Tomorrow, President Imomali Rakhmon will begin his long-promised visit to the restive mountainous east, scene of fighting in July that killed dozens of government troops, rebels, and an unknown number of civilians. During the visit, Khorog residents hope the president will see their suffering and offer solutions. But what’s on the president’s agenda, and the way local officials are preparing for his high-level visit to Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO), has some deeply worried.
Addressing the president in an unusually frank open letter sent September 15, the “ordinary people” of Khorog (actual authorship is unclear) say they “believe that not all information about the situation in Khorog reaches you” and complain that local officials are forcing them to celebrate the visit with Potemkin pomp, rather than address the recent tragedy.
Published by Asia-Plus and posted by Facebook users, the letter – entitled “A grieving populace is being forced to have fun” – accuses local officials of obligating them to put smiles on their faces and banning discussions of the violence; teachers and doctors, according to the authors, have been told they could lose their jobs if they don’t cooperate.
“In these difficult days we deeply believe in your sincere sympathy for our grief and do not want certain guilty individuals to turn your visit into an attempt to conceal their inhuman decisions. … They want to conceal all that happened in Khorog in July-August and are forcing ordinary people, grieved by recent events, not inclined right now towards fun or joy, to take part in celebrations marking your working visit. Such efforts are being undertaken right now by certain individuals [working] in government bodies," says the statement. "We, ordinary people, as you, are deeply against this type of mandatory celebration, the irrational spending of government funds, and the concealment of problems existing in certain regions of our country. ... Currently, in GBAO, people are being forced to take part in pompous celebrations under threat of dismissal from work, especially employees of the public sector, teachers, doctors, [college] students, and schoolchildren.”
“It has already become public knowledge that you are scheduled to meet with representatives of the public of Khorog, but the regional administration has, in no uncertain terms, banned raising the issue of the recent events in Khorog at the meeting with you," says the letter. "We, ordinary people, believe that the recent events in Khorog, which have brought grief to our homes and have become cause for the tears of Tajik mothers, must be the main theme of this meeting.”
Asia-Plus’ executive director, Zebo Tadjibaeva, said members of the Facebook group Peace in Khorog sent the letter to Asia-Plus (which remains blocked in Tajikistan, apparently for its critical coverage of the Khorog developments). Tadjibaeva says she’s seen several similar letters since the July violence, “but we don’t know at what stage and when the president saw them. Such letters never get any official response.”
"Generally, people in Badakhshan strongly believe in the president; it's in their mentality,” Tadjibaeva told EurasiaNet.org. But she added that people in GBAO fear Rakhmon “just doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Access to the president in Tajikistan is strictly stage-managed. When local officials prepare to host Rakhmon, new roads are paved, buildings painted, and streets cleaned. Sometimes the results can seem comical: Last month Radio Free Europe reported that officials in Kulob had banned donkeys with buckets from visiting water wells in the city center so the president, during an upcoming visit, wouldn’t see local poverty – and, by extension, the officials’ lack of attention to basic infrastructure requirements like running water.
Over the years, such efforts have left many wondering what the president really knows, and to what degree he is protected by fawning advisors who perhaps hold the real reins of power.
Rakhmon is expected to start his visit to GBAO on September 18. In Khorog, he is scheduled to open a clothing factory.