It is becoming more and more difficult to tell Tajikistan and Turkmenistan apart.
Of course, there are some obvious differences, foremost being that Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas and Tajikistan does not, nor does it possess any other valuable reserves. So in terms of state revenues, the two Central Asian countries do not compare to one another.
But in terms of the style of leadership practiced, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon appears to be taking some cues from the established practices of his Turkmen counterparts.
To look at this transformation in Tajikistan, and how it does and does not compare to the situation in Turkmenistan, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a majils, or panel, to discuss the topic.
Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating were Edward Lemon, researcher at the University of Exeter, who has written extensively on Tajikistan, and Steve Swerdlow, the Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. I, of course, jumped in with some comments here and there also.
Under its first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan was characterized by the cult of personality. Niyazov was given the name “Turkmenbashi,” literally the “Head of the Turkmen,” and officials and state media referred to him this way. He ordered lavish buildings to be constructed in the capital, Ashgabat. Monuments were erected to him, including the infamous golden statue of Niyazov sitting atop a 75-meter-high tripod and built so that Niyazov’s face always turned in the direction of the sun.
The Caspian coastal city of Krasnovodsk was renamed Turkmenbashi City, books were purportedly written by Niyazov, and many more books were written praising him. State media devoted nearly all of its coverage to Niyazov’s activities. In December 1999, Turkmenistan’s parliament declared Niyazov president for life.
Recently, in Tajikistan, parliament awarded President Emomali Rahmon the title “Leader Of The Nation.” There is a contest under way among schoolchildren for the best essays about “Young People: Followers Of The Leader Of The Nation.” Parliament also just approved renaming the town of Pitovdasht, in the eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region, to Rahmonobod. That, reportedly, was done in response to a request from residents of Pitovdasht.
More is going on, as Lemon noted. “We've seen late last year proposed changes to the constitution that… would effectively lift [Rahmon] above the law, lift him and his family above the law and allow him to rule the country indefinitely,” he said.
Rahmon has been elected president four times, but amendments to the constitution will strike term limits, as well as making some other changes favorable to Rahmon and his family. A referendum on those changes is scheduled for May 22.
One big difference between Turkmenistan and Tajikistan is that Niyazov eliminated political opposition very quickly after 1991 independence. When Rahmon became Tajikistan’s leader in November 1992, the country was in civil war. The 1997 peace agreement that ended the war called for allowing members of the armed opposition, including the Islamic opposition, to lay down their weapons and take up 30 percent of the places in government.
That, as Lemon said, is changing: “Last year, we saw an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition. We saw the region's only faith-based legal opposition party -- the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) -- closed and over 200 of its members arrested and the organization declared a terrorist organization.”
Swerdlow said these 200 IRPT members might be just the start: “The trial against the IRPT, which just started on February 9, it looks like that is not going to be an aberration, so we could actually have dozens of people getting sentences of 17 years, 20 years, on what appear to be extremely flimsy, trumped-up cases of so-called extremism.”
Other alleged government opponents have also been targeted, such as Group 24, which was virtually unknown until Tajik authorities publicly called it an extremist group a few years ago and banned it. Group 24 leader Umarali Kuvvatov was assassinated in Istanbul in March 2015. Deputy Defense Minister Abdulhalim Nazarzoda was killed in September 2015 after the Tajik government claimed he was about to stage a coup. Evidence for this claim remains thin.
Political opposition has now been almost entirely wiped out in Tajikistan.
And Swerdlow added, “Since September, things have sort of gone on hyperdrive in terms of this culture of fear expanding. The discussion of many topics is now taboo, whether it's talking about the IRPT or Group 24, or it's freedom of religion.”
That sounds like Turkmenistan.
Niyazov was able to start establishing his personality cult in the early days of independence. Of course, it’s more difficult for Rahmon, but Lemon pointed out Tajik authorities and state media are engaged in some image-making.
“[The people] are constantly bombarded with this message that there was this horrible fratricidal war…and Emomali Rahmon, the strong president, lifted the country out of the civil war, built a peaceful, democratic, secular country that is stable and prosperous. So the government narrative goes,” Lemon said.
Niyazov was able to wall off his country from the outside, especially after the UN granted Turkmenistan the status of a neutral country in 1995. Official neutrality gave Niyazov an excuse to shun participation in international organizations and to ignore outside criticism. And while the Turkmen government was able to isolate the country from the outside world, Turkmenistan’s gas reserves guaranteed there always would be outside interest in the country. It was difficult to effectively pressure the Turkmen government to make changes.
Tajikistan is not in such a position, but Swerdlow suggested the Tajik government has a different card to play to stem outside pressure and ensure outside interest, and help. Swerdlow said other governments “in some sense are buying the narrative that the [Tajik] government is selling, which is that, 'Look, we have to crack down. Not only do we have existential threats from the south and from without, things like [Islamic State], but we also have this economic existential threat, and we have to control things or else you're going to have a failed state and you don’t want that. You have enough problems to deal with in this region.'"
The panel explored these comparisons and contrasts between Turkmenistan and Tajikistan in greater detail and looked at other issues that might indicate Tajikistan is undergoing a process of Turkmenization.
Listen to the Majlis podcast here: