During the last two years, authorities in Tajikistan have been carrying out a crackdown on political opponents. More of a crackdown than usual, that is to say, because the Tajik government has a long record of harassing the country's political opposition.
But the recent campaign against the opposition features a large number of arrests. Already hundreds of people have been detained and dozens, so far, imprisoned.
Some people in Tajikistan worry they might be next, and have fled the country. It has happened before, during the 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan. But for those fleeing now, the safe havens of 20 years ago are no longer safe, and they are having to travel further, to Europe.
To look at who these people are, where they are going, and what is driving them there, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or discussion panel, to talk about these recent developments.
Moderating the talk was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir.Our friend Edward Lemon, a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter who specializes in Tajikistan joined us. Also taking part from Berlin was researcher and journalist Yan Matusevich, who is the author of a recent article in The Diplomat on the topic of Tajikistan's asylum seekers. As usual, I had a couple of things to say also.
Emigre Numbers Surge
The biggest opposition group -- the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) -- lost the last two seats it had in parliament in the March 2015 elections. It was a signal that the party's fortunes were about to take a drastic turn for the worse.
During the six-month period that followed, state media launched a relentless campaign to blacken the image of the IRPT. The party lost is registration, was ordered to cease all activities, and, by the end of September, was declared an extremist group while its leaders were rounded up and put on trial.
Matusevich said that, since the IRPT lost its last seats in parliament, "we've seen a surge in the number of Tajik asylum seekers making their way to Poland via Belarus." Their numbers are not large, yet, but as Matusevich noted, "Tajik asylum seekers went from being nonexistent in Poland to over 500 in 2015 and already in the first half of this year they've gone over 616 asylum seekers."
More would be in Poland now except for the fact that Polish border guards have been turning them away at the frontier with Belarus.
The reason they're showing up at the Belarusian-Polish border, Matusevich explained, is because "Poland just happens to be the closest EU border that they can make it to, transiting through Russia and Belarus, without a visa."
In the past, including during the civil war days, most people fleeing Tajikistan for political reasons went to Russia, but this is now changing. "Russia is no longer safe for Tajik opposition members," Lemon said, noting that his research shows "a real increase since 2014 in the targeting of opposition activists" on Russian territory.
No matter what the ties have been between the Kremlin and Central Asian governments, one aspect of these relationships that has remained solid has been the cooperation between Russian and Central Asian security services. Central Asians wanted on charges back home have sometimes disappeared from the streets of Russian cities only to reappear in jail cells back home.
Turkey has been another possible destination for those fleeing Tajikistan in the past. But Lemon noted that this country has also no longer been considered safe ever since Umarali Quvatov, the leader of another Tajik opposition organization called Group 24, was assassinated in Istanbul in March 2015.
Matusevich said this latest crackdown is so broad that some of the citizens of Tajikistan now trying to get into Poland have, at best, tenuous ties to political activity.
"There was one case of someone who was trying to seek asylum in Poland who was a security guard for the Islamic Renaissance Party, who was completely apolitical," Matusevich recalled. "As soon as the party was shut down he felt he could, potentially, end up in prison."
More Likely To Follow
More of Tajikistan's citizens are likely to surface in Belarus, hoping to make it further west.
Lemon said that, in Tajikistan currently, those with ties to opposition groups are subject to "threats to family, surveillance, monitoring, and that really leads them to have a real sense of insecurity."
Lemon added that the crackdown in Tajikistan is unlikely to abate anytime soon. "I think the legitimization of an authoritarian government is always going to be based on the construction of an enemy," he said. "So they're [the Tajik authorities] always going to need some kind of an enemy; otherwise [President Emomali] Rahmon's regime will struggle to hold some kind of legitimacy."
Matusevich said there are probably some 3,000 Tajik citizens who have been denied entry into Poland with some trying up to "40 times, 50 times, up to a point where the passport fills up with rejection stamps and they can no longer give it another attempt."
But Matusevich credited those from Tajikistan for "really following the procedure despite facing all the difficulties at the border."
"We haven't seen many Tajiks try to cross the Belarusian-Polish border irregularly or just somehow circumvent the border crossing," Matusevich said. "Many times they call ahead, [to] NGOs in Poland to make sure they're doing this in the right way but then finding difficulties on the ground in actually making it through."
It is a very unfortunate situation. Europe is already facing its biggest refugee crisis since World War Two as people flee conflict in the Middle East. The thought of a new group of refugees coming from the east would not sit well with many people in Europe.
On the other side of the coin, the list of perceived enemies of the state is growing in Tajikistan and that will force ever more people there to want to leave the country and try to find a secure place to live. They have limited options as to where they can flee.
The Majlis discussed these issues in greater detail and delved into other topics concerning governance and tolerance in Tajikistan, the situation in Belarus for those who make it that far, and other matters related to the asylum seekers from Tajikistan.
An audio recording of the Majlis can be heard here:
Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.