By Kambiz Shabankare


flag-tajikistanThe word Tajikistan in the Tajik language means the land of Tajiks, who are about 80 percent of the country’s population. The rest of the population includes 15.3 percent Uzbeks, about 1.1 percent Russians and 2.6 percent other minorities like Ukrainians, Chinese, Korean Tatars, Afghans and Iranians. The country is mountainous, rainy and has abundant water resources. Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, is surrounded by incredible mountains, which have given the country the reputation of the paradise of hikers. Tajikistan has attracted millions of tourists from around the globe who enjoy hiking especially during fall and winter seasons. Although the official language of the country is Persian-Tajik, The Russian language is widely used for business and governmental purposes. The Tajik language is rich and poetic. It considers one of the branches of Persian language. The currency of the country, Somoni, refers to the Samanid Empire (819-999AD), which was one of the most influential governments in the region at the time, and Tajiks remember it with great pride.

Historical Background

The Republic of Tajikistan is a country in Central Asia that is neighbored on the south by Afghanistan, on the west by Uzbekistan, on the north by Kyrgyzstan and on the east by China. Tajikistan is a landlocked country and in the past was a part of the Silk Road. Tajikistan’s area of 143,100 square kilometers (55,300 square miles) makes it the 95th largest country in the world.

The land of ancient Sogdia (currently Tajikistan) became a part of the Achaemenid Empire during the Kingdom of Darius of the first (550 BC). After the invasion of the land by Alexander, the Macedonian king, Tajikistan respectively became part of the Seleucid Empire, the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, the Kingdom of Bactria, the Kushan Empire, the Sasanian Empire, the Hephthalite Empire and the Xionitesmapa Kingdom.

In 715 AD (at the time of the Umayyads), the land was occupied by the Arabs and the Tajik people converted to Islam. After the Arab invasion, Tajikistan became the cradle of Persian-Dari language, culture and various sciences.

In the 10th century, the Samanids, the first independent Iranian government after Islam, was formed in this region. After the fall of the Samanids and the unification of the Ghaznavids and the Qarakhanids, the land became a part of the state of the Qarakhanids, the Khwarazmian kingdom,  the Mongolian Ilkhanates and the Timurid Empire sequentially. The Timurid Empire fell in the 19th century, and the Uzbeks governed the land until the 19th century. In between, Nader Shah Afshar, the king of Persia, captured the area for a short period. In the 19th century, the northern Tajikistan (Khujand) became part of the Khanate of Kokand, and the southern part became of the Khanate of Bukhara. Tsardom of Russia invaded the Khanate of Bukhara in 1866, and the Khanate of Kokand in 1868.

After the October Revolution (1917), Tajikistan was first a part of the Republic of Uzbekistan in the Soviet Union. The Secretariat of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union formed the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic as the new constituent republic of the Soviet Union in 1928. The country gained its independence after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Shortly after the country’s independence, the Five-Year Civil War started between the government, backed by Moscow, and the Islamists, led by Sayid Abdulloh Nuri. The war left about 100,000 dead and nearly 1.2 million homeless. The parties involved, with the mediation of the United Nations and Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia, signed a peace treaty on June 27, 1997.

Free Speech

Dr. Saeid Kharratha at the University of Tehran has categorized the most important social issues in Tajikistan as expensive fuel, displacement, social crimes (deception, robbery and mendicity), prostitution, issues related to nutrition, health and social security, and scientists’ migration (brain drain). The study shows that the majority of Tajiks were too busy surviving. Thus, freedom of speech had become their least concern (Kharratha 8).

Tajik Civil War, which started immediately after its independence, left about 100,000 dead and a destroyed economy that was already about to collapse after separating from the Soviet Union. The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRP) with the leadership of Sayid Abdulloh Nuri was one the parties against the government during the civil war. Finally, both sides involved agreed to a cease-fire with the mediation of Iran. Although the recognition of the IRP was one of the provisions of the cease-fire, the government did not remain faithful to its commitment. Emomali Rahmon, over time, tightened the noose on the party until there was no member of the IRP left in the Parliament of Tajikistan. The situation got worse with the rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups in the Middle East, like al-Qaida. In 1993, the government used the opportunity and announced IRP as a terrorist group, and banned the party from any activities in the entire country.

After Emomali Rahmon introduced two new amendments to the constitution in 2015; it became apparent that banning opposition parties like IRP was a premeditated plan to turn the country into a perfect dictatorship. The president has offered two ways to keep the presidency within his family. The First Amendment allows Rahmon, who has ruled since 1992, to run for the next term, and keep the office until 2020. The Second Amendment suggests a change to the minimum age of the presidential candidates from 35 to 30, which gives a chance to the 28-year old son of the current president, Rostamali, to claim his father’s succession in 2020.

The process of events in Tajikistan has raised some serious concerns, even outside of the country.  David Kay, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, in his last report about Central Asia, has criticized the situation of freedom of expression and the condition of the political prisoners in Tajikistan. According to Kay the government of Tajikistan uses national security and fight against crime as an excuse to eradicate any political dissident.

