Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Tajik, Russian, Uzbek, Yagnobi, Pamiri languages
Main religions: Islam (Sunni, Ismai’li), Orthodox Christianity
Main minorities and indigenous peoples: The 2010 census estimated 84.3 per cent of the population (6,373,834) to be ethnically Tajik, while about 12.2 per cent (926,344) identified as Uzbek, with smaller proportions of Kyrgyz (0.8 per cent / 60,715) and Russians (0.5 per cent / 34,838), as well as ethnic Turkmen (15,171), Tatars (6,495) and other groups. Notably, the census included the Pamiri people, who were estimated at about 135,000 (2.2 per cent of the population) in 2000, within the Tajik category – a categorization they dispute. A small minority in the southern region of Khatlon consider themselves Arab by descent, although they speak Tajik.
One particularly disadvantaged ethnic group are the Gharmi people, who are originally from the Rasht Valley in north-central Tajikistan, though many were forcibly relocated to the west of the country in Soviet times. Gharmi people tend to be more religiously conservative, and the province is the heartland of the (predominantly Sunni) Islamic Renaissance Party, until 2015 (when it was outlawed by the government) the only legally registered religious party in Central Asia. It is feared that displacement caused by the massive new Rogun dam in the Rasht Valley will particularly affect Gharmi communities. An estimated 30-40,000 people are at risk of displacement; by early 2014, 1,500 families had already been relocated. Given their past history of forced displacement and the lack of adequate community consultation in the Rogun dam project, there is a clear risk that the Gharmi people’s acute sense of disenfranchisement will be reinforced.
There is also a very small Jewish community in Dushanbe. Of the 15,000 living in Tajikistan in 1989, only a few hundred are left. A small house-synagogue is maintained by the community. The previous synagogue, a centre of Dushanbe Jewish life, began being torn down in 2006 to make way for a presidential palace and park; its destruction led to international outcry, and the current building was given to the community in partial compensation.
Updated April 2018.
Growing authoritarianism in Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest country, has seen a widespread crackdown on human rights activists and political opposition groups as the regime of Emomali Rahmon – who has ruled as president since 1992, shortly after Tajikistan gained independence – has taken steps to consolidate its power, including a constitutional referendum that abolished term limits for Rahmon and paved the way for his son to succeed him. The state has targeted the families of dissident exiles, harassed the independent media, jailed lawyers who defended opposition figures and broke up what was previously the only legal Islamic party in the country.
The government of Tajikistan has also long targeted what it perceives as non-Tajik influences on its domestic culture. Poorly developed and discriminatory national policies have fragmented Tajik society into insular ethnic identities, a legacy of the country’s five-year civil war that ended in 1997. In this repressive climate religious and ethnic minorities have particularly suffered, both as collateral damage and as a result of direct targeting. This includes ethnic Uzbeks, the country’s largest minority, who continue to be politically marginalized and are regularly referred to as members of the ‘Uzbek diaspora’, despite being citizens of Tajikistan.
In 2015, authorities accused the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) of plotting to overthrow the state, ordered it to shut down and designated it a terrorist group. In June 2016 the country’s Supreme Court handed out life sentences to two party chairmen, 28-year sentences to four other leaders, and sentences ranging from two to 14 years for other party activists. Hundreds of party members have reportedly been jailed since the 2015 crackdown and many others forced to flee the country. While the government justified its attack on the IRP by alleging links to ISIS, the party had been vocal in its opposition to jihad. Analysts have suggested it could have potentially served as a buffer against radicalization by giving believers a voice in government. As it is, the repression of the party amplifies a message that the state has been sending for years – that devout Muslims, particularly Sunnis whose practices may differ from the narrowly-defined brand of Hanafi teachings that the government mandates, do not have a place in the Tajik state.
The IRP’s suppression has been accompanied by several other official displays of intolerance for diverse expressions of Muslim identity. Local authorities in various parts of the country have collectively closed shops selling hijabs and other clothing that law enforcement deemed reminiscent of Arab or Afghan religious dress, counselled thousands of women to remove their hijabs, and forcibly shaved the beards off men. The official crackdown on ‘alien’ influences has been accompanied by a range of draconian measures against anyone who has opposed it: in May 2016, for instance, a court in the northern district of Isfara sentenced a local man to a year in prison for inciting religious hatred after he filmed a video of police arresting two women for wearing hijabs that was later shared online. In September that year, the last remaining legal madrasas in the country were closed down on the grounds that their teachings deviated from those of the state.
