Following a diplomatic faux pas that enraged Russia, the knives seem to be out for Tajikistan’s long-time president, Imomali Rahmon. Various media outlets in Dushanbe have carried harsh commentaries concerning Rahmon’s administration in recent days, presenting an unusual and serious challenge to top authorities in Dushanbe.
The trigger for the media barrage was the Tajik government’s embarrassing confrontation with Moscow earlier in November. After sentencing two Russian charter airline pilots to 8½-year prison terms for smuggling spare engine parts, Dushanbe suddenly backtracked and released the pair when Moscow responded by rounding up Tajik migrant workers for deportation. The Kremlin’s fury could have had devastating consequences for the Tajik economy, which depends on migrant remittances for up to 40 percent of GDP. On Internet chat rooms and in taxicab gossip, Tajiks appeared shocked at the way their government handled the situation.
In their November 23-24 editions, the weeklies Asia-Plus, Nigoh, Ozodagon, Millat, along with the Avesta news agency, carried commentaries that catalogued how widespread corruption and nepotism are reportedly driving the country toward economic and political collapse. Ignoring ongoing libel suits that threaten to shut down several of the papers, editorials called for limits on Rahmon’s powers. They also called for the replacement of the president’s top advisers. Although media outlets were careful not to attack the president directly, which is illegal, these boundary-pushing commentaries grabbed public attention in a country where the government maintains strict control over the press.
“The president must replace the personnel in the top echelon of power; otherwise, the latter will ‘unseat’ the president,” opened a 2,200-word editorial in Asia-Plus.
The commentaries took particular aim at ambitious and expensive government plans to construct the world’s tallest hydropower dam, Rogun. Last year, the government strong-armed most Tajiks into making “voluntary donations” – by withholding civil servant’s salaries and students’ stipends – without providing information on how the money is being used.
Rakhmon “does not have a real program to lead the country out of crisis,” said a commentary published by Nigoh. “The nation’s wealth is being distributed among certain groups existing under the aegis of the government, which enjoy immunity from judicial prosecution.”
The apparent unfairness of the justice system is causing “massive popular indignation,” said Asia-Plus, one of the most popular news outlets in the country. Of 7,491 defendants tried in criminal cases last year, only two were acquitted, according to the report. “Citizens of Tajikistan do not believe in the purity and independence of the judiciary,” it said.
The Russian pilots’ scandal and the shocking breakout last year of 25 high-profile prisoners, including alleged members of a militant Islamic group, from the State Committee for National Security’s remand center, located a stone’s throw from the president’s office, “demonstrate an acute personnel and intellectual crisis,” Asia-Plus quoted Abdugani Mamadazimov, the chairman of the Tajik Association of Political Scientists, as saying.
Members of Rakhmon’s family and top officials from his home province have amassed great wealth under his leadership while the rest of the country sinks deeper into poverty, Nigoh and other commentaries complained.
Since gaining independence in 1991, Tajiks have heard regularly about multi-million-dollar grants from international development agencies, but see no real changes, lamented Asia-Plus. Instead, in the latest United Nations Human Development Index, Tajikistan slipped 15 positions, to 127 out of 187 countries surveyed – the lowest score for any post-Soviet republic. Meanwhile, the government offers young people no option other than to become labor migrants in Russia, an Asia-Plus commentary asserted. “Our schools train slaves,” it said.
Asia-Plus editor Marat Mamadshoev described the media assault as a grassroots reaction to widespread fear that Tajikistan is approaching “the point of no return.”
“The simultaneous publication of articles with similar contents and concerns in several Tajik outlets has nothing to do with a conspiracy. The Russian pilots’ case, followed by the mass deportation of Tajik labor migrants from Russia, has become the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Tajikistan is rolling down a hill,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
“There is fatigue in society. The people are tired of hypocrisy and the authorities’ idleness,” Mamadshoev added.
Asked if the journalists could expect punishment for their bold commentaries, Nuriddin Karshibaev, chairman of the National Association of Independent Media (NANSMIT) said the situation is too tense for officials to take revenge. “The authorities must learn a lesson. The media in Tajikistan are not very strong, but such audacious publications are another sign, even an alarm, indicating concern and the mood of society.”
“There is no need for a witch-hunt,” Karshibaev added, asked if the media onslaught might provoke memories of Russian meddling in the 2010 downfall of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. When Bakiyev angered the Kremlin, the Russian media began bashing him and comparing him to famous historical despots, which opposition groups in Kyrgyzstan took as a sign of support. He was unseated within weeks.
Karshibaev sees no parallel. "The media are expressing what they have to express," he said.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.