BY EMILY SAMPLE
Tajikistan is the smallest and poorest country in the central Asian region and is almost completely enveloped within the Pamir mountain range. In 2020, Tajikistan’s indicator rankings held mostly steady across the board. Despite this seeming lack of change, these scores reflect a resilience to the potential downward spiral that was possible this year due to the Presidential election, COVID-19 pandemic, and continued lockdown of freedom of speech.
Annual GDP growth in Tajikistan remained solid through 2019, but dropped precipitously in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.1 The unemployment rate for individuals aged 15-59 years was 50 percent, with gender disaggregated data showing women’s participation in the paid labor market was even lower.2 Due to the scarcity of employment opportunities more than one million Tajik citizens work abroad annually, mostly in Russia. The remittances they send to their families makes up the largest part of Tajikistan’s GDP.3 As such, Tajikistan is particularly vulnerable to monetary shocks and COVID-19 has taken its toll. Economic growth slowed to 4.2 percent during the first nine months of 2020, compared to 7.2 percent during the same period in 2019. Despite this, the economy is anticipated to bounce back in 2021-22, assuming vaccination is available to migrants so they may restore remittances and international trade.4
Presidential elections, held every seven years, took place on October 11, 2020. While the constitution limits the President to two consecutive terms, President Rahmon can run an unlimited number of times as the first “Leader of the Nation.” This year Rahmon received 92.1% of the votes,5 reflecting what the OSCE called “a tightly controlled environment” where “genuine opposition had been removed.”6 In the EIU’s Democracy Index, Tajikistan is placed 159th and is listed as an “authoritarian regime.”7
In May, there were two rare mass protests; both were suppressed by force. One protest was carried out by Chinese nationals working in Tajikistan who had not been allowed to return to China since January due to COVID-19 travel restriction. Another protest was held by hundreds of residents in the Khatlon region, demanding that authorities provide disaster relief after mudslides in the area had destroyed homes and fields.8 There were multiple small clashes at a disputed portion of the border between the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan. The Tajik government acknowledges that its citizens participated in looting and arson, but Khurshed Mukhammadzoda, the head of the Tajikistan Interior Ministry’s special forces department, denied that any government forces were involved.9 Further, Tajikistan contended that the skirmish was due to Kyrgyzstan’s intensions on the local Golovnoi water intake facility, which distributes the valuable irrigation water in the area.
Building on the banning of 17 Islamist groups in 2016, including both violent extremist groups and political Islamist groups advocating for social and political change, in January 2020, the government enacted the Law on Countering Extremism allowing authorities further ability to curb free expression. Since then, at least 113 people have been arrested, allegedly for participation with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, including university staff, students, entrepreneurs and public sector employees. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released an opinion that the imprisonment of 11 senior Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) members was in violation of the country’s international human rights obligations and they should be released immediately.10
In addition to the imprisonment of an independent journalist in April for “inciting religious hatred”, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court ruled that the independent news outlet Akhbor.com was guilty of “serving terrorist and extremist organizations” and allowed the government to block the website in February. The news outlet has been critical of the government in Tajikistan in the past. According to the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, local and foreign and journalists are often obstructed from reporting on controversial events, and independent press outlets and web content remain substantially restricted. Despite the low internet penetration rate—only about 20 percent have access—the government blocks local and foreign news sites as well as anonymizing software and VPNs.11
In June 2020, lawmakers voted to criminalize the spread of “inaccurate” and “untruthful” information about the COVID-19 pandemic through media or the internet, carrying fines for individuals of up to 580 somoni (USD $56), while media outlets could face fines of up to 11,600 somoni (USD $1,130).12 In July, the head of the Committee on Women and Family Affairs, Hilolby Kurbonzoda, stated that there was a significant increase of domestic violence complaints in the first three months of the pandemic and established a resource center with a 24-hour hotline.13 On May 11, Asia-Plus journalist Abdullo Ghurbati, who had reported on the Covid-19 pandemic, was attacked near his home in Dushanbe, and again on May 29 while on assignment in the southern village Uyali. The two assailants of the first attack were not identified. Three men involved in the second attack were sentenced to a fine on charges of petty hooliganism.14
The impact of COVID-19 in Tajikistan is difficult to estimate due to the unreliability of the numbers reported by the current government. Despite very lenient restrictive measures and little personal protective equipment, on January 26, 2021, President Rahmon declared that there were zero active cases of COVID-19 in Tajikistan.15 Sources say the situation on the ground is much worse than the official reports from the Ministry of Health and Social Protection.16 The reported numbers of Tajiks infected with or killed by the COVID-19 virus are discordant with the ways the virus has behaved in other countries. In addition, according to an annual digest produced by the State Statistics Agency, 41,743 people died in Tajikistan in 2020, which is 8,649 more than in 2019 and a 26 percent increase over the average number of deaths recorded annually between 2015 and 2019.17 Many of these deaths were said to have been caused by pneumonia or other lung and cardiovascular diseases.
