“”'After he beat me, I narrowly escaped and went to the city prosecutor’s office covered in blood,' said Zebo Z., 28, who told Human Rights Watch she first reported violence to authorities after more than four years of spousal abuse and rape. Neither domestic violence nor marital rape are recognized as discrete crimes under Tajikistan’s criminal law. Zebo tried to report what had happened to her to the prosecutor but he interrupted, 'Aren’t you yourself to blame?' He called Zebo’s husband, exposing her whereabouts, and said, 'Everything will work out fine. Go home.' But Zebo could not go home.
|—Human Rights Watch report on domestic violence in Tajikistan, 2019.|
The Republic of Tajikistan is a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. It's unique among the other former Soviet -stan countries in that its dominant language and culture, Tajik, is mainly derived from Persian rather than Turkic origins. It also has the youngest overall population of the former Soviet -stan countries, with half of its boys and men under 25. It's probably not a coincidence that Tajikistan was the only republic to have endured a major civil war upon its independence from the Soviet Union. Tajikistan is also the site of a major drug-smuggling problem, usually involving opium and heroin from its southern neighbor Afghanistan. The country's capital is Dushanbe (formerly known as Stalinabad), where its president Emomali Rahmon has ruled since 1992 with a typical mix of authoritarianism and corruption. The country's human rights situation, especially for women, is dire and shows little sign of changing.
The mountainous region that is now Tajikistan was important to the Silk Road trade route from Imperial China, and it was exposed to various cultural and religious influences. It was conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate in 710 CE, which converted a big chunk of the region's population to Islam. After that, the area prospered under Persian rule until the Mongol Empire came through, bringing great destruction. Tajikistan saw a brief revival in fortunes under the Timurid Empire, but it sank back into general irrelevance.
Between 1864 and 1885, Russia came knocking, and they conquered Tajikistan and much of Central Asia in the hopes of establishing a cotton-growing industry there. Russian rule was harsh and largely unconcerned with anything save profit, so after the empire's fortunes failed in World War I, Tajikistan joined the rest of Central Asia in the Basmachi movement, which sought to halt Russian conscription and hopefully end Russian rule. Unfortunately for them, that effort failed, and the region fell to the Bolshevik army during the Russian Civil War.
Just like the rest of Central Asia, Tajikistan saw significant modernization efforts combined with typical Soviet oppression. Modernization benefited the Russian-speaking city dwellers, and the rural parts of the republic had one of the lowest standards of living in the entire Soviet Union. Independence in 1991 came with tragedy. The Tajik economy had relied upon the rest of the Union for support, and it thus collapsed completely and cast the whole country into poverty. Even worse, the old pro-Russian elites tried to maintain power, and a (frankly bizarre) alliance between liberals and Islamists rose against them. The war ended in 1999 with a stalemate and the continuation of dictatorship.
Tajikistan still struggles with its poor economy, the lingering effects of the civil war, the highly authoritarian regime it is ruled by, and the inevitable increase in Islamic radicalism.
The Tajiks are related to the Iranian people. They've inhabited the Tajikistan region for at least 2,500 years. Turkic and Mongol peoples were also present and frequently residing in the area, although it's still unknown just how much racial and cultural assimilation there was.
Tajikistan was part of the ancient Persian Achaemenid Empire from the 6th to the 4th century BCE, during which the region took on many of its current cultural characteristics. Tajik cities like Khujand and Panjakent were essential stops on the Silk Road trade routes, and merchants brought in religions like Buddhism and Christianity to the then-majority Zoroastrian region. Tajikistan also saw Indian cultural influences arrive during the era of the Kushan Empire. Last but certainly not least, the Tajiks were also temporarily subjugated by Tibetans and the Tang dynasty.
The Umayyad Caliphate brought Islam to Tajikistan. The Tajiks converted relatively quickly due to significant tax and cultural incentives, as the Umayyads naturally favored followers of their religion over others. Islam spread rapidly along the old trade routes, as the Arab rulers tended to focus their efforts there due to the large profits.
