Uprisings in the Middle East have led many to discuss expiration dates for Central Asia’s dictators, speculating on which is next to fall. Though there’s no surprise American’s are angry to learn their government does business with people who reportedly boil their opponents alive (Uzbekistan) or routinely jail religious minorities and keep a neo-Stalinist visa regime (Turkmenistan), in our region only Emomali Rakhmon of Tajikistan makes Time magazine’s list of “Top 10 Autocrats in Trouble.”
As Time points out, both Egypt and Tajikistan have long-lasting dictators who have built careers out of repressing Islam and political opposition. Both regimes are saturated with corruption.
There are even more parallels, but at least one key difference between the countries remains: Tajikistan suffered a gory civil war in the 1990s in which tens of thousands died; Tunisia and Egypt did not. This is perhaps the most crucial conditioning factor in the political mentality of most Tajiks, who, no matter how much they suffer in Rakhmon’s “poor and lawless…personal fief,” as Time puts it, fear a relapse into bloody communal violence more than anything else. Today, when discussing events in Egypt, the consensus seems to be, “We Tajiks value peace above all else” -- says a middle-aged man in a Dushanbe teahouse -- “stability over what you call democracy.”
Rakhmon, of course, is not taking any chances. State-controlled media has not reported on events in Tunisia and Egypt, instead focusing on gripping topics such as tractors and the diversity of local fauna. But Tajiks are very aware of the showdown in Tahrir Square; most quickly distance themselves: “They live in a different country, have a different government and different needs,” says one.
Nevertheless, even if the civil war is too painful a memory, a cache of hurt keeping most Tajiks out of politics, Rakhmon would be wise to learn a few lessons from Egypt. For one, he may want to reconsider pushing the Islamic opposition underground. Hosni Mubarak, now staring down tens of thousands of protestors, many from the banned Muslim Brotherhood, spent 30 years arresting and brutalizing his Islamic opposition. As a new generation of Tajiks -- young men who don’t remember the civil war and have no outlet for grievance other than Islam -- reaches maturity, Rakhmon’s clumsy harassment of their beards, their imams, and his penchant for locking up alleged militants on flimsy evidence may come back to bite.