“Velvet Revolution” Takes Armenia into the Unknown
“Velvet Revolution” Takes Armenia into the Unknown
People celebrate after Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarksyan resigned following almost two weeks of mass street protests, in central Yerevan, Armenia
People celebrate after Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarksyan resigned following almost two weeks of mass street protests, in central Yerevan, Armenia, on 23 April 2018. REUTERS/Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure

“Velvet Revolution” Takes Armenia into the Unknown

Massive street protests have brought down Armenia’s long-serving leader Serzh Sargsyan. Meanwhile, tensions persist in the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Both Armenia’s new leadership and Azerbaijan must pay attention to avoid triggering a new conflagration along that territory’s volatile front lines.

When opposition Member of Parliament Nikol Pashinyan led a knot of marchers through northern Armenia in April to protest the return to power of long-serving leader Serzh Sargsyan, no one guessed his campaign would prompt the country to take a leap into the unknown.

One of a mere handful of opposition parliamentarians, Pashinyan has never been a popular leader in this country of three million people. His criticism of the government resonated with those parts of society that oppose Sargsyan and reflected real problems. But when he set out on his march, the former journalist and publicist was a marginal figure.

All that changed when Pashinyan and his march reached the Armenian capital, Yerevan. There they started small protests that were soon to catalyse the biggest domestic political upheaval in a decade in this small, isolated Caucasus republic, which is perennially tense due to its unresolved conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The massive demonstrations the marchers helped build have now forced Sargsyan, who served as Armenia’s president over the past decade, to resign from his recently assumed post of prime minister. These events are now being called a “velvet revolution”, though the story is far from over.

Whoever takes over from Sargsyan will face a tall order calming the country’s turmoil. But another challenge will be Nagorno-Karabakh, where, even as the effort to oust Sargsyan snowballed, tensions were heightening over unconfirmed allegations of Azerbaijani troop movements near the disputed enclave. As Armenia enters uncharted political waters, it is vital that all parties avoid escalation in the conflict zone.

Olesya Vartanyan on Political Upheaval in Armenia BBC Radio 4

A Surprise Revolution

Even a couple of weeks ago, little in Yerevan foreshadowed a revolution. The initial street protests against Sargsyan were tiny: twenty young men, at most, gathered in the city centre with banners and megaphones in the evenings. Belonging to disparate opposition groups, they urged Sargsyan to keep his promise not to seek nomination for the newly strengthened post of prime minister at the end of his second (and, according to the Armenian constitution, final) presidential term.

No one thought Sargsyan would yield to protesters’ demands. He had led the country for a decade and enjoyed a firm grip on power in a system in which political prerogatives are intertwined with oligarchs’ economic interests. Some prominent opposition politicians had become co-opted into this system. Many Armenians complained about deep apathy in society to the country’s political direction. One high-ranking official dubbed it a rerun of the lacklustre late Soviet era of Leonid Brezhnev. Armenians had tired of Sargsyan, but had little hope of removing him.

But on 16 April, events gathered steam. Police officials tried to disperse a small group of peaceful protesters in a central street of the capital, including those who arrived with Pashinyan. Photos of rows of riot police firing tear gas at protesters and breaking the noses of some spread quickly over social media and were broadcast by major foreign media networks. Against this backdrop of police brutality, Parliament elected Sargsyan as premier.

Thousands of protesters poured into the centre of the capital ... a level of mobilisation not seen since the national liberation movement thirty years ago.

In response to his election, the initiators of the protest movement called for civil disobedience. University students came out into the streets in cities and towns across the country. They blocked traffic in downtown Yerevan and the doors of subway trains. Demonstrators were joined by masses of ordinary people, who, at a stipulated hour, would beat pots and pans, or honk the horns of their cars.

The authorities’ reaction fuelled the protests. In some Armenian cities, security officials paid visits to the parents of young protesters for “explanatory talks”. In Yerevan, police arrested both ring leaders and rank-and-file. Sargsyan threatened to order a large-scale crackdown, raising fears of a repeat of the 2008 clashes between police and demonstrators that killed ten people, both protesters and police. Thousands of protesters poured into the centre of the capital. By 22 April, more than 100,000 people packed Yerevan’s main square – a level of mobilisation not seen since the national liberation movement thirty years ago.