Tajikistan experienced its golden age under the Samanid Empire, which arose in 819 CE from eastern Persia and became renowned for its contributions to Persian culture and arts. The Samanids sponsored art and literature to fully adapt Persian culture to Islam, and the empire was one of the most important cultural contributors to the modern Tajik identity.
Mongol invasions and long decline
The good times in Tajikistan were cut short when the Mongols swept in. The Mongol conquest of Central Asia was ruthless, resulting in the total destruction of many cities and the massacre of vast numbers of people. To Genghis Khan and his immediate successors, Central Asia was an afterthought, only valued as a patch of territory to be occasionally raided and overgrazed. The Mongols also neglected cities and irrigation systems, resulting in widespread depopulation of cities, much of the Tajik population forced into nomadism, and large swathes of the country being desertified through lack of irrigation and overgrazing. Even after the Mongol Empire fell and subsequent Mongol rulers in the region adopted Persian culture, Tajikistan had no way to recover from the devastation of the invasion and misrule.
In the 14th century, Uzbek Mongol ruler Timur Lenk embarked on his own trail of horrific conquests, conducting himself with extreme brutality and bringing Central Asia along with him on a series of genocidal wars. As you might expect, that empire collapsed too, and the various Mongol successor states further reduced Central Asia into a wasteland by constantly warring among themselves. During the Timurid era, though, the region underwent the intellectual "Timurid Renaissance", which saw the widespread adoption of firearm technology among various Central Asian and Middle Eastern states. Tajikistan, though, sank back into irrelevance and violence.
After a few centuries of nothing really happening, the Russian Empire began its own conquest of Central Asia in 1865. This sudden push southwards for Russia was motivated by the American Civil War, which cut off much of Europe's cotton supply; Russia hoped to turn Central Asia into a good region to grow cotton. Russia also hoped to piss off the British Empire, which didn't really like that the Russians were getting so close to British-held India. The two empires would eventually use Afghanistan as a buffer state.
Disunited and backward, Central Asia couldn't put up much of a fight against the Russians. Apart from expanding cotton cultivation, the Russians didn't do much to benefit or harm the Tajiks. The Russians simply didn't care that much, as most of Tajikistan was mountainous and thus unsuitable for cotton production. As a result, lifestyle and education mainly remained the same.
Things started to change in 1900, though, when an intellectual movement called Jadidism emerged, which called for returning Central Asia to its golden era through modernization and autonomy. At this point, the movement wasn't really anti-Russian, but the tsarist authorities considered it enough of a threat to justify some severe crackdowns. This pissed off the Tajiks, and suddenly Jadidism became an anti-Russian movement. Nice one (this is why cracking down on the opposition is stupid).
The flashpoint came in 1916 when the Russian Empire abruptly started conscripting people from Central Asia after severe losses in World War I. Like the rest of the Central Asians, the Tajiks were rather unhappy with the idea of dying for an empire they felt no loyalty to. Cue the Basmachi movement, which turned into an outright uprising against tsarist rule involving all of the Central Asian regions of the Russian Empire. When the empire collapsed due to the October Revolution, the Central Asians decided to go for broke and fight for overall independence.
Basmachi resistance war
Representation was a big part of why the Tajiks decided to fight for independence, as neither the old provisional government nor the new Soviet regime felt it necessary to give the Tajiks any say in what the new Russia would look like. In 1918, the Soviets were defeated soundly by local forces in the Tajik region, giving the Tajiks real hope that they could hold off the Bolsheviks and possibly regain their independence.
Tajikistan benefited from the fact that the Red Army was totally cut off from Central Asia by the White forces, who had completely taken over Siberia. The two Russian factions were, for a while, too busy killing each other to give much of a shit what Tajikistan was doing. This brief grace period ended harshly in September 1919, when the Bolsheviks smashed the White forces in the Uralsk-Guryev Operation, forcing the Whites back and finally putting the Bolsheviks within striking distance of Central Asia.
