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Academic freedom in Tajikistan: From suppression of scholars to incorporation into Rahmon’s regime

Article by Dr Oleg Antonov, Dr Edward Lemon and Dr Parviz Mullojonov

May 17, 2021

Academic freedom in Tajikistan: From suppression of scholars to incorporation into Rahmon’s regime

On March 3rd 2021, presidential aide, Abdujabbor Rahmonzoda, called on intellectuals to wage an ‘information war’ on the opposition.[1] A month earlier, the Government of Tajikistan had issued a directive stating that government employees could only write PhD dissertations on topics pre-approved by the country’s president Emomali Rahmon.[2] The first of these signs of the Government’s tightening grip on academic freedom in the country came two months after Tajikistan celebrated President’s Day on November 16th. On that day in 1992, at the height of the country’s civil war, Rahmon was elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet and therefore head of state. State-controlled media was abuzz with articles and interviews, with officials praising the ‘Leader of the Nation’, a title Rahmon has held since 2015. Among those paying homage to the President were a number of professors and researchers. Saltanat Salmonova from the Avicenna Tajik State Medical University, in an article entitled, ‘Our Leader, Our Pride’, stated that “today all the achievements and progress we see are due to the merits of this selfless person.”[3] Another article by an academic claimed the President “saved Tajikistan from disintegration.”[4] These two examples point to the ways in which academics have come under the control of the Government, incorporated into the state narrative legitimising the country’s authoritarian regime, and repressed should they be too critical.


Universities should be spaces where academics and students can debate and discuss contentious issues without fear of reprisal. UNESCO established a number of tenets of academic freedom in its ‘Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel’, published in 1997.[5] These include freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof; freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work; freedom from institutional censorship; freedom of teaching and discussion; and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. Universities develop critical thinking and independent thought. This creates a cadre of skilled technocrats and experts who can serve the regime. But it also facilitates the creation of a pool of potential opposition members.[6] Authoritarian governments around the world take considerable lengths to restrict academic freedom. This essay develops a typology of measures to restrict academic freedom in Tajikistan. We examine the ways in which the Government has suppressed academics by punishing those that dissent, forced others to acquiesce through self-censorship and incorporated academics into the narrative supporting the regime.


Soviet legacies

The Soviet period continues to cast its long shadow over higher education in the country. It was during the Soviet period that the first universities in the country were opened. At the time of Tajikistan’s independence, there were ten institutions with 65,586 students.[7] Academics in the Soviet Union occupied a position of relative prestige, with access to significant salaries, resources and networks. But at the same time, academics were supposed to serve the interests of the state with 70 per cent of research directed toward defense, economic, or ideological ‘production’.[8] Rather than being independent, universities and research institutions were subordinated to the Party Politburo. The Academy of Science, which coordinated most research, worked closely with the KGB to restrict research activities and international travel for academics.


Not only did the Soviet Government utilise the technical expertise of academics but it also viewed academics as a potential threat. Academics were the basis of the samizdat movement and played crucial roles in the eventual collapse of communism. In Tajikistan, the openings of glasnost gave academics an opportunity to form new social movements calling for reform. For example, Rastokhez, formed in 1989 by a group of academics, called for a revival of the Tajik language. Its leader, Tohir Abdujabbor, was a Candidate of Science in Economics who worked with the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences.[9] Rastokhez would organise one of the first protests in the country and later join the opposition forces during the country’s civil war.


Academic freedom in independent Tajikistan

While the Marxist-Leninist baggage of Soviet academia has been removed and replaced with a new national ideology centred on the importance of stability and peace guaranteed by President Rahmon, many of the strategies of cooptation and control have been resurrected or have continued since independence. Sources of funding for higher education rapidly declined following independence, with the total budget for all forms of education declining from 11.6 per cent of GDP in 1989 to just 2.3 per cent in 2000.[10] Despite these budget cuts, the higher education sector has developed since independence, at least quantitatively, and there are currently 40 institutions of higher education in Tajikistan, employing 12,484 individuals in teaching and research capacities in Tajikistan, 4,359 of whom are women. Currently, there are 227,026 students in the country, 83,557 of whom are women.[11]


Suppressing independent voices

Suppression involves practices to repress academic freedom, through intimidation, physical attacks, arrests, removal of academics from their positions, and closure of dissenting institutions.



