BACKGROUND: On the last day of September 2014, Umarali Quvvatov, a fugitive businessman-cum-opposition leader called on Tajikistan’s population to take part in an anti-government demonstration to be held in Dushanbe on October 10. Drawing on nationalist, Islamic, and democratic discourses at the same time, Quvvatov claimed in a YouTube video that the time was ripe for the people to rise against Rahmon. Claiming that the strongman had ignored an earlier demand to step down, Quvvatov announced that the “people’s opposition” was determined to “rid the country of tyranny.”
Quvvatov is a former entrepreneur who amassed a fortune by trading oil products, including supplying fuel to ISAF troops in Afghanistan. After one of Rahmon’s relatives allegedly took over his lucrative business, Quvvatov fled the country and founded Group 24, an opposition movement seeking to bring down what he calls the “criminal regime” in Tajikistan. He became an ardent critic of Rahmon, travelling across Russia and mobilizing support for his group among Tajik migrant workers. In late 2012, he was detained in Dubai on Tajikistan’s request where the authorities wanted him on charges of business malpractice. After a court in Dubai rejected Dushanbe’s demand to have the businessman extradited, he returned to Russia and started a massive campaign to strengthen his profile via social media networks.
Starting on October 1, Quvvatov’s call for a mass rally was disseminated via YouTube, Facebook, and Russian-language social networks, rapidly becoming the favorite topic for discussion among many Tajik users of these media. In several follow-up videos and social media posts, Quvvatov claimed that “thousands” of his supporters in Tajikistan were ready for the demonstration and urged the country’s military and security services to “join the people” when the event starts.
The authorities responded to Quvvatov’s statements with a series of harsh measures. On October 4, riot police blocked off the central square in Dushanbe – where the rally was to happen – and practiced riot control and dispersal techniques, using rubber batons and water cannons. It was also announced that police and all of the country’ security agencies were put on a high alert.
On October 5, in an attempt to halt the dissemination of information about the rally, the authorities blocked local access to more than 200 websites, notably YouTube, Facebook, VKontakte, several news portals, and dozens of anonymizers used to bypass internet restrictions. Tajikistan’s northern Sughd province, home to about one-third of its population, was entirely disconnected from the internet. In key mosques in Dushanbe, imams told thousands of men arriving for Eid al-Adha prayers to be wary of “criminal” groups calling for anti-government protests and threatening peace in the country.
Then, on October 7, the country’s Interior Minister told journalists that Group 24 was managed by “criminals living abroad, who are wanted in Tajikistan for a number of crimes.” On the same day, the Prosecutor-General’s Office announced that Quvvatov’s statements qualified as “public calls to overthrow the government” and suggested that Group 24 should be banned as an extremist organization.
On October 8, police checkpoints along major roads to Dushanbe were reinforced with armored military vehicles and riot police officers. One day before the rally was supposed to take place, on October 9, the Supreme Court banned Group 24 as an “extremist organization,” warning that members of the group as well as anyone producing or disseminating print, video, or audio materials about the group were subject to criminal prosecution. At the same time, the Prosecutor-General’s Office promised to pardon any Group 24 members who quit the organization. On the same day, the authorities ordered mobile phone operators to switch off SMS services throughout the country and dispatched dozens of security officers to warn students at major universities and high schools in Dushanbe against attending the rally.
There was no demonstration in the Tajik capital on October 10. Within the next several days, the authorities unblocked websites and reactivated SMS services across the country.
IMPLICATIONS: It appears that Quvvatov’s claims about an impending anti-government rally were little more than an attempt to mislead potential supporters about the strength of the exiled opposition. It is also possible that while calling for “Ukraine-like” unrest in Tajikistan, Quvvatov was hoping that the authorities would respond to his calls in a way that would provoke other groups and individuals to join the ranks of opposition. The exiled businessman’s account of why the promised rally in Dushanbe did not happen can hardly be described as credible. Late in the day on October 10, Quvvatov announced that the demonstration had been cancelled after a “reliable source” in the Tajik president’s office told him that China dispatched 800 riot troops to help tackle potential disturbances in Dushanbe.
