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Tajikistan’s Dormant Political Scene Offers Soap Opera Dramatics

Intrigue, implausible plotlines, dramatic downfalls, wild rumours, and lingering uncertainties. Just the latest ingredients around fresh speculation that major political transition may be looming.

The political scene in Tajikistan is so dormant, it is tempting to ignore it completely.

That would be a mistake.

An intra-elite soap opera currently playing out in Dushanbe has it all: intrigue, implausible plotlines, dramatic downfalls, treachery, wild rumours, and lingering uncertainties.

The story begins on May 11, when the Democratic Party (DPT), whose single member in parliament ostensibly occupies the ranks of the opposition, held an extraordinary congress.

The event was held for the sole motivation of deciding on the future of party leader and MP Saidjafar Usmonzoda, who declined to attend. The verdict of DPT members was clear: Usmonzoda has performed poorly as leader and had to go.

Delegates overwhelmingly voted to replace him with the far more youthful Shahboz Abror, 34, who has until now been mainly engaged in Dushanbe city-level politics. His managerial post in Dushanbe city hall implies he has a close working relationship with the mayor, Rustam Emomali, who is also the speaker of the upper house, the son of the president, and, almost certainly, the president-to-be.

At first glance, this looked like a mere case of a refresh among the cadres. But days after Usmonzoda was shunted aside, very much against his will, word began circulating that the 63-year-old turned out to be related by marriage to the powerful head of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), Saimumin Yatimov. Both men are from the southern Farkhor district – a common trait of note in a country where politics runs strictly along regional clan lines.

Rustam Emomali, Emomali Rahmon and Saimumin Yatimov at an event on May 29.

This arcane tidbit evolved from curious to profoundly tantalizing late last week, when the Khovar state news agency reported in a stunning news dump that Usmonzoda had been stripped of parliamentary immunity and arrested on charges of conspiring with foreign-based opposition leaders to topple the government.

The decision to revoke immunity was obligingly rubber-stamped by the somnolent 63-member lower house of parliament, which is dominated by the ruling People’s Democratic Party, at the request of Prosecutor-General Yusuf Rahmon.

Their shared surnames notwithstanding, this Rahmon is not related to President Emomali Rahmon, although they are relatives by marriage: his son is married to the president’s youngest daughter. Such intermarriage among the children of Tajikistan’s top elite is extremely common, as should already be evident.

Rahmon, the prosecutor, told MPs that his office’s – almost certainly nonexistent – investigations had revealed that Usmonzoda’s scheming has been ongoing since September 2021. Around that time, he spoke by telephone with a Europe-based opposition politician called Sharofiddin Gadoyev to discuss plans to forcibly take power in Tajiksitan, Rahmon alleged.

According to this fanciful account, Gadoyev promised to enlist the support of yet another exiled opposition leader in drumming up funds and recruiting 3,000 militants with the Jamaat Ansarullo, a would-be Tajik-dominated militant group whose presumed capacities vary in proportion to the extent one is prepared to believe the bottomlessly mendacious Tajik security services.

Adhering to another staple of the Tajik government’s recurrent febrile plot fantasies, Rahmon further alleged that Usmonzoda appealed to an unnamed foreign government for $10 million to pay for recruitment of muscle and anti-government rallies. Whenever state media alludes to foreign governments scheming to sow unrest in Tajikistan, they almost never name names, but it is usually faintly implied that a Western trace is present. Or Iran, if the geopolitics of the time make the suggestion propitious.  

This turn of events has generated an unusually intense flurry of gossip-mongering and speculation. Since media is tightly controlled and censored, the scuttlebutt is confined exclusively to private correspondence. Perhaps needless to say, nothing is confirmed until officials choose to do so through formal channels.

In any case, one strand of rumours suggests that the legal onslaught extends far beyond Usmonzoda.

In the same week that Usmonzoda was pushed out of the Democratic Party, Amirjon Ubaidulloyev, the son of the previous mayor of Dushanbe, Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloyev, lost his job as a senior advisor in the presidential administration. The younger Ubaidulloyev reportedly represented the country in its dealings the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, a pair of international bodies of particular importance to Tajikistan’s development agenda.

There was a time when it was believed that Ubaidulloyev senior might succeed Rahmon as president. His candidacy is said to have been strongly favoured by Russia, Tajikistan’s security guarantor and economic lifeline.

(Usmonzoda, incidentally, is also an unabashed Kremlin-loving toady and is forceful in his view that the invasion of Ukraine was entirely justified on “might makes right” grounds. This does not appear to have helped him).

That Ubaidulloyev would never occupy the president’s chair started to become evident in January 2017, when he was removed from his post as Dushanbe mayor and replaced with President Rahmon’s son, Rustam Emomali. Likelihood became certainty three years later, when he lost his other important job as speaker of the Senate – also to Emomali. The Senate speaker is in constitutional terms a figure second only to the president.

Fully unconfirmed word on the street is now that this Ubaidulloyev father and son pair, along with another Ubaidulloyev son, may also have been detained, or at least hauled in for questioning.

There is danger in all this hearsay. Tajikistan’s information vacuum has created fertile conditions for the flourishing of the most exotic tittle-tattle. Most of it does not bear repeating, but it is difficult to resist relaying whispers that the days for Yatimov, the security services chief, a figure usually considered untouchable, might be counted. Then again, Yatimov’s political obituary has been written over and again, only to prove premature.

All of this is important only because it may at long last presage implementation of the presidential succession strategy, which would see Emomali replace his father, Rahmon.

Being only 36, Emomali is seen as lacking the chops to navigate the treacherous and vaguely incestuous rules of Tajik elite politics. Clearing the scene of any remaining potential rivals is thus understood as a prerequisite for him taking over the reins.

A handover that is anything but entirely drama-free does not bear thinking about. Tajikistan is already in the hole economically. A corruption-riddled country heavily populated with the young, impoverished and frustrated will struggle to cope with even the whiff of instability.

What this soap opera needs is not more cliffhangers, but a season finale.

Source: Substack