Central Asia has historically been at a crossroads. From Russia’s economic troubles to China’s slowdown and the Middle East’s volatility, the Eurasian landmass is almost entirely plagued by crises. Tajikistan is a small country, but instability there impacts security throughout the region and intersects the strategic and security interests of Russia, China, and the West. Thus far, Central Asian states have proved relatively stable. However, the government in Tajikistan is signaling that its position is insecure, and Russian moves indicate that the Kremlin believes the regime’s position is under threat as well. The regime will likely survive in the near term, but challenges — from economic troubles to Islamic State activity — are growing, posing a risk both to the regime and the region’s stability.
A judge in Tajikistan handed long jail sentences today to seven men convicted of hoisting an IS flag. The judge ruled that the seven wanted to overthrow Tajikistan’s government, while Tajik state media reported that the group had contact with militants in Syria. It remains unclear whether the seven had ties to IS, especially because Hizb ut-Tahrir, a militant group with strong roots in the region, has a similar flag. The Tajik government, which is engaged in a large-scale crackdown on its opposition and is facing a significant domestic economic crisis, has an interest in playing up the IS threat. Nevertheless, there are growing indications not only that IS is active and recruiting in Tajikistan, but that, perhaps more significantly, the Tajik government’s position of power in the country is insecure.
Tajikistan’s government fears protests over economic conditions, as well as challenges to its position from either the opposition or the security establishment. Russia’s economic troubles, coupled with China’s economic slowdown, had a significant impact on all Central Asian economies. Tajikistan is particularly vulnerable, since its economy is highly dependent on remittances from Russia. Remittances have dropped nearly by half over the past year, while some Tajiks have returned home. On Dec. 1, due to ongoing concerns over the country’s currency, Tajikistan closed all currency exchange offices.
The Tajik regime’s growing fear over its position can be seen in its decision-making over the past few months. On Aug. 28, the government banned the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party. Then, in early September, the Tajik government accused former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda of being responsible for a deadly attack on a police station and for attempting to organize a coup. During the Tajik Civil War in the 1990s, Nazarzoda served as a rebel commander in an anti-government alliance that included the Islamic Renaissance Party. Following the civil war, however, the party—as well as commanders such as Nazarzoda—took part in a power-sharing arrangement with their former rival, the Tajik government. The Tajik authorities have used the alleged September mutiny to initiate a large-scale crackdown on the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, arresting about 200 members and branding the party a terror organization, with occasional shootouts with Nazarzoda’s alleged supporters taking place throughout the fall.
The regime’s concerns extend beyond its political opposition. In early November, Tajikistan launched an anti-terror drill reportedly involving over 40,000 servicemen. That same month, the government issued a decree to demolish so-called “illegally-built” mosques, a part of an ongoing crackdown on religious establishments and groups in the country. The government also appears to be nervous about its own security and defense establishment. On Nov. 24, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon removed several high-ranking defense ministry officials and the head of the military’s intelligence directorate from their posts. He also replaced several regional police department heads. Put together, these moves point to the Tajik government feeling increasingly insecure about its position.
There are also indications that the Kremlin is concerned about the stability of the Tajik regime. Russia currently has about 7,000 troops in Tajikistan, divided into three separate bases but collectively known as the 201st military base. On Nov. 19, reports emerged that Russian troops stationed in the southern Tajik city of Kulyab are moving to an area near Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe. The regime decided to move troops from the 149th motor-rifle regiment in Kulyab to Dushanbe and a training ground in the Dushanbe area at a time when the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan is fanning fears across the region of spillover. At the same time, there are reports of IS activity in the area. All these developments may signal that the decision was taken due to concerns over the regime’s stability in Dushanbe.
For Russia, instability in Central Asia is a dangerous prospect because Moscow fears spillover of arms and militants into Russian territory. Tajikistan is also strategically significant for Russia because its military presence there allows Moscow to project power into the region. Russian officials have publicly raised concerns about the situation in Tajikistan, with Kremlin chief-of-staff Sergei Ivanov saying on Nov. 10 that Russia is worried about the presence of IS militants along the Afghan-Tajik border. In fact, Tajikistan’s interior minister announced on Nov. 24 that the country will give Russia a list of wanted citizens, some of whom are fighting in Syria. Following the alleged coup attempt in Tajikistan in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Tajikistan’s government can count on Russian help and support.
When it comes to IS, the Tajik government has two major concerns. The first is that migrant workers will become radicalized in Russia, where many Tajiks earn their living in order to send remittances home. Tajik authorities worry about radicalized Tajiks returning from abroad and spreading their ideology inside Tajikistan. Secondly, the Tajik regime is highly aware that young Tajiks are being recruited by IS to fight in Syria and Iraq. Tajikistan has opened cases against 420 citizens suspected of fighting in Iraq and Syria, but the real number could be much higher. A local official in the southern Tajik region of Khatlon reported that nearly 200 residents of the region are currently fighting in the Middle East.
Central Asian states are feeling the impact of the crises around them, from Russia to the Middle East to Afghanistan. The Tajik government — and the Kremlin — are now signaling that there is a growing risk of instability within Central Asia as well.