What led Tajikistan’s security services to suspect a respected researcher of treason and arrest him last month? The answer can be found in recent developments in Tajikistan, and indeed across the former Soviet Union. Alexander Sodiqov’s June 16 arrest comes amid a spike in growing anti-Western rhetoric from Tajik officials.
According to Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB), my friend Alexander – who was conducting fieldwork on conflict management for Britain’s University of Exeter – was allegedly spying for an unnamed “foreign government” with “hostile intentions” at the time he was taken into custody in the conflict-prone eastern town of Khorog. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison. Authorities have held him for three weeks now and have classified his case as “secret.”
The argument that Alexander was working on behalf of a foreign power bent on destabilizing Tajikistan is absurd. It is an attempt to deflect blame for Tajikistan’s internal problems. Authorities do this because it is easier than tackling those problems—widespread poverty, corruption, local officials so paralyzed with fear of the center that they are unable to make basic decisions. Outsiders are easy targets. And by breeding hysteria, President Emomali Rakhmon’s government also intimidates his domestic political opponents into remaining silent.
By framing all threats as coming from outside, the Tajik government positions itself as the sole guarantor of stability. Governmental discourses on security in Tajikistan interweave proclamations on what it means to be patriotic. Those who are perceived to challenge the regime’s narrative by asking tough questions, as Alexander was doing, are transformed into “enemies” and “traitors.”
Of course, the Tajik government’s proclivity for blaming internal instability on a mysterious “foreign hand” is nothing new. Between 2009 and 2011, security forces fought militants in the eastern Rasht Valley. Rather than admitting the violence grew out of unresolved grievances resulting from the region’s post-civil war transition, authorities, without offering evidence, framed their opponents as foreign terrorists inspired by radical Islam.
When violence broke out in Khorog in July 2012, officials again swiftly labeled the conflict as driven by foreign Islamists, namely the Afghan Taliban. No evidence to support that claim has emerged.
The recent political upheaval in Ukraine has boosted the Tajiks’ paranoia; they cannot fail to see the parallels between the clan of Viktor Yanukovych and Rakhmon’s clan. Moscow offers an alternative. As protests heated up in Ukraine last winter, leaders from the Russia-led CSTO military alliance, which includes Tajikistan, blasted what they saw as Western interference. In a December 19 declaration quoted by Kommersant, CSTO leaders promised to combat “the ideology of external interference and colored revolutions.”
The anti-Western hysteria marks a shift in Tajikistan. Now the security services appear to be pushing an agenda strikingly similar to Russia’s, seeing a destabilizing plot in every Western institution and NGO. Just days after Alexander’s arrest, Tajikistan’s top spook, Saimumin Yatimov, said “foreign powers under the guise of non-governmental organizations are attempting to threaten our security."
Yatimov did not mention Alexander or a particular country. But his message was clear: From now on, anyone associated with a Western-funded project – from health workers at an NGO to a civil society organization with Western interns – is a potential enemy of the state.
President Rakhmon threw his weight firmly into the anti-Western camp on June 27 when he declared, in a speech to mark National Reconciliation Day, that “political parties, public associations and the media should be very cautious and sensible” when discussing Tajikistan’s internal problems.
Anti-Western declarations are also becoming a mainstay of Tajik academia. On July 7, responding to a negative assessment of Tajikistan’s business climate by the US Embassy, presidential adviser Sayfullo Safarov told local media that foreign diplomatic missions have “no right to interfere in the domestic affairs of our country. By such actions they may harm stability in Tajikistan.”
Alexander was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the time of his arrest he was meeting an opposition leader in restive Khorog.
Just one month before his arrest, violence had broken out again there after a shoot-out between police and suspected drug smugglers left several dead. When the British ambassador attempted to visit the region on June 10, security officials prevented him from meeting activists. Mysteriously, in a country where protests are criminalized and rare, a demonstration took place outside of the British Embassy in Dushanbe as the ambassador, Robin Ord-Smith, was traveling to Khorog. Independent observers see a connection.
And Alexander was working for a British university.
The government’s power is built on its ability to monopolize information about security threats. Alexander visited Khorog to ascertain what had happened in 2012 and this May. Clearly, the government has something to hide and, in arresting Alexander, has taken drastic measures to prevent any potentially damaging revelations.
Edward Lemon, a former EurasiaNet contributor, is now pursuing a political science PhD in the UK.