A number of academics have been arrested in the country. The most well-known case is of Alexander Sodiqov, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, who was detained by the security services in Khorog in 2014 and accused of espionage and treason.[12] Following an international advocacy campaign, Sodiqov was released on July 22nd 2014, but the case against him was not dropped. His case is not an isolated incident.


In January 2020, 113 individuals were detained on charges of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organisation in the country. Among them were 20 professors, including Ikromshokh Sattorov, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Languages, Tojiddin Yakubov, head of the department of philology the Tajik National University, and poet Ismoil Kakhkhorov. A number of those arrested had links to the opposition, including the nephew of the former leader of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party, Said Abdullah Nuri, and Ismoil Qahhorov, the husband of cleric Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda’s sister.[13] More recently, the Government has detained at least 50 students who studied in Iran, accusing them of extremism, terrorism and espionage for Tehran.[14]


At the same time as the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, journalist and academic Daler Sharipov was arrested on charges of “inciting religious accord” and “extremism.” Following his arrest, the General Prosecutor’s Office released a statement about Sharipov, saying that “in the period 2013-2019 he published more than 200 articles and notes of extremist content aimed at inciting religious hatred” and in June 2019, he illegally produced 100 copies of a dissertation entitled ‘The Prophet Muhammad and Terrorism’. The Prosecutor General claimed that a religious expert found that the dissertation “was developed in the context of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.”[15] In April 2020, Sharipov was sentenced to one year in prison and later released on January 29, 2021.


Travel restrictions

The Government of Tajikistan has adopted various measures to restrict access to foreign education and to stop academics from travelling to attend conferences and collaborating with foreign scholars. Up until 2010, approximately 2,500 Tajik citizens were studying Islam abroad mostly in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Pakistan.[16] But in August 2010, President Rahmon made a speech accusing foreign madrassas of training “terrorists” and calling on them to return.[17] A year later, the Committee on Religious Affairs claimed that 1,950 of these students had returned home, with just 129 of them continuing their religious education.[18]


In May 2018, the Ministry of Education published a regulation requiring academics to seek permission from the Ministry before leaving the country to attend conferences, providing details about the event and an outline of their presentation.[19] An additional directive published in August 2018 requires students planning to study abroad or participate in internships overseas to seek permission from the Ministry of Education. In justifying the move, the Government claimed it was “to protect young people from the influence of terrorism propaganda.”[20]



With the exception of the Aga Khan Foundation-funded University of Central Asia in Khorog, no independent universities exist within the country. Efforts to establish independent, private universities have been prevented by the Government. One such effort was the Institute of Technical Innovations and Communications, founded in 2003, and known by various names, including the University of International Relations. Established by Tajik-American citizen Sadriddin Akramov, the institute employed a number of opposition figures, including Social Democrat Party leaders Rahmatillo Zoirov and Shokirdjon Hakimov and the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party, Muhiddin Kabiri. After years of pressure, in September 2009, the Ministry of Education demanded its closure for three months for ‘technical reasons’ to check its documents and activities. The Minister of Education described the university as “a hotbed of anti-government propaganda and political opposition” in a letter to President Rahmon.[21] The university was closed in 2010.



Some researchers have been forced to leave the country. At least eight academics have left the country in recent years according to our figures. Hafiz Boboyorov left the country in 2015. An employee of the Academy of Sciences since 1998, in 2014, he founded the Center for the Study of Contemporary Processes and Future Planning at the Academy of Sciences. But he lost this position in 2015 after he criticised the move by Parliament to make Rahmon ‘Leader of the Nation’, and thus able to rule the country indefinitely.[22] He left the country shortly afterwards. These estimates are likely an underestimate as academics do not usually announce their departure abroad and use pen names even after departing.


