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Dreams Of Change Deferred: Activists Can't Work In Tajikistan, Can't Live Outside It

Faizullo Safarov eventually hit the wall that many find to be unscalable.

Faizullo Safarov always dreamed of changing the world, or at least the world around him.

For Safarov, who grew up in a small village in Tajikistan's southern Yovon district, that meant pushing for big changes in a country struggling to make the transition to democracy.

Now 31, he recalls leaving university and being disheartened by the corruption, the state of education, and the unemployment that led so many of his young countrymen to go abroad in search of a better future.

It was in Russia in 2014, with dreams of justice and democracy filling his head, that he himself went to the other side. He joined the secular Tajik opposition movement Group 24 just months before it was banned by the Tajik government as "extremist."

"Our aim was to overthrow the Tajik government," he says.

No Place Like Home

Such open dissent is not tolerated by Dushanbe, so there was no chance of promoting his views from within Tajikistan itself. He faced a decision that many in the opposition must make -- either play nice at home, or carry out their work from abroad.

From Russia, Safarov hosted a popular program on Group 24's radio channel, and was active on social media criticizing government policies and calling for regime change.

He considered Group 24 to be the best way to express his views, but Safarov eventually hit the wall that many find to be unscalable. In the end the threats against him and his family, the disconnection from the Tajik people he was fighting for, and personal isolation forced his hand.

"We had some concrete social and educational projects, but how can you implement them when you can't even enter the country?" he says. "Besides, I was missing out on my personal life."

After four years with Group 24, he hung up his gloves and headed back to Tajikistan, where he is currently looking for work, occasionally promotes government policies, and insists his dream is not dead.​

Open Arms

With his return this April, Safarov joined the dozens of Tajik opposition activists who have returned home in the past two years, some of them announcing their decision on social media.

In June alone, at least two other well-known Group 24 members, Firuzsho Loiqov and Mehrubon Sattorov, returned from Russia.

Those returning go far beyond Group 24. Secularists, Islamists, communists -- Tajikistan is leaving the light on for nearly anyone who has challenged it from afar.

They include at least two high-ranking members of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), which was once Central Asia's only official Islamic party but was banned as a terrorist organization in late 2015.

The IRPT's Saidibrohim Nazar and Numonjon Sharipov returned from Iran and Turkey, respectively, joining others from the Tajik government's most-wanted list who had once faced charges of seeking to overthrow the government.

The returns are largely due to a new, softer government approach, according to Tajikistan observers and members of the political opposition, although they note that the enticements being dangled in the past year come with a catch.

Using the promise of amnesty, according to opposition members, Tajik authorities are courting activists in exile and encouraging them to return home and help build up their homeland from within.

The Interior Ministry says up to 50 members and supporters of banned parties, including Group 24 and IRPT, have in recent months taken advantage of an amnesty introduced in 2014 and 2015, and made their way back.

The amnesty offer, which came in the form of amendments to existing laws, says those charged with affiliation with terrorist or extremist groups can be pardoned if they repent and are willing to voluntarily return home. The amnesty does not cover those who took part in fighting or in terrorist acts, as well as various criminal activities.

The offer extends as well to those who left Tajikistan to join the extremist Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq, providing they didn't take part in fighting and left the conflict zones voluntarily.


Group 24 spokesman Saidali Ashurov tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that since Safarov's return, "the authorities have intensified efforts to lure more members of the group."

Group 24 accuses Tajik officials of employing both promises and threats in the effort. The group published a Skype video in June that shows two Interior Ministry officials speaking to a Group 24 member who claims he wants to return to Tajikistan.

One of the officials tells the activist that he would be pardoned should he come back voluntarily. The official mentions that he has been tasked to convince members of banned movements to return to Tajikistan.

The second official promises the activist that Tajik diplomats in Russia will help him obtain a passport and will arrange accommodation for him while he awaits his documents.

The ministry said that the video conversation was edited and taken out of context, but was otherwise open about what it described as "efforts to bring home those who regret joining certain organizations."

Group 24 was banned in October 2014 and its founder, Umarali Quvvatov, was shot dead under suspicious circumstances in Turkey the following year.

Push, Or Shove?

For the exiled opposition, the enticements to come home are not always positive.

Safarov says that while in Russia he was "threatened by unknown people who said, 'You'll be murdered like Quvvatov if you don't stop.'" He doesn't know who was behind the threats.

There was the pressure against his family back home, too. Safarov's mother, Rajabgul Zainova, says she was repeatedly summoned by the security services over her son's membership in an "undesirable" group.

And simply being away from loved ones was difficult. "My two small children were growing up without their father," Safarov says. "I hadn't seen my wife in five years, and my elderly parents had to work to fend for themselves and my family."

Ultimately, however, it was the "frustrations" with trying to work from afar that led to his decision to return home.

What's The Catch?

The dilemma faced by Safarov is experienced by many Tajik activists, says Abdullo Davlatov, the former head of the Association of Tajiks in Russia. "You can talk freely when abroad, but no one hears you," he says. To return means going back to a situation where "you can't open your mouth."

Eventually, in the game of man versus political machine, the political machine wins.

One secular Tajik politician who has remained in Tajikistan explains what it can mean to be a government critic at home.

Shokijon Hakimov, a deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic Party who has written several books on political science, says the authorities try to portray all political opponents "as radical Islamic extremists who seek to undermine the secular system."

The government, he says, likes to give the impression that there are only two sides to Tajikistan's political scene: the secular government vs Islamic extremists.

However, it's not that black and white, Hakimov says. "There are so many people in between -- deeply secular, well educated, and capable people -- who want democratic changes and a just society with the rule of law and equal opportunities for all members of the society."

Hakimov also doesn't share the view that oppositionists abroad are not heard by Tajiks at home. He says several incidents in recent months indicate that the authorities have a substantial fear of the impact that activists working abroad can have on Tajik public opinion.

In the age of the Internet and social media, Tajiks are becoming increasingly aware of different world views, Hakimov says, and "one day, Tajiks might feel they have had enough of the authoritarian regime and will want do something about it."

What Now?

Back in Tajikistan, Safarov and two other fellow former Group 24 members seek to dispel claims that they were detained or have faced pressure from the authorities since their return.

Mehrubon Sattorov, who arrived in Dushanbe on June 27, has posted photos of himself in front of city landmarks, along with a patriotic caption. Safarov often shares images of himself with his children.

The men say the charges against them were dropped upon their return, paving the way for them to rebuild their lives.

For the two men and other returnees, however, returning essentially means dialing back their opposition. Many, including former IS members, attend state-sponsored meetings to promote government policies and warn others against the dangers of joining banned groups.

Safarov, too, has taken part in such meetings. But calling himself a "politician with real experience," he insists he hasn't given up on his "ideas about changing society."

Now he sees education as the key to a better future. "Young, educated people can become the best vehicle for change," he says.

Not that he has been able to do much to put his idea into practice; he has been looking for a teaching job since early May, and has yet to find one.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.