The Regional Implications of Instability in Tajikistan
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The Regional Implications of Instability in Tajikistan

Interview with Edward Lemon
June 24, 2019

Increasing instability in Tajikistan has the potential to threaten security both within and beyond the country’s borders. The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in eastern Tajikistan remains functionally independent from the central government. The region is run by local warlords who control profitable drug-smuggling routes that pass through remote and mountainous areas. Both China and Russia have interests in maintaining Tajikistan’s internal security. Yet, while their interests are currently aligned, short- or long-term developments in the security situation could lead the two countries into conflict in the future.

Edward Lemon, the DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security, discusses the current security situation in Tajikistan in this interview conducted by Eliot Roberts.

When Tajik president Emomali Rahmon refers to GBAO as “lawless,” what does he mean? If the situation continues to deteriorate, will Rahmon outsource stabilizing the region to China or Russia?

By “lawless,” Rahmon means that it is outside the control of the central government. While only making up 2% of Tajikistan’s population, GBAO is about 50% of the country’s landmass. It is mountainous and geographically separate from the rest of the country, and its people are religiously and ethnically distinct. All of this has led to the people of GBAO having a strong sense of separate identity.

It is important to remember that this area during the Tajik Civil War (1992–97) was largely allied with the opposition. This opposition, during the peace process, was incorporated within the government. As part of this process, 30% of government posts went to opposition groups. Positions in government in Tajikistan are not just about having a job. They provide a source of rent and income through opportunities for extraction and distribution through an extended network of patronage. The populations of the Rasht Valley, to the north of the capital city Dushanbe, and GBAO long resisted government control. While Rahmon managed to mostly gain control over the Rasht Valley by 2011, GBAO remains outside his control. The influence of the warlords in the region has never gone away, even as the government occasionally makes moves to disarm and remove the challenge of these local leaders, most notably in 2012 when it sent in the army after local strongman Toliob Ayombekov killed the local security chief.

If the situation continues to deteriorate, we may see Rahmon increase reliance on his main security partners, Russia and China. Earlier this year China constructed a joint counterterrorism military base in Tajikistan on the border with Afghanistan and near the border with China. The Tajik government has to walk a fine line between becoming over-reliant on Russia and China and presenting itself as vulnerable in order to receive aid from them. For example, in 2004, Tajikistan managed to force Russia to relinquish control of 1,300 kilometers of Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan. Until that point, this part of the border was patrolled by Russian guards. Tajikistan is keen not to have Russia return to such a prominent role. However, if the security situation in the country were to deteriorate to a great extent, Tajikistan would have to rely on China and Russia. At the moment, though, it is trying to resolve the issue itself.

Will Tajikistan be a point of cooperation or conflict between Russia and China?

Russia perceives itself to be Tajikistan’s dominant security provider. This remains true insofar as Russia has one of its largest military bases abroad in Tajikistan—the 201st Motorized Rifle Division, where up to ten thousand troops are stationed. Russia is also the main supplier of arms to the country, accounting for 90% of transfers since 1991, and the two maintain formal and informal security cooperation through organizations like the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Thus, Russia is still the main security provider in Tajikistan. However, we have seen an increase in China’s role. The first bilateral Tajik-Chinese military exercises took place in 2016 near the Afghan border. China also constructed a military base in Tajikistan in 2017, which is its second base abroad after the base in Djibouti. And China has been actively repairing Tajik border posts, among other assistance.

Individuals I have spoken with in the Russian security and intelligence community have expressed concerns over the long-term implications of a rising China. However, at the moment, there is enough common ground between the two countries to prevent them from coming into conflict. China and Russia have three main shared security interests in Tajikistan. First, they want to maintain stability, which means continuing to prop up the authoritarian government. Second, they have a common interest in resisting Western narratives of democratization, or Western encroachment into the region. Third, they want Tajik stability vis-à-vis Afghanistan to prevent a spillover of militants. China is concerned about Uighur militants in Afghanistan moving into China, while Russia is concerned about militants spilling over into Tajikistan, which it has an obligation to protect because of the Central Security Treaty Organization. In the long run, Russia still views Tajikistan as part of its sphere of influence, particularly in the security sector. If China ramps up its role in the country, there may be a possibility for conflict in the long term.

Will similar surveillance measures as those in Xinjiang be implemented in Tajikistan? What motives does the Tajik government have for controlling its population in such a manner?

The sale of surveillance technologies is where China has played the most prominent role in security in Tajikistan. In 2013, Huawei sold and installed a CCTV system within the capital city, Dushanbe. We are not talking about smart cities at this point, but we are talking about the sale of basic surveillance technologies. Though very difficult to ascertain, it would seem as if the Chinese are cooperating with the security services and the communications services in Tajikistan in order to enable them to monitor people online as well. China is certainly an active player in the surveillance state that is being created, and Tajikistan is becoming increasingly authoritarian. Blocking the websites of both Western media and opposition groups based outside the country is commonplace. We have yet to see the implementation of some of the measures that are being used in Xinjiang, but I believe this is a possibility going forward.

