Tajik Foreign Minister Sirodjidin Aslov faces an awkward audience with his British counterpart, William Hague, in London today. Campaigners have pressed Hague to demand Tajikistan release a scholar working for a British university amid a sharp rise in anti-British sentiment in the Central Asian country.
It has been over two weeks since Tajikistan’s secret police, the GKNB, detained graduate student Alexander Sodiqov while he was conducting fieldwork on conflict resolution for Exeter University. Sodiqov reportedly faces up to 20 years in jail on treason charges, charges his colleagues call farcical. They and a number of MPs have pressed Hague to link Sodiqov’s freedom to any promises of British support for Tajikistan’s high-profile energy projects, such as the Rogun dam and the CASA-1000 electricity export line to South Asia.
“We hope that there will be a clear statement that British support for Tajikistan – including Rogun and CASA – is conditional on maintaining basic human rights and, specifically, releasing Alex,” said Nick Megoran, a lecturer at Newcastle University who is working with Sodiqov on the British-funded project.
Officials have said little about what they plan to do with Sodiqov. Amnesty International has labeled him a “prisoner of conscience.”
Many see a warning in Sodiqov’s June 16 detention and perhaps an attempt to make him a scapegoat. Shortly before Sodiqov, a Tajik national, was arrested in the troubled eastern mountain province of Gorno-Badakhshan, he had met the affable British ambassador, Robin Ord-Smith, at a reception. Ord-Smith himself had just attempted to meet activists in Gorno-Badakhshan, scene of several days of anti-government protests in May, but was thwarted by authorities. While he was traveling, a crowd of people attacked the British Embassy in Dushanbe, allegedly yelling that the ambassador was interfering in Tajikistan’s internal affairs.
Sodiqov’s detention “signifies a growing anti-western sentiment in Tajikistan,” said IWPR Central Asia editor Saule Mukhametrakhimova at a meeting in London on June 27 to support Sodiqov. “Anyone associated with western funding is now considered an enemy. […] There is a fear that events like those taking place in Ukraine may spread to Tajikistan. Of course Tajikistan is not Ukraine. But this is the way in which the Tajik authorities see things.”
Indeed, senior Tajik officials continue to argue that nefarious, unnamed plotters wish them harm. On June 30, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Shukurdjon Zukhurov, said outsiders are trying to destabilize Tajikistan and urged his colleagues to “maintain statehood and [our] national interests,” Asia Plus quoted him as saying. He did not name any suspects.
Shortly after Sodiqov’s detention, in a clear reference to the case, GKNB chief Saimumin Yatimov said that foreign spies are working under the cover of non-governmental agencies as part of a “big geopolitical-ideological game” to destabilize Tajikistan.
There is little evidence to support such theories, which outsiders – and a shrinking cadre of brave insiders – have identified as attempts to cover up Tajikistan’s own shortcomings.
“[I]f Westerners were really interested in undermining our stability, then they would not need to try hard. It would not be necessary to arrange any ‘color revolutions’ or riots. It would be enough to simply cut our access to financial resources, Western loans and grants,” wrote political analyst Parviz Mullojanov of the “anti-British campaign” on June 19.
Yet officials continue to push this paranoid line of thinking. On June 27, in a speech to mark the end of Tajikistan’s civil war 17 years ago, President Emomali Rakhmon said journalists and non-governmental organizations have a duty to praise the state. His speech carried an implicit warning: Critics of his government will be classified as traitors trying to undermine national unity and punished accordingly.
“In this regard, political parties, public associations and the media should be very cautious and sensible when evaluating and reflecting the socio-political problems of society in the interests of protecting the state’s independence and national interests, protecting the security, peace and political stability of society, and strengthening the national unity of Tajiks,” Rakhmon said.
This talk of statehood and threats may benefit some ministries at the expense of others. In London, as at home, Foreign Minister Aslov, a trained hydrologist (unlike his predecessor, who hailed from the security services), may have limited pull in the battle of ideologies.