Surveillance and intimidation

Academics in the country are subject to surveillance and threatened not to voice independent opinions. A Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for National Security overseas academic publications by both local and foreign researchers, monitoring them for criticism of the Government. Employees of the security services are embedded in each of the 40 higher education institutions to report on the activities of employees and students there.


Acquiescence to Regime

In Tajikistan, there is a pattern of ‘educated acquiescence’, with academics complying with the Government in exchange for the benefits conferred upon them by the state.[23]


Institutional autonomy

The legal environment related to academic freedom in Tajikistan includes articles of the Constitution of Tajikistan, laws ‘On Education’ (2004) and ‘On Higher and Postgraduate Vocational Education’ (2009).   In accordance with Article 40 of the Constitution of Tajikistan “everyone has the right to free participation in the cultural life of society, artistic, scientific and technical creativity and to use their achievements. Cultural and spiritual values ​​are protected by the state. Intellectual property is protected by law.” Students and instructors are given ‘academic freedoms’ defined in Tajikistan as “freedom of delivering the content of learning in one’s own way – within the learning programmes” and “a freedom of those who study [students] to acquire knowledge in accordance with their own inclinations – within the learning programmes.”


Yet in reality, legislators have guaranteed that the state controls universities and they have no autonomy. This is evidenced by paragraph 3 of Article 14 of the law ‘On Higher and Postgraduate Vocational Education’ which gives a special right to “the President and the Government, without competition, to appoint a rector in state universities.” This effectively places the state above universities. Rectors retain a great deal of power within the university system, managing budgets, the hiring of staff and controls what research can be conducted. All rectors in the country are members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party. 15 of the 40 are from Khatlon region, with four coming from Danghara district, where the President was born. The Soviet-era Accreditation Commission and its Councils of Scientists control the accreditation academics, preventing critical engagement by Tajik scholars. The Academy of Sciences is organisationally considered a government department. Rectors are appointed and dismissed from their positions by the Government.



Many academics engage in self-censorship as a means to preserve their positions. Critical engagement with politically and socially sensitive subjects, such as politics, corruption and extremism, remains risky and most chose to avoid these subjects. Another serious problem is access to data and statistics. Critical and independent scholars face additional challenges in gaining government permission to conduct fieldwork and research projects. It forces local scholars to limit their criticism and to conform to official narratives in their studies. In many cases, local respondents refuse to participate in the studies conducted by independent scholars fearing for their safety and security.


Incorporation into the Government discourse

Intellectuals are crucial to the formation of policies, even in authoritarian contexts. They also form a crucial source of ruling class hegemony.


Factory of answers

As well as controlling the state media and disseminating its narrative, the Government has also taken steps to distort the opposition’s discourse, a process known as the fabrikai javob (‘the factory of answers’).[24] This refers to efforts by the security services to re­spond to criticism on social media and deploys the ‘truth’ via various individuals, including teachers, professors and government employees. The Government has enlisted the support of ‘volunteers’ in its mission to police the web.[25]


Given their authority, academics are integral to the fabrikai javob. A Radio Ozodi investigation identified at least five people working in the structures of the Ministry of Education and Science of Tajikistan who also worked at a government ‘troll factory’, creating fake accounts on social networks, praising the Government and criticising the opposition.[26] The investigation estimated that at least 400 members are involved in the troll factory, or ‘Analytical Information Group’ within the Ministry of Education.


Academics are called on to praise the President and assert that he is responsible for all the supposed progress in the country. Kholmakhmad Samiev, Dean of the Faculty of International Relations at the Tajik National University, penned a piece in April 2015 proposing that Rahmon be made ‘Leader of the Nation’, a title he gained later that year.[27] They are also pressured into criticising the opposition, calling them “extremists,” “traitors” whose actions threaten unity and stability. Each week, the security services circulate lists of topics they would like to see academics write about. In many cases, the security services write the pieces and then force academics to add their name to them. Combined, these strategies incorporate scholars into narratives legitimising the Government.



