Edward Lemon about Tajikistan: regime has few incentives to improve its record

30/09/2015 10:27
Asia-Plus
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DUSHANBE, September 30, 2015, Asia-Plus -- Political situation in Tajikistan has been rapidly changing in recent few years with frequent rebellion of former warlords, some of whom rose up to deputy defense minister in the government, and arrest of the whole Political Council of its main opposition party – the Islamic Revival Party. The Central Asian Analytical Network (CAAN) on September 29 asked Edward Lemon, who researches and writes a lot about Tajikistan, to explain and evaluate the current political processes in Tajikistan, which geostrategic importance does not end only with sharing the longest border with Afghanistan.

A doctoral candidate at the University of Exeter, Mr. Lemon previously lived in Central Asia for over two years and now focuses on the relationships between Islam, security and migration in Tajikistan and Russia. His research has been published in Central Asian Affairs and First World War Studies.

Mr. Lemon noted that Tajikistan is the poorest country in the region. Over half of its economy comes from migrant workers, primarily in Russia. The state lacks the resources to monitor and control its population in the way that Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan do. According to him, the regime relies in three factors when cracking down on dissent.

“First, the opposition in the country is weak and fragmented. Many of the leading activists are now in prison or living in exile. No one group forms a credible threat to the regime.  Second, and most importantly in my opinion, stability in Tajikistan is built on the memory of the civil war.  Even those who did not live through the war are constantly reminded of the bloody events of 1992 on television, in official speeches and at school.  The regime uses the population’s fear of a return to violence.  And the chaos following the Arab Spring in the Middle East has only re-enforced their point.  Third, Tajikistan is increasingly moving towards China economically and Russia politically.  Unlike Western countries, these powers do not prioritize human rights and openly support the regime’s repressive measures.  With such patrons, who give their support without requiring democratization, the regime has few incentives to improve its record.”

Asked about the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, Mr. Lemon said that for much of its history, the IRP was the leading opposition force in Tajik politics.

“It was the leading party in the United Tajik Opposition (UTO). By 2010 it claimed 40,000 members and even said that it won the 2010 election.  Whilst this is unlikely to be true, the party could certainly claim widespread support five years ago.  Since then its image has suffered due to a government smear campaign linking its members to impropriety, corruption and radical Islam.  Supporters have been harassed and some have been coerced into leaving the party.  This culminated in the banning of the party in August 2015.  Throughout this assault on the party, the leadership has resisted the temptation to grow more radical and has stuck to its moderate approach and commitment to democratic principles.  It is difficult to know why they did this.  Perhaps they feared a resumption of conflict, perhaps they thought that if they did not resist the regime would stop its crackdown.  As it turns out, neither was true and now the party has been destroyed.

“IRP leader Kabiri has managed to safely travel to a European country and should remain safe from the government’s hands there.  But for the 13 members of the Presidium arrested on 16 September and other ordinary members whom the regime has detained, the situation is much more serious.  They will be tried and given lengthy sentences for their alleged role in destabilizing the country.  The judicial process lacks transparency and is highly politicized.  Penalties for such offences in Tajikistan are severe.”

Mr. Lemon noted that like all political parties, the IRP’s members hold a variety of views.  Kabiri always represented the more moderate side of the party, but more extreme elements certainly exist.  Without a legal way to express their views, some party members may gravitate towards more “radical” groups. “I expect that only a small number will do so. Only time will tell,” Lemon said.

Asked how Tajikistan of 2016-2020 will look like, Lemon said that the economy will continue to stagnate and Tajik men will continue to work in Russia.  As the religious revival continues, the regime will continue to use repressive measures in the name of counter-extremism.  There is unlikely to be a change of government and the regime will continue to pursue its opponents at home and abroad.  Violence will break out sporadically.  Rather than coming from radical Islamists or from Afghanistan, these conflicts will probably come from within the state.  Despite consolidating its power, the state remains fractious and a number of strongmen maintain positions of power.  As the regime moves against them, conflict could result, the researcher noted.

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