The next day, Sargsyan stepped down. In his resignation statement he admitted that he had no clear idea of the situation in the country. He thus not only became the first post-Soviet leader in fifteen years to concede power peacefully to street rallies but also took the even rarer step of admitting his mistakes and disconnect from citizens.

“Chess Grandmaster”

Sargsyan’s rise to power came by way of the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the defining issue for Armenia since it regained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sargsyan himself is from Karabakh; his modest two-storey parental home, with its well-kept courtyard and veranda, sits on the outskirts of the region’s de facto capital of Stepanakert. He made his name directing civilian logistics, as demands by the Armenian-populated territory to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia escalated into full-fledged war.

Armenian forces prevailed in two years of fighting, driving the Azerbaijanis out of almost the entire territory of Nagorno-Karabakh – a former autonomous region – and seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijan. The war ended with a ceasefire in 1994, but the two sides never managed to seal a peace deal. Sargsyan moved to Yerevan, where he soon took over a security ministry. He was elected president in 2008.

Sargsyan strengthened his hold on power, striking deals with major political players and businessmen inside the country.

Sargsyan’s presidency coincided with global economic crisis and Russia’s mounting assertiveness toward its immediate neighbours. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh had left Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey closed, which in turn made it more dependent on Russia. At the same time, Azerbaijan undertook a vast effort, funded by its growing oil wealth, to modernise its armed forces. Armenia, desperate to keep up, became even more reliant on Russia for weaponry, financial aid to support military development and protection (Russia, despite its alliance with Armenia, sells arms to both sides). A fruitless peace process hardened positions on both sides in recent years. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Sargsyan strengthened his hold on power, striking deals with major political players and businessmen inside the country. “He has built a pyramid, and no one can do anything about it”, a critic explained on one of my first visits to Yerevan in late 2016.

Journalists nicknamed Sargsyan a “chess grandmaster” for his ability to outfox opponents and his widely publicised admiration for the game. But the president, in his early sixties, has appeared drained in recent years. Members of his party say he strictly narrowed his communications to his closest circle and limited his contact with the press. Reporters complained that during presidential trips around the country they were allowed to film only after Sargsyan had left, “apparently, so that we did not suddenly ask too much”, one suggested.

What’s Next?

Following Sargsyan’s resignation, all political forces in Armenia are preparing for snap parliamentary elections. That vote, expected imminently, in principle might oust much of the discredited ruling elite, given the anger recently on display against Sargsyan. But there is no organised opposition to replace them.

Pashinyan, flush with newfound popularity accumulated during the April protests, will make a bid to succeed Sargsyan as prime minister. A day after the latter’s resignation, Pashinyan called on his supporters to join him in renewed protests against remaining leaders of Sargsyan’s party. But details of his views on important issues, including Nagorno-Karabakh, are little-known. His promises of “a different Armenia” – let alone far-reaching economic and military reforms ­– may strike voters as sweeping but unconvincing.

The coming weeks and months may see several forces jostling for power in a small country with weak institutions and a history of personalised policymaking.

At Pashinyan’s first press conference after Sargsyan’s resignation, which was packed with dozens of local and foreign reporters, he said he was not going to make fast promises on possible changes in Armenia’s foreign policy course and was ready to fight for Armenia’s national interests and Nagorno-Karabakh. He expressed his determination to promote cohabitation with officials in the current government, especially mid-level officials, but only if they agree to support the complete removal of Sargsyan’s party. If Pashinyan prevails in elections and becomes the country’s leader, he also may launch investigations into allegations of corruption and misrule. “But we will not look for a vendetta”, he has told reporters.

The coming weeks and months may thus see several forces jostling for power in a small country with weak institutions and a history of personalised policymaking. At the same time, signs from Nagorno-Karabakh are worrying.