Because Tajikistan is a Muslim-majority country, it is unlikely that the Tajik government would try to set up Chinese-style re-education camps. However, in the wake of the latest two prison riots, which occurred in November 2018 and May 2019 and collectively led to over 60 deaths, the government is likely interested in acquiring Chinese surveillance expertise and technology to help control the prison population. This technology could then be used more broadly, increasing surveillance and control of the entire population.

Tajikistan also has a large population of migrants outside the country. One million of the eight million Tajiks are economic migrants, based mostly in Russia. So Tajikistan has a mobile population that is gaining exposure to outside ideas, be they Islamic extremist ideas or democratic ideas—both of which are viewed as a threat to the government. The government has a motivation to monitor and keep this migrant population in check.

It seems that Rahmon’s son, Rustam Emomali, will become the leader of Tajikistan in 2020. What implications does this have for the country’s stability, and will the local rulers in GBAO see this as an opportunity to assert control?

Tajikistan is run largely by the family of the president, a role that Rahmon hopes to strengthen. We saw the country’s main opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, pushed out of parliament and declared a terrorist organization in 2015, for example. The government has tried to wrest control of the country from informal leaders at a local level, including in GBAO. Through marriage connections, Rahmon’s extended family has taken over all important sectors of the economy.

Rustam has risen through the ranks of government and held various positions on the Customs Service Anti-Corruption Committee. Most recently, in 2017, he was appointed mayor of Dushanbe. The president changed the constitution in 2016 to lower the age for presidential candidates to 30. This allows Rustam to run in 2020 and has been seen as a sign that he will become the next president. With the help of people surrounding him, Rustam has done a relatively good job as mayor of Dushanbe, but he will face the classic problem of being a country’s second president. Rahmon was the one who brought Tajikistan out of the civil war, and he has kept the country relatively stable. The state media portrays him as the father of the nation, the person who ushered the country into peace and prosperity.

Rustam has not accomplished any of that. He is young and speaks Russian as a first language, as opposed to Tajik. He will thus encounter certain legitimacy issues. It is unclear how effective he will be at balancing different interests within the very large presidential family, which has multiple power bases. If there is a period of transition, Rahmon will likely remain involved in governing the nation behind the scenes in order to ensure a smooth transfer of presidential power to Rustam. That may, in the short term, limit the potential for instability. However, there are still individuals in GBAO and other parts of the country who might use the leadership transition to attempt to assert more control.

Will local leaders in GBAO see jihadi groups as preferable to an increasingly repressive Tajik government?

Because the people of GBAO are Ismaili, a Shia sect of Islam, they were not among the two thousand Tajik individuals who went to fight in Syria and Iraq. While GBAO groups are not particularly drawn to jihadi groups, groups from other parts of the country potentially could be. Tajikistan is, on a per capita basis, the second-largest Muslim-majority country sending fighters to Syria and Iraq, which indicates the scale of the problem. State repression, a sense of personal injustice, and grievances against the government have all played a role in recruiting Tajik fighters. Moreover, the Tajik state, as it is currently set up, produces violence within its borders, as well as between people who were removed from government yet attempted to hold on to power.

The approach Tajik leaders have taken to combating extremism is also highly problematic because it does not distinguish between violent and nonviolent extremism. The government has criminalized a very broad definition of extremism, using it to crack down on all sorts of opposition groups as well as on individuals who are simply trying to practice religion in ways they choose. This situation has definitely created a sense of injustice and alienation that could fuel conflict going forward.

What aspects of the drug smuggling operations in Tajikistan are controlled by the government? How are criminal or jihadi groups profiting from this?

One cannot understand Tajikistan without understanding the importance of drug smuggling. The best estimates from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime suggest that something like one hundred tons of heroin and opium (mostly heroin) transit through Tajikistan each year. Tajik drug smuggling is worth around 30% of the national economy. Last year’s figures on interdiction showed that one ton of drugs was interdicted—or 1% of all drugs estimated to be flowing through the country. Interdiction has actually fallen despite hundreds of millions of dollars being sent by various actors to support border security and law enforcement. Low interdiction figures speak to the fact that border forces, and individuals within the government, play a major role in facilitating and profiting from drug smuggling. On the Afghan side, groups like the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, the Islamic State’s affiliate group in Afghanistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Taliban, and other Central Asian terrorist organizations also profit from the drug trade, along the northern route through Tajikistan as well as other routes originating in Afghanistan. However, since the 1990s, there is no evidence of similar groups being very actively involved in drug smuggling within Tajikistan.

Edward Lemon is the DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School.

This interview was conducted by Eliot Roberts, a Political and Security Affairs intern at NBR.