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Retreating Rights – Tajikistan: Conclusions and recommendations

Article by Adam Hug

May 17, 2021

Retreating Rights – Tajikistan: Conclusions and recommendations

Tajikistan’s dissent into full authoritarianism has taken place gradually, but inexorably since the end of the Civil War as the President has consolidated power into his own hands and those of his family and close associates. The limited freedoms and political competition of the immediate post-war era have given way, particularly since 2014, to a brutality that seeks to repress dissent, irrespective of how minor or impotent, with overwhelming force that can destroy wider families and communities. Tajikistan now finds itself close to the bottom of the global freedom rankings for political competition, civic space, media and religious freedom as the regime has effectively deployed its multi-track approach of ‘suppress, acquiesce and incorporate’ to neutralise alternative voices. It is also the least economically developed country in Central Asia and on some measures the 22nd poorest country in the world.[1] So there are real challenges about deciding whether, when and how to engage with the country (and therefore the regime), which come with difficult trade-offs for those involved, where development and human rights imperatives do not always align in the short-term.


This publication does not have a magic answer to resolve these tensions, particularly as the scope for international leverage is more limited than even in some of Tajikistan’s neighbours. It lacks Uzbekistan’s and Kazakhstan’s desire for international recognition or their opportunities for investment, and the civic space that is narrowing but still remains in Kyrgyzstan has almost completely closed in Tajikistan. This does not mean however that there is nothing that can be done to help respond to the retreating rights situation in Tajikistan.


Firstly, as the contributions from Larisa Alexandrova, Dilbar Turakhanova, Xeniya Mironova, Favziya Nazarova and Nigina Bakhrieva show there is still some difference between ‘almost completely closed’ and closed. Some areas remain where limited, incremental change can be made (even case by case) by human rights NGOs working in hugely challenging circumstances, provided they do not directly stray into addressing the fundamental issues of political power in the country. It is not unreasonable to believe that there may continue to be scope for limited progress in chipping away at Tajikistan’s endemic problems with domestic violence; or that local advocacy can help address certain issues around torture and mistreatment (in cases without a significant political dimension); and that concerted international protest, particularly when supported by Western Embassies, can sometimes push the regime to reverse itself as they did in the case of Khairullo Mirsaidov or Sharoffidin Gadoev.[2]


Some authors in this collection point out areas for potential reform including: publishing and debating town masterplans; abolishing the propiska registration system; providing greater support for women in employment and seeking to be involved in public office;[3] removing compulsory medical examinations for those seeking to get married and the widespread requirement for HIV tests for employment; improving treatment for torture victims and educating the police and security services about the impact of torture; and many other pragmatic and incremental suggestions made in detail in their essays. While it still may be very much an uphill struggle to achieve even these modest objectives it is not entirely fanciful to believe it may be possible for some of them to be achieved, at least in part. However, clearly there is only so much that can be done by local groups on the ground given the general state of Tajikistan’s civic space.


When it comes to international involvement on the ground careful thought must always be given as to whether the local presence is able to deliver quantifiable outcomes that directly improve the lives of local people in a way that goes over and above the compromises needed to obtain access. Tajikistan’s particular history gives it a higher legacy presence of NGOs and media outlets than the current level of repression would normally allow, given the approach of a government that has provided the option of self-censorship as an alternative to being forced out. However, international presence should not be simply maintained for its own sake, on the basis of the Micawber principle that ‘something will turn up’, if the same organisations and funding could instead be more active in providing support to the people of Tajikistan from outside the country.


Where development outcomes are clearly identifiable and money is able to bypass state systems as much as possible, albeit recognising the penetration of the ruling elite across all sectors of society, a clear rational for continuing such work exists. However, there would seem to be a strong case for reviewing funding mechanisms that provide budget support under normal circumstances to the Government of Tajikistan, given that efforts at capacity building come with huge risks of corruption (either directly or by freeing up other funding that can be used for corrupt ends).[4]


There are a particular set of questions here for the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), notably the World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the Asian Development Bank that have explicit responsibilities in relation to supporting good governance, democracy and human rights. Given the extent of the regime’s penetration of the private sector it is extremely challenging to find local partners that are truly able to be independent. For example, in 2018 the chief executives of EBRD’s local partners Arvand Bank and Imon International, institutions with comparatively good local reputations, were forced to quit in moves seemingly aimed at reducing competition with family controlled alternatives.[5] Similarly, partnerships with the state and municipalities, including Rustam Emomali’s Dushanbe, create significant challenges around potential cronyism and the displacement of other funds to corrupt ends even if the projects themselves are well managed. If the IFIs are going to continue to invest in Tajikistan, something that should itself potentially be reconsidered except for projects with urgent development outcomes, there needs to be greater conditionality that relates to wider governance and human rights reforms beyond the scope of specific projects.


