塔吉克斯坦预警:内部压力和外部威胁
塔吉克斯坦预警:内部压力和外部威胁
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Photo shows Tajik border guards checking identification documents of people crossing the Tajik-Afghan border on a bridge across the Panj River outside the city of Panj, August 2010. AFP PHOTO
Photo shows Tajik border guards checking identification documents of people crossing the Tajik-Afghan border on a bridge across the Panj River outside the city of Panj, August 2010. AFP PHOTO
Briefing 78 / Europe & Central Asia

塔吉克斯坦预警:内部压力和外部威胁

塔吉克斯坦如今正处于危险的重负之下——因其受暴力、腐败和经济困难所扰,苦其与阿富汗边境之漫长而不安全。拉赫蒙总统的专制破坏了1997年签署的和平协议,并助长了境内伊斯兰激进主义的发展。随着其国家愈加脆弱、且或波及周边列国,塔吉克斯坦应成为冲突预防中的优先对象。

概述

塔吉克斯坦数中亚贫困之最;于内于外,它都面临着巨大的压力。埃莫马利•拉赫蒙总统23年以来的统治充满了暴戾、问责制的缺失、腐败和大规模的移民返乡。劳工转汇和贩毒是国家收入的主要来源。他对宗教和反对派的控制——包括禁止温和的塔吉克斯坦伊斯兰复兴党(IRPT)——则助长了民怨。塔吉克斯坦与阿富汗所接壤的边境线长达1400公里,而沿线的安全即使在在最佳时期也难以保持一致;此外,阿富汗北部局势日益不稳,且中亚武装分子在此地和塔利班结盟,并对塔吉克斯坦、吉尔吉斯斯坦和乌兹别克斯坦造成了新的威胁。俄罗斯对塔吉克斯坦的支持是区域安全的一个重要组成部分,但莫斯科方面对塔吉克斯坦内部反对拉赫蒙一事则愈感担忧。欧盟和美国对塔吉克斯坦政府的影响甚微,但欧美、俄罗斯以及其他的国家却都应对拉赫蒙的领导方向、国家失败的风险和伊斯兰极端分子乘机而入的可能性保持警惕。

1997年的和平协议仅是掩盖了——但并为解决——其残酷内战后产生的紧张局面;而这一协议亦正在被瓦解。和平协议的核心是让伊斯兰复兴党能在议会中代表战争反对派,然而在2015年3月那场充斥着违规的选举后,拉赫蒙剥夺了该党的议会席位;同年8月拉赫蒙禁止了其参会权;并于9月宣布伊斯兰复兴党为恐怖主义组织。伊斯兰复兴党的命运和该国对宗教表达的限制都充满体现了塔吉克斯坦对政治多元化的蔑视。腐败和任人唯亲之行径四处蔓延,而这似乎在向伊斯兰主义者和世俗公民传递着一个信息:任何试图挑战拉赫蒙的政治进程都会被终止。

2016年5月,时任特警部队头领的Gulmurod Khalimov将军投诚了叙利亚的伊斯兰国(IS);他的叛变则揭露了安全部队精英内部的分裂,也暗示着拉赫蒙可能不再知道谁才值得被信任;同时这也反映了伊斯兰中暴力激进教派在塔吉克斯坦境内与日俱增的吸引力。拉赫蒙总统对此的回应主要是谈论他劫后余生之想,而非试图扭转民众对政府已在政治上和道德上破产的看法。

塔吉克斯坦的经济已陷入瘫痪,而俄罗斯的经济低迷更是雪上加霜;这是因为劳工汇款占塔吉克斯坦国内生产总值的40%以上,与此同时,在2015年,有三十至四十万劳工因就业难而返回故土。然而,如此恶劣的经济环境实则基本上是由政府一手所致:多年的地方性腐败榨干了当地企业,发展援助所产生的影响亦是寥寥无几。同时,来自阿富汗的毒品走私日益增多。尽管塔吉克斯坦获得了来自俄罗斯、欧盟和美国的资助和技术援助,其边境安全问题仍充满不确定性;这则一方面是出于塔吉克斯坦多山的地理环境,而另一方面则是因为非法贸易已腐蚀了塔吉克斯坦的安全结构。

鉴于其存在的问题,塔吉克斯坦应当被国际社会列为冲突预防的优先对象。尽管务实性对策应将重点放在防止进一步的压制、并鼓励在2020年拉赫蒙任期结束之时进行有序的政权交接之上,但在考虑政策之时,国际社会也应将塔吉克斯坦将持续暴戾——且其视正规政治进程于无物的——独裁制度的风险考虑在内。在经济危机和政治停滞的压力下,国家力量会被进一步削弱;这或许对边界问题的影响不大,但国家于内于外的脆弱或会导致不稳定,并最终对边界问题产生影响。边界安全薄弱使得塔吉克斯坦沦为伊斯兰武装分子夺取中亚其他地区的中转站。乌兹别克斯坦边境实力虽比较强大,但与吉尔吉斯斯坦相比则又显得薄弱。

