This post originally appeared on FT.com’s Beyond Brics:
Photocredit: David Trilling, Eurasianet.org
Central Asian democracy was dealt another critical blow this month, in open defiance of Western efforts and engagement.
It is clear that the United States and Western powers have abandoned political engagement in Central Asia in the face of a resurgent Russia and the increasing significance of China as creditor, investor and patron.
If ever there were evidence that Western states’ calls for development and democracy in Central Asia are now only heard in an echo chamber, the story of the demise of Tajikistan’s Islamic Revival Party (IRPT) is it.
The IRPT was once touted as the region’s flagship moderate religious party. However, on September 17, Tajikistan’s security services arrested thirteen members of the presidium of the IRPT on charges of terrorism and organising a criminal group associated with the September 4 attacks on police stations in the capital Dushanbe and a nearby city.
The party has no record of such activity, and the apparent rebel Abdulhalim Nazarzoda, has few active links to the party. But such details mean little in a country where the rule of law is entirely absent.
Of far greater political significance are the moves over the last five years made by the regime of President Emomoli Rahmon to crush the party by associating it with political violence, threatening its leaders, and arresting its members. These moves have culminated this year in the expulsion of the IRPT from parliament following deeply flawed elections, a defamation campaign against its leader Muhiddin Kabiri, and proceedings to close down the party.
Tajik authorities present the September 4 attacks as the last gasps of a dying militant group, but a far more likely explanation is the increasing tyranny of a regime that is creating a one-party state centred on the President’s family’s and his cronies. Now, only ‘loyal’ (and silent) opposition remains.
Zayd Saidov’s New Tajikistan movement was crushed shortly after its formation in 2013 and its leader jailed for 25 years on trumped up charges. Umarali Kuvatov fled after falling out with his business partner, who was a presidential family member, formed the oppositional Group 24, and was pursued by Tajikistan’s security services in Russia, Dubai and Turkey before being assassinated on the street in Istanbul in March of this year. The IRPT’s Kabiri is also now in exile and risks a similar fate.
It wasn’t always this way. In the early-2000s, following the successful implementation of the peace agreement to end the country’s 1990s civil war, relative openness allowed opposition parties to operate and the press to speak out against government corruption. The IRPT’s then-leader, Said Abdullo Nuri, was the co-signatory of the 1997 peace accords. The party held posts in government and was rewarded for its cooperation with two seats in parliament in elections between 2000 and 2010. A Secular-Islamic dialogue, supported by European countries, was also supported by the government and was symbolically important in upholding the peace.
What caused the slide towards tyranny?
The two most important reasons are obvious. The Rahmon regime, composed of former warlords and their allies from the civil war era, always resented sharing even the crumbs from the table and sought to consolidate an authoritarian regime. Russia, the country’s key geopolitical ally, sees little use in supporting a political opposition, suspects all political Islam of terrorism, and expects nothing more than dictatorship from its former brothers in Central Asia. China, now the region’s largest trading partner and creditor, takes a similar view.
But a third reason must be mentioned. The international environment has changed not just because of China and Russia, but also because Western diplomats have lost hope in democratization and are driven by narrower security agendas. The US State Department became overshadowed by the Pentagon and its priorities of maintaining ‘lily pads’ around Afghanistan.
While Tajikistan makes implausible claims of terrorism by the IRPT, the US Central Command in the region launched in September a counter-terrorism exercise called Regional Cooperation 2015 in Tajikistan with 400 military personnel involved. However, the US remains silent on the destruction of Tajikistan’s one remaining opposition party.
European governments have also resiled from speaking out publically against repression. Such talk is now, as one British official told me, ‘like water off a duck’s back’.
All this bodes ill for Tajikistan’s long-suffering citizens
Tajikistan remains one of the most economically dependent countries in the world as ordinary Tajiks send remittances back home from their labours in Russia rather than face unemployment at home.
The government wastes hundreds of millions of dollars per year in expensive and inefficient industrial projects such as the Soviet-era Aluminum plant and the ill-fated campaign to build the world’s highest dam at Rogun. Court records made public following arbitrations between the Tajikistan aluminium company and its foreign partners show that some profits were diverted into secretive offshore shell companies and redirected to support the business interests and personal expenditure of the Presidents’s family and key allies.
With a corrupt and barely competent regime in power, Tajikistan is likely to face recurrent and self-inflicted episodes of instability. It may be too late to stop Tajikistan’s slide in to tyranny and, perhaps, worse. But limiting the venality and dealing with its consequences is still a necessary task.
Western governments can stop the abuse of Interpol that has enabled Tajikistan’s security services to track its opponents overseas and refuse to extradite anyone back to the country. They can investigate the money laundering which takes place through Western financial centres and introduce registers of beneficial owners of shell companies. And they can threaten to stop providing security support to governments like Tajikistan whose ‘counter-terrorism’ activities are as much the cause as the cure for instability in their country.
John Heathershaw is an associate professor of international relations at the University of Exeter, UK.