By Oleg Salimov (11/26/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Tajikistan’s Parliament passed a newly revised law on rallies and demonstrations on November 13. The law regulates all public and street meetings and gatherings. Although the ruling and opposition parties unanimously declared that the new law improves the application of principles of democracy in Tajikistan, the political conditions that surrounded the passage of this law point in the opposite direction.
First, law was passed in the aftermath of events in Ukraine and, most recently, the stand-off between protesters and police in Hong Kong. Second, the law is the next step in a set of measures taken in Tajikistan after the calls for protests launched by the opposition Group 24 on October 10. Soon after the protest appeal was announced, the Tajik government blocked internet in the country, put the police and military on high alert, and designated Group 24 an extremist organization.
The new law substituted a similar law from 1998. In essence, the new and harsher version of the law aims to control and prevent mass protests and demonstrations. The law regulates the presence and legal status of journalists and reporters during rallies, demonstrations, and meetings. In other words, the newly added provision imposes government censorship on all information about meetings and demonstrations. The law successfully monopolizes the government’s control over the flow of information and interpretation of events during public rallies and demonstrations.
Also, the new statute grants additional power to police during meetings and demonstrations. Police is allowed to stop and disperse a public gathering if its organizers violate the government approved agenda or order of a meeting. Thus, the determining factor of a meeting’s longevity will be the police’s vision of the order of a meeting.
The new law also prohibits “coercion” of the public to participate in rallies and demonstrations. The coercion provision is seemingly inspired by the recent protest movements in Ukraine and Hong Kong, which demonstrated the potential for internet and informational technologies as protesters were widely informed and got involved through the spread of text messages and on-line social networking. In the conditions of authoritarian rule, the simple mobilization of supporters for a protest rally through text messages or on-line social networks can easily be interpreted as coercion.
Rakhmon understands that the “immunization to protests” which Tajiks obtained through the Civil War might have started to wear out. Generations of young Tajiks not familiar with the bloodshed during the Civil War and unfamiliar with any other leadership than that of Rakhmon, are now adult. Having previously targeted nonconforming individuals, Rakhmon is currently refocusing on the masses. Political instability in Badakhshan Autonomous Region, where the last public unrest took place as recently as May 2014, is a clear signal for Rakhmon to reassess the probability of mass protests in Tajikistan. Regardless of its failure, the attempt last month by Group 24 to organize an opposition meeting in Dushanbe became a turning point for Rakhmon to adopt more serious measures to subdue undesirable public actions.
The Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party’s leader Mukhiddin Kabiri pointed out that Tajikistan has not had violent protests in the last twenty years. Over the same period, neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which demonstrates as low economic development and high corruption indicators as Tajikistan, had experienced two waves of upheaval in 2005 and 2010, resulting in the overthrow of two governments. By passing the new statute on rallies and demonstrations, Rakhmon reveals his regime’s increased perceived vulnerability to political opposition, which can produce an outcome similar to Kyrgyzstan.
Another important factor in the new law on rallies and demonstrations is the Tajik opposition’s unanimous endorsement of Rakhmon’s latest legislative initiative. The leaders of the largest opposition parties represented in Tajikistan’s parliament, the Islamic Renaissance Party and the Communist Party, collectively supported the law significantly restraining opposition. When justifying support of the law, Kabiri and Shabdolov emphasized their commitment to peaceful resolution of all disagreements with the current regime. This commitment is now secured in the newly passed law on rallies and demonstrations.
From the legal standpoint, the new statute is intended to protect the general public from potential outbursts of violence, unruly crowds, and street mobs during meetings and demonstrations. However, in Tajikistan, justice as the foremost principle of the legal system is often substituted by political considerations and objectives of the regime. In the context of a weak separation between the executive, judicial, and legislative powers, the law can easily be manipulated for the regime’s benefit. While the law can meet the criteria of justice, its interpretation and application can deviate significantly from its initial intent.