Furthermore, the issue of public Internet access remains unsolved in the country. For most Tajik people who struggle to feed their family, the private Internet is unaffordable, and the public Internet cafes are the only substitute for many of them. The Internet, in these cafes, is highly controlled and standardized under the government’s regulation.

According to the United Nations’ Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Watch, Tajikistan has increased the pressure on media, political activists and defense attorneys. The government has eliminated the citizen’s access to information by blocking opposition websites and filtering the social media. Since 2013, many human rights organizations have expressed their concerns about the lack of freedom of expression, the situation of the opposition parties, including IRP, and the detention of the political activists in Tajikistan.

While the Constitution of Tajikistan has guaranteed free speech and a multiparty regime, it is clear that the government not only undermines international concerns but has also closed its eyes to the fundamental law in the country.

Free Press

The Tajik government banned the printing of any independent magazines in 2010, including Faraj Weekly Magazine, Peykan Weekly and Negah Weekly, which are considered the most progressive magazines in the country. Faraj Weekly, on its website, questioned the integrity of government regarding the freedom of the press in 2012. The website accused Emomali Rahmon of schismatizing the independent press and Tajik people. Faraj Weekly points out, in its article, the high level of ignorance among Tajik society and the lack of providing the required information for an independent community by the government agencies.

According to the Tajik Constitution, Freedom of the Press is one of the core values of the republic, but it is kind of freedom that puts the journalists in prison or under pressure even for small criticisms against the government. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Mohammad Yusef Ismaeilov, a Tajiki journalist, was imprisoned in 2012 due to his report on uncovering the corruption of the state employees in Sogdia province of Tajikistan. Urinboy Usmonov, a BBC Correspondent, was detained in 2011 by the Tajik Security Service in the north of Tajikistan; the Tajik government accused Usmonov of extremism and relating to the fundamentalists in the region (Galpin, BBC).

CPJ issued an open letter to John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, in 2015, and expressed grave concern about the safety of the journalists in Tajikistan. According to the letter, the freedom of the press in Tajikistan “has steadily worsened.” Similarly, the research by many other human rights organizations have provided several pieces of evidence that the media in Tajikistan “have faced bans on distribution, draconian legislation and online censorship, and critical journalists and bloggers have been subjected to politicized prosecution, violent attacks, murder and imprisonment” (Simon, CPJ).

On the other hand, Emomali Rahmon has canceled all the government press conferences, which has made it hard for any press, foreign or local media to have access to reliable information regarding government activities or decisions. The process that has forced on the media, by the president, initiated self-censorship in many publications. It seems self-censorship is the only policy that can keep the Tajiki publications alive.

Despite all the criticism, Seifollah Safarov, Deputy Head of Tajikistan’s Centre for Strategic Research, has called the situation of the freedom of press and expression in Tajikistan satisfactory. He has claimed that [regarding the self-censorship] the journalist are the only ones to blame. According to Safarov, the government encourages free speech and has not forced anybody to self-censor. He has insisted that the Tajiki government has relied on journalists’ profound criticisms since the country’s independence and have considered them as close partners to the government for their constructive suggestions on issues. Safarov’s dialog comes in contrast with the real events in Tajikistan. Noureddin Qarshibayov, director of Independence Media Association of Tajikistan, disagrees with Safarov. According to Qarshibayov, the government has not only increased the pressures on the Tajiki media, but it has not also agreed to any of the United Nations’ suggestions to improve human rights in the country.

The libel law in Tajikistan is another concern for the independent publications. The government has categorized the law under criminal laws and has not specified the conditions that a lawsuit has to meet to be considered libel. The lack of a precise definition and the ambiguity of the law has created a great opportunity for anyone, especially government officials, to file lawsuits against journalists and publications for any criticism, and the criminal category of the law has caused years of incarceration for many journalists and the publication owners.

Emomali Rahmon signed a new media law in 2013. According to the new law authorities were forced to answer any concern the society may have had, but two years later the government announced that the National Information Agency of Tajikistan (Khovar) as the only channel of communication for the government. Although it was a clear violation of the 2013 media law, the Tajiki government accused the country’s media of working against Tajikistan and for the extremists in the area. Many human rights organizations including Freedom House and CPJ believed the decision has opened a door to more false information and propaganda. Khovar, a government-budgeted news agency, follows the Soviet style of news distribution; it means the agency focuses on propaganda, and its reports are only press releases coming directly from government administrations.

According to the Tajikistani government, the Tajik authorities shall not communicate with any media or press except the Khovar Press. The government also required all news media to obtain their information, regarding the government activities, only through the Khovar Agency. The order has given the government an excuse to avoid providing any information or facts and statistics. The government claims the reasoning behind the decision comes from the possible terrorism in the country and the government responsibility to protect the national security.

