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Tajik civil society during and after the pandemic: Main challenges and development prospects

Article by Dr Parviz Mullojonov

May 17, 2021

Tajik civil society during and after the pandemic: Main challenges and development prospects

In 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 and the economic crisis have brought a whole range of new phenomena and events into society, the significance and consequences of which we have yet to understand. The revitalisation of civil society and volunteer movement observed in many countries during the pandemic is also a manifestation of this new social phenomenon. This phenomenon is not something new and unusual for Western democratic countries, but the sudden increase in activities of the non-governmental sector looks quite unusual for developing countries with economies in transition. A similar phenomenon was observed also other post-Soviet countries with authoritarian or  hybrid regimes, such as Belarus where the Government’s denial policy and revitalisation of civil society eventually led the country to a large-scale ant-government uprising. Moreover, the scale of this civic revival looks especially considerable in authoritarian states, where civic activity seemed to be long gone or did not exist at all. Accordingly, a completely natural question arises – to what extent will the current revival of civil institutions be lasting, and how serious can be its impact on modern society – both globally and in certain regions and states.


This question could be also fully attributed to the Tajik society, where during the pandemic the same level of the revival of civic activism is observed. Until very recently the Tajik non-governmental sector seemed to be gone into a deep crisis, completely unable to regain its former influence – as it was during its rise in the mid-2000s. The question is, will the current upsurge be a temporary phenomenon, after which everything will return to the pre-pandemic situation, or will it lead to a range of considerable and systemic changes in the structure and nature of Tajik civil society? Moreover, again, in this case, we are talking not only about Tajikistan but also about changes of a more global order that have been brewing for a long time, while the pandemic has only spurred their development.


Tajik civil society during the pandemic – Key trends and tendencies

There are many definitions of civil society – but it is most commonly understood as the entire space beyond the Government and official institutions – that is, de facto the whole area between an individual and the Government. Accordingly, civil society includes NGOs, community and political organisations, independent media, informal associations of citizens, and so on. Some researchers also include in civil society the private enterprises, primarily the small business sector.[1] Thus, civic institutions play the role of a mediator between citizens and political power, protecting their rights and representing their interests on the decision-making level.


In times of crisis and social upheaval, when the authorities and official bodies are often not able to cover the whole spectrum of problems and challenges, civil society, as a rule, becomes active, filling the vacuum. Thus, civic institutions not only help the authorities but even take on some of their functions to satisfy the needs and requirements of the population affected by the crisis.


This is precisely what is happening during the pandemic around the world, starting from the Western democracies and to the developing world and CIS countries. Today even the most developed economies proved to be less prepared for the pandemic, and even the most effective governments are struggling to cope with its consequences. Under these conditions, the growth of civic activity is expressed in the rapid growth of the volunteer movement, which is engaged in the collection and distribution of humanitarian aid, funds for the purchase of food and medicine, assistance to doctors and hospitals, and so on. Almost everywhere, civil society intensifies and strengthens public control over the activities of both local governments and international organisations involved in the fight against the pandemic.


Today we can talk about a fundamental difference between the current crisis and all previous ones (for example, the last global crisis of 2008) – namely, a completely new level of information technology, online and Internet space, and social networks. It also implies a completely different level of self-organisation of civil society that was clearly demonstrated during the pandemic.


Moreover, it seems that COVID-19 will give a new impetus to the development of online technologies, significantly accelerating the tendencies and trends that have been developing secretly in this area over the past decades. We are talking about speeding up the process of digitalisation of most areas of public life – economy, education, culture, medicine, and the transition of a significant part of information and business services to the online space, etc. Accordingly, in many countries – especially in authoritarian states – one can expect a new round of confrontation between political authority and civil society. On one hand, the reviving civic institutions will try to improve their positions in society and to increase their influence on the decision-making process. On the other hand, the authorities will always try to bring back the civil society under its strict control and reduce the space for social mobilisation and discourse.


This trend towards a new round of confrontation and competition between the political power and civil society is observed today by both individual experts and leading international organisations. As one of the UN experts stated in this regard: “No country or government can overcome this health crisis alone, and I am worried about the alarming trends and limitations reported by civil society representatives around the world, including associated with their ability to support the effective fight against COVID-19.”[2]


New realities – Revitalisation of civil society in Tajikistan

Tajikistan is one of the most striking examples of the new phenomenon – today we are witnessing a revival of Tajik civil society that until recently seemed to be almost impossible. First of all, due to the very nature of the development of the pandemic situation in the country – the Government has denied for far too long the presence of coronavirus in the country, which exacerbated the growth of the pandemic and increased the number of infected people in the country. Besides, as it turned out, the Tajik economy, healthcare, and social welfare systems were completely unprepared for the crisis.


