Declared itself an independent sovereign nation on 9 September 1991 from the Soviet Union, today Tajikistan is a constitutional republic ruled by President Emomali Rahmon who has held office since 1994. It has a population of over 8 million people with nearly two-thirds living below poverty line despite its rich natural resources such as gold, uranium and oil reserves.
The Tajik president, Emomali Rahmonov was born in 1952 in the village of Danghara. In 1990 he was elected as a people’s deputy of the Tajik parliament, and in 1992 he became head of the Kulob province.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and Tajikistan unexpectedly gained independence, Rahmon Nabiev assumed power on September 23, 1991. He won the presidential election on December 2 and set Tajikistan on a civil war. It broke out five months after the election and by September 1992, the situation had spun out of control.
The opposition, which had formed an interesting alliance of secular-democratic, Islamic, and regional forces that eventually called itself the United Tajik Opposition, had rallied unceasingly against Nabiev.
On September 7, Nabiev’s convoy was attacked en route to the Dushanbe airport and there was an armed group waiting with a letter of resignation for Nabiev to sign. Akbarsho Iskandarov was named acting president but eventually stepped down in the hopes that might end the fighting.
That is when the relatively unknown 40-year-old Emomali Rahmonov was presented as the new parliament speaker. The post of the president had been annulled, making the speaker the country’s top post. That was when Rahmon raised to power and took over to rule Tajikistan.
The Peacemaker or Human Rights Violator?
The civil war in Tajikistan lasted for five years and tens of thousands of people were killed in the fighting. Rahmon reached a peace deal with the opposition in 1997, which allowed opposition representatives to occupy 30% of government posts and other key political positions and almost a third of the seats in parliament. The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was the opposition’s strongest voice.
The president changed his name from Rahmonov to Rahmon in 2007 and also discouraged his compatriots from using “foreign” names. There was a cataloge of “permitted” names. Tajik authorities also arbitrarily stop men with long beards and have them shave off their facial hair because it is considered a characteristic of the Islamists.
The IRPT was later labelled as a terrorist organization and banned in 2015. Thousands of supporters of the banned party and other opposition members have since gone into exile. Many reported that they were also being persecuted abroad. When its chairman, Muhiddin Kabiri spoke at an online event at George Washington University in the USA in September 2020, the internet throughout Tajikistan was turned off for an hour.
In the easternmost region, residents from the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) were also targeted by the Rahmon regime. The Pamiris, the native inhabitants of GBAO, have years of experience when there were many previous military or militia interventions since the end of the civil war.
The Pamiris have been the target of a relentless crackdown and politically tragetted and assaulted since violence sparked by government security forces broke out in the region in May 2022. The demonstrations had been put down with bloody violenceby the security forces. The government murdered many Pamiris and arrested local leaders and representatives of the general society.
The UN Special Rapporteur, Fernand de Varennes, urged the Tajik authorities to immediately implement conflict-prevention measures that meet international human rights standards, including the protection of the Pamiri minority.
Unlike the transition in neighbouring Kazakhstan, the presidential succession will be a family affair in Tajikistan. Rahmon has long been preparing his eldest son, Rustam Emomali for the presidency.
Emomali began his career in state service at the age of nineteen and worked in several state economic bodies before becoming mayor of the capital Dushanbe in 2017. In April 2020, he was elected speaker of the upper house of parliament, the second most senior position in the country after the presidency.
Rahmon has appointed relatives and compatriots from the Danghara district to key positions. Rahmon’s nine children and their spouses, along with other relatives, head up entire business empires and hold senior positions in state structures, from the speaker of the upper chamber of parliament and head of the presidential administration to deputy chairman of the central bank and head of the country’s biggest bank.
The Decades of Rahmon’s Staying Power
Having been in power longer than anyone else in the former Soviet Union, Rahmon’s administration was overshadowed by extensive corruption and widespread violations of human rights, including torture, arbitrary imprisonment, worsening political repression, and a lack of religious freedom and other civil liberties.
Under his rule, the media has been forced into censoring news and many journalists have allegedly been threatened or assaulted for reporting on developments in the GBAO.