Some weeks ago, the de facto leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh informed the conflict region’s authorities and parliamentarians that they expected some form of Azerbaijani destabilisation along the line of contact, the heavily militarised zone that separates Armenian and Azerbaijani troops. Armenia distributed video footage apparently showing Azerbaijani heavy weaponry being moved toward Armenian forces. Azerbaijan denied the accusation. The co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group – the international mediators in the conflict – called on the parties to respect the ceasefire “at this delicate time.”

The last major confrontation in April 2016, which was the deadliest since 1994, killed more than 200 people, mostly military personnel. Since then, both sides have increased their combat capabilities, making some more confident in the possibility of a military solution. In the event of renewed clashes, the number of victims, primarily among the civilian population, could well be much larger than in 2016. About 300,000 people live in the 15km-wide zone along the Azerbaijani side of the Line of Contact. All of the Armenian settlements in Karabakh, which has a population of 150,000, are within reach of Azerbaijani missiles and artillery shells.

Even before the transition at the top in Yerevan, therefore, both sides must heed OSCE’s call for restraint.

On the Armenian side, military commanders should abandon the discussion that has been taking place since late 2016 of “pre-emptive strikes” on Azerbaijani positions; this would likely lead to a serious escalation with heavy civilian losses. In Azerbaijan, politicians should end their routine calls for war. The idea that Armenia’s current turmoil could be a military opportunity is an illusion: any escalation will quickly unite Armenians and lead to prolonged clashes. An effective preventive measure during the Armenian transition could be the establishment of an open line of communication between the military personnel of both sides. Once a new leadership is formed in Armenia, the parties should move to break the three-year deadlock in peace talks.

Appendix A

Map of South Caucasus Mike Shand/International Crisis Group 2016
DUSHANBE, TAJIKISTAN - SEPTEMBER 08: Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon greets people during a military parade marking the 25th anniversary of the Tajikistan Independence Day at Dusti (Friendship) Square in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on 8 September 2016. ANADOLU AGENCY/Tajikistan Presidency.
Briefing 86 / Europe & Central Asia

The Rising Risks of Misrule in Tajikistan

With his seven-year term set to end in 2020, uncertainty is growing over whether Tajikistan’s long-time ruler President Rahmon will handpick a successor or continue his reign. Growing troubles at home and abroad ensure both scenarios are fraught with risk and must be managed prudently, lest the country become another source of regional disorder.


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I. Overview

Tajikistan’s 25 years as an independent state have been marred by poverty, endemic state corruption and the steady narrowing of political power to a single family. Its patriarch is President Emomali Rahmon, 64, who has ruled the country since 1992 through a carefully calibrated system of patronage and brutality. With Rahmon’s current seven-year term set to end in 2020, many observers believe he is now planning to hand over power to a close family member, probably his eldest son, Rustam, 29. This transition plan is fraught with risk, however, and will play out in a country riven by internal frailties and external vulnerabilities. The outside world has few levers in this Central Asian state of 8.7 million people. But its pivotal position in Central Asia, where it borders on both Afghanistan and China, should prompt external actors, especially Russia, to engage as far as possible to avoid a new source of regional disorder.

Over the past two years, President Rahmon has cleared the political space, removing any group or individual, ally or adversary he considered a potential threat. This provides him with a powerful argument against any international or domestic political actor tempted to call for change. Other than the president and his family, there are no organised, functional political forces left. It is his regime or nothing, with even parts of his own traditional powerbase increasingly marginalised. The resentment this produces could lead to a destabilising and potentially violent internal backlash. The fallout likely would be felt throughout Central Asia.

The international community has few options. Central Asian neighbours, including Russia and China, should focus on securing the vulnerable Tajik-Afghan border and China in particular should take steps to help revive Dushanbe’s failing economy. The European Union (EU), an important donor to Tajikistan, should push for an orderly transition even if devoid of democratic credibility. In taking these steps, all parties need to bear in mind the one overriding factor that constrains their influence: for now, Rahmon’s own personal interests dominate the country’s agenda.