As a result, in the conditions of the apparent failure of the official anti-crisis programme, the Tajik civil society has considerably intensified its activities, assuming some the state functions and services. This process of revitalisation of civic institutions could be relatively divided into three main stages:


The first stage mainly affected the information space – where a sharp and first increase in civic activities was observed already by March – April 2020, when the Government was still vehemently denying the presence of the coronavirus in the country. Against the background of slurred and unconvincing official statistics, the Tajik segment of the Internet, independent media, and online social networks have launched a broad discussion of the state strategy and approaches to combating the pandemic. Special groups appeared in social networks (both closed and open) initiating heated discussions, doubting the official statistics, and offering a range of alternative facts and data.


Thus, it was the policy of the authorities on hiding reliable information that has caused the first wave of the revitalisation of the Tajik non-governmental sector. At this stage, it was mainly about initiating a public discourse in the Internet sector, which remains beyond government control. And the more it became clear that the Government is suppressing the truth, the higher was the level of criticism both in public discourse and in the society as a whole.


The second stage, namely, the intensification of volunteer activities, begins already after the first outbreak of the disease both in Tajikistan itself and in Russia, where the majority of Tajik migrants reside. During this period various groups of citizens started to engage in more practical and public actions – against the backdrop of a deepening collapse and the apparent perplexity of the Tajik official agencies, primarily the Ministry of Health. The process of self-organisation of civil society began in the form of the formation of a volunteer movement – a new phenomenon for the country that was not observed even during the civil war. Moreover, today we are talking about the self-organisation of citizens, most of whom have never been affiliated with political parties either, but in general, have not taken part in public activities.


The process of society’s self-organisation from the very beginning went beyond the circle of professional NGOs that have played mainly a catalyst role for many civic initiatives. In Tajikistan the most civic initiatives were organised via Facebook and YouTube, which are traditionally the most popular platforms among Tajik intelligentsia and civic activists. Later on, various groups of volunteers began to gather and set up around these initiatives, and they began to collect products and personal protective equipment for doctors and ordinary citizens. The rapidly growing groups and associations of volunteers were engaged in cooking and purchasing food for doctors, raising funds to pay for medical services for the poorest and most vulnerable families, providing home care, etc. Some volunteers’ groups have already attempted to register as new NGOs – for example, in Khujand, the ‘Okean Iz Kapel’ (Ocean of Drops) charity foundation created based on such a group has managed eventually to consolidate a part of this movement in the city.


In Dushanbe, a number of NGOs and new civic associations stood at the head of the volunteer movement, among them are the Civil Liberties Office, ‘Mozhesh – Pomogi’ (If You Can, Help), ‘SIZ Dushanbe’ (PPE Dushanbe) and ‘Peshraft’. Thus, the Civil Liberties Office has launched a special QR code to raise funds for those in need during the coronavirus pandemic. They raised $2,000 in a month and helped 300 people with food and medicine – an initiative copied by tens and hundreds of volunteer groups.[3] In Dushanbe, groups of volunteers and ordinary citizens launched a fundraising campaign for the outlined regions of the country. They rented vehicles and cars to send medicines and products to physicians and those in need in the regions. The civil associations of Dushanbe and volunteer groups in the regions have developed a set of joint initiatives. Thus, central NGOs gathered food and medicines based on the lists prepared by volunteers in the regions; when transported to the regions that required the items they were distributed by local activists among the most needed groups of the population. Moreover, volunteer groups have created their system of transparency and accountability, which looks especially attractive against the backdrop of the practice and working style of the relevant official agencies. In most cases, the civic groups carry out the fundraising and distribution activities as open as possible; thus, they have introduced a practice of disseminating special online reports and photos on the spent funds and distributed products.


The volunteer movement has proved to be especially successful and widespread among the Tajik labour migrants, who have found themselves in a very difficult situation due to the onset of quarantine and the economic crisis in Russia. Several local migrant organisations – such as the Center for Tajiks in Moscow led by Izzat Amon, a Tajik lawyer –  have launched a set of large-scale fundraising and humanitarian campaigns to assist labour migrants and their families throughout Russia. Also, for the first time, volunteers who have never been engaged in social activities before, are taking part in this movement – among them are students and ordinary migrants, many of whom already have Russian citizenship. As in Tajikistan, the intensification of civic activities of the Tajik diaspora in Russia takes place against the backdrop of the passivity of the Tajik Government and diplomats that causes sharp criticism from society.


The system of online appeals of volunteer organisations to the Government has also come into practice – for example, with a demand to assist migrant workers who remained outside the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians and small businesses, and vulnerable groups of the population.


