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Emomali Rahmon: The Accidental Leader Who Has Stayed In Power For Decades

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon

One of those Central Asian leaders some refer to as a "strongman" who "rules with an iron fist," Tajik President Emomali Rahmon just won his fifth term in office in the tightly controlled presidential election on October 11.

If he serves to the end of his new seven-year term he will have been in power for nearly 35 years, in a reign that began shortly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

But Rahmon certainly was not always so stable and in control sitting in the president's office -- during the first decade of his rule he was anything but a strongman.

The Tajik Leadership Shuffle

Emomali Rakhmonov (he shortened his name to Rahmon in 2007) was named chairman of the country's Supreme Soviet -- and head of government -- on November 19, 1992.

At the time, it was not a position that seemed to offer much long-term job security.

Since August 21, 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Tajikistan suddenly and unexpectedly gained independence, Tajikistan had seen four changes in its leadership before Rakhmonov was pushed into that role.

Qahhor Makhamov became acting president on August 21, but he had sided with the mutineers who tried to overthrow Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and protesters chased him from power after 10 days.

Qadriddin Aslonov took over as leader, but in the position of chairman of the Supreme Soviet.

Public protests continued. Aslonov was only in power long enough to ban the Communist Party and sign a decree making September 9 Independence Day as he was chased from power by forces loyal to Rahmon Nabiev after a mere three weeks.

Nabiev was leader of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan from 1982 to 1985 when he was sacked during Gorbachev’s anti-corruption campaign that saw all five first secretaries of the Central Asian republics lose their jobs.

But the demonstrators were not happy when Nabiev assumed power on September 23, 1991.

In an attempt to legitimize his position, Nabiev scheduled a presidential election for December 2. He temporarily stepped down from power on October 6 to campaign and Akbarsho Iskandarov became acting president.

Nabiev won the election but the manner in which he had thrust himself into the top position set Tajikistan on a course for civil war, which broke out some five months after the election.

By September 1992, the situation had spun out of control.

The opposition -- which had formed an interesting alliance of secular-democratic, Islamic, and regional forces that eventually called itself the United Tajik Opposition -- had rallied unceasingly against Nabiev from the time of his election and eventually they and pro-government supporters took up arms.

But regional groups allied to neither of those sides had emerged and armed themselves as well.

On September 7, Nabiev’s convoy was attacked en route to the Dushanbe airport and, when it finally arrived, there was an armed group waiting with a letter of resignation for Nabiev to sign.

Iskandarov was brought back and named acting president but this time he inherited a much more complex political situation.

Fighting in Tavildara, in central Tajikistan, during the civil war that took place between 1992 and 1997.
Fighting in Tavildara, in central Tajikistan, during the civil war that took place between 1992 and 1997.

There was fighting in many places in southwestern Tajikistan, including on the outskirts of the capital. Tens of thousands of people were displaced, thousands of them fleeing into Afghanistan.

Russian troops from the 201st Division stationed in Tajikistan guarded the entrance to Dushanbe and key installations in the country.

The Supreme Soviet needed to meet to approve Nabiev’s resignation, but representatives from Kulob and Kurgan-Tepe, where there had been intense fighting, refused to come to Dushanbe.

In any case, Dushanbe was no longer safe.

So the parliament session was moved to Khujand, Tajikistan’s second city located on the other side of the mountains in the northern part of the country.

It opened on November 16 and Nabiev was there but eventually was forced to resign and it was quickly accepted by parliament. Iskandarov also stepped down as acting president in the hope that might end the fighting.

'Nondescript' Rakhmonov Emerges

That is when the relatively unknown 40-year-old Emomali Rakhmonov was presented as the new parliament speaker.

The post of president had been annulled, making the speaker the country’s top post.

Rakhmonov been in the Soviet Navy’s Pacific Fleet in the early 1970s and after returning to his native Danghara region he worked as an electrician while being active in local politics, eventually becoming chairman of a collective farm.

In 1990, he was elected a deputy to the Supreme Soviet, resigning from his post in August 1992.

Rakhmonov was officially Tajikistan’s leader but he didn't have much power.

Yakub Salimov was, at the start of November 1992, a field commander in a unit of the Popular Front, a group of opportunists -- many with criminal backgrounds -- who seized weapons in the early weeks of the civil war.

They were called field commanders but, in another setting, such as Afghanistan, they would have been referred to as warlords and, as was true in Afghanistan, the government needed them even though their loyalties were in question.

Some of these field commanders were present when Rakhmonov was named leader and had influenced the decision.

Rahmon (far left), after signing the peace agreement in Moscow in 1997.
Rahmon (far left), after signing the peace agreement in Moscow in 1997.

Salimov would later recall Rakhmonov as “nondescript” and said he and other field commanders selected Rakhmonov to that post because he could easily be cast aside "when he had served his purpose."

Salimov was emblematic of the sort of people that surrounded Rakhmonov the 1990s. He had come to Khujand as a field commander, but he left as interior minister and soon would command an Interior Ministry with nearly twice as many troops as Tajikistan’s army.

Military Officials In Control

The army also had people who were able to dictate terms to Rakhmonov.