There is scope for IFIs and major donors to improve consultation with local and international civil society about where the benefits of such projects can outweigh their drawbacks, including the risk of further legitimating the regime. There is a strong case for undertaking a further review of all IFI spending in Tajikistan, particularly schemes that involve close collaboration with or direct funding of state structures.[6] At a local level, as Shoira Olimova argues, it is important to make sure information is available in Tajik about all major donor funded projects to improve accountability and to increase the overall amount and detail of project information that is made publically available. Also there is a need for greater support for local NGO-led initiatives such as the ‘Early Warning System’ that help to improve local transparency and accountability.


Similarly, international efforts to support Tajikistan’s security sector need to be considered in the context of the systemic brutality applied by the security services to critics of the regime. The West should try to use what little political capital it has to try to address the root causes of radicalisation, in particular the governance of the country, rather than merely treating the symptoms in a way which may help strengthen institutions that can themselves generate resentment and instability. However, there may be an alternative role, and opportunities, for security cooperation through OSCE border assistance in the context of the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, though CSTO involvement may be preferred in Dushanbe.


While Russia and China remain far and away Tajikistan’s most important international partners, Tajikistan is conscious of the need (as other Central Asian powers are) not to become totally reliant on either or both of them. Tajikistan’s desire to maintain at least a semblance of a multi-vector foreign policy does provide some limited opportunities for other players to have influence at the margins.


At present negotiations to ‘enhance’ the existing EU-Tajikistan Partnership & Cooperation agreement remain stalled, despite a decision on formally opening talks being due since the second half of 2020.[7] Given the grim situation on the ground in Tajikistan it would make sense for this process to remain on pause, not least because due to the state of repression any eventual deal would likely struggle to pass a European Parliament that has been rightly more willing to flex its muscles and block the ratification of deals with more egregious human rights abusers in recent years. The EU has also had initial discussions with Tajikistan over membership of its special incentive arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance (GSP+) that supports vulnerable developing countries who have ratified 27 international conventions on human rights, labour rights, environmental protection and climate change, and good governance.[8] While Tajikistan has a quite good record of signing up to international treaties its compliance with them has been woeful. Taking significant steps towards resolving that compliance failure should be a prerequisite for bringing the country into the scheme.


Tajikistan would seem not to be top of the priority list in Central Asia for the UK to convert the existing EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement into a bilateral arrangement (as it has with Uzbekistan). However, the UK should consider what benefits such a formal framework would bring and ensure that existing EU-Tajikistan human rights provisions are mirrored rather than dropped in any bilateral arrangement. As with the EU it should not seek to develop an agreement with enhanced benefits for Tajikistan without significant changes on the ground. Given Tajikistan’s position at or near the floor of most international human rights rankings there are strong arguments in favour of adding Tajikistan to the UK’s list of Human Rights Priority Countries, a list which currently contains its neighbours Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.[9]


Though the US Government is not overburdened with good options when it comes to exploring post-Afghanistan bases in Central Asia (for the purposes of them continuing to provide external security assistance to that country), Tajikistan would not seem to be the right fit. This is not only for reasons of human rights and governance but on the basis that both Russia and China already have a military presence on the ground in the country.


As noted in the introduction, the previous leaders of the OSCE’s human rights mechanisms were blocked from reappointment by Tajikistani opposition to their candidacies, but the fear that this may happen again must hopefully not influence the decision-making of their successors. It is important for the OSCE, both institutionally and its member states, to actively stand up for the rights of citizens of Tajikistan to speak openly at ODIHR’s Human Dimension conference without fear for their safety or for that of their families. Similarly, with Tajikistan due for its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on November 4th 2021, proactive measures will need to be taken to ensure activists are able to engage fully with the UN process.[10] International partners should consider using the UPR as a stepping off point to push Tajikistan hard on a more narrowly targeted set of priority issues, cherry-picking from the smorgasbord of issues usually raised by countries through the mechanism.