From suppressing independent academics to coopting scholars to re-enforce the state narrative that legitimates Tajikistan’s authoritarian regime, academic freedom is under attack in Tajikistan. Reports by Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and the State Department documenting a litany of abuses in other spheres but have largely neglected issues of academic freedom. When John Heathershaw and Edward Schatz penned an essay in openDemocracy exploring different options for external partners, ranging from boycotts to blacklists, they sparked a debate about the harm that could come from further isolating Tajik academics and the role that Western researchers have played in endangering Tajik colleagues.[28] These debates are important and should continue.


We believe that academic freedom in Tajikistan is imperiled and this should not be ignored. The reasons for this are driven by the behaviour of international partners, but more importantly the Government of Tajikistan itself. We concur with Hafiz Boboyorov, Schatz and Heathershaw that “critical engagement” is the best strategy for international partners.[29] Rather than boycotting Tajik academia wholesale, this would involve making financial and other forms of cooperation between foreign bodies and academic institutions in the country, such as the Erasmus+ and World Bank’s Tajikistan Higher Education Project, conditional upon the involvement of independent scholars, think tanks and NGOs. Partners should raise concerns about academic freedom and the abuses of human rights during research collaborations. Through these measures, we could start to open the space for greater academic freedom in Tajikistan.


Oleg Antonov is a guest researcher at the Department of Global Political Studies and Russia and the Caucasus Regional Research at Malmö University. He was previously a visiting scholar at the Södertörn University. His research focuses on education in Tajikistan and authoritarianism in Eurasia.


Edward Lemon is Research Assistant Professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, Washington DC Teaching Site. He was previously at the Wilson Center and Columbia University. His research examines issues of authoritarianism, international relations and security in Central Asia.


Parviz Mullojonov, (Mullojanov) Ph.D., a political scientist, and historian, senior adviser to the International Alert office in Tajikistan and visiting researcher at the EHESS, Paris and former visiting researcher at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. He is former Chairman of the Board of the Tajik branch of the Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation); and former member of the EUCAM (EU and Central Asia Monitoring) research group. He is a former visiting professor at Whitman College (USA) and research fellow and at the Kettering Foundation (USA) and visiting scholar at the University of Exeter (UK), University of Heidelberg (Germany), and School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences – EHESS (Paris). Parviz Mullojonov worked for various international agencies and organisations such as Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, UNCHR, UNDP, ADB, Soros Foundation, and International Alert. Parviz Mullojanov received his Ph.D. in Islamic studies at the University of Basel (Switzerland).


Image by Алишер Курбоналиев under (CC).


[1] Rahmonzoda Ziyoiyoni Tojikro ba ”Jangi Ittilooti”- i ziddi Muholifon Da’vat Kard [Rahmonzoda called on Tajik intellectuals to wage an “information war” against the opposition], Radio Ozodi, March 2021,

[2] V Tadzhikistane goschinovniki smogut zashchitit’ dissertatsii tol’ko s razresheniya prezidenta [In Tajikistan, government officials will be able to defend dissertations only with the permission of the president], Radio Ozodi, February 2021,

[3] Jumhuriyat, Saltanat Salmonova, Peshvoi Mo – Iftihori Mo [Our Leader, Our Pride], November 2020,

[4] Jumhuriyat, Havasmoh Sohibnazarova, Marifat. Vaqte Rohbar Khiradi Azali Dorad… [Enlightenment. When a Leader has Eternal Wisdom], November 2020,

[5] UNESCO, Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel (Recommendation), 1997,

[6] Bueno de Mesquita, Bruno. and Downs, George. 2005. “Democracy and Development,” Foreign Affairs, September/October.

[7] Kataeva, Zukhra. and DeYoung, Alan. 2018. Faculty Challenges and Barriers for Research and Publication in Tajik Higher Education. European Education: 252.

[8] Ibid.

[9] See: Scarborough, Isaac. 2018. The Extremes it Takes to Survive: Tajikistan and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1992, PhD Diss: LSE, London.