The Bolshevik attack began with a massacre of 25,000 people in Kokand, right on the border with Tajikistan. Tajikistan also started to feel the economic impacts of the war, as the region was cut off from the rest of the Russian Empire. Since the Russians had transitioned its agricultural sector to cotton, the area didn't have food, and none of the remaining Russian governments were inclined to provide Tajikistan with famine relief.
Despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered, the Central Asians held out for much of the 1920s. This was especially true when Turkish officer Enver Pasha showed up to help, but he died in action in 1922. The Bolsheviks also took an initial policy of reconciliation towards the Basmachi, including grants of food, tax relief, land reform, the reversal of anti-Islamic policies launched during the civil war, and the promise of an end to agricultural controls. Between the carrot and the stick, the Basmachi eventually ceased resistance in 1924.
Having struck conciliatory agreements with the Tajiks and other Central Asians, the region had a nice grace period before things started worsening under Soviet rule. Collectivization was delayed for a few years, but it set in full force in 1930 as the Soviets greatly expanded cotton production and forcibly resettled people out of the mountains. Widespread violence and disruption of lifestyles sparked another small-scale Basmachi movement, but it was quickly put down.
Even Tajik communist officials were critical of the central government's collectivization policies. As a result, the region suffered particularly harsh reprisals when Joseph Stalin decided to purge the party establishment. Moscow conducted its purges here in a racist manner, using them to reduce Tajik representation in government and replace many local officials with Russians who were seen as more loyal. This wholly destroyed any say Tajiks might have had in the Soviet government, and even the lowest levels of Tajik administration were stuffed with Russians.
The complete takeover of Tajikistan was further confirmed when Stalin decided to do some redecorating. Apparently tired of the indigenous Tajik city names, Stalin ordered the republic's capital to be renamed from Dushanbe to Stalinabad in 1929. He also renamed Khodjend to Leninabad.
During World War II, when the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany, the Soviets conscripted heavily from Tajikistan for its own defense; some 300,000 Tajiks fought in the war, and around 60,000 died.
After WWII and after (finally) the death of Stalin, Tajikistan was able to experience some of the modernization that had been promised by the Soviets. The Soviets expanded the country's agricultural system and promoted education and women's equality. The Soviets were quite proud of their "emancipation" of Central Asian women, and they pressured women to participate in the industrialized agricultural economy and in educational leadership positions. Soviet propaganda and public discourse emphasized Central Asian women as symbols of liberation and equality but often fetishized them for their "exotic" beauty. Comprehensive education reform made these progressive societal changes possible as the Soviets drilled their values into the Tajik youth.
All was not well, though. Like the Russian Empire, the Soviets valued Tajikistan only for its cotton and minerals and the people who produced them. The Soviets otherwise neglected the republic, meaning that Tajikistan had the lowest standard of living, the worst quality education, and relatively little infrastructure mainly meant to help Tajikistan export cotton. Tajiks were also pissed off when the Soviets started the Soviet-Afghan War, as they felt some cultural affinity for the Afghans, who were just across the border.
Cotton contributed to the overall decay of the Soviet Union. Severe corruption in Tajikistan and other Central Asian Soviet republics led to party officials making grandiose and impossible claims about how much cotton they could produce; they then forced the people into virtual slavery to meet those numbers. This turned into a series of major scandals that harmed the Union's legitimacy and the people's loyalty to that regime.
Stalin had done such a good job stuffing Tajikistan's government with his cronies that Tajikistan never really responded to the Gorbachev reforms. The crusty old Stalinists remained in power and grew increasingly out of touch with the people; this had deadly consequences in 1990 when they sent troops to quell protests in Dushanbe, sparking riots and killing 26. The regime then used the riots as a pretext to implement a state of emergency that suspended all civil rights. That decree lasted long after the unrest period ended. They imposed censorship and arrested hundreds of people, turning the Tajiks against their own government even more than before.