Government response

Therefore, since 2020, Tajikistan and the Tajik diasporas abroad have faced a largely unprecedented phenomenon of the rapid revitalisation of civil society and the formation of the volunteer movement. The Tajik Government proved to be completely unprepared for this new social movement, especially in the context of a deepening economic crisis. Initially, the Government did not know how to respond to such a ‘purely humanitarian’ and non-political nature of civic activism. This ‘confusion’ was because a significant part of the social and civic activism is manifested in the sectors beyond the Government’s control – namely, in the Internet and online space, as well as among migrant workers and foreign diasporas.


Later, the Government developed a set of response measures aimed at reducing the level and influence of the volunteer movement. The new strategy includes the following set of measures:


First, the Government has launched a counter-narrative information campaign. On one hand, the authorities tried to hush up the achievements of the volunteer groups. On the other hand, as a counterbalance, the official media launched an information campaign to popularise the Government humanitarian aid provided by large companies, officials, and state agencies.


On the other hand, the Tajik authorities have strengthened their efforts to limit civic activism by putting pressure on the most critically-minded commentators, blocking websites, introducing provisions on “punishment for false information”, “escalating panic” and so on. The most striking and typical example of such pressure is a campaign directed against legally registered media – primarily ‘Radio Ozodi’ (Liberty), which disseminated information about the first cases of COVID-19 in Tajikistan, publicly casting doubt on official statistics. The confrontation with ‘Radio Ozodi’ in April 2020 reached an international level, causing serious criticism of the Government from the international community, including several statements made by a group of leading US senators and public figures.[4]


Second, the Tajik law enforcement and security bodies have enhanced their activities abroad to neutralise the political opposition that took refuge in several EU countries. Besides this, they targeted several major NGOs and civic organisations specialised in defending migrants’ rights in Russia. Special attention is given to the critically-minded bloggers and owners of private YouTube channels, who criticised the official counter-pandemic strategy. In the last several years a wide network of independent online TV channels and video blogs appeared in the Tajik segment of the Internet. The majority of these private media are owned by migrants and non-professional journalists specialised mostly in the issues of the Tajik diasporas abroad. According to independent media sources, Tajik law enforcement tries to limit the criticism of the critically-minded video-bloggers by exerting pressure on their relatives residing in Tajikistan. The Government also undertakes a set of measures to control access to independent online media within the country. Since 2018, Tajik authorities carried out a consistent policy of making Internet access and mobile communication services more expensive and strengthening government control over the country’s telecommunications sector. In particular, the Government introduced a strict limitation on the number of SIM cards a user could have. As a result, by October 2019 the number of Internet users in the country declined to 2.9 million, while the number of mobile phone users went down to 6.2 million, of that number, only 4.5 million users were considered active subscribers.[5]


Third, since 2017, the Tajik Government has been waging a campaign of arrests and detentions of the most critically minded online bloggers, civic activists, and opposition members – apparently to neutralise perceived dissident voices ahead of the 2020 presidential elections and during the pandemic. Some of the civic activists were arrested in Russia by local police to be later deported to Tajikistan. Thus, according to media, in the last several years, Russian authorities have cooperated with Dushanbe on the return of several prominent civic activists and opposition figures, including: Shobuddin Badalov (2020, detained in Nizhny Novgorod); Sharofiddin Gadoev (2019, kidnapped from Moscow); Naimjon Samiev (2018, detained in Grozny); and Karomatullo Sharipov (migrants’ rights defender, 2017). The most recent and notorious case is the detention and deportation of Izzat Amon, Head of the Center for Tajiks of Moscow — an organisation that has helped Tajik citizens properly register with Russian authorities, as well as to find places to live and work. Izzat Amon has doubled his popularity among the Tajik diaspora during the pandemic when he organised a wide and effective network of providing food and medicines for unemployed migrants in Moscow. As in other similar cases, in a hastily convened hearing before his deportation, a Russian court deprived him of his Russian citizenship.


Besides, intending to limit the potential rise of dissident movement inside the country, the Government proceeded with police investigations and arrests of locally-based critically-minded civic and religious figures. Thus, during 2020 around 70 to 100 people have been charged with membership of the Muslim Brotherhood – a banned organisation, whose presence was never reported before in the country.[6] Most recently, in April 2021, several well-known religious figures were detained and questions after giving a speech on the funeral ceremony of one of the most prominent Sufi leaders in the country.