[10] Kataeva, Zukhra. and DeYoung, Alan. 2018. Faculty Challenges and Barriers for Research and Publication in Tajik Higher Education. European Education 50: 250.

[11] Ministry of Education. 2020. Ministerstvo obrazovaniya i nauki Respubliki Tadzhikistan. Statisticheskiy sbornik sfery obrazovaniya Respubliki Tadzhikistan na 2019-2020 gg [Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Tajikistan. Statistics of the education sector of the Republic of Tajikistan for 2019-2020] Dushanbe.

[12] Katya Kumkova, Canadian Researcher Released after Five Weeks in Tajikistan Jail. The Guardian, July 2014,

[13] Akhbor, Ismi 18 Bozdoshtshuda dar Parvandai Ikhvon ul Muslimin Ma’lum Shud (Video) [Name of 18 Detained People Revealed (Video)], January 2020,

[14] Radio Ozodi, Tadzhikskiye studenty zayavili o zaderzhaniyakh i doprosakh posle obucheniya v Irane [Tajik students report detentions and interrogations after studying in Iran], February 2021,

[15] Khovar, Zayavleniye press-tsentra General’noy prokuratury Respubliki Tadzhikistan [Statement by the press center of the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Tajikistan], February 2020,

[16] Abramson, David. 2010. Foreign Religious Education and the Central Asian Islamic Revival: Impact and Prospects for Stability. Washington, DC: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

[17] See: Lemon, Edward. 2014. Mediating the Conflict in the Rasht Valley, Tajikistan: The Hegemonic Narrative and Anti-Hegemonic Challenges, Central Asian Affairs 1 (2): 247-272.

[18] ASIA-Plus, 1,950 Tajik Students Have Returned Home from Islamic Schools Abroad, September 2011,

[19] Grazhdanskoye obshchestvo Genprokurature RT: Minobrnauki popirayet Konstitutsiyu strany. VIDEO [Civil society to the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Tajikistan: The Ministry of Education and Science violates the Constitution of the country. VIDEO], Radio Ozodi, June 2018,

[20] Dar boroi tasdiki tartibi firostodani ta’limgirandagon boroi tahsil ba khoriji kishvar [On approval of the order of sending trainees for study abroad], Ministry of Education, September 2018,’s/Baynalmilali/ef57cbe070df4e832f80d6b92bedd790.pdf

[21] RFE/RL, Tajikistan’s Sole Private University Files Lawsuit Against Education Minister, August 2010,

[22] RFE/RL, Tajik Scholar, Government Critic Leaves Country, October 2016,

[23] Perry, Elizabeth. 2020. Educated Acquiescence: How Academia Sustains Authoritarianism in China. Theory and Society 49: 1-22.

[24] See: Roche, Sophie. 2018. The Fabric of Answer: Constructing a National Facade. Central Asian Affairs 5 (2): 93–110.

[25] Shafiev, Abdufattoh. and Miles, Marintha. 2015. Friends, Foes, and Facebook: Blocking the Internet in Tajikistan, Demokratizatsiya 23 (3): 297-319.

[26] «Fabrika trolley» Tadzhikistana: glavnyye litsa i ispolniteli. Rassledovaniye Radio Ozodi popirayet Konstitutsiyu strany. VIDEO [“Troll Factory” of Tajikistan: key figures and performers. Investigation by Radio Ozodi shows this violates the country’s constitution. VIDEO], Radio Ozodi, May 2019,

[27] Hamovozi va maqolai «Peshvoi millat» [Echoes of the article “Leader of the Nation”], Sughd, May 2014,

[28] John Heathershaw and Edward Schatz, Academic freedom in Tajikistan endangered: what is to be done? openDemocracy, February 2018,; Karolina Kluczewska, Academic freedom in Tajikistan: western researchers need to look at themselves, too, openDemocracy, February 2018, ; Malika Bahovadinova, Academic freedom in Tajikistan: why boycotts and blacklists are the wrong response. openDemocracy, February 2018,

[29] Hafiz Boboyorov, Critical engagement and endangered academic freedom in Tajikistan, openDemocracy, March 2018,

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