Authorities also suppress many non-Muslim religious practices. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose organization was banned since 2007 on the grounds that they proselytize, continues to meet and practice in private while actively working for legal status. The group reports periodic mistreatment at the hands of authorities, including raids on centres of worship where police have allegedly beaten congregants.
Due in part to the recent scale of religious repression in Tajikistan, the issue of inter-ethnic relations has received little coverage by media and human rights organizations. Yet the cultures and languages of ethnic minorities have also fallen victim to the government’s attempts to establish a hegemonic state identity. A vivid example is Rahmon’s 2016 order to rename ten prominent places bearing Turkic – that is, Uzbek or Kyrgyz – names with Tajik names. While this move may not have had a profound impact on the day-to-day lives of Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, it arguably points to the decreasing usefulness of minority languages, particularly Uzbek. Indeed, the increasing hegemony of Tajik has left some Uzbeks with limited career opportunities.
Furthermore, hostile relations with neighbouring Uzbekistan have reinforced Tajik nationalism, making daily life particularly difficult for Uzbeks. This reinforces a broader climate of antagonism and exclusion. Uzbeks remain under-represented in many areas of public life, and discrimination has reportedly encouraged some Uzbeks to claim Tajik ethnicity on their official forms to access greater opportunities than would typically be available to them. There are reports that Uzbek parents increasingly choose to send their children to Tajik-language schools for this reason.
The sparsely-populated east of Tajikistan is home to a significant linguistic and religious minority – the Pamiri peoples who speak several languages in the eastern Iranian group and are predominantly Ismaili Shi’a Muslims, unlike Tajikistan’s Sunni majority. They are concentrated predominantly in the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, where they make up the majority, and which is considered the economically most disadvantaged region of Tajikistan. Despite its formal autonomy, in practice many Pamiris complain of marginalization within Tajikistan as a whole and even within Gorno Badakhshan itself. Long categorized by authorities as a Tajik sub-group, despite their self-identification as a socially and culturally distinct community, they continued to face a range of obstacles in langauge rights and other areas.
Updated April 2018.
The Republic of Tajikistan is a small landlocked republic in south-east Central Asia. The terrain is mountainous, with the northern part of the country (Khujand) cut off from the rest of the republic. Tajikistan borders Uzbekistan to the north and west, Kyrgyzstan to the north-east, the People’s Republic of China to the east and Afghanistan to the south. Its territory includes the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan in the Pamiri Mountains. Partially because of its size and mountainous aspects of much of the country, it never received large numbers of Slavic settlers as other parts of Central Asia.
The land that is now Tajikistan has for more than 6,000 years been the site of human habitation. Its proximity to Iran has meant that for much of its more recent history it was within the sphere of the Persian empire. While Russia’s proximity has meant it has had contacts with this part of Asia for centuries, it was in the 19th century, between 1873 and 1876, that it conquered the khanates Khokand, Bukhara, and Khiva, and in so doing prepared the ground for the eventual creation of what is today Tajikistan. In 1895, the British and the Russians agreed to use the Amu Darya River as the border between the Russian and British Empires, and this became the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In 1924, it became the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, a part of Uzbekistan. In 1929, it received the status of a constituent republic of the USSR as the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic.
Tajikistan declared independence in September 1991 and established a presidential republic. Rahmon Nabiyev, a former first secretary of the Tajikistan Communist Party, was elected president obtaining 57 per cent of the vote. His main rival, Davlat Khudonazarov, representing various democratic and Islamic parties, received 30 per cent. The important factor in Nabiyev’s victory was the backing by the Khujand northern clans and the Uzbek and Russian minorities, who feared that the country might be transformed into a Tajik ethnic and Muslim state.
