Fears of a Tajik Maidan—A Net Assessment of the Ukraine Crisis’ Impact on the Domestic Situation in Tajikistan Since the Start of 2014

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 184

The Euromaidan protests that took place during winter 2013–2014, in Ukraine, have cast their shadow over Tajikistan. The short-term effect of the protests (particularly the Russian response), along with the increasingly violent and intractable nature of the civil war in Syria, makes comparable protests unlikely in Tajikistan in the near to medium term. However, this has not kept some from trying.

Earlier this month, the opposition figure Umarali Quvatov called for protests to take place in Dushanbe on October 10. Quvatov, the exiled leader of the now banned opposition organization “Group 24,” enjoys limited popularity, and the protests failed to materialize. Despite Quvatov’s lack of broad appeal, the government responded to his call by beefing up security in the capital and blocking websites and text message services. Some media outlets reported that President Emomali Rahmon even invited 800 Chinese troops into the capital to help suppress potential protests, although it remains unclear if these allegations are true or simply misinformation emanating from Quvatov and his camp (BBC Tajiki, October 13).

Perhaps more interesting than Quvatov’s call for protest or the government’s reaction to it was the fact that the protests were condemned by nearly all of Tajikistan’s domestic opposition, including former civil war military commanders such as Mirzohuja Ahmadov, opposition political parties such as The Islamic Renaissance Party, and prominent clerics such as Hoji Mirzo (Ozodi, October 8, 10, 11). Generally speaking, anti-government protests are not favorably viewed by most Tajikistanis. They are typically seen as a prelude to chaos and violence as witnessed in the case of Ukraine and Syria or even Tajikistan’s own recent history. In 1992, anti-government demonstrations were the proximate cause of Tajikistan’s civil war, a fact that weighs heavily on the collective consciousness of Tajikistanis both because of the extreme violence and destruction caused by the war and because the regime’s propaganda machine will not let anyone forget what they consider to be the self-evident lesson of that episode, namely: opposition leads to anarchy, obedience leads to peace.

Incidents this past year in the semi-autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan (see EDM, April 29) have demonstrated that the regime is willing to use lethal force to suppress public displays of dissent, which may further dampen the appetite for protest. One of the most widely cited reasons for the unlikelihood of protests is the fact that a significant percentage of Tajikistan’s military-age men live in Russia as migrant laborers. If this diversion of manpower does prove to be a crucial factor in forestalling protest movements in Tajikistan, it might prove a pyrrhic victory for the regime for three reasons:

First, over the long run, the domestic economic hardships that drive Tajikistani laborers to Russia in search of work may exacerbate their underlying grievances against the regime. This would particularly be the case if a sudden change in Russian migration policy led to quotas or deportations that drastically reduced the number of Tajikistani migrants. Despite its reliance on cheap labor, Russia has a long history of threatening such actions as a way of extracting concessions from Dushanbe. A sudden and large repatriation of Tajikistani migrant labors with no means of supporting their families would have negative consequences for regime stability.

Second, long-term mass labor migration has considerable effects on Tajikistani social—and by extension—political dynamics. While regionalism, entrenched patronage networks, and loyalty to local strong men have hampered Rahmon’s ability to fully consolidate power in a centralized government, the existence of local power brokers do at least provide him with a finite (and familiar) number of interlocutors to deal with in times of crisis. Recent history is replete with examples of Rahmon using a combination of threats and inducements to compel local strong men to bring themselves (and their constituents) into line. Mass labor migration, however, may erode traditional patronage networks and regional identities, thereby degrading the ability of local strong men to “deliver” their constituents. The aforementioned Mirzohuja Ahmadov, who rejected calls for domestic street protests in Tajikistan, is a prime example of the trajectory of a regional war lord–turned Rahmon ally. A reader response to an interview with Ahmadov on Radio Free Europe’s Tajik-language website, however, is indicative of the potentially evolving sentiment of migrant laborers: “Mr. Ahmadov, do not speak for all of the Gharmis, I am a migrant in Moscow and I support Umarali Quvatov one hundred percent” (Ozodi, October 11). “Gharmis” refers to people who live in, or trace their lineage back to, the region of Gharm in Tajikistan.

And third, the process of de-regionalization and the leveling of local political hierarchies could be a force for good as it opens the door for competing political and religious ideas. However, recent reports of Tajikistani citizens being radicalized in Russia and recruited to fight with the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—ISIS) show how dangerous ideas can also metastasize in these communities (RFE/RL, October 2; see EDM August 7, 2013).

Since the start of the anti-government protests in Ukraine, and the ensuing Russian invasion of the country, the Ukraine crisis has raised a great deal of apprehension inside Tajikistan. And in large part due the population’s distrust of mass protests as a spark for anarchy, combined possibly with the large number of young Tajikistani men working in Russia, so far mass protest movements have not materialized. Yet, the country’s economic reliance on labor migration to Russia, the political effect of mass labor migration on traditional patronage networks, as well as concerns of greater ease of extremist ideology spreading through inter-mixed uprooted communities could help reverse this situation over the long term. All these factors call for more careful scrutiny, as it is possible that the reasons that have made Euromaidan-style protests in Tajikistan unlikely in the short term could lead to more radical and violent opposition in the medium to long term.