The party of Tajikistan’s strongman president, Emomali Rakhmon, has swept aside all opposition in a parliamentary vote that international observes say fell far short of democratic standards.
Since independnece, two mildly critical parties each held two seats in the largely rubber-stamp 63-seat Assembly of Representatives: the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) and the Communist Party. Though both had little power, their presence gave the body a democratic veneer. On March 1, neither met the 5 percent threshold needed to claim seats in parliament.
Instead, Rakhmon's ruling People’s Democratic Party increased its majority from 55 to 57 seats, local media reported. The remaining seven seats will be split among the Agrarian Party, the Party of Economic Reforms, and the Socialist Party, all of which have close links to Rakhmon’s regime.
The Communist leader called the poll a "farce," but said there was no point in challenging the results.
The Central Electoral Commission declared the vote valid, claiming that over 87 percent of the four-million-strong electorate had turned out at 3,209 polling stations around the country.
Tajikistan has never held a vote deemed free or fair by independent observers, and this one was no different.
Tajikistan’s authoritarian government has enlisted the support of the state-appointed clergy ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary vote.
“We have to vote for those whose work has achieved results,” reads a sermon the government distributed to imams ahead of Friday prayers on February 27. “May God protect our head of state, who has devoted himself to saving our nation and delivering us from our troubles.”
The sermon, seen by EurasiaNet.org, was prepared by the state-run Council of Religious Affairs, which manages all of Tajikistan’s mosques, vets and pays all imams. As instructed, imams read the sermon at a number of mosques in Dushanbe today, a source in the capital told EurasiaNet.org. In the city’s central mosque, the source said, the imam paraphrased the sermon and highlighted long-serving President Emomali Rakhmon’s outstanding leadership qualities.
The sermon goes on to criticize the opposition. Although it does not name any parties, the target is clear: Tajikistan’s beleaguered and moderate Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), which the authorities have largely prevented from campaigning ahead of the March 1 election.
“Is it not this party that divided people? Is it not this party that brought you to Afghanistan [as refugees], bringing hunger, poverty and humiliation?” the sermon reads. It goes on to accuse the IRPT – which was born out of the 1997 peace treaty that ended Tajikistan’s civil war – of stockpiling weapons and seeking to return the country to civil war.
The only question to ask about Tajikistan’s upcoming parliamentary elections is whether the authorities will allow any opposition parties to win seats in the rubber-stamp body. A victory for the president’s party is guaranteed. But, just in case, authorities are making it almost impossible for anyone else to run.
Eight parties are fielding 288 candidates to contest 63 seats in parliament’s lower house on March 1. Tajikistan has never held an election judged free and fair by impartial observers.
During the previous election, in 2010, President Emomali Rakhmon’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 55 of the 63 seats. The only opposition party to enter parliament, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), won just two seats. The other seats went to members of the loyal opposition—parties that bestow on Tajikistan the trappings of democracy, but kowtow to the president.
For starters, the Central Electoral Committee disqualified over half of the IRPT’s 160 proposed candidates – including Rakhmon’s former math teacher – on the grounds they allegedly failed their mandatory Tajik language test. Meanwhile, the State Television and Radio Committee blocked the IRPT’s attempt to air their promotional videos on television. An official explained to Asia Plus that the studio that produced the clips is not registered.
The International Crisis Group’s latest report, “Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia,” has generated a lot of media buzz. But two prominent experts on the region are less than convinced. In a critique published February 17, John Heathershaw and David Montgomery slam the report’s fundamental assumptions, calling the research “suggestive impressions masquerading as solid insights.”
Heathershaw, of the University of Exeter (full disclosure: he is my PhD supervisor), and Montgomery, of the University of Pittsburgh, argue that there is little evidence to support the ICG’s assumptions on post-Soviet Muslim radicalization. Drawing on a limited number of interviews with “Islamic State sympathizers,” the ICG infers a causal relationship between what sympathizers say and what militants do, where none can be proven. By concluding that Islamization drives radicalization, the ICG helps legitimate Central Asian regimes’ repression of religious practices, the two contend.
Many of the ICG’s conclusions are based on guesswork, the authors say. The exclusive use of anonymous sources makes it difficult to judge whether the interviewees are serious academics or attention-grabbing, self-styled “experts”—of which Central Asia has so many. Yet these “experts” are uncritically cited and provide the sole evidence for the report’s conclusions.
For instance, Heathershaw and Montgomery take issue with the number of Central Asians that the report states have gone to Syria and Iraq:
Proponents of a controversial plan to build a high-voltage electricity export line from Tajikistan to South Asia argue that the connection – known as CASA-1000 – will not be used in winter, when the country’s own citizens suffer debilitating electricity shortages.
But a senior Tajik official has undermined that promise, arguing that no matter how little it has for itself, Tajikistan must export electricity year-round lest any transmission equipment be looted.
Most regions of Tajikistan are currently receiving about 12 hours of electricity per day; some areas get less than 10 hours and, as anyone in remote areas can attest, the current is often so weak that it cannot charge a cell phone.
Despite these extended blackouts, Tajikistan increased its electricity exports to Afghanistan through existing lines from 30 million kWh in January 2014 to 55 million kWh last month, Asia-Plus reported on February 17, citing the State Statistics Agency.
Many ask the obvious question: Shouldn’t a country’s resources first serve its own people?
After years of speculation, now we have the answer. The head of the state electricity monopoly, Barki Tajik, says that the company must export in winter because it cannot risk allowing existing infrastructure to stand idle. “We keep the voltage in these lines because there is a high probability of equipment theft,” the Asia-Plus article quoted Rustam Rakhmatzoda as saying.
