Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, left, is seen with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow. Photo: Sergey Guneev / Sputnik / AFP

A little over a week ago at least 32 people – three prison guards and 29 inmates – were killed in a high-security prison in Tajikistan after convicted Islamic State fighters started a riot.

The riot on May 19 in Vahdat, just outside the capital Dushanbe, is not the first IS-led violence in the mountainous, landlocked country, which suffers from poverty and drug crime, but occupies a strategic position in central Asia.

Last November, an IS-ignited riot left 26 people dead in Khujand, the second largest city in Tajikistan’s northeast. And last July, four Western tourists cycling through the country were killed in an attack that IS claimed was carried out against “citizens of Crusader coalition countries.”

A worrying rise in Islamic extremism is clearly underway in this remote ex-Soviet republic that shares a long border with Afghanistan. The strategically-positioned state is a powder keg facing multiple issues, ranging from an economy that relies on remittances from the mass migration of young men to cross-border drug crime and strongman rule.

Stability restored

Tajikistan, with its population of nine million, is the poorest of the former Soviet nations and suffered severe conflict after it gained independence in 1991 when the USSR collapsed.

Tens of thousands were killed in Tajikistan during a five-year civil war in the 1990s when rebel groups including Islamists challenged the government. More recently, authorities admit that more than 1,000 Tajiks, including a high-ranking ex-police officer, have joined IS in the Middle East.

The country is ruled by local strongman Emomali Rahmon, a former collective farm chairman and communist official who is widely credited with ending the long and devastating civil war of the 1990s. He came to power in 1992 with support from Moscow amid the war and astutely used Russian military and political backing to strike a peace deal with the Islamic opposition he was fighting, and powerful regional clans.

Since those early successes, Rahmon has grown increasingly authoritarian and his rule is now widely criticized by human rights activists.

However, he is also seen as perhaps the only Tajik politician capable of resisting the onslaught of extremism and violence in one of the most volatile, and under-reported, parts of the world.

Tajik strongman Emomali Rahmon, left, talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow. Photo: AFP / Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik

Iron fist

Rahmon has forced many opponents to leave Tajikistan, ordering large-scale security operations that critics say killed dozens and orchestrating trials and jail terms. Faith-based parties, such as the Party of Islamic Renaissance (IRPT), the major Islamic opposition force, were banned. The IRPT was accused of “extremism” and plotting a failed coup. Sixteen of the party’s leaders are on trial for an alleged coup attempt, while most of its other leaders are in exile.

Rahmon’s family runs the country, both in politics and business. His first son, Rustam Emomali, heads numerous state agencies, including the national anti-corruption body. His other son and seven daughters hold top government jobs or own huge businesses.

In May 2016, Tajikistan held a referendum on constitutional reform. The subsequent constitutional amendments not only cemented Rakhmon’s lifetime grip on power, but also lowered the age limit for presidential hopefuls to 30. That will allow his 29-year-old son to take part in next year’s presidential election.

“The referendum shapes Tajikistan’s political system in full accordance with the feudal system of the mid-19th century, when power was not just unlimited, but also hereditary,” Moscow-based Central Asia expert Daniil Kislov recently told Al Jazeera. “Most of what is now Tajikistan was part of the Bukhara Emirate that was conquered by Czarist Russia in the late 19th century.”

Like other regional strongmen – such as the late Islam Karimov of neighboring Uzbekistan and the recently “retired” Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan – Rahmon also developed an eccentric personality cult.

Tajik media call him “His Excellency” and “National Leader.” Schoolchildren and lawmakers dedicate poems to him and compare him to the sun and ancient Persian shahs. A recently adopted law makes Rahmon immune to criminal prosecution.

Migrants, extremism, drugs

Adding to Tajikistan’s woes is its bleak economic outlook. According to multiple reports, the country is the world’s most remittance-dependent nation: More than half of its GDP is made up of cash transfers from millions of male Tajik expatriates.

According to the World Bank, most of those young men work in Russia. Russia’s Central Bank said around $2.5 billion worth of remittances were sent to Tajikistan in 2018.

Tajiks are the second largest group of cheap migrant laborers in Russia, after Kyrgyz, visible in every Moscow mall, restaurant or grocery store. In fact, more Tajiks work in Russia than live in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

A number of these poor, border-crossing, Muslim migrants have been recruited by IS and other armed groups fighting in Syria. This worries both Rahmon and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin, in particular, is nervous that weaponized Tajik migrants may reinforce home-grown Russian Islamists and destabilize Muslim-majority regions in southern Russia.

Tajik migrants are also reportedly heavily involved in drug-trafficking across the porous Afghan border, smuggling products into Kazakhstan and Russia. Afghan-grown opium is the top commodity, though heroin and cannabis are also popular products.

Some international reports allege that drug smuggling accounts for almost a third of Tajikistan‘s economy, and a staggering 400,000 Tajiks have been blacklisted by Moscow.

Russian media report almost daily police crackdowns on the drug-rings and drug-traffickers from Tajikistan. Security at Moscow’s Kazansky train station is ultra-tight every time a train from Dushanbe arrives. The platform is sealed off and security officers check virtually every passenger with a Central Asian face.

Workers hold Tajik flags during the launch of the first turbine of the Rogun dam, 110 km from Dushanbe, in November 2018. Work on the dam began in 1976 but was held up by the civil war. It was restarted in 2017. Photo: Amir Isaev / Sputnik / AFP

Afghan connections

Tajikistan not only borders Afghanistan. It is closely connected to its southern neighbor.

“Many locals in northern Afghanistan are ethnic Tajiks who keep very close ties with their relatives and compatriots up north”, explains Alexei Sidorov, an expert on Central Asia from the Moscow Oriental Studies Institute. “Some pro-Russian field commanders in Afghanistan are ethnic Tajiks, and some of the anti-Soviet warlords that crushed Soviet forces back in the ‘80s were Tajiks, too.”

Tajiks take critical roles in the “Great Game” that Americans and Russians are playing in Afghanistan.

“Both Washington and Moscow are trying to lure them, to win them over,” Sidorov said. “But Russians have an advantage – huge influence and presence in Tajikistan itself, including several military bases near Dushanbe and along the Afghan border.”

Yet, it is unclear how far Moscow is using Tajikistan as a springboard for operations.

Afghan officials have accused Russian and Tajik aircraft of bombing positions in the country. Afghan media, quoting Takhar province’s spokesman Mohammad Jawed Hejri as saying that clashes broke out between drug smugglers in Afghanistan and Tajik border guards. Hejri said “foreign” fighter jets intervened but it could not be verified if they were from Russia or Tajikistan.

Moscow and Dushanbe both denied unleashing air raids.

Amid all this, a new player is emerging as Tajikistan expands ties with China. Beijing is extending credit and has helped to build roads, tunnels and power infrastructure, while Chinese firms invest in oil and gas exploration, and in gold mining.

But the country remains a dangerous stew of poverty, instability, drugs and extremism. With Rahmon’s Tajikstan strongly dependent on Moscow for its security and economy, as long as the strongman can keep a lid on the bubbling tensions, no change is anticipated in the near future.

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