Officials in Tajikistan are heaping new confusion onto the ongoing shutdown of Facebook. While users triumphantly explain to each other how to access the site through proxy servers, a group close to President Emomali Rakhmon has suggested that Tajikistan should build its own social network to promote “the ideals and national values of the Tajik people.”
The state agency in charge of IT and telecommunications has claimed the March 2-3 block – condemned by a Tajik Internet lobby and US-based Freedom House – is “temporary” and for “prophylactic maintenance.”
Internet service providers have said they were ordered to block Facebook last weekend, along with three or four news portals, by the state Communications Service, after one of the portals published an article severely criticizing Rakhmon and his government. When queried by news agency Asia-Plus, the head of the service, Beg Zukhurov, denied any order to block Facebook, but said the authors of offensive online content “defaming the honor and dignity of the Tajik authorities” should be made “answerable.” Tajikistan frequently uses libel cases and extremism charges to silence critical journalists.
Zukhurov promised to restore the Facebook connection “soon.” (Meanwhile, what seems to be a copy of his order is circulating on – you guessed it – Facebook.)
Authorities in Tajikistan have blocked access to Facebook and several Russian-language news websites, apparently trying to stem mounting online criticism of long-serving President Emomali Rakhmon. Since the uprisings across the Arab world in the past year, which authorities throughout Central Asia blame on social networks such as Facebook, the former Soviet region's autocrats have stepped up Internet restrictions, while citizens increasingly turn to social networks to discuss their frustrations.
The latest crackdown reportedly began after a website called Zvezda.ru published a withering critique of Rakhmon entitled “Tajikistan on the Eve of Revolution,” which argued the president is “incompetent” and presides over a corrupt regime where his family has gained control over every state asset down to the last telephone pole. The article predicts mass unrest. “Rakhmon’s regime has lead the country to complete devastation, ruin and terrible poverty,” wrote Sergey Strokan, a staffer with the heavyweight Russian daily Kommersant.
What is a military helicopter from Tajikistan doing in southern Afghanistan?
That question has been prompted by conflicting reports about a February 11 crash that killed four Tajik air force officers, including the son of the deputy defense minister, in Zabul Province.
Tajik state media report the Soviet-era MI-8 helicopter, which belongs to the country’s Defense Ministry, had been ferrying about supplies since May 2011 on behalf of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Khovar, the state news agency, said on February 13 that the reasons for the crash are unknown, but that bad weather was likely to blame. A source in Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry told the Asia-Plus news agency that the helicopter crew was delivering “humanitarian cargo to remote mountain villages in Afghanistan.”
But the Associated Press reports that the helicopter was delivering food to US troops on behalf of Supreme Group, a private contractor. Supreme, which supplies military bases around Afghanistan and operates a duty-free food and liquor store for expatriates in Kabul, told the AP that the helicopter was operated by a company called Central Asian Aviation Services. That company’s website is under construction, but lists a phone number in the UAE.
Are children better off at school or in the streets serving as props on a national holiday?
Some 10,000 schoolchildren and university students will march in Tajikistan’s capital on March 21 to celebrate the traditional Persian New Year, Novruz, Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reports.
Practice sessions will be held outside of school hours, said the head of the city’s education department. The Education Ministry says rehearsals started this week, six weeks before the festivities.
What do parents think? Judging from the dozens of comments on Asia-Plus, many aren’t convinced preparations will remain strictly after-school activities. Nor are they so keen on seeing their children turned into living propaganda machines. And a lot of parents would rather the state spend more on education, the quality of which is abysmal, and less on parties. Almost 20,000 students participated in independence festivities last September, according to the article.
It’s long been custom in the former Soviet Union to make schoolchildren perform for the good and glory of the state. Whether it’s cotton that needs picking, litter that needs gathering, or flags that need waving, schoolchildren are an army of free labor at the government’s disposal.
Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon is tired of the “toadyism.” Suddenly modest, he’s told his government to knock off the lavish receptions everywhere he goes because they are embarrassing. From Reuters:
"I feel ashamed of your toadyism," an enraged Rakhmon told a government meeting in remarks broadcast by state television.
"Ordinary people, residents of the towns and districts where I come on working visits, keep complaining to me: 'They empty our pockets on your every trip...gathering money for a tribute, a carpet, a rug, flowers and feasts'."
"What's that? Stop it! I don't need any of this."
A video posted by RFE/RL in November shows what Rakhmon is talking about, though it certainly seems he’s having a good time. (Western diplomats who have met Rakhmon confide they fear that he is too cut off from the outside world, that his handlers have concocted a cult of personality to shelter him in a cloud of sycophancy and take increasing control over matters of state.)
This isn’t the first time the president has told his government to cease the flattery. In 2009, he said he was tired of seeing his face plastered over government buildings and billboards. But the glorification continued -- some might say grew -- after his comments. The thing with shahs is that you’re never sure if they’re speaking in riddles. And, at the time, many interpreted his comments as an instruction to post photos of him alone, not with other local dignitaries, lest they use his visage to boost their own standing.