By Oleg Salimov (15/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Tajikistan’s government initiated yet another set of internet blocking measures in the country on October 4. Several popular social networking websites were blocked for a week following speculations of planned anti-government protests in Tajikistan on October 10. As reported by local media, the northern part of Tajikistan was completely cut out of the internet and access was blocked to Facebook, Vkontakte (the Russian version of Facebook), and several opposition and media websites in the rest of the country until October 11.
The government denies any involvement while internet providers refer to unofficial orders from the Tajik State Communication Services requiring blockage of certain websites. Tajikistan’s government recurrently blocks internet and opposition websites during political events and public discord (see the 03/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst).
Asomiddin Atoev, the head of Tajikistan’s internet providers association, is convinced that the blockage of internet was a preventative measure against opposition “Group 24” which called for a protest action in Dushanbe on October 10.
Dushanbe city police conducted anti-protest exercises on October 4, which coincided with the start of the internet blockage. According to Tajik officials, the anti-protest exercise is a part of the scheduled routine. During the exercise, police in full military outfit armed with shields and batons circled the main city square Dousti and moved forward dispersing the supposed protest crowd.
At the same time, the Political Advisory Council of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan appealed to its supporters to refrain from attending the planned protest action. The party reminded of the bloody consequences of Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war, which started as anti-government protests and left about 150,000 Tajiks dead. The Advisory Council also threatened to expel members who will attend the action. A similar plea to the Tajik public was announced by the leader of the Communist Party of Tajikistan Shodi Shabdolov, who also warned about the possibility of protests spiraling out of control and the inadmissibility of another civil war in the republic, while dismissing the idea of unauthorized protest actions.
Soon after the blockage of internet, the Tajik Prosecutor General’s office sent a request to the Supreme Court to designate Group 24 as an extremist organization attempting a coup in the country. Two days later, on October 10, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court approved the request, designating Group 24 as an extremist organization and banning all its actions and activities in Tajikistan. Tajikistan’s government also accuses the leader of Group 24, Umarali Quvvatov, of fraud, kidnapping, and theft. The case was opened in 2012 with damages estimated to millions of dollars. The investigation of Quvvatov’s case is conducted by the Anticorruption agency, infamous for its persecution of persons seen as dangerous to Rahmon’s regime, the most prominent of which include Zaid Saidov and Mukhiddin Kabiri. Quvvatov was arrested in December 2012 in the United Arab Emirates at the request of Tajikistan’s government. He avoided extradition to Tajikistan and was freed ten months later. Quvvatov lives in exile since 2012 and his exact whereabouts are unknown.
According to Quvvatov, Group 24 is named after 24 Tajik businessmen, politicians, and public figures who founded the opposition organization in 2011, united by the idea of replacing Rahmon and changing the course of political development in the country. However, Quvvatov refuses to release the names of the Group’s founders. A staunch critic of Rahmon, Quvvatov states his vision of economic and democratic development in Tajikistan, including reform of the agricultural and taxation sectors, elimination of corruption, improvement of educational system, and revision of international agreements unfavorable to Tajikistan.
Eventually, no unsanctioned event took place on October 10. Group 24 failed to attract Tajiks to the protest action for several reasons. First, there is lack of clarity in whose interests the Group represents. This obscurity hindered Group 24 from building a platform of supporters in Tajikistan. Second, due to the high level of labor migration (almost one million according to Tajikistan’s Ministry of Labor) Tajikistan does not have the unemployed masses that played a significant role during Arab Spring revolutions. Third, Quvvatov, the only known face of Group 24, is not yet perceived as a leader of Tajikistan’s opposition. The large opposition parties and groups, including the Islamic Renaissance party, the Communist party, the Tajik Labor Migrants group, and the Tajik Youth for revival of Tajikistan group, all rejected the calls for public protests. Finally, although Tajikistan’s government took swift actions to prevent protests, which also a included high number of policemen and military vehicles in Dushanbe on October 10, memories of the relatively recent civil war remain a firm argument against engaging in street protests to many Tajiks.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.