One such person was Colonel Mahmud Khudayberdiev, the commander of the Tajik Army’s First Brigade, the best trained and best equipped in the army. He marched on Dushanbe twice, in early 1996 and early 1997, demanding changes in the government that Rakhmonov had no choice but to make.

Khudayberdiev was even appointed deputy chief of the Presidential Guard shortly after his first foray toward Dushanbe.

Another with great influence in the government was Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev, who was made deputy speaker of parliament at the Khujand Supreme Soviet session.

Ubaydulloev managed to lose one post only to reemerge in another, and he stayed near the top of the government as mayor of Dushanbe and speaker of the Majlisi Milli, the upper house of parliament, until very recently.

And there was also Abdumalik Abdullojanov, who had been appointed prime minister in September 1992, and stayed in that role until December 1993, when he was made ambassador in Moscow. But he returned months later to run in the November 1994 Tajik presidential election against Rakhmonov.

Those elections were odd.

The post of president had been annulled at the 1992 parliamentary session in Khujand, but the 1994 election was a referendum on a new constitution that restored the office of president and presidential election.

Rakhmonov and Abdullojonov were actually competing for a post that did not exist the day voters went to cast ballots.

Rakhmonov won the election amid accusations the poll was rigged. By Central Asian standards he did not win by much.

Rakhmonov received some 59.5 percent of the vote and Abdullojonov 34.7 percent, making it the closest presidential election in post-Soviet Central Asia’s history until Kyrgyzstan’s 2017 vote.

Don't Go There

But Abdullojonov was from the northern Sughd region where Khujand is located and though he lost, Rakhmonov lost a great deal of support in the north, where all of Tajikistan's Soviet-era leaders had come from since 1946, including Nabiev and Makhamov.

Abdullojonov and two other former prime ministers, Jamshed Karimov and Abdujalol Samadov, formed an opposition group -- the National Revival Movement -- in November 1996 that Rakhmonov's government was forced to allow to exist.

There was an assassination attempt against Rakhmonov during a visit to Khujand in 1997 that kept him from regularly visiting the region until recently. He had blamed the attack on Abdullojonov.

Rakhmonov was not welcome in the eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region either. The area makes up some 45 percent of Tajikistan but is only inhabited by some 220,000 people, mostly Pamiris, who are ethnically different from Tajiks and many of whom are Shi’a, not Sunni Muslims like most Tajiks.

The Pamiris suffered greatly during the civil war and to this day Gorno-Badakhshan is a tense area where extra security is needed for any of the president's infrequent visits.

In December 2015, shortly after Rahmon neutralized the last significant opposition in the country, Tajikistan’s parliament voted to give him the title "founder of peace and national unity, leader of the nation."

But Rahmon is far from being a founder of peace.

Besides the problems of his government’s battlefield opponents and his dubious allies, Rakhmonov’s government was dependent on foreign troops to stay in power.

The key foreign force was Russia’s 201st Division and Russian border guards who defended the restive frontier with Afghanistan. At its peak, the number of Russian troops in Tajikistan during the civil war was an estimated 25,000.

But the Kremlin tired of the seemingly endless conflict and in April 1995, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said no more troops would be sent to Tajikistan.

After a CIS summit in Moscow in January 1996, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said: “Today we told Rakhmonov it is enough. We cannot carry Tajikistan in our arms forever."

Two of Russia’s three allies in the CIS peacekeeping force that helped guard the Afghan border -- Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan -- had greatly scaled back their commitment to the force after an April 1995 attack killed 17 Kazakhs.

And while the other partner in the peacekeeping force -- Uzbekistan -- kept its troops in Tajikistan, Uzbek President Islam Karimov was not happy with the way Dushanbe was managing the war or the two-year-old peace talks.

Ever suspicious of Islamic groups, Karimov did not want the Islamic forces that were the backbone of the UTO’s fighting forces to have any place in Tajikistan.

When the Taliban seized Kabul in September 1996, the principal parties trying to help Tajikistan negotiate a peace deal -- Russia, Iran, and the United Nations -- all leaned hard on Rahm onto reach a deal with his battlefield opponents.

Pushed to end the fighting, the Tajik government and the UTO signed the peace deal on June 27, 1997.

Salimov, who was sent off as Tajikistan’s ambassador to Turkey in 1995, had returned in 1996 to head Tajikistan’s Customs Service.

But he and Colonel Khudayberdiev were displeased with the peace deal and they launched an attack on Dushanbe in August 1997 that was eventually beaten back and led them to flee Tajikistan.

But Khudayberdiev did not stay away for long, returning in November 1998 to stage an unsuccessful coup attempt in northern Tajikistan before fleeing the country again.

The Tajik government accused Uzbekistan of helping Khudayberdiev, which was true, but in response the Uzbek government, which was displeased with the terms of the Tajik peace agreement, announced it was pulling its troops out of what was left of the CIS peacekeeping force since a peace deal had been reached and its troops were no longer needed to guard the Afghan border.

Uzbek troops had played a much larger role in Tajikistan’s civil war than simply guarding the Afghan border and Karimov would later caution Rakhmonov to remember “on whose tanks he rode to power.”