There is little reason to believe that exiled opposition groups have many supporters in Tajikistan or the capacity to pose a real challenge to the current regime. Political analyst Saimuddin Dustov does not currently see any political force that would have the financial, organizational, and intellectual resources necessary to contest Rahmon’s hold on power. Another local analyst, Sulton Khamad, suggests that although there are many prominent Tajiks living abroad who hate the incumbent regime, they do not have much support within the country, cannot coordinate their activities with other groups, and lack support from foreign governments. It is notable that major domestic opposition groups, including the Islamic Revival Party (IRPT) and the Social-Democratic Party (SDPT), condemned Quvvatov’s call for a demonstration and urged their supporters not to attend the event.
In addition, many analysts maintain that the very idea of anti-government protests is highly unpopular in Tajikistan where the memory of the civil war in the 1990s still haunts the society. Over the last decade, the government has worked hard to persuade the populace that any public expressions of political dissent threaten peace and risk pushing the country back into violence. Following recent protests in Khorog in the country’s east, the government introduced harsher criminal penalties for attending “illegal” rallies, while also making it easier for police to respond to such rallies brutally.
Hence Quvvatov’s promises of a “mass” antigovernment rally in the Tajik capital lacked credibility from the very beginning. Why, then, did the authorities choose to respond so heavy-handedly? Several plausible explanations have been proposed. Some experts maintain that the security agencies did not really take Quvvatov’s statements seriously but that they chose to “overreact” to re-affirm their loyalty to President Rahmon, while also demonstrating their resolve to ward off any assaults on Rahmon’s power to opposition groups. Other analysts hold that the “overreaction” had to do with the fact that political elites in the country lack credible sources of information about political moods and the extent of popular support for opposition groups in the country.
While these explanations may indeed hold some truth, it appears that the Tajik authorities’ heavy-handed approach to the threat of an anti-government demonstration emanates to a large degree from genuine fear of public protests. First, people at the apex of political power in Tajikistan believe that although the Central Asian country is different from societies in the Middle East or Ukraine, it is not immune from political processes similar to ones that led to the Arab Spring and the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime. A recent wave of anti-government demonstrations in Russia and Hong Kong has reminded Rahmon and his advisors that even the very coercive and technologically savvy states cannot always prevent outbursts of popular protest. Tajik security services seem to be particularly alarmed by the similarities between the techniques used by Quvvatov and those used by protesters in Ukraine, Hong Kong, and Russia. For instance, Quvvatov communicates with his supporters via Zello, a walkie-talkie-like application that allows smartphone users to exchange short voice messages quickly and anonymously. The application was actively used by protesters in Ukraine, Russia, and Venezuela. Also, like opposition leaders in Russia and Ukraine, Quvvatov is very active on social media networks where he finds a large audience that the government cannot control.
Second, the security services which no doubt monitor Quvvatov’s online activity must have been alarmed by at least a dozen videos showing the opposition leader’s meetings with hundreds of young Tajik migrant workers who are disillusioned and angry at Rahmon’s government. These individuals are not afraid of voicing their criticism on camera, and many videos end with people demanding that Rahmon step down. Thus, the security services might genuinely believe that Quvvatov’s group has a considerable support base.
Third, Quvvatov’s supporters control major discussion groups on political developments in Tajikistan on Facebook and Odnoklassniki, often steering discussions on these platforms in directions that the authorities are not comfortable with. Although the appearance of broad based support for Group 24 as suggested by these platforms is deceptive and online criticism does not always translate into political action, the authorities seem to (mis)interpret Quvvatov’s positive online image as an indication of popular support for his rhetoric.
CONCLUSIONS: The Tajik security services’ heavy-handed response to a minor opposition leader’s calls for anti-government protests demonstrates that the government in this Central Asian country is genuinely afraid of broad-based public unrest. It also demonstrates that while the government understands that even the most coercive states cannot always control popular protests, coercion remains its favorite tool for dealing with any public expression of dissent.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Alexander Sodiqov is a PhD student at the University of Toronto.
(Image Attribution: kremlin.ru, Wikimedia Commons)