II. Internal Uncertainties

A. Family Feuds

A key question for Tajikistan today is whether President Rahmon will forego power in 2020 and, if he does, whom he will choose as a successor. Rahmon, still relatively young at 64, is putting a transition plan in motion, if not for 2020 then later. Constitutional amendments passed in 2016, particularly one that lowers the president’s minimum age, suggest Rahmon’s son Rustam is the favourite.[fn]Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Briefing N°78, Tajikistan Early Warning: Internal Pressures, External Threats, 11 January 2016.Hide Footnote Rahmon has been pushing Rustam into high-profile, powerful posts, such as that of mayor in the capital city of Dushanbe.[fn]“Рустами Эмомали назначен мэром Душанбе” [“Rustam Emomali appointed as mayor of Dushanbe”], Radio Ozodi, 12 January 2017.Hide Footnote If Rustam joins the senate as its chairman after he turns 30 in December 2017, as analysts and media have speculated, he could become president should his father die or became incapacitated.[fn]Kamila Ibragimova, “Tajikistan: Purge of ex-mayor’s allies picks up steam”, EurasiaNet, 15 February 2017. Crisis Group correspondence, Central Asia expert, September 2017.Hide Footnote

This scenario is far from certain, however. Rustam faces internal competition and is hampered by his own lack of skill as a government administrator and manager of patronage networks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local researcher and Western observer, Dushanbe and Khatlon, September 2016. Similar concerns are voiced by Western diplomats in the region. Crisis Group interviews, European diplomat, Bishkek, January 2017; U.S. diplomat, Astana, June 2016.Hide Footnote But he has consolidated informal power over the security services, which ultimately will be the decision-makers in the event of a contested succession.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local researcher, Dushanbe, September 2016. Foreign officials familiar with American-Tajik security cooperation also noted that Rustam has considerable influence over the security forces, often acting as if he were their boss when attending training and other exercises. Crisis Group interviews, Dushanbe, September 2016.Hide Footnote Moreover, although Western observers and members of the urban intelligentsia often describe Rustam as reckless, aggressive and lacking leadership qualities, the pool of potential successors is small.

[A]lthough Western observers and members of the urban intelligentsia often describe Rustam as reckless, aggressive and lacking leadership qualities, the pool of potential successors is small.

That pool consists of family members. Media speculation focuses on internal rivalries, mentioning Rustam’s sister Ozoda, 39, who runs the presidential administration and is reputed to be competent. She and her banker-businessman husband Jamollidin Nuraliyev at times are mentioned as a possible power couple, though Tajikistan’s patriarchal society works against her. Conflicts involving members of the extended family and could also trigger instability in the context of a succession.[fn]Ilkhom Nazarov, “Борьба за власть в Таджикистане. У Рустама Эмомали появилсяконкурент?” [“The struggle for power in Tajikistan. Does Rustam Emomali have a new competitor?”], Alternativnaya Politika, 28 October 2016. See also “Tajikistan’s anti-corruption drive sign of internal feud?”, EurasiaNet, 22 May 2017.Hide Footnote Rustam has struggled with his uncle (the president’s brother-in-law) Hasan Asadullozoda for control of revenues from the Tajik Aluminium Company (Talco), which provides up to 70 per cent of the Tajikistan’s foreign currency earnings.[fn]“Last year’s blackout reportedly costs TALCO at more than 8 million USD”, Asia-Plus, 1 May 2017.Hide Footnote Other family members feature in local conflicts over state resources. Without careful management, these internal family feuds could be destabilising, especially at a time of uncertainty over the presidency’s future.

