Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov (center right) speaking at the House of Lords on July 2.
Two weeks after Tajikistan's secret police arrested researcher Alexander Sodiqov on bogus treason charges, Tajikistan’s foreign minister visited London for a series of long-planned bilateral talks. At times, the atmosphere was tense. The Tajiks wanted to focus on issues of political and economic cooperation, but they came away from London with little to show except for a lot of bad press concerning Sodiqov.
About 20 MPs, assorted lords and ladies, and invited members of the public gathered in the House of Lords to hear Sirojiddin Aslov on July 2. Aslov’s insipid speech focused on the progress that Tajikistan has made since gaining independence in 1991. He deployed a number of Tajik policy tropes: the need to utilize hydropower to attain energy independence; to develop agriculture to improve food security; to develop trade corridors to access foreign markets. Human rights, political reform and corruption were not on his agenda.
But they were on his audience’s agenda, largely because of the ongoing detention of Sodiqov.
Aslov acknowledged “the friendly relations between Britain and Tajikistan,” expressing an interest in developing the relationship. His trip, however, has been overshadowed by tension between Britain and Tajikistan, namely an attack on the British embassy and pressure on the British ambassador, Robin-Ord Smith, during his June 10 trip to the restive eastern town of Khorog. Days later, on June 16, authorities detained Alexander Sodiqov, a researcher for the University of Exeter during an interview in Khorog.
The timing of this rift could harm Tajikistan’s aspirations. The UK’s aid agency, the Department for International Development (DFID), has yet to renew its commitment to Tajikistan for 2015 and the British government has not yet decided the extent to which it will support CASA-1000, an electricity-export scheme Dushanbe hopes will help it earn hard currency. Aslov clearly expected to secure new trade deals, financing for CASA and more aid during his trip. Instead, the only thing Aslov signed in London was an agreement prohibiting double taxation.
After Aslov’s speech, it was left to Labor MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, to raise the issue of Sodiqov’s detention. “I urge you to use your power to speed up the legal process and to allow Alexander’s wife and legal team to have sufficient access to him,” Bradshaw said.
Aslov was clearly uncomfortable with the statement. He responded, in English:
“First of all I would like to say that Mr Sodiqov is a citizen of Tajikistan and is therefore subject to our laws. […] It is impossible to say whether he will be convicted or released. The investigation is ongoing […] Mr Sodiqov had contact with some negative people in Tajikistan […]. The security services received intelligence that he was meeting with these people and detained him.
“This is an unstable area. On the one hand, it is near the instability of Afghanistan; the border is just 500 meters away. It is not a secret that there is drug trafficking and human trafficking here. This is why this area is under the strong control of some agencies. Therefore the security services monitor the activities of opposition persons in this area. These people were involved in the cases [the recent violence in Khorog] […]. Before meeting with these people, Mr Sodiqov should have asked for permission from the authorities; we would have even helped him with his research. But unfortunately he went without the permission of these agencies and that is why he was detained.”
Aslov ended on a more positive note. “I hope,” he stated, “that the investigation will be completed soon and I hope for a positive conclusion.” Aslov may also hope that the security agencies in his country understand that they harm Tajikistan’s investment profile when they arrest innocent academics.
Official propaganda created the impression that the foreign minister’s London sojourn was a triumph. Such visits help the regime build its legitimacy at home and abroad. What the state media failed to report is the growing rift between Britain and Tajikistan.