This suppressive policy negatively affected the international rating of the country. In 2019, Reporters Without Borders, a non-governmental human rights organisation, ranked Tajikistan as 161st in its annual 2019 World Press Freedom Index. Therefore, Tajikistan went 12 spots down compared to 2018, when the country was ranked 149th among 180 countries.[7]


Civil society after the pandemic: its politicisation and future prospects

One of the most puzzling questions today is how the relationship between the revitalised civil society and the Government will develop after the pandemic – a question that is relevant not only for Tajikistan. Thus, today many authoritarian governments already exert significant efforts to bring civil society back under control. However, along this path, the Tajik Government will certainly face a range of serious obstacles and new challenges, such as:


Firstly, the pandemic and related socio-economic consequences is a long-term phenomenon – in other words, the effect of the pandemic will last quite a long time. Accordingly, the more difficult the socio-economic situation in the country will be, the more active civil society will be and the more difficult it will be for the Government to drive it into the old framework.


Secondly, the level of public criticism of the Government is also unprecedented and it rapidly assumes a political character. The first manifestations of politicisation of civic protest could be observed already several years ago – during the first phase of the economic crisis (2014-2017) caused by the shrinking of the Russian labour market and the corresponding drop in migrants’ remittances. The public discontent gradually accumulated to be unleashed recently after the above-mentioned arrest and deportation of Izzat Amon, Head of the Center for Tajiks in Moscow. The arrest caused a series of protests, including several attempts to organise demonstrations and pickets in front of the Tajik embassy in Moscow.[8] The opposition online media (, Group-24, Minbari Muhojir/Tribune of Migrant) suddenly received tens of thousands of new followers and subscribers. Today, each online streaming devoted to Izzat Amon and other related issues attracts at least six to ten thousand viewers plus around 40-50 thousand people view each programme later.


The future scale and degree of politicisation of public protest depends on the Government itself, or rather, on what tactics and strategy the authorities will choose to resolve the social and economic crisis. Most likely, a certain part of civil society, which mostly has a critical attitude towards the authorities, will be anyway politicised to one degree or another. The question is whether the growing politicisation trend would involve a considerable part of the population that for many years stayed out of politics.


However, there is another serious challenge for the Tajik authorities here – even if they manage to hamper the ongoing process of politicisation of civil society, it will be much more difficult to reduce the activity of civic groups and institutions. Of course, in the near future, the authorities would be able to limit civic activity offline within Tajikistan; however, this will not be enough to prevent a possible politicisation of social and public protest in the Tajik society as a whole.


The fact is that, as mentioned above, the mobilisation of civil society today takes place mainly in the online space, uniting various social groups and diasporas among themselves both in Tajikistan and beyond. All this space is beyond the control of the Government, which is unable to influence the processes taking place in it. Moreover, the growing process of transition of public discourse, media, and business structures to the online space and the Tajik segment of Internet began long before the pandemic.


Thus, the pandemic only spurred and accelerated these processes. Today, it is hard to say how serious the changes will be in the structure and nature of Tajik civil society, the level of its activity, and the politicisation of social protest after the pandemic. However, in any case, it is quite possible that in a fairly short time the political elite of the country, as well as the Tajik society as a whole may deal with a new political and social reality.


Recommendations to the Government:

  • To conduct close monitoring, research and analysis of the pandemic situation in the country and to ensure the dissemination of reliable information on its further development;
  • To ensure transparency and monitoring on the distribution of humanitarian aid, medical equipment among the healthcare employees and ordinary citizens;
  • To develop a set of advantages and additional incentives for the healthcare workers engaged in the COVID prevention activities and programmes. This set of incentives must include corresponding supplements to the employees’ salaries, providing them with additional paid vacations, awards, job promotions, etc.; and
  • To involve the newly appeared volunteer and civic groups in the Government anti-pandemic projects and initiatives, such as monitoring of the situation, distribution of humanitarian aid, rendering support to socially vulnerable groups of the population.


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).


[1] See: David Mathews “Politics for People: Finding a Responsible Public Voice”, University of Illinois Press, 1999

[2] Bez uchastia grazhdanskogo obshestva pravitelstva e spravyatsya s pandemieqi (Without participation of civic society the government would fail to deal with pandemic), UN News, April 2020,

[3] Muslimbek Buriev, Silver Lining of Pandemic: Redefining Civil Society in Tajikistan, CABAR Asia, August 2020,

[4] Marco Rubio, Rubio, Risch, Menendez, Casey Send Letter to Tajikistan President Regarding Harassment of Tajik Journalists, October 2019,

[5] Regnum, Tajikistan reveals the number of Internet and mobile telephony users, Regnum, November 2019,

[6] Eurasianet, Tajikistan sees mass arrests ahead of elections, January 2020,

[7] Mumin Ahmadi, Reporters Without Borders: In Tajikistan, the situation with the freedom of speech is worse than in Uzbekistan, Radio Ozodi, April 2019,

[8] Reuters, Dozens Detained in Moscow in Rare Migrant Rights Protest – Human Rights Group, April 2021,

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