Tajikistan’s security services are in the spotlight following two recent explosions and an audacious jailbreak in the Central Asian nation. The violence may be an indicator of faulty government personnel policies, some experts suggest.
A suicide bombing on September 3 at a police station in the northern city of Khujand left at least two police officers dead and 25 wounded. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Three days later, late on September 5, a blast ripped through a Dushanbe nightclub, leaving at least seven wounded, according to local media reports. The attacks followed close on the heels of the jailbreak, in which 25 alleged militants and oppositions leaders sentenced to long terms in August for plotting to overthrow the government regained their freedom. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Tajik officials were quick to attribute all three incidents to Islamic radicals. Experts on the impoverished, war-ravaged country did not discount the possibility of militant involvement, but some suggested other possibilities, including, in the case of the Khujand car bombing, an economic feud among competing factions or clans. Other analysts said the incidents – in particular the jailbreak – may be connected to President Imomali Rahmon’s penchant for preferring loyalty to professional skill in making personnel appointments. Law-enforcement and security agencies are filled with people who lack experience, they add.
In a commentary published September 2, the Asia-Plus news agency criticized Rahmon’s tendency to appoint people from his home region of Kulob. “The system of state governance has long ago stopped working properly […and] cannot protect even its own interests,” the commentary said.
Perhaps in a sign that he has recognized the weakness of this approach, Rahmon responded to the jailbreak by reshuffling his security forces. But he also has made several prominent speeches warning that Islamic influence is on the rise, equating that influence with terrorism.
Tajikistan shares cultural ties and a porous 832-mile border with Afghanistan, so Islamic radicalism does pose “a reasonable threat,” said Muzaffar Olimov, head of the Sharq Center for Information and Analysis in Dushanbe. But “the government exaggerates, of course, because [it] has to justify [its] actions.”
The agreement that ended Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war provided for a coalition government, bringing some leaders of the defeated United Tajik Opposition into Rahmon’s cabinet. The move was designed to promote reconciliation, but the spirit of unity did not last long. For the past decade, Rahmon has worked assiduously to force opponents and rivals out of government.
Underscoring the president’s effectiveness in neutralizing opposition, the main opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), Central Asia’s only officially recognized Islamic-oriented political movement, has experienced a drastic decline in its influence. Earlier this year, the IRP was left with only two seats in parliament following legislative elections that international observers described as “beset by procedural irregularities and fraud.” [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Now, some of Rahmon’s main critics are saying the president has gone too far, hinting that the recent violence is indicative of a backlash effect. IRPT Chair Muhiddin Kaberi told EurasiaNet.org on September 7 that government restrictions on religious expression could drive people in a militant direction. “Radicalism doesn’t appear [without a reason]. There should be a basis for its appearance, such as the absence of elementary rights … corruption [and] despair,” he said. “People in despair follow those provocative radical slogans.”
Islamic militancy does not pose an immediate threat, said independent analyst Parviz Mullojanov. But if the government does not address some of the country’s underlying economic woes, radical Islam could become a genuine problem. The appeal of Islam is growing in Central Asia, Mullojanov noted. He added that “if [the government] does not solve social-economic problems, this can lead to radicalization in the future. But for now, not only the government but all of society here is exaggerating [the threat of radicalization], especially after recent events.”
The threat of Islamic extremism was part of the justification that Tajik authorities used in meting out long sentences to the 25 escaped fugitives, who had been convicted in a mid-August trial involving 46 defendants in all. The 25 escapees included former opposition members and relatives of commanders who took part in Tajikistan’s 1990s civil war.
Most analysts believe that the escape—from a high security prison a stone’s throw from the presidential palace in central Dushanbe—would have been impossible without the involvement of people inside the security services. The jailbreak, they say, had more to do with the “unfair sentences” handed down in August, as well as fissures within the security services, than it did with radicalism per se.
It is difficult to determine whether corruption or dissatisfaction with the regime, or both, played a role in the escape, Mullojanov hinted. Even so, the incident bore the hallmarks of an inside job. “It looks more like something that could be organized by the secret services,” said Mullojanov, referring to the mass escape. “It couldn’t be done without sources in the prison [administration] itself.”
Rahmon fired most of the security service’s leadership on September 2, but this move is unlikely to be effective unless the president fills these positions with talented administrators, rather than perceived loyalists from his home region.
Speaking with EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity, a high-ranking law enforcement official said the law enforcement and legal system desperately need reform. Criticizing the trial that jailed the 46 in August, he said the judicial system is facing a “crisis” because Rahmon chooses to prosecute people from those regions he considers hostile, but allows blatant criminality and corruption to flourish among his supporters within his government.