Finding ways to tackle corruption in Tajikistan are central to assisting both with the country’s development challenges and for any hope of reforming its system of governance. While efforts at reform on the ground will be hampered by the role played by ‘the family’ across political and economic life, international action may still be able to help. Although, as noted in the introduction London is not a major focus of illicit Tajik funds, there is still more that needs to be done to prevent the UK’s overseas territories being a conduit for opaque company formation linked to key Tajik players. However, there should be scope for both the UK and US to consider using Magnitsky sanctions, either through the human rights or corruption routes, and other mechanisms to tackle those responsible for abuse in Tajikistan. On the face of it, given the wider corruption and civil society context, the decision of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) to lift Tajikistan’s suspension in January 2020 seems baffling.[11]


Oleg Antonov, Edward Lemon and Parviz Mullojonov note in their essay there is a need for caution when engaging with Tajikistan’s universities given the extent of pressure potential local partners are under. They argue that faced with this situation, external academic partners should engage selectively and raise human rights concerns, using an approach of critical engagement.[12] This is of particular relevance given the context in which those in the education system are forced or induced to participate in the organised trolling of political opponents.


When thinking about the ‘Factory of Answers’ there is more that social media providers can be doing to support victims of state organised trolling and smear campaigns, including the targeting of those based in the diaspora. This includes finding ways to expand access to moderation in Tajik, identifying fake accounts, improving internal redress mechanisms to enable victims to receive swifter action, (particularly for those who have been victims of repeated abuse) and improving sensitivity to the use of sexual smears and other tactics particularly targeted at women. Donors need to consider what additional support can be given to victims of such targeting including psychosocial support and assistance with documenting cases of abuse.


Western countries need to do a better job in responding to the needs of Tajiks seeking refuge from pressures at home. The Poland-Belarus border, that can be reached by travel overland from Russia, has been a significant source of problems with Tajiks being prevented, sometimes for months, from crossing into Poland to claim asylum and subsequently being deported from Belarus back to Tajikistan once the security services had caught wind of what was going on.[13] The case of Hizbullo Shovalizoda, deported from Austria unlawfully according to the belated ruling of its Supreme Court, highlights the clear need for Interior Ministries and Immigration Services in these countries to properly understand the human rights situation in Tajikistan, particularly the ways in which claims of ‘extremism’ are used to target political opponents and how it has abused Interpol’s red notice system in the past. While recognising that general rules on family reunification are getting tighter in a number of countries, including the UK, it is important that Western Governments are fully aware of the pressures that family members of activists can face and they need to find new ways to allow relatives to join those in exile when families themselves are targeted. There also needs to be greater recognition amongst European asylum systems about the dangers posed, even for ordinary citizens, in returning to Tajikistan, particularly when the person is religiously observant.


Western security services need to be aware of the ways in which Tajikistan works extra-territorially to apply pressure and target those in the diaspora. This includes not only the well-documented cases of violence committed against exiled activists, but the ways in which pressure is put on other members of Tajikistan’s diaspora (often by pressuring their families back home) to harass those activists.[14]  Though stretching somewhat beyond the scope of this publication, it is clear that efforts need to be redoubled to attempt to restore Russia’s (previously patchy but now dramatically reduced) compliance with its obligations to the European Court of Human Rights, particularly as it relates to respecting Rule 39 interim measures to halt cases of the rapid deportations of Tajiks in breach of Russian and international law.


So overall Tajikistan, after almost 30 years of independence, finds itself in a very difficult place, combining extreme poverty with a political system that brooks no dissent and a civic space that has dramatically shrunk. Western international actors have limited opportunities to influence the situation in a positive direction, but it is important that they seek to use what leverage they have to resist further backsliding and put pressure on the regime to curb its excesses. Money remains the most important lever, whether that is looking at what more can be done to condition or review international aid, investment and lending, or taking action where corrupt financial flows from the Tajik elite penetrate the international financial system. Beyond the country there is a lot more to do to protect activists in exile from harassment and extradition by a regime that does not see national borders as a barrier to its repression.



