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Qishloq Ovozi

There has been a big uptick in the number of asylum seekers, many of them Tajiks, appearing at the main train station in Brest, a town on Belarus's border with Poland. (file photo)

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."

Kremlin Cooperation

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:

Majlis Podcast: Tajik Asylum Seekers Traveling Further Abroad
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

Hundreds of websites have been blocked by the Kazakh authorities but the efforts of the government are apparently not enough. So, the Kazakh government is calling on citizens to get involved.

It's no secret that social-network sites on the Internet are being abused and used for foul purposes. No country is immune to this problem.

Kazakhstan has been having its own problems, particularly with sites authorities in the country say are carrying extremist messages and content. Hundreds of websites have been blocked by the Kazakh authorities but the efforts of the government are apparently not enough. So, the Kazakh government is calling on citizens to get involved.

Reports from Kazakh media on August 12 noted that the Information and Communications Ministry has launched a new website. "Dear friends, literally in the last few days on the website of our ministry a complaints section has been launched, where any citizen can inform about information on the Internet that violates the laws of Kazakhstan," a statement from the ministry read.

Reports on the launch of the new section on the ministry's website say it is mainly intended to help the authorities locate "sites and groups on social networks that carry propaganda on suicides, narcotics, terrorism, extremism, acts of cruelty, interethnic strife, etc...."

Those accessing the site can choose from a list of categories that could be relevant to their "complaint."

The website promises the ministry will check complaints from citizens to see if there are indeed violations of the country's laws on the websites and social networks in question.

The ministry also promises to explain to the people of Kazakhstan the reasons for official decisions to block particular websites.

The idea of the new complaints page seems to have some merit.

Based on reporting from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, it is clear the number of suicides has been increasing lately amid Kazakhstan's drastic economic downturn.

There have been instances of websites available in Kazakhstan that have been promoting extremist ideas or disseminating radical content.

On the other hand, absent from the statement of the Information and Communications Ministry is mention of a vetting process for the complainer. It is unclear whether those filing a complaint could be found and held accountable for providing false information to the ministry's website if their complaints turn out to be false.

That raises the question of possible abuse of the website of the Information and Communications Ministry.

In 2015 there were several cases of bloggers being arrested and convicted for violating Article 174 of the Criminal Code, which deals with the fomentation of social, national, tribal, racial, class, or religious hatred, and actions that insult national honor or dignity or the religious beliefs of citizens. It was not always clear if those convicted intended to incite or insult, and if their writings genuinely represented a violation of the law.

Some felt the government used the law to silence government critics. The new site launched by the Information and Communications Ministry could be used toward similar ends if not properly managed.

Could it be used for personal vendettas? That is also unclear. There have been numerous examples worldwide of people creating dummy accounts to disseminate information in someone else's name.

Another aspect worth mentioning: Can this move by the Information and Communications Ministry really help prevent violence such as that seen in Kazakhstan this year?

In early June, a group of young men in the western city of Aqtobe robbed a gun store and staged an armed attack that left several civilians and police dead, and ended with a shoot-out outside a military facility where most of the attackers were killed. Their motives are still not clear.

In July, a former convict killed several people in Almaty in revenge at having been imprisoned.

Kazakh authorities have ascribed both these incidents to terrorism, a designation some people question. But if they were indeed terrorist acts, in both cases a website such as that just launched by the Information and Communications Ministry would not have helped. There was no cyber-trail.

Yerzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report

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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

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



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