IRPT mean for Tajikistan? And why do Western governments apparently no longer speak in its favour behind closed doors?
By John Heathershaw
Photo credit (frontpage): David Trilling /Eurasianet.org
On 8 July, 2015, the state news agency of the Republic of Tajikistan, Khovar, announced the loss of ‘political status’ of the country’s Islamic Revival Party (IRPT, Hizbi Nahzati Islomii Tojikiston). Citing the supposed misdemeanours of its leader, the now exiled Muhiddin Kabiri, and the criminal convictions handed to many of its members, the official announcement declares the party to have lost popular appeal. It no longer has support in sufficient districts of the country to retain its status, according to Tajikistan’s general prosecutor. While only a congress of the party itself or Tajikistan’s courts can officially close the party, its demise – not only as ‘the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia’ but also the only effective opposition party in the country – now seems a matter of time. Whether this is by assisted suicide or state homicide, remains to be seen.
For those of us who have observed the IRPT over many years and spent time with its leaders this is a saddening but not surprising moment. The IRPT and Kabiri have always faced pressure since he acceded to the leadership following Said Abdullo Nuri’s death in 2006. The period where the party was protected by the formal and informal terms of the peace agreement has long gone. In March 2015, the party lost its two seats in parliament after failing to cross the 5% threshold in ‘flawed’ (‘fictive’ may be more accurate) elections and faced a call from state-controlled mullah’s for its closure. The key moments of decline are summarised in a blog post by Helene Thibault on Registan, by Tim Epkenhans in a forthcoming article in Central Asian Affairs, by reporting by Ed Lemon and others on Eurasianet, and in previous work by Sophie Roche and I.
Remarkably, over this time the official announcements of the leadership of the party have remained conciliatory. When I last interviewed Mr Kabiri in June 2014 he seemed tired but accustomed to the daily pressure from the authorities and occasional outbreaks of violence against his colleagues. Yet, his reading of the 2012 violence in Khorog and its reoccurrence in the previous month (May 2014) conveyed only a relatively modest critique of the regime.
“Our position is that these events are the result of mistakes made since the peace agreement. If during the peace process all the agreements were realised this wouldn’t have happened. These are unsolved socio-economic questions, unsolved political questions, unsolved cultural-ethnic problems. This range of problems lead to the youth losing trust in official structures, especially local official structures. I am not talking about the central structure, most likely the trust towards central government still exists. For example, if the President goes to Khorog people hope that he can solve something. But the local authority, I think people trusts them less then that.”
The party leadership has always steered a moderate course to protect its political status and the business interests of its members. This is the kind of opposition that a strong semi-authoritarian regime would be able to manage and contain. But for many years Tajikistan has failed to consolidate such a government. This is due to mismanagement from the top down. Turko Dikayev, the esteemed journalist of Chechen dissent, foresaw this when I interviewed him in Kulob in 2004 – a time of relative openness in the country.
“Things are going in such a way that if you say there is conflict to someone it means that you are against national unity and harmony (natsionalnovo edinstva i soglasiya). That’s everyone holding each other in check. Well, look, there’s no work, however no one demands work, because if 3 million people demand work then we may go off our heads (suma mozhno soiti). […] That’s why everyone knows that you shouldn’t demand work but you need to go to Russia or Kazakhstan, and it’s not important if [there] they kill you or they don’t. So you are allowed to speak to any political party but more than this and everything is finished. That’s what’s called freedom (svoboda cheloveka).”
Some reasonable voices within and beyond Tajikistan may be thankful for the decline of the IRPT. A few secular academics and civil society groups, such as the Western-educated scholar Hafiz Boboyorov, have spoken out against the parties’ religious and social conservatism, ‘pseudo-democratic slogans and anarchical views’ which they say are disruptive to Tajikistan’s secular state. Boboyorov, the head of the Center for Modern Processes Studies and Forecasting under the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, even compared the IRPT to ISIS and the Taliban. Many security analysts, without any evidence, link support to the IRPT to that of such violent extremist organizations as part of a gradual process of radicalization.
In my view, these concerns are recklessly or willfully misplaced. The causes of instability in Tajikistan, which appear to be growing, are not those of Islamic radicalization much less the ‘threat’ of the beleaguered IRPT. They are, rather, a corrupt elite which is gradually losing its claim to legitimacy and increasingly enforcing its rule in a heavy-handed fashion. Where once the regime was able to effectively co-opt its rivals, it now merely suppresses them. In certain circumstances this demonstrates the strength of an authoritarian government but that does not appear to be so in this case.
The decline of the IRPT is more a reflection than a cause of Tajikistan’s political weaknesses. It will not itself lead to a widespread rebellion, especially as the IRPT has gradually lost support as it has declined. The regime should be thankful that Tajiks, who more than any people live transnational lives, have fled the country in droves since the peace agreement and are deeply cynical about the nature of their government (and therefore see little point in changing it). But as migrants begin to return in larger numbers there are obvious pressure points. There are no jobs for these people and the fact that the government’s economic priority is obviously to enrich itself first and others a distant second must eventually cause tension, as it has repeatedly in neighbouring Kygryzstan.
Chinese loans, a Russian economic recovery and its offer of entry to the Eurasian Economic Union may keep Tajikistan trundling along and avert an impending economic crisis. If not, its unclear as to whether either Moscow or Beijing are prepare to intervene if widespread political violence breaks out in Tajikistan, as a recent report by Saferworld discusses. And it seems unlikely that American subsidies for the security apparatus of this most ineffective, authoritarian and increasingly brutal regime will be sufficient to prevent disorder should Tajikistan face a significantly larger and better-organised rebellion than it has witnessed in Rasht (2010) and Khorog (2012) in recent years.
Once the embassies of the US and European powers actively engaged with the IRPT and sought to convey a strong message that its closure would be a destabilising act. This was the surest sign, we were told, that their foreign policies were about more than business and security.
What happened to all that rhetoric about rights and freedoms? It is surely a sign of the retreat and ultimate failure of Western ‘ethical’ or values-based foreign policies towards Tajikistan, and the hollowness of their vision for Central Asia, that Western diplomats remain silent about the demise of ‘the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia’ and loss of the last fragment of Tajikistan’s opposition. With this, even pseudo-democracy may not survive.