In the remote city of Khorog, Tajikistan, on June 16, Alexander Sodiqov, my doctoral student in political science at the University of Toronto and a citizen of Tajikistan, was snatched from the streets by Tajik security services. Held incommunicado for more than a week, Alexander has been paraded on local TV in heavily edited “testimony” and could face charges of treason. His ongoing detention tells us much about how the region’s authoritarian regimes use the meme of “outside threats” to discredit political opponents and hold onto power.
With a GDP per capita of less than $1,000 at the end of a brutal civil war in the 1990s, Tajikistan now boasts having more than doubled that figure under the rule of authoritarian President Emomali Rakhmon. Yet, sitting at spot number 189 out of 226, Tajikistan remains the most remittance-dependent country in the world, sending over a million of its able-bodied citizens abroad, typically to Moscow, where they face everyday harassment and lack rights-protections.
The Rakhmon regime seeks to claim credit for a fragile stability and macro-economic growth, but Western foreign aid and security assistance during the 2000s surely played a role. And the regime has grown bold. Both the Rasht Valley (de facto autonomous until recently), and Badakhshan province (de jure autonomous) with its long border with Afghanistan, have been sites of violence between central security forces and local actors. Like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Rakhmon appears more than willing to build his strong state on authoritarian foundations. As Stalin’s secret-police chief commented during the Great Purges, “When you chop wood, chips fly.”
And the chips have flown. Pressure on journalists, always present, has risen markedly over the last two years. Opposition parties have lost all meaningful political representation. Pressure on religious groups and ordinary pious Muslims has been ratcheted up. The security and surveillance apparatus must have benefited from the over $15 million in US aid received in 2012 alone, and it now closely monitors the public’s activities and is increasingly willing to take action against political opponents. Alexander Sodiqov has the misfortune of being a scholar interested in conflict and conflict prevention in Badakhshan at a time when the security services were highly sensitive about their inability to establish authority in the province. Sodiqov, a graduate student and a Tajik citizen, appeared vulnerable.
This case reveals four key facets of authoritarianism in this part of the world. First, regimes such as these are not monolithic. There are clear signs that the security services were acting on their own initiative, and scholars have learned that security services generally have political and economic goals that differ from those of other state actors. In Tajikistan, much of the rest of the government, including a presidential adviser, have shown entirely different sympathies and are ripe for conversations with their foreign counterparts.
Second, authoritarianism is authoritarianism, yet these regimes vary. The news media in Tajikistan, for all that it is government-managed, is not government-controlled. In fact, global advocates for scholarly freedom have found many media outlets willing to publish stories that show Sodiqov for who he is: a scholar. Some oxygen for free expression remains in such environments.
Third, the dynamics of human rights cases vary from context to context. States like Russia, China and Iran are able to push back against international campaigns to protect rights on the ground. The ongoing advocacy on the Sodiqov case reminds us that many human rights abuses are committed in smaller states that would rather not assume the reputational risks involved in alienating the global community. Aid-dependent states cannot simply thumb their noses at their international obligations. When the Tajik Foreign Minister visits Britain on July 2, he will be reminded of this fact.
Finally, such regimes seem to believe that, since they manage their own domestic information environments, advancing a preferred narrative of events is all that’s needed to win the political upper hand. Thus, government media outlets have propagated a crude “Sodiqov as spy” story. In a region where geopolitical intrigue is a staple of local media coverage, regimes assume that people will believe such narratives. The reality is that Central Asians can be told what to think, but a preposterous story propagated without evidence convinces no one.
The detention of Alexander Sodiqov cuts to the core of what research scholars do. They rigorously collect data, analyze them, and disseminate knowledge. Sometimes the intellectual questions they ask take them to places like Khorog, Tajikistan. Sometimes these questions are uncomfortable for sitting political elites to hear. But it is hard — and indeed troubling — to imagine a world where the passion for asking important intellectual questions and pursuing research about them is squelched. Such scholarly research deserves broad public support (and scholars have led the outcry) because producing valid knowledge requires it, and because the fate of people like my student Alexander Sodiqov hangs in the balance.
For more information see our special coverage Scholar and GV Author Detained in Tajikistan.