Tajik migrants working in Russia sent home almost $3 billion last year, an increase of 33.6 percent over 2010, reports the National Bank of Tajikistan.
The $2.96 billion accounted for 45.4 percent of Tajikistan’s official GDP, the bank’s deputy chairwoman Malokhat Kholikzoda said on January 19.
The real amount is probably higher since many migrants carry cash home with them. In December, the World Bank said Tajikistan's 2010 remittances accounted for 31 percent of the economy, placing Tajikistan first in an international ranking of most remittance-dependent countries.
Tajikistan is thus deeply reliant on Russia to keep its struggling economy afloat, ensuring any diplomatic argument, no matter how ostensibly trivial, is an issue of national concern. Last November, when a Tajik court sentenced two ethnic Russian pilots flying for a Russian company to 8.5 years in prison for smuggling spare airplane parts, Moscow protested by recalling its ambassador and rounding up Tajiks for deportation. The response prompted panic in Tajikistan and unusually harsh criticism of President Emomali Rakhmon. His administration backed down and released the pilots.
Even if relations remain smooth, however, Tajikistan is also especially vulnerable to shocks in Russia’s hydrocarbon-dependent economy.
When it comes to assessments of political rights and civil liberties in Uzbekistan and neighboring Turkmenistan, it often feels like someone has taped down the repeat button.
Of 195 countries assessed in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2012 report, released January 19, both received the lowest score possible, again: 7 out of 7. Once more, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan made the list of the “worst of the worst,” an exclusive club of nine countries where citizens can count on essentially zero accountability from their leaders. In terms of rights and liberties, both nations have remained eerily consistent: Turkmenistan is holding a presidential election next month where we already know the winner; Uzbekistan continues to jail and torture critics; leaders in both continue to show an occasional distaste for reality.
An exiled Tajik journalist is in intensive care after receiving multiple knife wounds in a Moscow restaurant. Dodojon Atovulloyev, leader of the Vatandor (Patriot) movement, and editor of Charogi Ruz (Light of the Day), was reportedly stabbed in the liver and lung late on January 12. He is in serious, but stable, condition.
Russian police say they have detained a 23-year-old suspect from Tajikistan.
Atovulloyev, 56, fled Tajikistan in 1992, after his newspaper was banned and he was charged with inciting ethnic and religious hatred. In subsequent years, Dushanbe has repeatedly asked Moscow to extradite him for insulating President Emomali Rakhmon and attempting to overthrow the government, charges often leveled against critics in Central Asia. He was granted asylum in Germany in 2002 and continued to work from Moscow and Hamburg.
Veteran Central Asia watcher Arkady Dubnov said on January 13 he was certain the attack was an “order” from Dushanbe, the Asia-Plus news agency quoted him as saying.
In 2001, Russian authorities detained Atovulloyev at Dushanbe’s request, but released him after international pressure. Rights watchdogs have long said Atovulloyev is being persecuted for his political views.
Critics of Tajikistan’s justice system probably cringed on January 10 when the prosecutor’s office announced it had convicted 168 alleged terrorists and extremists last year.
The number includes suspected members of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), as well as supporters of Muslim groups with no documented link to violence. Four members of Tablighi Jamaat – a missionary group operating openly in many countries, including Kyrgyzstan and the United States – were among the convicted. (In total, approximately 200 terrorism and extremism suspects were arrested last year – apparently a local record. According to Asia-Plus, it appears the remainder are awaiting trial.)
Those convicted include the father of an alleged terrorist who died in mysterious circumstances last January. Seventy-six-year-old Muzaffar Davlatov was sentenced to seven years in November, seemingly for being Ali Bedaki’s dad.
Were Islamist radicals in Tajikistan responsible for murdering “Father Frost,” the Santa Claus lookalike who delivers gifts and New Year’s cheer throughout the formerly Soviet world?
That’s one official theory floating around Dushanbe. Police there say 24-year-old economist Parviz Davlatbekov was stabbed early on January 2, by a crowd yelling “You infidel!” local and international news agencies reported. Davlatbekov had dressed up as Father Frost to visit family for a New Year’s party. (Earlier, police had described three detained suspects as “hooligans.”)
The idea of an Islamist link to the crime may sound far-fetched to most people familiar with the secular underpinnings of the New Year and the moderate Islam practiced in Tajikistan. But as Islam spreads in the former Soviet Union, confusion about religious ideas and practices seems to be a problem. Just look at neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where last month the country’s chief cleric said Muslims should not mark New Year’s because it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, not just the changing of the calendar.
New Year’s remains one of the most popular holidays throughout the former Soviet Union, celebrated with family meals and fireworks. The robed Father Frost -- Ded Moroz as he’s known in Russian -- brings children gifts, much as Santa Claus does on Christmas Day in the West, but the New Year’s holiday is entirely secular.