On the evening of September 16, the internet in Tajikistan stopped working. According to Asia Plus, an independent Tajik news outlet, there was no mobile, wired, or wireless internet available across the country for about an hour. Mobile and internet operators in Tajikistan did not explain why service was interrupted, referring only to “technical glitches.”
On the other side of the world around the same time, George Washington University (GW) in Washington, D.C. hosted an online event featuring Muhiddin Kabiri, the head of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Kabiri spoke at the online event from Europe, where he’s been since 2015 after fleeing Tajikistan.
2015 marked the destruction of the IRPT within Tajikistan, though it lives on outside the country. The party was Central Asian’s only legal religious party up until the moment the Tajik government declared it an extremist group, after having squeezed it out of parliament in March 2015. The IRPT was inheritor of the opposition mantle from the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), of which it had been a major part. The UTO stood against the central Tajik government during the country’s devastating civil war between 1992 and 1997. The peace agreement between the two sides, which some have occasionally suggested as a model for peace processes elsewhere, provided specifically for space for the opposition within the government. But over the years, President Emomali Rahmon — who rose to power in 1992 — and his government chipped away at the opposition’s promised representation within the power structure.
Speaking at the GW event this week, Kabiri commented that in the years after the civil war the opposition made several mistakes. Paramount among them was being overly focused on security and stability — “avoiding provocations.”
“We did not pay enough attention [to] freedoms, human rights and [building] new democratic institutions,” Kabiri said. In the mind of the opposition at the time, “it was enough… to put down our weapons and help in [the] peacemaking process.”
But by 2015, the IRPT had only managed to secure two seats in parliament. And as 2015 progressed it not only lost those seats in a much criticized election, but the party was blamed for the violent defection of a deputy defense minister. That served as the rationale for the arrest of its leaders (and their lawyers) and the party’s banning in late September 2015.
The Tajik government’s narrative about the IRPT doesn’t match up with the reality of the IRPT’s behavior when it was in parliament, or the words of Kabiri both before and after the crackdown. It’s also important to note that the demolishing of the IRPT in Tajikistan occurred in tandem with a larger push against all opposition groups, secular and religious alike.
Critically, no other country has recognized the IRPT as an extremist group, but its “Islamic” nature invariably tapped into the zeitgeist of the Global War on Terror.
“We tried, at that time, to show another face of an Islamic party,” Kabiri said of the post-civil war period. “Always mass media and the international community were talking about Islamic extremism, Islamic terrorism and radicalism so we tried to show another face [that] not all Islamic groups are extremist or radicals.”
“We focused more on peace and security,” Kabiri said. “We see today that we paid a very high price for this.”
While the party is, indeed, an Islamist party and Kabiri says he has no intention of changing its name, it’s far from radical in its demonstrated actions. In 2013, for example, the IRPT and other small opposition groups backed a secular, female candidate for president. She never made it to the ballot. (Can anyone imagine the Taliban nominating a woman for president of Afghanistan?)
After September 2015, Kabiri said he asked his colleagues to stop all work in the larger post-Soviet space. The IRPT became a party in exile, with its operations focused in Europe where there was relative safety. In 2018, the IRPT helped form the National Alliance of Tajikistan, a coalition of opposition parties, and conducts much of its work within that framework.
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“Our task is now not only to be opposition,” Kabiri said, but to aid Tajik migrants in Europe “to be better integrated in European countries.”
When asked whether, if the IRPT was still active in Tajikistan, it would contest the upcoming presidential election, Kabiri said, “It would be very hard to participate in this election.” The opposition leader noted that the question is not whether Rahmon will win, but the percentage he claims for himself. Kabiri pointed to the upheavals in Belarus after its recent presidential election — in which “Europe’s last dictator” Alexander Lukashenko claims he secured 80 percent of the vote, though weeks of ongoing street protests suggest otherwise — as likely moderating Rahmon’s made-up victory margin to “maybe 70 or 80 percent.”
Kabiri sounded hopeful when talking about young Tajiks — such as Faromuz Irgashev, the 30-year-old who said he wanted to run in the election but ultimately was not registered by the election commission to do so.
“Maybe these young people…want to establish a new party or new movement, far from other classic political groups, and I think it would be better and very good for our society if there will be a new movement, new parties in Tajikistan,” Kabiri said. But under Rahmon, he noted, “I think it will be very difficult.”
It is, Kabiri said earlier in his remarks, the task of the Tajik nation to build its own democracy.
“Before there was hope that the international community will help us with democratization,” Kabiri said. “We are not so romantic like we were before.”
Nevertheless, while Kabiri said “we have brought our expectations for the international community to a minimum,” the international community has a responsibility at the very least to avoid double standards when it comes to dictators. Kabiri said he considered invitations (like the one paving the way for Rahmon to visit France last November) indirect, or possibly direct, support to the regime.
“Maybe [French President] Mr. Macron [aimed to]… talk with [Rahmon] about democracy, about respect for human rights and political prisoners,” Kabiri mused. “But let me say that our dictators… have more experience than Mr. Macron, than Mr. Trump, than other leaders.”
Rahmon has led Tajikistan since 1992 — 28 years. For comparison, both France and the United States have had five different presidents, each, in that same period.
Rahmon and other long-serving dictators “have learned how to play with Western countries, with democracies” Kabiri said.
Kabiri, several times, urged the international community to enact specific, targeted sanctions on Rahmon and other high-level Tajik officials but was careful to stress that aid for education, health initiatives, and infrastructure development should continue, despite the risks of corruption.
“It is time to call things by their name: Dictator is dictator,” Kabiri said. He recommended the West follow up with sanctions as has been done with dictators in Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and others. Kabiri said that adding Rahmon and members of his family and government to the Global Magnitsky sanctions list would be a strong message.