Aggravation of the economic situation and Nabiyev’s unwillingness to enter a meaningful power-sharing arrangement with the opposition, as well as the latter’s inability to accept defeat, led to political deadlock. Riots started in April–May 1992 and resulted in armed clashes in Dushanbe, the capital. The civil war, which erupted in summer and autumn 1992, claimed up to 100,000 dead and a million refugees. The civil war saw mobilization of supporters along regional, ethnic and clan lines in the struggle to resolve the ideological conflict between Islam and secularism and the political question of who would rule the country.
President Nabiyev was forced to resign on 7 September 1992, but this failed to stop the war in the south. In November 1992 the Tajikistan Parliament accepted Nabiyev’s resignation, abolished the presidency and elected Emomali Rahmon as parliamentary chairman, the highest executive post. Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) peacekeeping forces for Tajikistan were created. In December the ‘opposition-led’ government fell, and Rahmon took office. Uzbek and Russian military support ensured that the new government stayed in power. These developments finalized the first round of power redistribution in Tajikistan, when a Khujand–Kulob alliance was installed in power again, with Kulobis, from President Rahmon’s region, on top. Ethnic and social fragmentation increased. The mandate of the CIS peacekeeping troops was extended into 1996. Following important military gains by the opposition, a UN-brokered peace agreement was signed by Tajik president Rakhmonov and Islamic opposition leader Sayed Abdullo Nouri in December 1996. As well as an end to fighting, the agreement called for a general amnesty, a prisoner exchange and the repatriation of refugees. The December agreement was designed to become the cornerstone for the creation of a national reconciliation commission in 1997.
While disarmament occurred in 1999 and parliamentary elections were held in 2000, some areas of the country remained under the control of former guerrillas despite Rahkmonov largely consolidating power. There were also assassinations in subsequent years of a number of high-ranking officials, including a peace accords negotiator and a Minister of Culture. Overall, democratic institutions and the rule of law were not adequately strengthened in the wake of the peace agreement, and the rate of reconstruction was slow while people remain seriously impoverished.
In recent years, Rahkmonov has maintained his hold of the presidency through a tight power-sharing structure made up of his family and others from his home-town of Dangara and province of Khatlon. This political elite has a disproportionate influence in government affairs and better access to political power than other ethnic and regional groups.
Tajikistan’s recovery after almost a decade of civil war, which destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and created severe humanitarian and refugee problems, has been slow and painful. Though the civil war has ended, tensions remain high in some parts of the country and Tajikistan remains an authoritarian state dominated by President Rahmon and his entourage. There is a multiparty political system, but the development of the rule of law and democratic progress remains slow.
Despite the absence of comprehensive human rights legislation, the international treaties dealing with human rights ratified by Tajikistan can be applied directly by the country’s tribunals, but are seldom invoked partially because of the weakness and poor status of judicial institutions, as well as a low level of awareness of the availability of these rights. Freedom of expression is protected under the country’s legal system, but independent media and journalists while present in Tajikistan, are subjected to pressure and harassment, and may have problems with obtaining or keeping licences. Some journalists who offend authorities have disappeared, been beaten or arrested.
Non-governmental organisations – including those representing minorities – must be registered, and this process may take years, in particular in the case of international NGOs.
During his more than 25 years in power, Rahmon has presided over the deterioration of the status of Tajikistan’s ethnic and religious minorities. A 2013 report by the League of Women Lawyers of Tajikistan found that the 2009 law ‘on the state language’ – ruling that all citizens must know Tajik and that state employees who do not speak Tajik can face fines – may have reduced ethnic minority members’ access to justice. The report notes that the law’s wording allows room for citizens who seek public legal aid to be fined for not knowing Tajik. The report found that, in practice, many courts still accepted citizens’ appeals in Russian, while Kyrgyz-language documents were accepted in Kyrgyz-majority areas such as Jirgital. However, Uzbek-language documents were accepted less frequently. While the law can be overruled by the Constitution’s provisions for language equality, the report points out that the authorities have not made this clear to the country’s judges – let alone to private citizens. As a result, members of ethnic minorities may have to mount time-consuming efforts to exercise their constitutional rights when seeking legal aid. This state of affairs compromises access to legal aid for Uzbek women in particular, who are less likely to speak Tajik or Russian than their male counterparts.
Updated April 2018.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Freedom from Torture: Civil Society Coalition against Torture and impunity in Tajikistan
National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (US)
Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan/Aga Khan Development Network