How Tajikistan’s President Extended his Term—for Life

While the Central Asian country teeters on economic collapse and civil-war tensions continue to flare, the corrupt president made a move and secured his hold on power.

GettyImages-153488402 (1)

On May 22, the people of Tajikistan — a former Soviet country of 8 million people nestled in the heart of Central Asia — went to the polls. Not to elect a new president or vote for a new parliament, but to decide on whether to make the country’s current president, Emomali Rahmon, president-for-life. The referendum passed in a landslide — with 94.5 percent of votes cast in favor of the change.

Addressed as “your excellency” and referred to as a “great hero” in state media, Rahmon — a former Soviet-era collective farm boss who oversaw the region’s lucrative cotton production — is the closest thing the Central Asian country has to royalty. He has ruled Tajikistan since 1992, surviving a 1992-1997 civil war that killed over 50,000 people and was so brutal that people actually fled into Afghanistan. In 1999, Rahmon won his first re-election bid; since then, he has systematically eliminated his rivals and critics, tinkering with the constitution to keep his hold on power. Throughout his rule, he has earned a reputation for paranoia, brutality, and even incompetence, with former United States Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland describing Rahmon as a man with “no deep understanding of the complexities and realities of the global economy,” whose style of rule is defined by “cronyism and corruption.”

The referendum approved by voters — which contains a series of 41 constitutional amendments — is the latest installment in the president’s long history of rebuilding Tajikistan around himself and his family. In addition to lifting term limits for Rahmon, the amendments also ban the formation of political parties based on religion and lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30 — a move which paves the way for his 29-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, to take over should something happen to the 63-year-old autocrat. The amendments also build on a series of previous moves to cement his power. In December 2015, Tajikistan’s rubber-stamp parliament bestowed upon Rahmon the title of “Leader of the Nation,” a moniker that brings with it constitutionally enshrined immunity from all criminal charges for life, a state-funded palace on the outskirts of Dushanbe, the capital, and the ability to overrule the cabinet — effectively granting him powers in perpetuity, even if he decides to step down as president of the fragile country.

Tajikistan has flirted with state failure before, enduring civil war and economic stagnation, but has so far managed to hold itself together — barely. The government never fully regained control over the country following the civil war, with remote regions like Gorno-Badakhshan, in the Pamir Mountains near Afghanistan, still largely ruled by warlords. It’s no coincidence that the referendum came as Tajikistan continues to unwind, scarred by violence, corruption, and mass migration. Rahmon’s reaction to this crisis? To tighten his grip on the country even further, outlawing the opposition, asserting his control over mosques, and eliminating any challenge to his rule. Experts say that he could push the frail country further towards the brink of economic collapse amid increasing internal divisions and heightened security risks on its southern border.

Formed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country’s 25 years of independence have not been easy. Apart from being the poorest country in Central Asia, Tajikistan has the distinction of being the world’s most remittance-dependent state. Remittances, most of which come from laborers in Russia, are equivalent to 49 percent of the country’s $9.2 billion GDP. Buoyed by the Russian construction boom in the late 2000s, the Tajik economy has suffered as a consequence of Russia’s recent economic woes due to low oil prices and Western sanctions. Work has slowed for the hundreds of thousands of labor migrants in Russia; as a result, remittances from Russia dropped by 65 percent in 2015, falling from $3.16 billion to $1.54 billion over the same period in 2014. The somoni, Tajikistan’s currency, fell 31 percent against the dollar in 2015 and the government is currently discussing a possible International Monetary Fund bailout program to keep the country afloat. Meanwhile, inflation sits at a manageable 6 percent, but prices for basic goods are creeping up in Tajikistan at a time when Russia’s dim economic outlook is forcing labor migrants to return home.

