BACKGROUND: Nepotism is frequently mentioned among the problems undermining democracy and stimulating corruption in Central Asia, and is clearly manifested in the practices exercised by the countries leaders’ to retain political power. In Tajikistan in particular, several changes to the constitution were implemented in order to extend Rakhmon's presidency until 2020. Rakhmon, who was reelected on November 6, 2013, made nominal changes in the government through his common practice of shuffling government officials around.
Advancing his son to the highest post in one of the privileged law enforcement agencies, Rakhmon shattered the credibility of promises to curb the practice of nepotism that were given in October of 2011. Back then, responding to the increased international criticism and domestic resentment of the level of corruption, Rakhmon’s political party implemented a set of tough-worded amendments to the anti-corruption law particularly targeting nepotism. Still, Tajik officials frequently hire their relatives and employ the shuffling principle as a cover-up.
Thus, in January of 2012, Minister of Interior Ramazon Rakhimov, complying with the anti-nepotism provisions, fired his brother from his post in one of the police departments but later appointed him to another high-level position in the Customs Administration of Sughd region.
Rakhmon’s family has accumulated a significant amount of control over Tajikistan's politics and economy. According to local media, three out of Rakhmon’s nine children regularly make the list of the most influential people in the republic. They are his son Rustam and daughters Takhmina and Ozoda. Takhmina reportedly owns a number of large business ventures in Tajikistan and has a reputation of a business “predator.” She imports construction materials and food products from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Ozoda serves as Tajikistan's deputy foreign minister. Another daughter, Parvina, controls transporting business, and owns the country’s airports and the Somon Air airline. Other family members include Khasan Sadulloyev, the head of Orientbank and state-owned aluminum-smelting plant; Amonullo Khukumov, head of the National Railroad Company; and Sherali Gulov, who up until very recently (November 21, 2013) was the Minister of Energy and Industry and is likely to reappear in another governmental post. Many additional members of Rakhmon’s clan have positions in crucial business enterprises and governmental agencies.
Prior to his latest appointment, Rustam held several governmental posts of diverse political significance. He previously headed the State Customs Administration smuggling control department and served as the deputy head of the Youth Union. He has been a head of department in the State Investment Committee, a member of Dushanbe city council, a member of the central committee of the ruling party, and president of the country’s soccer federation. He is believed to control imports from China, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. He also owns a grain mill plant and a carpet plant that exports its products to Europe and Asia.
Earlier, members of the ruling party and government officials in Tajikistan reacted positively to Rustam’s rapid career advancements. In 2011, Usmon Solekh from the ruling National Democratic Party of Tajikistan stated that Rustam’s achievements were a result of his talent and qualifications. Back in 2010, in an interview with local media, the head of the Strategic Research Center under the President of Tajikistan, Sukhrob Sharipov, justified the nepotistic practices of Tajikistan's president as a natural expression of Tajik culture.
IMPLICATIONS: Although open to various interpretations, the appointment of Rustam as the head of State Customs Administration serves a very definite purpose. The appointment finalizes the business structure of Rakhmon’s family. Lacking its own production and natural resources, Tajikistan relies heavily on import of consumer goods, raw materials, and fuel. With family members controlling large portions of Tajikistan transportation and import-export businesses, the patronage of the State Customs Administration constitutes an important tool for avoiding fees, restraining competitors, and increasing personal profit. At the same time, the income from the export of aluminum produced at the Tajik aluminum-smelting plant, which is controlled by one of the closest family members, is long rumored to be almost entirely appropriated by Rakhmon. Rustam’s appointment provides an opportunity for unmonitored and unregistered export of aluminum which can multiply the personal wealth of Rakhmon’s family.
In Tajikistan, the State Customs Administration can perform both profit generating and law enforcement functions. The actual power and functions of the law enforcement agencies in Tajikistan are often intermixed, as the agencies disregard each other's orders or extend their power beyond their professional area. The roots of this problem in Tajikistan are traced back to the Civil War when competing commanders were frequently placed on leading positions in various law enforcement agencies. Their continuing rivalry, as well as the level of their personal loyalty to Rakhmon, resulted in blurred functions and spheres of influence of their agencies. As the president's son, Rustam can enhance the position of the Customs Administration among other law enforcement agencies and exploit it for securing and enforcing the power of his family, alongside the National Presidential Guard and other militarized or armed formations loyal to the president.
In spite of the common perception that Rakhmon is grooming his son Rustam to take over the presidency, the latest development demonstrates the opposite. According to Tajikistan’s laws, a person serving in a law enforcement agency is prohibited from membership in political parties and the legislature. Appointing Rustam as the head of the State Customs Administration, Rakhmon removed him from the political arena where Rustam could have established himself as a worthy leader of the country. Notably, Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan worked zealously to advance his son Ilham through the ranks of the ruling party and parliament. During his time as a party member and legislator, Rustam was rarely if ever seen making political statements or interacting with the public and media. The opposition rarely considered Rustam a meaningful presidential candidate due to his lack of support among the political elites and the public.
It is possible that by 2020, the expiration date of Rakhmon’s presidency, Rustam will return to politics. The next seven years can provide Rustam with an opportunity to gain more experience in political maneuvering and obtain the support of political elites, but the chances of his father giving up power will be slim. In 2020, Rakhmon will turn 68. He could well be capable of staying in office, especially if compared to his long-term colleagues in the region; Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan is currently 73 and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan is 75. Neither is showing any inclination to retire from politics.
Although the Tajik Constitution prohibits Rakhmon from running for office again in 2020, the modern history of Central Asia suggests the opposite. Rakhmon can opt to remain in office as a life-term president like Nazarbayev, or simply disregard the Constitution like Karimov. However, the potential threat of an Arab Spring scenario could discourage Rakhmon from retaining his presidential post for too long. Reports on state financial reserves disappearing to off-shore accounts suggest that Rakhmon may be preparing a safe exit in case of revolutionary events unfolding in Tajikistan. Therefore, it is possible that by appointing Rustam as the head of the Customs Administration, Rakhmon simply pursues immediate financial objectives and not long-term political goals.
CONCLUSIONS: While Rustam increases the amount of wealth of Rakhmon’s family through important governmental posts, he is not yet in a position of significant political power. Without clearer political advances, it is not possible to conclude with certainty that Rakhmon is preparing the ground to make his son the next president of Tajikistan. Being fairly young, Rakhmon reserves the post for himself while expanding the financial resources of his family. Rakhmon’s next seven years in office will demonstrate his real intentions; whether he plans to leave politics and the country or transform the presidency in Tajikistan into his family business.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Oleg Salimov holds a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies (Public Administration, Political Science, Education, and Sociology) from the University of Montana.