The Tajik regime remained totally opposed to leaving the Soviet Union. In 1990, Emomali Rahmon became a deputy in the Supreme Soviet of the Tajik SSR, and he soon became prominent due to more senior members resigning under public demand.
Meanwhile, a full-scale political opposition grew in Tajikistan, composed of Islamists like chief qadi Hajji Akbar Turajonzoda and liberal student activists who hoped for democracy. Although the old communist regime bowed to public pressure to withdraw from the Soviet Union, it remained a totalitarian regime, justifying that they were keeping the Islamic radicals from turning Tajikistan into something like Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Emomali Rahmon then became the leader of the country in 1992.
Worst of all, by this point, Tajikistan had a terrible economy and depended on the rest of the Soviet Union to keep it afloat. Even then, basic goods had to be rationed, as the republic produced nothing for itself save cotton and some metals. The Tajik economy melted hard when it lost that Soviet support network due to independence. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of the republic's troubles.
“”The war in my country has remained forgotten against the backdrop of the other conflicts which accompanied the Soviet collapse. But we, the Tajiks, remember it perfectly — especially those of us like me, who live abroad. We see its consequences in the dictatorial regime of president Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled the country since 1994.
|—Bakhtiyor Sobiri, pseudonym of an Open Democracy journalist from Tajikistan.|
Throughout 1992, the opposition and the government engaged in an increasingly bloody cycle of repression and even larger protests. This inevitably culminated in full-scale violence, first in the capital Dushanbe and then across the nation.
The government faced broad opposition, so they resorted to extreme brutality to maintain an upper hand. Government militias assembled, and they began a campaign of terror against civilians in opposition-held areas, forcing people out of their homes in a virtual ethnic cleansing campaign. The violence and death toll was shocking for such a small country with a small population.
On top of their complete disregard for human life, the government had another advantage: it soon garnered military aid from Russia, including several divisions of Spetsnaz, who helped secure government control over the capital.
After five long years, the war ended in 1997 due to war fatigue and international pressure. Despite conducting a murderous campaign, president Rahmon got to portray himself as the man who ended the war. He's since granted himself a long new title which people are legally required to use for him: "Leader of the nation, Founder of independent Tajikistan, Bringer of peace and national unity, his Majesty, the respected Emomali Rahmon." Yeah, fuck that.
The memory of the civil war still haunts Tajikistan. Despite being directly responsible for its conduct's bloody nature, Emomali Rahmon now benefits directly from its horrid memory. Anytime someone suggests democracy or asks for basic fucking human rights, the Rahmon regime responds by claiming that that would only divide the country and throw it back into civil war. Tajikistan's state media always stresses that the country is at peace and united under Rahmon, and only Rahmon's rule can keep it that way.
Never mind that Tajikistan isn't united at all, as the government is still set against the people's wishes and interests. Never mind that Tajikistan isn't really even at peace. Opposition supporters are frequently abducted and subjected to torture, and assassinations are frequent. Some of the more radical militias from both sides occasionally start shit too.
Meanwhile, Tajikistan has become a family-run business, as Rahmon has placed his adult children in charge of most of the government. He also pisses most of the government's cash on personal vanity projects, like billboards of his face, monuments to himself, and fancy buildings that just sit empty all the time. The Tajik economy and standards of living are even worse than before.
And yet the people don't even get to protest or speak out at all, amid the everpresent scare tactic of "remember what happened last time you took to the streets to protest." Real change in Tajikistan seems further away than ever.
Government and politics
“”Longtime observers of Tajikistan often characterize the country as profoundly averse to risk and skeptical of promises of reform, a political passivity they trace to the country’s ruinous civil war.
|—New York Times report during the 2006 "elections".|
The dictatorial President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, has held office continuously since 1992 (he changed his name from Rahmonov to appear less Russian). The most recent elections (held in 2013) gave him 84% of the vote, with the other candidates being "virtual unknowns even inside the country". Human rights activist Oynihol Bobonazarova, the candidate nominated by a coalition of opposition groups, was barred from running.