Neither Russia nor the United States has any interest in seeing Tajikistan continue to teeter. Dushanbe positioned itself as a strategic U.S. ally during the height of the war in Afghanistan and still receives aid from the Pentagon to combat terrorism. Russia, meanwhile, has a military base in the country and until 2005, policed Tajikistan’s 870-mile border with Afghanistan. Dushanbe’s ragtag border guards have since taken over, but Moscow has continued to play a major security role in the country. The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military bloc of former Soviet countries, routinely conducts military exercises at the border. In April, the bloc announced plans to introduce a rapid deployment force for Tajikistan in the event Islamist militants overrun the country. Dushanbe has allowed Russia to bolster its military footprint in the region and play geopolitics, but the Kremlin also has genuine fears about radical Islam spreading in its backyard or renewed fighting in Tajikistan.

In addition to Tajikistan’s economic downspiral, Islamic militants — both inside and outside the country — are a major threat to Rahmon’s rule and the Central Asian nation’s stability. Tajikistan’s security forces have sounded the alarm on young Tajiks going to fight in Iraq and Syria, a warning that has only grown louder after the high-profile May 2015 defection of Col. Gulmurod Khalimov, a U.S.- and Russian-trained Tajik police commander, to the Islamic State. Although reliable figures are scarce, the non-profit International Crisis Group estimates about 400 Tajiks have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, the Taliban’s September 2015 capture of the city of Kunduz — only a few hundred miles south of the largely unguarded Afghan-Tajik border — left Dushanbe fretting. The kidnapping and ransoming of several Tajik border guards by Afghan militants over the last 12 months hasn’t helped either. Meanwhile, Tajik and Russian military officials have continued to raise the threat of spillover from Afghanistan, saying that hundreds of militants have already made incursions across the border and that fighters from Iraq and Syria are beginning to return home.

While experts contend the security risk Islamist militants pose to Tajikistan is rising, the Rahmon regime has been quick to use the threat of radical Islamists to serve its own political ends. “The idea of ISIS and terrorism in the country is certainly real, but it also gives a nice justification,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy. In the lead-up to the May 22 referendum, Rahmon led a far-reaching crackdown, muffling the media and using the weakened security situation as a pretext to drive his opponents into exile or even kill them. “We try not use words like unprecedented too often, but that is exactly what the crackdown is in Tajikistan,” Swerdlow said.

In July 2015, the government moved to eliminate critical coverage of the regime in Tajikistan’s already beleaguered press by barring media outlets from publishing content without citing the state-run news agency. The state telecommunications agency, Tajiktelekom, has also moved to censor the internet since 2012, sporadically blocking Facebook, Gmail, and independent news sites under the pretext of national security. The government’s desire to control information has extended to individual journalists as well. In August 2015, Amindzhon Gulmurodzoda, a former Radio Free Europe correspondent, was convicted of forgery and sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly falsifying his birth certificate when he was 6 years old.

Similarly, Roman Kozhevnikov, a veteran freelance journalist and former Reuters stringer, left Tajikistan in June 2015 to seek asylum in the United States after sources in the security forces tipped him off that his political reporting had angered high-level officials, endangering him and his family. “The government knows it can’t provide the jobs and other opportunities to keep the country stable,” Kozhevnikov, who now lives in northern Virginia with his wife and children, told FP. “So they have been eliminating any way for people to have a voice and be critical of the government.”

In September 2015, the government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the leading opposition group, whose leadership was accused of plotting a coup. Despite years of government harassment, the party still managed to retain 40,000 official members before its demise. The May 22 amendments mean that the IRPT, or any other type of religious opposition, is constitutionally illegal. In March 2015, unidentified assailants shot and killed Umarali Quvvatov, the leader of the banned opposition party Group 24, in Istanbul, where he had been living in exile. A Tajik man who claimed to be sympathetic to his cause had invited Quvvatov and his family out to dinner, but Quvvatov and his family became nauseous at the meal and went out outside for fresh air. While outside, according to his wife, an unidentified Tajik-speaking man approached Quvvatov from behind, fired a single shot to his head, and fled the scene. According to Turkish police, Quvvatov’s wife and children displayed symptoms of poisoning.