B. Local Rivalries

The president’s regional power base is showing signs of disaffection. President Rahmon’s winning faction during the civil war (1992-1997) was based in Kulob, part of the cotton-growing area of Khatlon, on the country’s southern border with Afghanistan. Kulobis consequently dominate the most lucrative businesses and hold the most important positions in security structures, at the expense of those from other regions who feel they occupy subservient positions. That circle of power has narrowed, however, as money and resources have dwindled.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tajik analyst, Dushanbe, September 2016.Hide Footnote The effect has been to sharpen fault lines among Kulobis, undermining the political unity that had allowed them to prevail. For example, Kulobis from other parts of Khatlon are losing out to Kulobis from Rahmon’s hometown, Danghara. This is feeding anger among many previously loyal supporters, who may not need much persuasion to take a stronger stance against the Rahmon clan.

The trouble brewing in Rahmon’s loyalist heartland is a bellwether for ten-sions in Tajikistan’s politically peripheral regions.

The trouble brewing in Rahmon’s loyalist heartland is a bellwether for tensions in Tajikistan’s politically peripheral regions. Any perception that President Rahmon’s power is about to weaken could tempt areas suspicious of Dushanbe’s central power – such as the eastern area of Rasht and the mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) – to take further steps toward autonomy. Rasht has long been known for its distrust of Dushanbe’s authority. Former United Tajik Opposition (UTO) members there have used force to retaliate against efforts by Dushanbe to enforce its writ, leading to killings of Tajik security and military forces.[fn]Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Report N°162, Tajikistan: On the Road to Failure, 12 February 2009; Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Report N°205, Tajikistan: The Changing Insurgent Threats, 24 May 2011. The UTO fought against the government during the civil war that began in 1992, but signed a peace agreement in 1997.Hide Footnote In GBAO, too, infringements on local autonomy resulted in bloody flare-ups in 2012 and 2014.[fn]Kirgizbek Kanunov, “Riots in Tajikistan’s Gbao raises fears of broader destabilization”, The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 4 June 2014.Hide Footnote

Clashes in both Rasht and GBAO have embarrassed Rahmon, demonstrating the limits of his power. His response to the unrest in both regions was to cut deals and co-opt leaders by granting access to resources and other forms of patronage.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Tajikistan: The Changing Insurgent Threats, op. cit., p. 10.Hide Footnote Given Tajikistan’s weak finances, this is far from sustainable. Moreover, Rahmon’s successor may not have the skills required to navigate a fraught political environment.

C. Economic Troubles

Tajikistan’s systemic economic problems are part of the reason government resources are shrinking. Many sectors are suffering: confidence is low in Tajikistan’s currency; remittances from Russia decreased in 2016;[fn]Remittances from Russia fell to $1.9 billion in 2016 compared to $2.2 billion in 2015. “Central Asia’s remittances: Take two”, EurasiaNet, 22 March 2017.Hide Footnote the real-estate market is crashing; and half of all bank loans are non-performing. The Tajik government this year issued high-yield bonds to raise revenue,[fn]Natasha Doff and Lyubov Pronina, “Junk bond fever hits a new high in Tajikistan”, Bloomberg, 11 September 2017.Hide Footnote which has allowed them to avoid working with international financial institution or donors who ask for reforms.

The government points to the Russian economic crisis as the primary cause of its woes, but fiscal mismanagement and predatory economic policies have also played a significant role over the past decade. Diplomats say the lack of accountability remains a major hurdle for international financial support.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Bishkek, January 2017. The banking sector in particular remains fragile. “Papa’s purse: Faced with signs of fraud, some donors look the other way”, The Economist, 18 June 2015.Hide Footnote In 2016, the Tajik government declined an offer of up to $200 million in the form of grants and loans from the World Bank, because of the pre-conditions attached, which involved reform of the banking sector, currently largely controlled by Rahmon family members and associates.[fn]The conditions included wholesale reforms of the banking sector, including changing top management at Tajikodirotbank and Agroinvestbank.Hide Footnote Nor did the EU or International Monetary Fund (IMF) provide financial support to the Tajik budget in 2016.[fn]“Tajikistan: Strong Growth with a Challenging Outlook”, Country Economic Update, World Bank Group, spring 2017. Hide Footnote Tajikistan’s successful foray into the bond market arguably has weakened the leverage of donors seeking to impose political conditionality on aid and loans.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Brussels, September 2017.Hide Footnote

