Following the popular revolt that brought an end to President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s regime in Kyrgyzstan in April 2010, Tajikistan’s government termed the crisis an “internal affair” of Kyrgyzstan and limited its official comments to the events confronting its southern neighbor. Despite the official silence, events in Kyrgyzstan have generated considerable debate among Tajik analysts and opposition leaders over whether the Kyrgyz scenario is possible in Tajikistan. Although there are ample similarities between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan when it comes to political and socioeconomic settings, most argue that a Kyrgyz scenario is impossible in Tajikistan due to major differences between the two countries in foreign and domestic politics, and in post-independence experiences.
BACKGROUND: In an effort to predict whether regime change in Kyrgyzstan could be replicated in Tajikistan, many experts have focused on similarities between the political, social and economic structures of Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s Kyrgyzstan and President Emomali Rakhmon’s Tajikistan. Following the Tulip Revolution that brought him to power in 2005, Bakiyev effectively marginalized major political opponents and gained full control of the country’s parliament by forming a new party of power, which won the elections of December 2007 by a landslide. He then consolidated his power by creating new institutions in the presidency and downgrading the formal governmental structure. Real power in Bakiyev’s Kyrgyzstan was exercised through informal networks of associates and relatives who used state control of the economy as a source of personal enrichment. In late 2009, Bakiyev put his son Maxim in charge of foreign investment flows and economic development in the country, prompting speculations that the former president was preparing for his son to succeed him in office.
Shokirjon Khakimov, deputy head of Tajikistan’s Social-Democratic Party, argues that the Tajik political system confronts markedly higher levels of authoritarianism, nepotism and corruption than Bakiyev-era Kyrgyzstan. President Emomali Rakhmon, who has been in office since 1994, consolidated his power by restricting political freedom, persecuting opposition leaders, marginalizing the parliament, and putting his relatives and associates from his home region in charge of the country’s key governmental posts and economic enterprises. According to Khakimov, Tajikistan’s political system breeds corruption and nepotism, strains economic growth, and generates considerable resentment among the business community and population at large, thus undermining the country’s stability. Tajik political analyst Rustam Samiyev suggests that President Rakhmon’s recent efforts aimed at awarding governmental posts to his children and promoting their political careers can have a particularly destabilizing effect on Tajikistan’s political system. In 2009, Rakhmon appointed his daughter as deputy minister of foreign affairs, and his 22-year-old son Rustam became deputy chief of Tajikistan’s youth union. Early this year, Rustam was also elected to the Dushanbe city council.
Another major similarity between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan stems from similar levels of economic and social development in the two countries. An estimated 40 percent of the Kyrgyz population lives below the poverty line, with unemployment standing at 18 percent. The global financial crisis affected living standards in the country by reducing remittances that accounted for 19 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP in 2007. To make things worse, Bakiyev’s administration in late 2009 sharply raised taxes for small and medium businesses, and doubled the electricity prices and increased heating costs by an enormous 500 to 1,000 percent in January 2010. Sayfullo Safarov, deputy director of the government-run Strategic research Center in Tajikistan, argues that the sharp price rises, degrading living standards, and popular indignation at corruption and despotic excesses of Bakiyev’s clan were among the major factors behind the uprising in Kyrgyzstan.
Tajikistan has long been facing even higher levels of poverty and underdevelopment. According to the World Bank estimates, 54 percent of Tajikistan’s population lived below the poverty line in 2007. The crisis reduced the flow of remittances to Tajikistan by about 30 percent and led to a 48 percent decrease in export revenues in 2008. As a result, the share of people living below the poverty line reached about 60 percent, according to Hojimahmad Umarov, a professor at the Institute of Economic Studies in Dushanbe. The living standards of Tajik families have further diminished as many of them were forced to contribute to the Rogun project in a massive government-led campaign aimed at raising public funds for the construction of the controversial dam. Thus, if political, social and economic structures precipitated regime change in Kyrgyzstan, the situation in Tajikistan is even more conducive to a popular upheaval.
IMPLICATIONS: However, despite ample similarities between Bakiyev’s Kyrgyzstan and Rakhmon’s Tajikistan, most experts suggest that the Kyrgyz scenario is impossible in Tajikistan due to major differences between the two countries’ foreign policies, political settings and historical experiences. Independent Tajik analyst Rashid Abdullo argues that the ousting of Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan was prompted by his strategy aimed at earning political and economic dividends by playing Russia and the U.S. against each other in their competition for dominance in Central Asia. An important part of Moscow’s “Near Abroad” and home to a major Russian military base at Kant, Kyrgyzstan has also long been strategic for the U.S., which uses the air base at Manas to support NATO operations in Afghanistan. Using the opportunity provided by Russia’s increasingly assertive policy of countering U.S. influence in Central Asia, Bakiyev secured about US$ 2 billion in aid and loans from Moscow in 2008 in exchange for the expulsion of American forces from the Manas air base. In 2009, however, Bakiyev negotiated higher annual fees for leasing rights with the U.S. and agreed to extend the lease on the base. This double game infuriated Moscow, which, according to both Kyrgyz and Tajik analysts, played a key role in fomenting and guiding the revolt in Kyrgyzstan. Consequently, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the first international leader who congratulated and recognized the legitimacy of the new government in Bishkek.
Rashid Abdullo holds that the Kyrgyz scenario cannot be replicated in Tajikistan unless Dushanbe follows in Bakiyev’s footsteps and abandons its strategic ally, Moscow. This is very unlikely, according to Viktor Dubovicky, an expert in Russian-Tajik relations. Dobovicky argues that despite some difficulties in the relationships between the two countries, Russia will remain Tajikistan’s preferred international partner and the only country with a military base on Tajik soil.
Another major reason why a Kyrgyz scenario is impossible in Tajikistan has to do with the differences in the political settings of the two countries. Kyrgyzstan experienced a period of democratization in the 1990s and, in the early years of Akayev’s presidency, was promoted as a model of democratic development for Central Asia. Even after Akayev’s slide toward authoritarianism and during Bakiyev’s rule, Kyrgyzstan’s political system was more liberal than that of Tajikistan.
In Tajikistan, in contrast to Kyrgyzstan, opposition parties have only been marginally represented in the parliament, without enough seats to form a faction or influence the legislative process. In addition, according to Tajik political expert Sabur Vakhob, Tajikistan lacks strong opposition leaders who could mobilize people and challenge President Rakhmon. Finally, Kyrgyzstan has a history of a relatively violence-free regime change in 2005, while Tajikistan’s experience, a civil war that cost an estimated 50,000-100,000 lives and displaced almost 700,000 people in the early post-independence years, made the country virtually “immune” to popular revolts, according to Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of Tajikistan’s Islamic Revival Party.
CONCLUSIONS: Although there are many similarities between political and socioeconomic structures in today’s Tajikistan and Bakiyev-era Kyrgyzstan, these structures alone cannot bring about a political upheaval and regime change in Tajikistan. Tajikistan’s balanced and strategic relations with Russia, a lack of both strong opposition and experience in democratic development, as well as the memory of bloodshed in the early post-independence years all make a Kyrgyz scenario virtually impossible in the country. Whether the latest Kyrgyz revolution will have any carryover effect on Tajikistan and the rest of Central Asia will to a large extent depend on how successful the regime change will be at bringing about real democratic transition in Kyrgyzstan.
By Alexander Sodiqov (05/26/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)