对俄罗斯、由莫斯科领导的集体安全条约组织(CSTO)中的其他成员国,和中国——其不安宁的新疆省与塔吉克斯坦接壤,且长达414公里——而言,无论何种成因导致的塔吉克斯坦国家失败都将是个头疼的麻烦。集体安全条约组织的成员国身份以及俄罗斯在塔吉克斯坦的驻军都可被视为对入侵的威慑力量,然而集体安全条约组织却尚未能经实战考验。乌兹别克斯坦、吉尔吉斯斯坦和哈萨克斯坦,在维护塔吉克斯坦的和平与安全方面,都有着明确的利益,它们应优先保护各自与塔吉克斯坦接壤处的安全,而非仅仅关注塔阿边界的问题。

俄罗斯、欧盟和美国应当为增进边界和平提供支持。在参与该地区政治——包括正式的安全和人权对话框架——的过程中,欧盟及其成员国和华盛顿都应强调政治压迫、侵犯人权和长期不稳定性之间的紧密关系。俄罗斯、联合国和其他助力达成1997年和平协议的国家——包括美国和伊朗在内,则都应督促拉赫蒙为维持可持续稳定而遵守原则。否则,在北阿富汗和伊斯兰武装力量的煽动下,塔吉克斯坦和国际社会都将无力阻止昨日区域纷争的重现。

比什凯克/布鲁塞尔,2016年1月11日

I. Overview

Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest state, is under dangerous pressure both internally and externally. President Emomali Rahmon’s 23-year rule is marred by violence, lack of accountability, corruption and mass migration. Remittances and drug trafficking are key sources of income. Controls on religion and political opposition, including a ban on the moderate Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), foster resentment. Security along the 1,400-km border with Afghanistan is inconsistent at best, and increasing instability in northern Afghanistan, where Central Asian militants are allied with the Taliban, poses a threat to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan alike. Russia’s support to Tajikistan is a major component in regional security, but Moscow’s concerns about internal opposition to Rahmon are growing. The European Union (EU) and U.S. have only modest ability to influence the Tajik government, but they, Russia and others should be alert to the increasingly worrying direction of Rahmon’s leadership, the risks of state failure and the potential for Islamist extremists to capitalise.

The 1997 peace agreement masked rather than resolved tensions after a brutal civil war (1992-1997) and is unravelling. Its core was IRPT representation of the war’s opposition forces in parliament, but Rahmon deprived the party of its parliament seats after March 2015 elections that were riddled with irregularities, banned it in August, and declared it a terrorist organisation in September. The IRPT’s fate and restrictions on religious expression underscore the state’s contempt for pluralism. Widespread corruption and cronyism send the message to Islamist and secular citizens alike that the political process is closed to all who might challenge Rahmon.

The defection of the head of the Special Assignment Police Unit (OMON), Gen. Gulmurod Khalimov, to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria in May revealed schisms within the security elite, suggested Rahmon may no longer know who can be trusted and reflected the growing appeal of violent radical Islam. The president’s responses are about his survival and do little to reverse the perception that the government is politically and morally bankrupt.

The economy is crippled, with the downturn in Russia adding to the difficulties because remittances are more than 40 per cent of GDP, and some 300,000-400,000 migrants returned home in 2015 with little hope of finding work. The rough economic climate, however, is fundamentally of the government’s making: years of endemic corruption have bled local businesses dry and limit the impact of donor aid. Meanwhile, drug trafficking from Afghanistan is growing. Border security, despite investments and technical assistance from Russia, the EU and U.S., is at best haphazard, partly because of the mountainous terrain but also because the illegal trade has corrupted Tajik security structures.

Given its problems, Tajikistan should be a conflict-prevention priority for the international community. While pragmatic engagement should focus on preventing further repression and encouraging an orderly transition when Rahmon’s term ends in 2020, the risks in sustaining a frightened autocrat with no interest in a credible political process must be factored in. Under the weight of economic crisis and political stagnation, the state may continue weakening, perhaps with little impact beyond its borders, but its internal and external fragility might also lead to instability that would resonate in the broader region. The border weaknesses increase Tajikistan’s potential as a staging post for Islamic militants with ambitions elsewhere in Central Asia. The Uzbek border is relatively strong but that with Kyrgyzstan is much weaker.

State failure, due to whatever factors, would pose a major headache for Russia, other members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and China, with whose restive Xinjiang province Tajikistan shares a 414-km border. CSTO membership and Russia’s military presence in the country is a deterrent against incursions, but the CSTO is untested. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which have clear interests in maintaining peace and security in Tajikistan, should prioritise the security of their respective borders with it, not least as insurance against weaknesses on the Tajik-Afghan border.

Russia, the EU and U.S. should support efforts to increase regional border security. In their political engagement in the region, including their formal security and human rights dialogue formats, the EU and its member states and Washington should also highlight the strong link between political oppression and human rights abuses and longer-term instability. Russia, the UN and others who helped engineer the 1997 agreement, including the U.S. and Iran, should urge Rahmon to honour its principles in the interest of sustainable stability. Otherwise, there is little to stop a slide back into old conflict patterns, now aggravated by a restless northern Afghanistan and the appeal of militant Islam.

Bishkek/Brussels, 11 January 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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