The public bears the brunt of these persistent economic difficulties. A third of Tajikistan’s population is undernourished and malnutrition is the underlying cause of about one third of child deaths,[fn]“The Republic of Tajikistan”, World Food Programme, 2016; Tajikistan, “Annual Report 2015”, UNICEF.Hide Footnote a higher proportion than in any of the other former Soviet republics. But the economic crisis also affects the corruption and patronage networks behind Rahmon’s rule. Citizens and private businesses increasingly are unable to pay bribes to law enforcement officers and government officials. These officials, in turn, have become increasingly aggressive as they struggle to pay debts incurred to finance the bribes they had to pay to obtain their jobs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tajik analyst, Dushanbe, September 2016.Hide Footnote In short, economic realities are placing an increasingly fragile power structure under strain, raising questions about its long-term viability.

D. Migration

Migration is the main outlet for Tajiks suffering from social, political and economic tensions. More than a million Tajiks live and work in Russia, which helps defuse a potential source of instability by absorbing working age men who might otherwise be under- or unemployed at home. But there is a flip-side as Moscow could force the migrants to return, which gives it important leverage over the Tajik president and serves as a considerable constraint on his dealings with Russia.

Moscow’s priority is to have a compliant partner and an ongoing military presence in Tajikistan.

Moscow’s priority is to have a compliant partner and an ongoing military presence in Tajikistan. A senior member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), an opposition party banned in October 2015, said, “Russia tolerates, not supports, Rahmon, because there are no other options really … whether Russia will support his eldest son, Rustam, [in his succession bid] will depend on how Rustam behaves”.[fn]Crisis group phone interview, Bishkek, August 2017.Hide Footnote Although it seems unlikely at this stage, Moscow could threaten to expel Tajik migrants should bilateral relations deteriorate, presenting the current or incoming president with an enormous crisis.

Emigration from Tajikistan also concerns the EU as the number of Tajik asylum seekers is rising. In 2016, 3,230 Tajiks applied for asylum in EU countries, up from 1,160 in 2015 and 605 in 2014.[fn]“Asylum and first-time asylum applicants by citizenship, age and sex annual aggregated data (rounded)”, Eurostat, consulted by Crisis Group August 2017.Hide Footnote An IRPT member living in Europe said, “if something happens in Tajikistan, Tajik refugees will come to Europe. It is cheaper and easier for Tajiks to get to Europe than for Syrians”.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, IRPT member in exile, July 2017.Hide Footnote European officials express fears that Russia could use an influx of Central Asian migrants to heighten tensions over migration in Europe.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU diplomats, Delhi, India, June 2016; Brussels, May 2017. See also: Jozef Lang, “Central Asia: the crisis of the migration model and its potential impact on the EU”, Osrodek Studiow Wschodnich (OSW), 25 April 2017.Hide Footnote

III. A Jihadist Threat?

A. Afghanistan

For years Tajikistan has confronted the risk of jihadist spillover from across its 1,400km border with Afghanistan. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province or the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), an affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has led both Russian and U.S. officials to express concern that the movement may reset its priorities northward and attempt to make inroads into Central Asia.[fn]Vladimir Dobrovolskiy, “Россия обеспокоена афганским крылом ИГ” [“Russia is worried about the Afghan wing of ISIS”], RIA-Novosti, 5 October 2016. In February 2017, the U.S. warned that IS-K had assembled a network that included former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) members. “These groups benefit from complementary capabilities and networks and require continuous pressure to prevent the emergence of a new, more virulent organization in which the new whole is more dangerous than the sum of the previous parts”. “Statement for the Record by General John W. Nicholson, Commander U.S. Forces – Afghanistan Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Situation in Afghanistan”, 9 February 2017.Hide Footnote The presence of Central Asian militants within IS-K ranks, albeit as a minority, aggravates such fears.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, security official, March 2017.Hide Footnote So too does increasing instability in Afghanistan’s north east, close to the Tajik border.