According to Shakerjan Hakimov, a Tajik lawyer, the distance between the government propaganda and the people’s reality is one of the most important reasons of restriction on media. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) expressed its concern about the press limit in Tajikistan In February 2016. Dunja Mijatović, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, said in her report, “The repeated blocking of websites in Tajikistan over the past few months is a worrying and disturbing trend. These kinds of reprehensive actions are detrimental to the basic human right to receive and impart information, and to media freedom” (Vrang, OCSE). Freedom House also has announced that since 2015, Tajikistan has fallen from 175 to 179 (under Venezuela and above Ethiopia) in the global free speech rank. According to the recent report by the Freedom House, “Tajikistan is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2015, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2015, and receives a democracy score of 6.39 on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 as the worst possible score, in Nations in Transit 2015.”

Critical Comparison

Tajikistan has been under a strict dictatorial regime since its independence in 1991. Although the constitution has made it clear that the judicial system of Tajikistan is separated from the executive branch, the reality of the country does not match with the constitution. All the branches of the government are controlled either by Emomali Rahmon’s family or by his party affiliated individuals.  The Tajik Constitution also plainly defines the freedom of expression in several articles. The Article 30 of the Constitution of the Republic of Tajikistan clearly states that “Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of speech, publishing and the right to use means of information. Propaganda and agitation, kindling the social, race, national, religious and language enmity and hostility shall be prohibited. State censorship and prosecution for criticism shall be prohibited. Law shall specify the list of information constituting a state secret.”

Article 5 of the constitution also guarantees the free speech; “Man, his rights and liberties shall be the supreme value. The life, honor, dignity, and other natural human rights shall be inviolable. The rights and liberties of the man and citizens shall be recognized, observed and protected by the state.” the emphasis on the importance of free speech in the constitution has not stopped the government of violating it. The ban on the opposition party and turning the government branches to a family reunion has left no chance for the people of Tajikistan to be heard.

In comparison, the United States shows an oligarchic regime, according to a new study by Princeton University. Although the constitution of the United States supports freedom of speech and press, and the separation of branches exist in the country, the low tolerance of the multiparty system (instead of the dual-party system) and extreme capitalism disallow the state of moving toward democracy. There is no law against creating new parties, but in the capitalistic society, which is highly motivated by financed campaigns, lack of inequality in the political races is evident. Besides, American mainstream media are highly owned and controlled by corporations that make it almost impossible for smaller media to be heard. Most mainstream media in the United States are divided between the two dominant parties and giant corporations, and while minor media can only whisper, mainstream media are screaming, and in many cases, they are misleading the crowd of audiences toward the benefit of corporations.

Despite all the difficulties in the United States, still the country is a better place, for journalists, than Tajikistan. The separation of the government branches, even though politically influenced, still opens some windows for those who have some concerns to express. Besides, the clarity, or almost clarity, of the libel law in the United States creates a safeguard for journalists who aim to question public figures on their misconduct. The imperfect democracy of the United States is not even close to what Tajik journalists experience.


Prostitution, mendicity, dystrophy and massive displacement prove the connection between economic instability and most social issues in Tajikistan, which all have resulted from the dictatorship and the corrupt government. Emomali Rahmon has turned the whole country into a giant beggar, in order to create a safe area for his family and himself. Tajikistan will not survive if Iran, Russia, the United States and Europe stop sending money and supplies. Although, Tajik people have never had a chance to take a break from suffering, those foreign countries have gained a lot from Tajiks’ misery. Tajikistan has been a great market for low-quality products that the countries cannot and will not provide within the borders of their own countries. Plus, Tajikistan is an excellent source of Uranium, which has been a great concern for the main players of the Tajikistan’s foreign policy (Iran, Russia, NATO and China). On the contrary, the territorial closeness of Tajikistan with China and Afghanistan has made the country a strategic area for the East and the West.

The strategic situation of Tajikistan does not seem promising for Tajik people, and the new changes in Tajikistan’s Constitution bespeak a darker future for the country or even for the region. While for Iran, Russia and China, the country is just a critical safeguard to protect their dictatorial regimes, the United States and the Western Europe have tried to avoid any involvement against Emomali Rahmon and its government. Besides America’s fear of losing the land to Russia, Tajikistan is an important supporting station for the NATO troops in Afghanistan. Due to the NATO countries’ specific interest in Central Asia, and the fears of the birth of a possible modern Soviet Union, the West does not interfere with the extreme dictatorship in Tajikistan, as long as the country remains friendly toward the United States. That is why American authorities usually keep dodging journalists’ questions1 about freedom of speech and government brutality in Central Asian Countries. The West, especially the United States, is desperately in need to create reliable allies and keep the old ones. America’s fear of losing Central Asia to Russia has made the country to put its crucial need above the rights of people in those countries. So far, Tajikistan has turned into a competition zone for U.S. and Russia. Both countries are feeding the government with grants, loans and supplies; enormous amounts of dollars that helped Emomali Rahmon to create a safe dictatorship for himself and his corrupt relatives.



QUESTION: About the political situation in Tajikistan, how the United States of America sees the situation regarding the elections next year? BLAKE: We certainly hope that free and fair elections will happen, and all parties will participate.

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This essay was last updated on April 30, 2016.



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