Mystery continues to engulf Tajikistan's first family, which appears preoccupied with a destabilizing power struggle. The continuing uncertainty surrounding the president and his close relatives suggests that a bout of instability could be in the offing for Central Asia's poorest nation.
In recent days, people close to Khasan Sadulloyev -- one of the most powerful men in Tajikistan, as well as President Imomali Rahmon's brother-in-law -- have vigorously denied rumors circulating in Dushanbe that he was shot and killed in early May by Rahmon's son Rustam. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the same time, Sadulloyev has not been seen in public since the supposed shooting occurred.
In comments made to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Umed Davlatzoda, the deputy chairman of Orienbank, an entity controlled by Sadulloyev, derided reports of the shooting, attributing them to the "tattling" of idle gossipers. "We would come up with an official denial, if the story came from a [credible] source," Davlatzoda said. The bank official insisted Sadulloyev is "safe and sound."
Regardless of whether Sadulloyev is alive or dead, the mere existence of the rumor has the potential to inflict a mortal wound on Rahmon's administration. An important element in any authoritarian regime is the aura of invincibility. The Sadulloyev controversy is stoking the impression that the presidential clan is gripped by dysfunction. Within the Soviet and post-Soviet context, a leader who is not able to exhibit mastery over developments, or who shows any sign of weakness or hesitation, traditionally has faced a strong and often successful challenge to his authority. The most recent example of the "weak Tsar" syndrome leading to regime change was Askar Akayev's downfall in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Helping to fan speculation about instability at the top of Tajikistan's political pyramid, Rahmon did not attend public ceremonies held in connection with the Victory Day holiday on May 9.
Conjecture about Rahmon's grip on power has been building since last November, when a bomb ripped apart the official car of Maj. Gen. Rajabali Rakhmonaliyev, the head of Tajikistan's National Guard, which essentially serves as Rahmon's personal self-defense force. Rakhmonaliyev was not in the car at the time, and was unscathed in the incident. Days later, a bomb blast rocked downtown Dushanbe outside a conference center where a European Union-organized gathering had been due to take place. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Authorities immediately said the incident had a "terrorist" connection, but some regional analysts in retrospect suggest that the bombing might have been connected to a brewing power struggle.
On November 16, 2007, an analysis posted on the Ariana news website -- which focuses on political, economic and social developments in Tajikistan -- indicated that potential successors to Rahmon were vying to position themselves for a possible "forced change of the elite." The commentary described Rakhmonaliyev as one of the main contenders to succeed Rahmon, adding that the car bombing was designed to remove him from the succession picture.
Sadulloyev also was identified as a top presidential possibility. Other possible candidates, according to the Ariana analysis, were: Dushanbe Mayor Makhmadsaid Ubaidulloyev; Amirsho Miraliyev, a top presidential aide; and Nuriddin Rahmonov, a presidential relative who wields vast influence over the personnel policy of the governmental bureaucracy.
Rumors that Rahmon was ill seemed to drive speculation about a possible political change back in November. Six months later, however, an image of incompetence has cloaked Rahmon administration, stoked by the troubles experienced by Tajikistan last winter, when the country suffered for prolonged periods without power and heat. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The winter of discontent has been followed by a spring of fury, as many Tajiks have grown alarmed by the skyrocketing cost of staples, especially bread. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The shifting perception of the government's ability to provide for the population would seem to leave Rahmon in a more vulnerable position than ever before.
Some analysts speculate that Rustam Rahmon's supposed involvement in the mysterious episode concerning Sadulloyev could be connected with an attempt to thrust himself into the purported line of succession. Little is known about the younger Rahmon, who is believed to be in his early 20s. He reportedly studied in the United States.
Regional political analysts say that, given a total information blackout maintained by officials, there is no way to independently confirm whether Sadulloyev was in fact shot, and, if he was, whether he survived. Regardless, political developments in Tajikistan in the coming weeks and months will merit scrutiny. At this stage, history is not on Rahmon's side.