Home > Afghanistan, Asia-Pacific, Central Asia, Conflict & Security, Editorial, Politics > The Spread of Instability in Central Asia: A Look at Tajikistan’s Fragile Government

The Spread of Instability in Central Asia: A Look at Tajikistan’s Fragile Government

Map of Tajikistan

Map of Tajikistan

First published in Rabble.ca:

The violence and instability from Afghanistan has radiated outward, crippling Pakistan and threatening that country with greater insecurity verging on civil war in its north west. This incident has made the stabalisation of Afghanistan notably more difficult to accomplish. However, Pakistan is not the only Afghan neighbour threatened by political turmoil. Tajikistan, with its 1,200 km border with Afghanistan, is slipping into instability and could see political and military strife in its near future.

Shortly after it gained independence from Russia, Tajikistan suffered through a bloody civil war from 1992 to 1997. Afghanistan was experiencing its own civil war at the time with the loose coalition of the Northern Alliance facing off against the Taliban. In that period, the Taliban had Islamist allies based within Tajikistan, who would often cross the border to fight alongside their allies within Afghanistan. Similarly, key leaders within the Northern Alliance had bases and supply routes running through Tajikistan in order to keep their war efforts going.

In the late 1990s, Tajikistan took a turn away from civil war, and the major warring factions agreed to have peace and to work together to form a government. Hope of a stable and enviable government structure coming out of this decision did not last too long. The founding president, Rakhmon, remains in power to this day, and has ruled over a government that is ill with corruption and incompetence. Self-interest and personal profit seem to be the order of the day for most of the country’s elite.

President Rakhmon, meanwhile, has centralized power in his hands, over the years imprisoning or exiling most of his political rivals. The current ministers and senior political agents are mostly compliant, selected for their blood ties or personal relations to the current president. Furthermore, the president seems to be maneuvering for lifetime office.

In 2003, the constitution was amended to extend the presidential term from four to seven years, and permits the president to remain in office for two consecutive terms. It’s believed that Rakhmon will run again in 2013 and seek to extend his rule as long as health permits.

Tajikistan is a poor country. Some 70 percent of the population lives in deep poverty. Food has become scarce, and hunger is now spreading to the wealthier urban centres. The government has paid little attention to key ministries that could help alleviate the economic and social problems of the country. Social welfare, education, and health sectors are largely forgotten save as sources for foreign donor funding. This funding is generally lost in a corrupt maze of self-enrichment orchestrated by the political elite, and little of it reaches its intended target.

The winter of 2007-08 saw a near collapse of the energy infrastructure in the country. Some regions had only one to three hours of electricity a day. This was coupled with an especially harsh winter in a country that is mainly mountainous. Agricultural seed banks suffered from it as freezing damaged reserves and many seeds were consumed by a hungry populace desperate for nourishment. The winter of 2008-09 has seen a similar fate befall the people. Even the capital, Dushanbe, has been struck by long power outages. The government has been slow to respond and mostly ineffective in its attempts to remedy the situation.

As electricity and food become more scarce, families are suffering as a result of the global economic recession. Remittances from migrant workers in foreign countries contribute nearly half of the gross domestic product (GDP). This $2 billion influx of cash is being pinched as migrant workers find it increasingly difficult to find work in places like Russia and China during this economic recession, biting into the people’s capacity to pay for even the necessities of life.

The president has remained in power through a combination of eliminating political rivals and by reminding people of the horror of civil war in order to dissuade any resistance to his rule. However, with time, the memories of civil war are fading. The median age of the population is 21. This young population may well be willing to undergo turmoil in order to attempt to improve their daily lives and escape a desperate situation of want.

Political calm has been characteristic in Tajikistan since the end of the civil war, however, bouts of violent conflict and protest have erupted, resulting in many questioning the president’s ability to maintain control in the long term. The International Crisis Group reports that in 2008, “a series of gunfights and violent altercations along with demonstrations, a rarity in Tajikistan, in the autonomous mountain region of Badakhshan provoked questions about the president’s hold on power.” (1)

The government has lost even more trust from its people after a “scandal at the National of Tajikistan, where it was revealed in late 2007 that the authorities had failed to disclose that US$310million in reserves were used to guarantee a private financial institution financing cotton investors, mostly destroyed the Rakhmon administration’s remaining credibility with donors.” (2)

Though president Rakhmon has been successful in emptying the country of political opposition, he may be facing trouble from within his own family. His family holds much of the financial and political power in its hand, and as time passes, cracks may be developing within the ranks. In May rumours spread that the president’s son, Rustam, had shot Hassan Sadullayev, the Rakhmon’s brother-in-law. Sadullayev heads the Orient Bank, one of the largest financial institutions in the country. The local media did not report on the event, and the official word was that Sadullayev was on a private business trip. After several months, the brother-in-law reappeared in public, and no one is certain what actually transpired.

The fact remains that family infighting is not uncommon in neighbouring countries with similarly family-run governments. It’s possible that the president will face his toughest political challenge for control from within his own ranks.

Certainly, there is a clear threat of political collapse in Tajikistan, as people’s desperate need for economic and social relief is ignored by a corrupt government. If political instability and conflict erupts in the country, the situation in Afghanistan could be worsened since anarchy in Tajikistan could well provide an opportunity for Taliban allied groups to base operations out of that country and threaten one of the only regions within Afghanistan, in the north bordering Tajikistan, that is still mostly free from regular attacks. Furthemore, Tajikistan’s other neighbours, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, could see trouble as militant organizations that have for years fought these governments could see an upsurge in activity if freely based within Tajik soil devoid of firm government authority.


(1) International Crisis Group, “Tajikistan: On the Road to Failure,” 12 February 2009, page ii.

(2) Ibid.

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