The IRPT had long been the main outlet for moderate religious expression in Tajikistan, especially as the government enacted increasingly restrictive policies against Islam throughout the country. Minors are barred from attending mosques, imams are forced to praise the president in their sermons, strict regulations limit who may make pilgrimage to Mecca, and local and international media reports have pointed to security officers rounding up devout Tajiks and forcibly shaving their beards. “They used the security situation in Afghanistan and threats of Islamism to justify a crackdown,” Muhiddin Kabiri, the IRPT’s chairman currently living in Europe in exile, told FP. “But I think it was the Arab Spring and later the Maidan in Ukraine that really worried them,” he said, referring to the popular protests in Ukraine against government corruption that ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

The IRPT was Central Asia’s only legal Islamic political party, advocating for a democratic system based on Islamic values. For Kabiri, the blanket crackdown and the lack of economic opportunities is especially worrisome as it will only drive disaffected youth underground, increasing the risk of radicalization. “There is a lost generation right now in Tajikistan. There are no jobs, no free elections, and corruption is rampant,” said Kabiri. “Religion is becoming the only outlet to express dissent, but without moderate voices we will only have more young people joining radical groups.”

“Tajikistan is a kleptocracy,” said Paul Stronski, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Rahmon and his family control the country’s major businesses, including the Tajik Aluminum Company, the country’s largest employer and industrial asset. While officially state-run, revenues rarely make it into the national budget, with profits believed to be routed to a shell company in the British Virgin Islands, according to a report by the Economist in 2013. “Because the country’s economy is in dire straits, the elites have less to skim off the top and there is now more reason to squeeze assets from warlords and other people further down the ladder,” said Stronski.

Many analysts interpreted a shootout in the streets of the capital on September 4, 2015, between security forces and a small band of gunmen led by Gen. Abduhalim Nazarzoda, the country’s then-deputy defense minister, as a sign of a turf war among Tajikistan’s elites, for whom high-ranking posts are avenues to amassing personal fortunes. According to Tajik police, Nazarzoda and his militia launched a predawn attack on a police station in eastern Dushanbe and later clashed with government forces at a Defense Ministry building near the city’s international airport. The general’s men traded machine-gun fire with security forces and managed to fight their way out of the city. The bloody day of fighting left 26 dead. The general and his remaining men were later tracked down in the mountains killed on September16 in a shootout, according to security forces. Tajik state media depicted Nazarzoda as a leader of the criminal underworld and Rahmon painted the episode as a fight against extremism, accusing the General and his militia of having ties to the Islamic State.

A former civil war commander who once fought against Rahmon, Nazarzoda joined the government following the peace accords and was one of the last former opposition military leaders to remain in government. After Rahmon’s regime began consolidating power in the late 2000s, it gradually removed former opposition commanders from the cabinet positions they inherited from the U.N.-brokered peace accords. For instance, Mirzo Ziyoyev, a former opposition commander who was minister of emergency situations, was accused of terrorism before his mysterious death in 2009.

In the face of all this economic and political uncertainty, Rahmon has not only consolidated power for himself, but began laying the groundwork for a dynasty in Central Asia. Rahmon appears intent on holding on to power for the time being, but with the constitutional changes in place, his son Rustam could take over. Partly shielded from the public eye, Rustam has never given a press conference or an interview. Rahmon has groomed his son for years, placing him in high positions of financial significance, such as the state customs agency, and most recently, the head Tajikistan’s anti-corruption agency.

Tajikistan’s newly minted president-for-life has pushed out his rivals and protected his financial interests in preparation for an economic storm to hit. “Ensuring that the dynasty stays on top is a good way to maintain influence and hold on to their money,” said Stronski. “It has less to do with Tajikistan as a state and more about the Rahmon family’s access to wealth and power.”

For Rahmon, Tajikistan’s problems are piling higher and higher, but the president is more concerned about holding the reins of power than stabilizing the country. And in doing so, has brought Tajikistan back to the edge of collapse.

Photo credit: IKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/GettyImages

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan