Dushanbe – hitting the headlines, but not in a good way

By Anna Walker, Associate Director, Global Risk Analysis

It’s not often that Tajikistan makes the international news pages, but in early September it briefly attracted headlines. Several days before a football World Cup qualifier between Tajikistan’s national team and Australia’s Socceroos was due to take place in the city stadium, a shoot-out occurred between security forces and an armed group on a street close to Dushanbe airport. The incident was relatively uncommon – Dushanbe is not a violent city. However, the shoot-out gained added prominence because of the security implications for upcoming independence day celebrations and a summit of the Russia-led regional security body, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which Dushanbe was due to host shortly afterwards.

For me it was of particular interest, as a few days later I was due to visit Dushanbe to brief a client on the local security environment. Arriving in the city and driving to the hotel in the early hours of the morning, you would not have known that Dushanbe had three days earlier witnessed one of its bloodiest incidents for many years. Dushanbe is under normal circumstances a relatively uncongested city, and at 5am is usually eerily quiet. That day was no exception, the only hint of the incident coming when a traffic officer pulled over my taxi driver to check his papers – in itself not an uncommon occurrence, but on this occasion more than simply an opportunity to extract a few somoni.

The official version of the incident – in which up to 26 people, including nine policemen, were killed – relates that an armed group led by a recently ousted deputy defence minister, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, attempted to storm a police building as part of a wider plot to topple the president, Emomali Rahmon. The security forces pursued this group into the Romit Gorge area, a short distance from Dushanbe, finally announcing that they had killed or captured all of them – including the renegade minister – several days later. 

This is not the first time that the authorities have engaged in armed battles against their opponents. Such incidents occur every few years, admittedly not in the centre of the capital. This incident has had wider repercussions, however, as it has driven the final nail in the coffin for the beleaguered Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), for nearly 20 years the region’s sole legal Islamic party. The authorities claimed that Nazarzoda had conspired with the IRPT to topple Rahmon, and branded both the ex-minister and the party as terrorists.

The demise of the IRPT makes this a depressing time for Tajikistan-watchers, given its implications for the country’s political pluralism and wider democratisation process. A key tenet of the ceasefire agreement that ended the 1992-97 civil war – one of the most serious civil conflicts to erupt after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – was that the opposition, including the IRPT, were guaranteed 30% of posts in government and other official bodies. For many years efforts to enforce this provision were observed. Over the past decade, however, this commitment has steadily eroded, and the IRPT is now in effect outlawed.

In many ways it is surprising that the IRPT lasted that long. The leaders of all of Tajikistan’s other opposition parties are either in exile or in prison, as are lawyers and other activists who have tried to help them navigate the criminal justice system. Judicial proceedings in Tajikistan remain essentially a means for the executive to deal with potentially troublesome dissenters. Moreover, in recent years the authorities have gradually chipped away at the IRPT’s legitimacy. The party in March 2015 failed to win – or, more accurately, was not allowed to win – any seats in parliament in Tajikistan’s legislative elections. The following months saw it forced to leave its offices in Dushanbe on the grounds of a dodgy privatisation carried out years earlier. The authorities’ deliberate association of the party with Islamist extremism in the wake of the Nazarzoda affair proved the final straw. Tajikistan until recently could with a degree of legitimacy claim to have one of Central Asia’s more pluralist political environments. It is now to all intents and purposes a one-party state. 

Rejecting the notion that the IRPT has links with proscribed extremist groups is not to suggest that Tajikistan does not face security threats. Militant groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Taliban have a growing presence in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. This is a salient reminder that only 15 years ago Tajikistan was the main route for a series of incursions into Uzbekistan by the IMU, which was seeking to depose Uzbek president Islam Karimov. The focus of these militant groups is very much on consolidating their territorial gains in northern Afghanistan rather than expanding into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, their presence so close to the border is driving renewed regional – and particularly Russian – interest in shoring up security. Tajikistan also lies on one of the major drug-smuggling routes from Afghanistan.

The involvement of public officials at all levels facilitates this illicit trade. In the past, organised crime has been estimated to account for as much as 40% of GDP and its impact is very much in evidence in Dushanbe. When I first visited the city nearly 15 years ago, the main streets had an air of faded Soviet grandeur. Dushanbe was founded only in the 1920s and, compared with many other cities in the former Soviet Union, had a more intimate and sleepy feel to it. In the past decade, however, large office and apartment blocks have sprung up somewhat incongruously, many seemingly empty. Rumours abound over the source of the funds used to finance their construction – as in many places, such projects are typically used to launder the proceeds from drug-smuggling. 

The city’s central park has also been smartened up over the past decade. It is always a pleasant place to walk, as I did during my recent visit, taking advantage of the independence day holiday to stroll through the alleyways lined with vibrant flower beds. Against the backdrop of Tajikistan’s complex political and security environment, it lifted the spirits to see families enjoying the festivities, whether eating shashlik on the capital’s public beach or taking selfies in the shadow of the city’s giant flagpole. At 165 metres, this was briefly the tallest in the world, until a Jeddah flagpole knocked it off the top spot. The celebrations were only marred by the Socceroos’ 3-0 win over Tajikistan.