In light of the research and analysis set out in this publication, this author seeks to make a number of possible recommendations for action.[15]


For the Government of Tajikistan

There are a great many areas where the Government of Tajikistan needs to reform to comply with the international commitments it has signed up to, far more than can be reasonably included here. However, below is a broad selection of some of the things that it should seek to do. It should:

  • End the harassment of regime critics at home and abroad and the use of torture in its penal and criminal justice systems;
  • Remove the sections of the criminal code that prohibit the ‘insult’ of the President and public officials;
  • Limit the application of anti-extremism legislation to widely recognised violent groups and individual acts of violence, preventing its abuse against political opponents;
  • Address widespread corruption at the heart of the state and take steps to reduce conflict of interest for state officials;
  • Restore political pluralism by allowing independent parties to register, lowering signature requirements to stand for public office, while allowing independent candidates to stand;
  • Reform the office of the Ombudsman and create new independent mechanisms for investigating torture and abuse of power by police and security officials;
  • Improve training for investigative bodies on conducting investigations of torture and ill-treatment and develop a comprehensive rehabilitation programme for torture victims with a particular focus on women;
  • End mandatory medical examination for every citizen seeking to get married and the use of HIV tests as a de facto requirement for many jobs and for access to education;
  • Cease the blocking of websites of independent news outlets and citizens groups;
  • End the propiska system of internal movement registration and restrictions;
  • Make the General Plans of Dushanbe and other cities more accessible and involve citizens in their development;
  • Reform and expand the listing process for properties and areas of architectural and heritage value with input from local citizens;
  • Develop measures to promote women’s participation in employment and public office; and
  • Tackle domestic violence, sexual harassment and abuse of the LGBTQ community.


For Western Countries and international organisations

They should seek to:

  • Review investments by IFIs and aid schemes that provide budget support to the Government of Tajikistan;
  • Implement Magnitsky sanctions and other anti-corruption measures against those in the system responsible for human rights abuses and graft;
  • Provide better support for victims of state organised trolling campaigns and urge social media companies to improve content moderation in Tajik and streamline complaints procedures;
  • Pause EU efforts to create a new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and to add Tajikistan to the GSP + scheme;
  • Add Tajikistan to the UK’s list of Human Rights Priority Countries; and
  • Improve access to asylum and temporary refuge for Tajiks at risk, including measures to assist family reunification where the relatives of activists have been targeted for abuse.


Image by Kalpak Travel under (CC).


[1] Avery Koop, Mapped: The 25 Poorest Countries in the World, Visual Capitalist, April 2021,; Tajikistan’s position is slightly better when it is ranked by purchasing power parity.

[2] Realistically this in cases without a link to the IRPT.

[3] Bluntly given the nature of politics in Tajikistan the quotas for women candidates proposed by Dilbar Turakhanova could be achieved by amending the party rules of the People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan without the need to formally enshrine this in law.

[4] Excluding emergency COVID-related relief.

[5] RBRD, Faizobod water and wastewater project, May 2021,; Eurasianet, Breaking Tajikistan’s banks: The north falters as ruling family cements position, April 2018,

[6] The World Bank, Projects Tajikistan,

[7] European Commission, New EU-Tajikistan partnership & cooperation agreement – authorisation to open negotiations, June 2020,

[8] Tajikistan is already a participant in the EU’s basic ‘Generalised scheme of preferences’ providing easier market access for developing countries.

[9] FCO and FCDO, Corporate report: Human rights priority countries: ministerial statement, January to June 2020,, November 2020,

[10] United Nations Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review,

[11] EITI, The Board agreed that Tajikistan has made meaningful progress overall in implementing the 2016 EITI Standard, January 2020,; Or perhaps put more charitably they have taken a somewhat narrowly focused assessment of their formal criteria than might have been merited given wider circumstances.

[12] See also John Heathershaw and Edward Schatz, Academic freedom in Tajikistan endangered: what is to be done? openDemocracy, February 2018,; Here also are two articles that put forward the case for continuing broader local engagement. Karolina Kluczewska, Academic freedom in Tajikistan: western researchers need to look at themselves, too, ppenDemocracy, February 2018,; Malika Bahovadinova, Academic freedom in Tajikistan: why boycotts and blacklists are the wrong response. openDemocracy, February 2018,

[13] See Adam Hug (ed.), Closing the Door: the challenge facing activists from the former Soviet Union seeking asylum or refuge, FPC, December 2017,

[14] Exeter University Central Asian Studies Network, Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) database

[15] While some of these recommendations build on the analysis and suggestions made by individual essay contributors they are the sole responsibility of the publication’s editor. He is extremely aware that some of the recommendations to the Government of Tajikistan, particularly the initial requests, are somewhat aspirational in nature given the current circumstances.

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