Rahmon's legal title is "Leader of the nation, Founder of independent Tajikistan, Bringer of peace and national unity, his Majesty, the respected Emomali Rahmon." He also has total immunity for any crimes he has committed and any crimes he may commit, and his family members enjoy the same privileges.
He treats Tajikistan and its people like his own personal fiefdom. In September 2020, impoverished rural villagers in southern Tajikistan reported being ordered to donate money to their local authorities to buy carpets, flowers, and street billboards ahead of the president's visit to their region. He has also encouraged extreme levels of corruption in his quest to loot the country of everything of value. He and his family control all of the state's major businesses, and profits from its exports are all secreted away into an offshore bank account belonging to the family.
Despite his age, Rahmon is intent on running for a sixth term despite speculation that he would step aside for his son, Dushanbe Mayor Rustam Emomali. He is sure to get that sixth term, too, since elections in Tajikistan are always rigged and have been for all of his previous five terms.
Parties and elections
Tajikistan is dominated by the People's Democratic Party, which is the direct continuation of the old Communist Party of Tajikistan. Despite its dominance, the party generally does whatever Rahmon tells it to do.
Few opposition parties are permitted and routinely purged and punished to keep them in line. They made the bold move of boycotting the rigged 2006 elections, although this only served to make Rahmon's sham confirmation of power even easier. Tajiks are notably apathetic to politics as a whole, as they see no hope for the opposition or for anything getting better.
Tajikistan is nominally secular, but the population has been largely Muslim for over 1000 years. The government is worried about Islamism and pan-Tajik nationalists (who want to unite Tajikistan with its neighbors). In 2017 it effectively banned the wearing of the Islamic veil (hijab), requiring women to wear traditional Tajik dress in which the headscarf is tied at the back of the neck rather than under the chin; this followed an earlier ban on the hijab in government buildings.
Freedom of speech and press
Tajikistan harshly limits the right to free speech through detentions, prosecutions, the threat of heavy fines, the passage of strict and overreaching slander legislation, and the forced closure of media outlets. A person can be jailed for up to five years simply for insulting the president.
Independent media sources are rare, and they frequently face harassment. Authorities are mainly concerned with cracking down on any investigative media reports concerning the financial misconduct of the president and his family, who are known to be plundering the country. Authorities also heavily limit foreign media presence inside the country, and they revoke press credentials and expel any foreign journalists who criticize the government too much.
With the internet finally making inroads into Tajikistan, the authorities have started heavily censoring that to the point where it's useless. The government has largely adopted Chinese-style tactics of blocking off most online content because something somewhere might be offensive. Widespread poverty has also made the spread of the internet very slow.
Most media sources are owned by the government or directly by the Rahmon family anyways. Tajik news sources even denied the existence of COVID-19 within their borders until almost the moment World Health Organization inspectors confirmed widespread infection.
Inhumane prisons and torture
Tajik prisons are extremely brutal, and authorities frequently give people severe beatings in retaliation for political crimes. In March 2019, imprisoned political activist and deputy head of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party, Mahmadali Hayit, showed his wife injuries on his forehead and stomach that he said were caused by beatings from prison officials to punish him for refusing to record videos denouncing Tajik opposition figures abroad.
On multiple occasions, authorities alleged that prison riots resulted in many prisoner deaths. However, it's unknown if those reports are trustworthy or if authorities are making up excuses to murder people. Prisoners report being tortured regularly and denied access to basic healthcare.
As the page quote at the very top shows, Tajik authorities don't really give much of a shit about domestic violence, even in the most severe cases. Neither domestic violence nor marital rape is criminalized, and police often outright refuse to investigate abuse claims. Thanks to the indifference of the police and the lack of support services for survivors of abuse, women have nowhere to turn when they are abused, and crimes against women occur in an atmosphere of impunity.
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