That confession should impact CASA-1000, which has been on the drawing board since 2007.
Talco, the company behind Tajikistan’s largest factory, is nearing a deal that would end an eight-year legal battle with the world’s largest aluminum maker, the company says.
The state-owned Talco aluminum smelter is controlled directly by Tajikistan’s strongman President Emomali Rakhmon, whose family has appeared to benefit disproportionately from the plant’s revenues.
But a history of troubled deals with Russia’s Rusal and its subsidiaries saw Talco lose in arbitration hearings in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands in 2013 and 2014. According to Rusal, as of May 2014 the Tajik company owed $363 million, including interest. With interest accruing at nearly $45,000 per day, the total would be roughly $375 million today.
Now Talco says it has made a proposal that satisfies Rusal and that the two companies have signed off on a draft agreement, Radio Ozodi quoted Talco executive Igor Sattarov as saying on February 16. Tajikistan’s government and the Rusal board must still okay the deal, said Sattarov, who did not disclose any of the terms. Last week President Rakhmon replaced the company’s boss.
A Rusal spokesperson would not offer any details about the alleged deal, only telling EurasiaNet.org, “We can officially say that nothing has been signed yet and the agreement in question is pending approval of Rusal’s board of directors.”
Tajikistan does not mine alumina, but imports the raw materials and uses its cheap electricity to operate the smelter, which was opened in 1975 when the country was part of the Soviet Union. When the plant was functioning at capacity, it used 40 percent of Tajikistan’s electrical output, leaving much of the country in the dark.
Tajikistan's parliament has made it easier for its citizens to join the Russian armed forces in response to Russia's welcoming of foreigners into its ranks.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law allowing citizens of other countries to join the Russian military. While in theory the move would seem to pave the way for a Russian version of the French foreign legion, military analysts said that the real purpose was to make it easier to take on locals at Russia's military bases abroad, in particular in Armenia and Tajikistan. From the Moscow Times:
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defense think tank, explained to The Moscow Times that the change was finally implemented to provide legal status to locals already serving on Russian bases in Armenia and Tajikistan.
Furthermore, as salaries for Russian civilians continue to outpace those offered by military service contracts, the new law is seen as a way to fill the military with migrant workers, Pukhov said. The reported salary for a contract soldier in the Russian army is 30,000 rubles ($500) a month.
A street sweeper cleans Moscow’s Tverskaya Ulitsa. Central Asian migrants often do the dirtiest jobs in Russia.
It’s February, so Muscovites are grumbling about their city’s slippery sidewalks. The complaint isn’t unusual in winter, but this year many say they know why everything is covered in ice: The “Tajiks” have left.
Russian media report that the collapse of the ruble and strict new rules for migrant laborers have encouraged an exodus of Central Asians. But preliminary numbers are far smaller than many Muscovites believe. Besides, new government hurdles can be overcome with a bribe.
The startling number often reported and repeated is 70 percent fewer labor migrants than last year. It dates back to January 7, from comments by the head of the Federal Migration Service (FMS), Konstantin Romodanovsky, who cited it as the decrease in arriving migrants year on year. But the comparison is of dubious statistical value, referring only to the first week of 2015, which falls amid Russia’s protracted winter holidays, and also happened to be the first week that the stringent new rules were in place. Nonetheless, even migrants quote the figure when asked for estimates of how many of their compatriots have chosen to leave.
Last week FMS offered more detailed figures. In January, compared with a year earlier, the number of Uzbek citizens in Russia fell 4.3 percent and Tajik citizens by 2.2 percent, according to the RBK business-news website. Yet the number of Kyrgyzstanis had grown by 3.8 percent. (Numbers showing departures in the second half of the year are misleading, as traditionally many migrants leave Russia each winter when seasonal work dries up.)
Yet another dissident who has angered Tajikistan’s authorities now languishes in prison.
Maqsood Ibragimov, the 37-year-old head of the Russia-based opposition movement "Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan," was arrested in Moscow on January 20 and promptly appeared in a Tajik prison.
A rights activist who spoke with Ibragimov after his arrest wrote that five men entered Ibragimov’s Moscow apartment dressed as members of Russia’s migration service. On January 30, the Tajik prosecutor general’s office confirmed to Radio Ozodi that Ibragimov had indeed been extradited on charges of extremism. It did not explain how he got home.
Dushanbe had been pursuing Ibragimov since he established the movement last October. At the request of the Tajik government, Russian authorities arrested him in November. But as a dual Russian national, he was released. According to France-based human rights activist Nadezhda Atayeva, the Russian authorities then forced him to relinquish his citizenship. Then followed the detention and extradition in January. (Meanwhile, in late November, an unidentified assailant stabbed Ibragimov in Moscow.)
Ibragimov’s arrest appears to be part of a pattern, whereby the hypersensitive government of strongman Emomali Rakhmon accuses critics of “extremism” and uses the servile judiciary to lock them up.
Georgia would see a big boost in its U.S. military and economic aid under the White House's new proposed budget, while aid to most of the rest of the region would decline.
Under the budget proposed on February 2, Georgia would get $20 million in Foreign Military Financing aid (which allows the country to buy equipment from the U.S.) in Fiscal Year 2016. That's double the amount proposed last year (it's not yet clear how much of that was actually disbursed). From the State Department document explaining the proposal:
Funds will be used to advance Georgia’s development of forces capable of enhancing security, countering Russian aggression, and contributing to coalition operations. This will include support for such things as upgrades to Georgia’s rotary wing air transport capabilities, advisory and defense reform, and modernization of Georgia’s military institutions.