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Official Dushanbe Silent As Tajik Society Deeply Divided On Ukraine War

Millions of Tajiks have made a living in Russia over the last 30 years and are loyal to the country.
Millions of Tajiks have made a living in Russia over the last 30 years and are loyal to the country.

DUSHANBE -- The Russian invasion of Ukraine was accompanied by an unprecedented information and propaganda campaign aimed at justifying the war both inside Russia and abroad -- especially in the post-Soviet countries traditionally considered Russia's geopolitical allies.

But on the other side, there is a flow of information showing the tragic consequences of the war that include large-scale human rights violations, alleged atrocities, demolished cities, thousands of deaths, and millions of refugees and displaced persons.

These reports contradict the official narrative from the Kremlin and have divided public opinion in Tajikistan, a country that endured a bloody civil war itself in the 1990s in which Russia was the primary external player and stakeholder.

This has caused Tajik society to find itself in a new set of debates in a public discourse that has unfolded amid near silence from Tajik authorities and official media about Russia's unprovoked invasion of its neighbor.

The shallow coverage of the war is the result of the authoritarian government's desire that domestic media avoid covering the horrific events in Ukraine or to cover them from a neutral position -- in an apparent attempt by Dushanbe not to spoil economic and political relations with either the West or Moscow.

In general, local media and TV channels have followed the unofficial instructions with the exceptions being a couple of private publications and social-media platforms.

Some journalists justify following the policy for practical reasons because of the many Tajik migrants working in Russia. "If, for example, we would publish materials condemning Russia [for the war], [many of our migrants] will be deported and, by doing so, we would...only harm society," Khurshed Atovullo, a well-known Tajik journalist, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service.

Three Camps

Under the state-controlled political conditions of Tajikistan, no public polls about what people think about the Ukraine war are conducted.

But as in other former Soviet republics where the media environment is either state-controlled and/or dominated by Russian-language outlets, Tajiks are generally divided into the three main groups.

First, there is a group of active supporters of the Russia's invasion whose opinion corresponds to the narrative disseminated by the propaganda in the Russian media.

This group includes many people and factions that have traditionally constituted a social base of Russian "soft power" not only in Tajikistan but in other former Soviet republics. Key among them are supporters of communist ideology and the parties that share anti-Western feelings, a portion of the Russian-speaking, secular intelligentsia, and the wider population stratum that is nostalgic for the Soviet era.

They are opposed by a second and smaller group of active critics of the Russian invasion who are appalled by the level of brutality and the number of civilian casualties in the conflict, among them many well-educated intellectuals, artists, independent journalists, civil activists, and followers of the political opposition.

In this regard, some of the pro-opposition bloggers find similarities between the war in Ukraine and the Tajik civil war of the 1990s, which was distinguished by large-scale atrocities conducted by pro-communist forces backed and supplied by Moscow.

There is also a third and major part of the population made up largely of labor migrants, farmers, and bazaar traders who do not regularly follow the news. They have a vague understanding of what is happening in Ukraine but usually sympathize with Russia and its policies.

Many Tajiks get their news of the outside world from Russian state-controlled television.
Many Tajiks get their news of the outside world from Russian state-controlled television.

A very unusual phenomenon within Tajik public opinion is an alliance between pro-communist groups and followers of militant jihadist organizations that support the Russian invasion under anti-Western and anti-American slogans.

The debates and misunderstandings between proponents and opponents of the war often assume such intense character that they increasingly shift from social media to private life, straining relations between people, colleagues, friends, and even members of the same family.

As one Tajik journalist told RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity: "[Because of the war in Ukraine] I have lost several friends just in the last few weeks with whom I had good relations for many years."

Another blogger complained: "I prefer not to watch [state-run] TV news with my family because I cannot stand how they comment on the events in Ukraine."

Most Tajiks Support Russia's War

According to Cabar Asia and RFE/RL's Tajik Service, an estimated 65-70 percent of the comments by Tajiks on the main social-media platforms directly or indirectly support or justify Russian actions in Ukraine.

Social scientists say this trend is due to the strong link Tajikistan maintains to the Russian-speaking information space, with many getting their information from Russian media, especially TV stations and talk shows, for their news on Ukraine and other international issues.

In other words, Tajikistan still views the outer world through the eyes of the Russian media controlled by the Kremlin.

Tajik journalist Rajab Mirzo says that the discussions on social media about the Ukraine war are distinguished by a lack of tolerance, sharp confrontations, and the widespread use of hateful language. But he adds that the current high level of support in Tajik society for Russia's invasion is a temporary phenomenon, as Moscow is losing the propaganda war to the West.

Tajik film director Anisa Sobiri told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that many Tajiks support the Russian invasion of Ukraine because "Tajik society itself has a higher tolerance for aggression."

Some journalists and experts point out the mentality of the Tajik people that feels grateful to Russia, which employs up to 2 million people from Tajikistan.

Many labor migrants, their relatives, and family members know that their social well-being, standard of living, and economic future are reliant on Russia. That created a kind of physiological dependency among Tajiks that the only way to improve their social status was to emigrate to Russia.

This has led to the number of Tajiks receiving Russian passports to increase from 44,700 in 2019 to 63,400 the next year and some 103,000 thus far in 2022.

It also is the reason many of them refuse to recognize another narrative on Ukraine, or to listen to alternative information or points of view.

A reader named Somoni wrote on the RFE/RL Tajik Service website on March 19: "How Russia has acted [in Ukraine] over time, history will make an assessment. But Russia remains the only provider for Tajikistan."

Another Tajik under the name of People's Avenger stated: "I was for Russia, I remain for it and will always be; thanks to Russia I live, work, and provide for my family at a time when my own homeland did not give me a damn.... Thank you, Russia!!!”

But the ultimate in Russian loyalty was a statement made by Yormuhammd Saidov, whose son was among six Tajiks who died recently in Ukraine fighting for Russia.

"This was my [son's] destiny," Saidov said. "I tell you, [our family] was able to feed itself due to the Russian state from 1992 until today. We have no complaint with Russia. And if there would be a call from the Tajik government, we would all go and serve [in the war for Russia]."

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    Parviz Mullojonov

    Parviz Mullojonov is a political scientist, historian, and former visiting researcher at Paris's School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS). He received his PhD in Islamic studies from Basel University. He was board chairman of the Open Society Institute in Dushanbe and is a former member of the EU and Central Asia Monitoring group. He has also worked for Human Rights Watch, the UNCHR, and the UNDP.