Despite a difficult year for Tajikistan both financially and politically, their overall rating improved from 66th last year to 71st this year, a significant change since their ranking as 39th just ten years ago. This points to a positive long-term trend in economic, political, and human security that hopefully Tajikistan can continue.
1. Helen Shahriari et al., “Improving Women’s Access to Land and Financial Resources in Tajikistan,” Women in Development and Gender Study (Washington, DC: World Bank, January 2009), https://doi.org/10.1596/25981.
3. “Tajikistan,” CIA World Factbook, March 8, 2021, https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/tajikistan/.
4. “Tajikistan: Country Economic Update Fall 2020” (World Bank, December 23, 2020), https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/tajikistan/publication/economic-update-fall-2020.
6. “World Report 2021: Rights Trends in Tajikistan,” Human Rights Watch (blog), December 4, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/tajikistan.
7. The Economist Intelligence Unit, “Democracy Index 2020: In Sickness and in Health?” (New York, NY: The Economist, 2021), https://pages.eiu.com/rs/753-RIQ-438/images/democracy-index-2020.pdf?mkt_tok=NzUzLVJJUS00MzgAAAF7_tjmZuzIIrDGQ9PEYG-Q55arD7UpSJzuU97mlMsI3-SDhzbHc1QIo20QCXSX0x3j1rBA1qSKLD5guFmhrHwQ5ezrgw-V0LgmVZa7hJsb8F6Q4w.
8. “Tajikistan Sees Unusual Protests, Authorities React with Force,” Eurasianet, May 21, 2020, https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-sees-unusual-protests-authorities-react-with-force.
9. Ayzirek Imanaliyeva and Kamila Ibragimova, “Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan: Communities Take Stock of Destruction Wrought by Border Unrest,” Eurasianet, May 3, 2020, https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-tajikistan-communities-take-stock-of-destruction-wrought-by-border-unrest.
10. “World Report 2021: Rights Trends in Tajikistan.”
11. Sertan Sanderson, “Press Freedom in Tajikistan: Going from Bad to Worse,” Global Media Forum (blog), May 6, 2020, https://p.dw.com/p/3dJFC.
12. “Tajikistan: COVID-19 Outbreak Offers Cover for Fresh Assault on Free Press,” Eurasianet (blog), June 12, 2020, https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-covid-19-outbreak-offers-cover-for-fresh-assault-on-free-press.
13. “World Report 2021: Rights Trends in Tajikistan.”
14. “World Report 2021: Rights Trends in Tajikistan.”
15. Catherine Putz, “If Only It Were That Easy: Tajikistan Declares Itself COVID-19 Free,” The Diplomat (blog), January 27, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/01/if-only-it-were-that-easy-tajikistan-declares-itself-covid-19-free/.
16. Sertan Sanderson, “Press Freedom in Tajikistan: Going from Bad to Worse.”
17. “Tajikistan’s Excess Mortality Data Belie COVID-19 Denialism,” Eurasianet (blog), February 23, 2021, https://eurasianet.org/tajikistans-excess-mortality-data-belie-covid-19-denialism.
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