In 1999, when a group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) launched attacks in southern Kyrgyzstan, both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments angrily accused Rakhmonov's government of knowing the IMU had bases in the mountains of central Tajikistan (the IMU leadership had fought in the ranks of the UTO during the civil war) and not taking any action to neutralize the group.

That was also true.

Rahmon was under pressure to honor the terms of the peace deal and the final disarmament process in the area was under way. He could not send armed troops into the mountains without risking the peace deal, so he denied there were any militants in the Tajik mountains.

Uzbekistan later sent warplanes to bomb the IMU camps in Tajikistan without consulting the Tajik government.

When the Tajik government tried to rid itself of the IMU problem in November 1999 by allowing the Islamic fighters passage to Afghanistan, the Uzbek government was furious as it had wanted all of the militants to be exterminated. Tashkent was even angrier in the summer of 2000 when the IMU returned to southern Kyrgyzstan and made their way into parts of southeastern Uzbekistan, again using bases in the Tajik mountains.

The Tajik peace deal provided for the opposition to take up to 30 percent of state posts, a part of the accords that the government was slow to implement.

Apparent Ballot Stuffing Filmed During Tajik Polls
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On November 6, 1999, Tajikistan held its first presidential election since the peace deal had been signed.

The poll was so obviously rigged in advance that no one but Rakhmonov wanted to compete in it.

Again, the parties that sponsored the peace talks pushed the government to do something and eventually Davlat Usmon of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan took part and was soundly defeated, officially receiving just 2 percent of the vote.

The overwhelming victory for the incumbent became the model for all the presidential elections that followed.

The Taliban were also a major concern for Rahmon.

The ethnic Tajik-Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Masud found a natural ally in the Tajik government and he was allowed to evacuate four of his warplanes to southern Tajikistan when the Taliban took Kabul.

Tajikistan was a lifeline for Masud’s forces as the Taliban advanced across northeastern Afghanistan as there were many suspicions Masud was being resupplied through Tajikistan.

The Taliban believed those reports and allowed the IMU to use territories in northern Afghanistan under Taliban control as havens.

On the day Masud was killed, September 10, 2001, Rakhmonov's government was in a very bad situation.

The civil war had shattered Tajikistan’s infrastructure and the economy was in terrible shape. In fact the country depended on donors to survive.

Tajikistan’s population at the start of the civil war was some 6.2 million and nearly one-quarter of those people were displaced during the war, with about 100,000 being killed.

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were angry, suspicious, and critical of the Tajik government because of Dushanbe’s failure for two successive years to eliminate the IMU; and in neighboring Afghanistan, the Taliban considered Rakhmonov's government to be an enemy.

Rakhmonov was far from being viewed as a strongman or even being comfortably in power.

There was a joke in the neighboring Central Asian states in the mid-1990s that Rakhmonov was only the mayor of Dushanbe since that was as far as his authority extended.

The 9-11 Game Changer

Even in the late summer of 2001 it seemed little had changed.

But the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 altered everything.

In hindsight, one could argue that few benefitted more from the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan that started after the attacks in the United States than the Central Asian countries, Tajikistan in particular.

The Islamist threat on Tajikistan’s southern border had been removed and Tajikistan allowed NATO to use the airfield in Dushanbe to support its operations in Afghanistan and international aid organizations also used it to supply Afghanistan.

These international agencies employed thousands of Tajiks and financial aid began to pour into Tajikistan.

And suddenly the peace deal in this obscure small mountainous country in the heart of the Eurasian landmass was held up internationally as a model for a potential Afghan peace agreement.

It was a watershed moment for Tajikistan, but even more so for Rakhmonov -- one he managed to squander in the following years.

By March 2007 -- when the president de-Russified his last name to “Rahmon” by dropping the “ov” -- he had neutralized most of the key members of the opposition and his questionable allies from the civil war days.

Rahmon had also largely discarded the peace agreement hailed internationally just a few years before.

And the foreign aid and new financial interest and investment from abroad that Tajikistan attracted for helping efforts in Afghanistan were turned into opportunities for Rahmon and, increasingly, his family members to enrich themselves.

Tajikistan’s dependence on donors has decreased, but in its place is a dependence on remittances sent home from the more than an estimated 1 million Tajik citizens who have to travel abroad to find work, most going to Russia.

Tajikistan also ceded land to China in 2011 and the country has resorted to ceding mining rights to Chinese companies to repay loans to Chinese institutions.

Russian influence on the Tajik government remains strong because of the continued presence of the 201st Division (the current agreement keeps the troops in Tajikistan until 2042) and the several billion dollars in remittances sent annually by Tajik migrant laborers working in Russia.

It was almost by accident that Rahmon came to power as there were many other officials in Tajikistan at the time who were similarly viewed as temporary solutions to the country's leadership problem.

And during his first 10 years in power, several people could have replaced him since he was effectively just doing what others persuaded him to do.

But by ruling with an iron fist and stamping out any opposition, it looks like Emomali Rahmon will carry his despotic reign in Tajikistan to at least 35 years.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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