The introduction of additional legal restrictions on “family hire” in public service and the recent warnings by senior officials against nepotistic practices in government indicate that the Tajik authorities recognize the political risks stemming from nepotism. This recognition appears to be linked with the political upheavals in Kyrgyzstan and, more recently, the Arab world. However, a genuine anti-nepotism agenda of the Tajik government is unlikely because President Rahmon himself has virtually monopolized political and economic power in the hands of his family. Therefore, the government’s declared anti-nepotism crusade appears to be designed for public consumption.
BACKGROUND: On October 12, the lower chamber of Tajikistan’s parliament approved changes to the 2007 Law on Corruption. The amendments introduce stronger restrictions on “family hire” in public service by broadening the group of “close relatives” who cannot be hired by senior state officials to work in their agencies. This group now includes spouses, children, parents, brothers and sisters, as well as sons-in-law and daughters-in-law and their parents.
The introduction of stricter “no-relatives” provisions in the anti-corruption legislation was initiated by members of the president-led People’s Democratic Party (PDPT). Parliamentarian Saodat Amirshoyeva, who presented the amendments, said they aimed at reinforcing the fight against nepotism in state structures. She also insisted that in addition to modifying the legislation, the authorities will strengthen oversight of its implementation.
Given that the PDPT has taken the lead in pushing through a stronger anti-nepotism agenda, there is little doubt that the initiative came from the president’s office. There is a great deal of irony here because Tajik President Rahmon himself is seen as the embodiment of a system that relies on family ties and patronage. Over the last decade, Rahmon has concentrated political and economic power in the hands of his own family. The president’s 24-year old son, Rustam Emomali, heads the State Customs Service’s smuggling-busting department and serves as deputy head of the Youth Union. Despite his young age, Rustam has already headed a department in the State Investments Committee and served as a member of the Dushanbe City Council. Rustam’s speedy “career” has generated speculation that Rahmon is grooming his son to succeed him in office.
Another of Rahmon’s nine children, Ozoda Rahmonova, serves as the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister. Her husband, Jamoliddin Nuraliyev, works as Deputy Finance Minister and is believed to own a company which collects tolls on a major road connecting central Tajikistan with the north of the country. Rahmon’s oldest daughter, Firuza, owns several shops in central Dushanbe. She is married to Amonullo Hukumatullo, who heads the state-owned Tajik Railway Company and reportedly controls an agency in charge of oil imports to the country. Rahmon’s third daughter, Tahmina, controls a large bank and a nationwide television channel.
The most powerful of Rahmon’s relatives is his brother-in-law, Hasan Asadullozoda. He controls several major companies, including the country’s largest private bank, an airline company, and a firm that supplies bauxite for Tajikistan’s state-owned aluminum company, the largest source of revenues for the country. Asadullozoda also has major stakes in the country’s cotton, insurance, investment, restaurant, retail, hotel, and telecommunications markets. Another prominent relative of the Tajik president is the country’s Minister of Energy and Industry, Sherali Gul.
The extent to which Rahmon’s family has monopolized political decision-making in the country and extended its power into business is not a secret to anyone in Tajikistan. Moreover, there have been attempts to legitimize this “family rule” system. In April, the head of the government-affiliated Strategic Research Center, Suhrob Sharipov, claimed that the Tajik president had the right to appoint his relatives to senior government positions if he was confident in their professional abilities. “Family links have always been used in Tajikistan,” he said. “This is our mentality… No matter who is in power in our country, they will always rely on family links.”
IMPLICATIONS: If nepotism has traditionally been a defining feature of the Tajik political system, how can the recent increase in government’s anti-nepotism rhetoric be explained? This development appears to have been prompted by the recent political upheavals in Kyrgyzstan and the Arab world. In Kyrgyzstan, popular revolts in 2005 and 2010 ousted two of the country’s post-Soviet leaders, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The anger that drove these rebellions was fuelled to a large degree by the relentless nepotism of the country’s leaders. Despite obvious differences between the two countries, the political systems in Tajikistan under Rahmon and in Kyrgyzstan under Akayev and Bakiyev are very similar when it comes to the increasing concentration of power in the hands of the presidents’ families.
The recent political upheavals in the Arab world demonstrated that popular revolts targeting long-resented monopoly rule of corrupt leaders are not unique to Kyrgyzstan. One of the key features common to all regimes in the Arab world which have either been overthrown or found themselves embattled by their own populations is chronic nepotism. Arab rulers most forcefully resented have been those who went the farthest in concentrating decision-making in the hands of their own families and making arrangements to pass on wealth and power to relatives and descendants.
The rebellions in the Arab world have also demonstrated that unorganized youth can become a very potent force prepared to go very far in demanding social and political change. It has long been contended that Tajikistan is immune to popular revolts because the memory of the 1992-97 civil war made stability a common value cherished by all citizens. However, such assertions fail to recognize the fact that younger Tajiks, who are now in their late teens and early 20s, have no memory of the violent conflict and, therefore, do not view political stability as something sacred.
This group is increasingly alienated from the government, which they see as playing no significant role in helping them succeed in their lives. Young and educated Tajiks in urban areas increasingly find that degrees even from top Western universities cannot compete with family connections in the government job market predicated on patronage and networks. Bitter comments and discussions in social media attest to the increasing alienation of this group. Opportunities for personal success are even slimmer in rural areas, where perhaps the only realistic option for most young Tajiks to avoid poverty is to look for work in Russia. At the same time, young Tajiks see that despite widespread poverty, the children of government officials drive luxury cars, own huge mansions, and have other expensive habits. This leads to an increasingly strong conviction that the Tajik political system is designed to benefit only a selected few.
Tajik political analyst Ghani Muminzoda believes that unless the authorities take effective measures to minimize the negative impacts of nepotism, they might be unable to restrain the growing public anger. According to Muminzoda, “the young people view the government as not benefitting them in any way, and therefore as an institution that has lost its practical purpose. The consequences of such an outlook can be disastrous.” It appears that the public frustration with the political system based on family ties is not lost on the government. The speaker of Tajikistan’s parliament, Shukurjon Zukhurov, stated in a recent interview, “Those who think that people do not know or see what is happening are mistaken. People know how government officials get their jobs and how they earn their bread.” He also suggested that if the authorities fail to address the growing discontent of people, they will lose the trust of the population.
CONCLUSIONS: Tajikistan’s politics is plagued by nepotism that permeates all levels of state power. The “family rule” system promoted by Rahmon is the most obvious manifestation of the wider societal practices that have deep cultural and economic roots. It is unlikely that the Tajik authorities are genuinely committed to implementing comprehensive anti-nepotism measures. These measures simply cannot be effective without tackling “family hire” practices at the highest levels of state power, and combating nepotism at these levels would mean undermining the very basis of the regime. The increase in government concern about nepotism is most likely precipitated by the growing recognition in the Tajik president’s inner circle of potential security risks stemming from public anger over nepotistic practices in the government. Hence, the real aim of the government’s anti-nepotism agenda might be not to wipe out “family hire” practices but to make people believe that the government is fighting this social ill.
(By Alexander Sodiqov, published originally in the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI) Analyst, November 16, 2011)