Following the election results from October 11 in Tajikistan, President Rahmon has clinched a fifth term in office with his best voting record to date. Though Rahmon has allegedly won by a landslide, political malfeasance is most likely at work. Further, undercurrents within the government and amongst citizens could be brought to the fore by regional developments.
2020 Presidential Election
On October 13, the Central Election Commission of Tajikistan revealed that the incumbent President Rahmon received over 90% of the vote, with 84% voter turnout. A win of this magnitude naturally draws scepticism and accusations of foul play, which Rahmon’s political history only reinforces. Though it will be another eight weeks before the Organization for Security and Co-0peration in Europe (OSCE) releases their findings, it is almost definite that election fraud took place. The OSCE’s most recent prior investigation in Tajikistan, looking at parliamentary elections in March, revealed gross misconduct.
The OSCE’s findings from March highlighted ‘systematic infringements on fundamental political rights.’ Citing the removal of political opposition, undermined electoral credibility, and a lack of transparency and accountability. This seems to be par for the course among many post-Soviet states, especially among those in Central Asia.
President Rahmon is by all definitions a post-Soviet autocratic figure. In 1992, Rahmon emerged as Tajikistan’s leader amidst a civil war that enveloped the nation following the collapse of the USSR (lasting until 1997). Though the Presidency was suspended when he came to power, a new constitution re-establishing the Office in 1994, allowed him to assume the role essentially.
President Rahmon has survived several coup and assassination attempts over the decades of his tenure. Rahmon’s Presidency has enacted several constitutional ‘changes’ to cement his reign. In 2016 a reform was passed to eliminate term limits, allowing his reign to continue. If the current election results stand, he will remain in office until 2027.
Yet, many had thought Rahmon was aiming to install his son, Emomali, as president. As another constitutional reform passed in 2017 lowered the requisite age to hold the office, which could have allowed his son to run in the most recent election. Instead, President Rahmon ‘competed’ against four other pro-government candidates. Again a non-surprise, with the strongest opposition parties, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) and Group 24, being outlawed. With several key members of these parties having faced a mysterious and untimely end, the message is clear.
Rahmon & Russia
President Rahmon, like many post-Soviet state governments, has an amicable relationship with Moscow. Putin made sure to quickly congratulate Rahmon on his recent ‘victory’ and stated the results asserted Rahmon’s political authority and legitimacy. Putin also emphasised the further development of bilateral ties, to increase security and stability in the region.
Russia has also aided Rahmon’s transnational crimes against human rights, or in the very least has willingly turned a blind eye. Early in September, Group 24 activist Shobuddin Badalov was detained in Russia by operatives dressed in civilian clothing. Since, Badalov has been returned to Tajikistan, where he remains in custody. Badalov had been in self-imposed exile in Russia to flee the repercussions brought unto many of his fellow activists that remained in Tajikistan. His detainment in the weeks approaching the election can be seen as further efforts to strangle dissident voices.
Putin and Rahmon are largely in cahoots over security measures, but Moscow also has a hold over Tajikistan economically speaking. With a fledgeling economy, only further disabled by Covid-19, Tajikistan is desperately reliant on the Russian job market. To give an idea of scope, in 2018 the Russian Central Bank claimed that remittances worth $2.5 billion were sent from Russia to Tajikistan, about a third of Tajikistan’s GDP.
Additionally, Russia has wielded investment to influence Tajikistan with soft power. Russia supplies almost all of the petroleum used in Tajikistan and largely built the Sangtuda hydroelectric plant, which aims to provide 10% of the country’s energy needs. While VTB, a government-controlled bank, is heavily invested in Tajikistan’s only consistently gainful venture: the nationalised aluminium firm Talco. Putin also has boasted that Russia provides a third of Tajikistan’s FDI. Moreover, some Russian investments are directed towards the Tajikistani people.
Earlier this year, Tajikistan pledged to build five new Russian-speaking schools in the country. Thanks to Russian money, the Tajikistani education system is being Russified. Many in Tajikistan see this as a welcome opportunity for younger generations to then attend better Russian universities, work in better Russian jobs, and live better Russian lives. Further, suffixes, such as ‘ov’ and ‘ev’ are being reattached to surnames to add a Russian flare for those seeking futures in the Motherland. It should be noted that Rahmon was, until 2007, Rahmonov. Regardless, many in Tajikistan are wary of the Russian stick behind the ‘ruble-mâché’ carrot.
Russia is distracted
Kyrgyzstan’s political situation, leaves Putin, more or less, with his hands full. Lacking much of the strength and focus he would like to devote to the situation in Kyrgyzstan, it seems as though Putin has been forced to accept the ongoing revolution. This should be an indicator for Tajikistani opposition that now is the time to make moves. As Yeats mused: do not wait to strike till the iron is hot but make it hot by striking.
With the present situation of weakened Russian abilities, Kyrgyzstan may very well be able to shake a certain level of influence. Those in Tajikistan hoping for the same ought to take notice. However, the Tajikistani opposition is in a tougher spot. Rahmon has spent almost 30 years consolidating power, taking no prisoners, or perhaps more than his fair share. Thus leaving the opposition with a non-existent formal structure, and Rahmon with the title of the longest-ruling person in the former Soviet Bloc.
On September 17, exiled IRPT member Muhiddin Kabiri was giving an online address when ‘unexpectedly’ Tajikistan’s state internet provider went dark for over an hour. This demonstrates the level of fear and paranoia within Rahmon’s regime. Opportunistically, for Rahmon, Tajikistan houses the largest foreign Russian military base, a presence that is the direct result of Russian involvement in the Tajikistani Civil War. Tajikistan’s long border with Afghanistan ensures that Russia continues to prioritise this base. Operations in the area are flagged mostly as anti-narcotic patrols, as Afghanistan largely fuels the Russian drug epidemic, but their presence also has a role in Tajikistani domestic stability.
Chinese Connections & Conclusions
Much like in Kyrgyzstan, the threat of Chinese influence is palpable. This should be worrying for Russia, the Rahmon regime, and opposition in Tajikistan. Atop the Belt and Road Initiative, China has aimed to gain clout diplomatically. Furthermore, Beijing now controls about half of Tajikistan’s foreign debt. Rahmon is undoubtedly a Russian ally, if not a proxy. Therefore, shrewd members of his regime ought to check for a possible Chinese-Trojan Horse. Though his opposition best not rejoice.
China’s security concerns in the region largely relate to the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups. Many of the same Muslim groups who, in secular forms, had mostly formed the opposition to the Rahmon regime. Ergo, dissidents in Tajikistan (and abroad) are facing an uphill battle. Even if Moscow’s grip is looser than prior, China’s potential larger role proves to be another roadblock to a more democratic Tajikistan.
Unlike Kyrgyzstan, there is not currently the groundswell in Tajikistan to kickstart any predictable political development. However, this should be a moment for the opposition to take stock. If China uses Russian weakness to leverage more influence in Tajikistan, fissures within the Rahmon regime may turn into more extensive fractures. Irreparable ones at that.
China likely seeks a route to increasing its presence in Tajikistan, placing Rahmon in a precarious position. It is unlikely that Rahmon’s regime will escape geopolitical power politics unscathed. China and Russia both play for keeps, and the regime will have to choose between rising Chinese and waning Russian strength. Though the current situation, again, does not present itself as an opportunity for regime change, it does mark the sword over the Tajikistani Damocles’ head. The opposition seeking a more democratic Tajikistan simply must watch from the sidelines, until it falls.