The immediacy of the threat remains open to debate, however. Although the situation in northern Afghanistan is deteriorating, most incidents along the Tajik-Afghan border appear to be related to smuggling rather than incursions into Tajik territory or attempts to attack the Tajik state.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local analyst, Dushanbe, September 2016.Hide Footnote Though its emergence is worrisome, the IS-K is still dwarfed by the Taliban, which remains by far the largest armed opposition group and whose leaders express no territorial interest beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The Taliban arguably has been the main check on ISIS’s growth in Afghanistan, often moving quickly to crush IS-K factions.[fn]“Afghan Taliban issues statement for the Central Asian countries”, Khaama Press, 18 July 2016. There recently have been reports of collaboration between Taliban and IS-K militants, including during one offensive near Sar-e Pul, but overall the two movements compete. Even during the Sar-e Pul incident, UN investigators found no evidence of operational ties between the local IS-K faction and the core of the movement in eastern Afghanistan. See, for example, Josh Smith, “Joint Taliban Islamic State raid killed unarmed Afghan militia, civilians: UN”, Reuters, 20 August 2017.Hide Footnote Moreover, the core of the IS-K remains in eastern provinces closer to Pakistan than Central Asia. Whether the small militias in the north that claim to be part of IS-K have direct operational ties to forces in the east is unclear. Nor is it clear, for now, that the Central Asian militants fighting alongside the Taliban, including in the north east, have Tajikistan in their sights.[fn]See, for example, Obaid Ali’s series “The Non-Pashtun Taleban of the North”, Afghan Analysts Network, January-September 2017.Hide Footnote

Tajikistan’s inherent weakness and porous borders make it vulnerable, however. Traffickers have been moving large volumes of drugs across the Afghan border for over two decades, providing revenue to security officers who, in turn, support Rahmon and his inner circle.[fn]Filippo De Danieli, “Counter-narcotics Policies in Tajikistan and Their Impact on State Building”, Central Asian Survey, vol. 30, no. 1 (2011), pp. 129-145; David Lewis, “High Times on the Silk Road: The Central Asian Paradox”, World Policy Journal, vol. 27, no. 1 (2010), pp. 39-49.Hide Footnote The governing elite’s role in cross-border narcotics smuggling may help it manage the border informally for now, but in the longer-run such activities undermine efforts to secure it. So long as corrupt officials have an interest in keeping the border porous, there is a danger that militants – not just drugs – will spill over from Afghanistan into Tajikistan.

B. Radicalisation

Under the guise of combating jihadists, authorities in Dushanbe have quashed internal dissent and repressed Islamic practices.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Tajikistan Early Warning, op. cit.Hide Footnote The government restricts its citizens’ ability to display piety and publicly adhere to Islamic norms. Police have forcibly shaved men’s beards, and registered or even arrested women who wear hijabs.[fn]Anora Sarkorova, “Tajikistan’s battle against beards to ‘fight radicalisation’”, BBC News, 21 January 2016. Ishaan Tharoor, “A city in Tajikistan is drawing up lists of women who wear hijabs”, The Washington Post, 22 August 2016; “Isfara resident jailed for shooting cell phone video of detention of women wearing hijab”, Asia-Plus, 31 May 2016. See also: “Минкультуры разрабатывает образцы исконно таджикской одежды” [“Ministry of culture is developing the samples of the original Tajik clothing”], Radio Ozodi, 21 July 2017.Hide Footnote The government also forbids anyone under the age of eighteen from attending a mosque and prohibits anyone under 35 from making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Tajiks resent these policies, which apply only to certain citizens. The economic or political elite faces few such restrictions. Young members of criminal gangs and the sons of government officials are seen wearing beards and the wives of government officials wear hijabs, sometimes because their husbands order them to.[fn]Sarvinozi Ruhulloh and Shahloi Abdulloh, “Баъзе мақомдорони тоҷик зани худро ба ҳиҷобпӯшӣ маҷбур мекунанд” [“Some Tajik officials force their own wives to wear a hijab”], Radio Ozodi, 5 November 2016.Hide Footnote While the security services claim the bulk of militants travelling to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of ISIS come from the opposition IRPT – thereby linking Islamism in Tajikistan to jihadism abroad – a prominent Tajik expert on radicalisation disputes that:

We have this stereotype that people who leave for Syria are usually from areas that were pro-opposition during the civil war, but it is not true. It is actually the opposite. People from the areas known for being pro-communist [pro-Rahmon] during the war leave more. A lot of Uzbeks leave, a lot of Ku-lobis leave. Even Gulmurod Khalimov who left, is Kulobi, always fought on the government’s side and was never in the opposition.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Tajik analyst, Bishkek, July 2017. Gulmurod Khalimov is a former high-ranking security official who defected to ISIS in Syria in May 2015 becoming ISIS’s “minister for war”. He was reportedly killed in Syria in April 2017, but in July 2017 two militants said in videos that he was still alive. Russia subsequently said it had killed him during an airstrike on Deir el-Zour, eastern Syria, on 5 September 2017. Tom Parfitt, “Russia ‘kills Isis commander in Syrian airstrike’”, The Times (UK), 8 September 2017. See also: “Islamic State Threatens Central Asia”, Crisis Group blog, 8 June 2015.Hide Footnote

The government’s refusal to distinguish violent jihadists from non-violent individuals who are visibly devout or hold anti-government views risks making all of them enemies. This contributes to popular frustration, which with the right trigger could bubble over into street protests, other types of resistance – or even violence.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Tajik analyst, June 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Conclusion

Tajikistan’s current trajectory is cause for concern. In less than three years, the country’s president is – in theory – obliged to transfer power. Whether President Rahmon will do so is uncertain, but either continuation or succession could result in turmoil. Feuds inside the ruling family and rivalries among Tajikistan’s various regions, including those that have previously supported the president, form a turbulent political backdrop. The regime’s margin for manoeuvre is narrowing in the context of a troubled economy, institutional dysfunction and growing instability in Afghanistan. The next president will inherit a fragmented state with low levels of trust in government if not deep hostility toward the state. Many constituencies possess a capacity for violence.

Foreign powers have little leverage over Rahmon’s government, which is hostile to any external criticism. Western powers appear reluctant to expend limited political capital pushing for reforms that might over time strengthen Tajikistan’s institutions but whose prospects for now appear remote.

Russia and China hold more cards, but have decided so far not to play them. As the main outside power engaged in Tajikistan, Russia has a major interest in securing the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border and ensuring Tajikistan does not become a victim of jihadist violence. Yet despite occasional signs of impatience, Moscow tolerates Rahmon if only for lack of a viable alternative.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Tajikistan Early Warning, op. cit.Hide Footnote China, which holds over half of the country’s debt and wants to protect its growing economic assets, is also concerned about Afghanistan and has therefore stepped up security cooperation with Tajikistan.[fn]On 31 August 2017, Rahmon and Chinese President Xi Jinping, meeting in Beijing, signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, including an agreement to share intelligence information. Christian Shepherd and Tom Hogue, “Tajikistan agrees to more intelligence exchanges with China”, Reuters, 1 September 2017. See also, Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Report N°245, Central Asia’s Silk Road Rivalries, 27 July 2017.Hide Footnote Most of all, China seeks to counter Islamic extremism, separatism or terrorism in its restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders Tajikistan and is home to a small minority of ethnic Tajiks. Yet despite these interests, Russia and China are even less likely than Western powers to press for meaningful political or institutional reform.

Foreign powers have few good options, but they share an interest in a smooth transition whenever it occurs. Central Asian countries, Russia and China, with help from the EU and U.S., should focus in the interim on bolstering vulnerable borders to prevent violence from spilling throughout the region. With the limited leverage they have, EU and U.S. political engagement should stress the risks of political exclusion urging Dushanbe to refrain from repressive measures that could undermine the transition, triggering instead instability and violent conflict.

Bishkek/Brussels, 9 October 2017

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