TEHRAN (Press Shia) – A British university professor said while Tajikistan is following the constitutional changes of 2016 and President Emomali Rahmon’s term is going to expire in 2020, the president may cede power to his older daughter Ozoda.
In an interview with Press Shia, Dr. John Heathershaw commented on the latest developments in Tajikistan and the future of its leadership.
He also expressed his views on the recent developments in the Central Asian nation, including violation of the Tajik Peace Accord, purge of opposition groups, formation of opposition groups in exile, a shift of power, relations with Iran, and the threat posed by the Daesh (ISIL) terrorist group.
Heathershaw is an associate professor at the University of Exeter.
He has written several books including “Post-Conflict Tajikistan: The politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order” and is also a member of the board of the European Society for Central Asian Studies.
What follows in the full text of the interview:
Press Shia: It appears difficult to talk about the Tajik Peace Accord these days. It is even hard to find the opposition groups inside the country. Do you see any significant potential for new conflicts in Tajikistan in the current situation after the conflicts of the 2000s?
Heathershaw: The civil war will not return in the form it took from 1992-1997. It was succeeded by an authoritarian peace and the capture of the state by this regime. This has brought stability but also kleptocracy. But, yes, there is potential for further violence in the Badakhson region of Tajikistan. This is an area where the ruling regime has not been able to get a monopoly over organized criminal groups and trafficking revenues. This appears to be the main reason why there was violence in 2012. Elsewhere in Tajikistan, criminal groupings have been incorporated into the wider state and thereby subordinated to the regime. It is not that criminality has been ended but that it has blended into the state which has become a stable kleptocracy. This stability is lacking in Badakhshon for these economic reasons and some wider political reasons relating to the effective autonomy that the region had during and after the civil war.
Press Shia: One of the serious concerns of Tajikistan is the new “United Tajik Opposition (ИНОТ-2)” and the new measures against the government. Considering the current conditions of the opposition groups, do you think that such a unity would be possible? And how?
Heathershaw: Oppositions in exile are rarely effective. It is easy for the government to block their online media in the country while it is also easy for them to monitor their public presence on the internet. Tajik political opposition has contained religious and secular groupings since the first UTO formed during the civil war. This UTO-2 is led by the Islamic Revival Party in the person of Muhiddin Kabiri. He is an effective leader and charismatic public speaker. However, the difference from 20 years ago is that the UTO at that time was focused on negotiated a peace. That gave them a purpose and focus. This is lacking today. Unity has to be found in something other than opposition to a government. There were several attempts to unite the opposition when it was still possible for them to act within the country but they lacked a shared position and therefore the movement was merely tactical, limited to a single election, and then broke down. It is hard to see how UTO-2 can stay together over the medium- to long-term.
Press Shia: Daesh (ISIL or ISIS) is a serious concern for the international community and regional actors in Central Asia. Emomali Rahmon has tried to link IRPT to that threat, but it has not been accepted by anyone. How do you see Tajikistan’s policies towards Islam (oppression and banning Islamic groups and limiting Islamic activities) and its impact on radicalization of protests?
Heathershaw: There is mounting academic evidence that it is neither authoritarianism in general which causes radicalization nor is radicalization about the spread of radical ideas alone. Rather, it is direct and structural violence targeted at Muslim public figures and groups that creates the conditions for radicalization, whereby a very small number of individuals are more likely to be attracted to militant political ideas and take up arms. Most Central Asian states have pursued oppression against unofficial Muslim groups and it is therefore explicable that large numbers of Central Asians joined ISIS. In Tajikistan, this has been particularly acute due to an additional factor: the defection of senior Tajik commander Gulmurod Halimov to ISIS in 2015. It seems that factionalism within the state as well as oppression by the state may have encouraged increase in recruitment of Tajiks to ISIS. Much of this oppression was branded as ‘counter-radicalization’.
Press Shia: A Shift in power is an important issue in Tajikistan’s contemporary political arena. The most important scenario is presidency of Rustam, President Rahmon’s son. What do you think about such a scenario? Is there any alternative?
Heathershaw: There are presently a great deal of rumors that Rahmon is preparing the pathway for his son’s accession following the constitutional changes of 2016 and with his term in office due to expire in 2020. Many insiders seem to think the more experienced and older daughter Ozoda would be more effective and may also be favored. However, female heads-of-state are almost unprecedented in Central Asia. At the same time, dynastic succession is also without precedent (although found in many neighboring countries like Azerbaijan). Other Central Asian states where dynastic succession has been mooted –like Uzbekistan– have seen regime insiders negotiate a successor among themselves. It is not clear who this would be in Tajikistan but as these internal dynamics are almost entirely hidden in dictatorships like Tajikistan, it is hard to know.
Press Shia: After the post-Karimov Uzbekistan, socio-political changes in Tajikistan have become more likely. But many analysts are not optimistic about these changes, either in Uzbekistan or in Tajikistan, due to the lack of civil society formation. In your opinion, are these changes possible without minimalistic levels of civil society?
Heathershaw: It is not uncommon for newly crowned dictators to make cosmetic reforms. From Assad and other notable tyrants through to Berdymuhammedov (in Turkmenistan) and Mirziyoev (in Uzbekistan) we see this. However, dictatorships cannot usually be reformed without collapsing as the authoritarian system militates against transparency, accountability and the sharing of power. This is because they are also kleptocracies. Even if the leader wants reform, there are too many people in power with vested interests in keeping their power and wealth and keeping it hidden. The relatively cosmetic political reforms and more substantial economic and financial reforms that Mirziyoyev has made generate excitement and inward investment. I expect Mirziyoyev and his regime are seeking to bring in this foreign investment without sacrificing control. If there is a new leadership in Tajikistan, we can expect them to do the same. These regimes find that there are many foreign companies, including Western companies, that are willing to make the corrupt relationships and payments that are required to enter a kleptocracy even if this means breaking anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws where their company is registered or listed.
Press Shia: There have been challenges in the relations between Iran and Tajikistan lately. It has resulted in relation between Iran and IRPT, while the relations of countries like Germany, Poland and Turkey with Tajik opposition groups like “Group24” of IRPT have been tense. How do you see Tajikistan’s sensitivity about Iran and the subsequent measures?
Heathershaw: The IRPT’s links to Iran go back more than two decades. The Tajik government thinks that there are factions within Iran which are supportive of the IRPT. They genuinely fear the influence of a power which is larger than them, which is Persian like them, but which is Shiite like their restive region of the Pamirs. Moreover, Tajikistan is assertively nationalistic and feels insecure in a region where it is encircled to the north by Turkic states and to the south by Persian states which it sees as threats. This may be more about the geopolitical conspiracy theories that are common among Tajik analysts and regime members than about any objective reasons for fear. There are also some stories of corruption and business relations which have not matured and caused resentment. Tajikistan has also had poor relations with a number of neighboring states at different times due to the personalistic nature of its regime and theirs so this should not surprise us.