The Sad State of Tajikistan's Online Opposition

Mountains in eastern Tajikistan. Pixabay, creative commons. Uploaded by user Nadrog.

How does a would-be Tajik opposition leader go about establishing a social media footprint? Abdulmannon Sheraliev, a member of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), has a few ironic ideas.

Sheraliev wrote his Facebook post, republished here in excerpts, back in April. But his guidance — covering everything from strategic selfies through fake followers and their trolling techniques — seems increasingly relevant for political outsiders seeking to cultivate a base of support, whether that is in Tajikistan, or some other country.

Sheraliev's advice begins as follows:

  • Пеш аз ҳама эълон кунед, ки ба хотири мубориза ва хидмат ба мардум, ҳаракати сиёсие бунёдгузорӣ кардаед. Беҳтар аст, ки номи ҳаракат пурсадову ҷарангосӣ бошад;
  • Бо 10-15 номҳои сохта дар шабакаҳои иҷтимоӣ саҳифа боз кунед (бо истилоҳи имрӯза – фейк);
  • Ҳар чӣ аз номи худатон навиштед, тавассути ин фейкҳо таблиғ кунед;
  • Ин фейкҳо бояд шуморо муборизи сарсахт, донишманди тавоно, дӯстдори миллат, сиёсатмадори бузург ва ғайра муаррифӣ кунанд;
  • Ҳар чӣ шумо навиштед бояд тавассути ин “шогирдон”-атон шарҳнависӣ ва бознашр шавад;
  • First of all, announce that you have founded a political movement to serve the people. Its name should be as appealing as possible;
  • Create 10-15 fake accounts on social media;
  • Whatever you post on your own account, promote through your fake accounts;
  • These fakes should introduce you as a well-educated person, a fighter, a nation-lover, a prominent politician and so on;
  • Whatever you write, should be liked, commented on and shared by these “followers”.

No effective opposition

Before further addressing Sheraliev's guide, it should be said that Tajikistan is almost completely lacking a traditional, in-country political opposition, thanks to the ever-growing intolerance of even mild forms of criticism on the part of the Tajik government.

Some of Sheraliev's snobbishness towards the country's prominent online opposition figures — who are based almost exclusively outside of Tajikistan — may indeed be due to his status as a member of the country's last ‘real’ major opposition party.

A moderate opposition force in the parliament up until recently, IRPT's members have been driven underground since Tajikistan's authoritarian government suddenly banned the group in 2015 and jailed a dozen key leaders last year.

But just because Tajikistan's Facebook-based online opposition does not live with the everyday repression that the IRPT endured towards the end of its legal existence in the Central Asian country, does not mean it enjoys a life free of danger.

Umarali Quvvatov, who led the social media-active Gruppa 24 opposition group from abroad, for instance, was gunned down in Istanbul by unknown assailants in 2015, possibly after having been poisoned. Other key members of the group, distributed across various countries, have complained of a cross-border harassment and surveillance campaign.

Tajikistan had already declared Gruppa 24 a terrorist group by the time of Quvvatov's assassination, although the group's main crime appears to have consisted of posting unflattering memes starring long-reigning President Emomali Rakhmon. The group has also called, unsuccessfully, for mass protests in the country of 8.5 million people.

But Sheraliev is certainly right to note that the popularity of posts by Gruppa 24 and similar opposition-minded entities are boosted by fake followers — real social media users are increasingly afraid to ‘like’ posts — giving them a somewhat pathetic appearance.

In his tongue-in-cheek post, Sheraliev also considers how these fake followers should adopt distinctive and consistent online behaviours in order to increase the profile of the would-be-opposition leader.

  • Ҳар як аз ин фейкҳо бояд хислату ақидаи худро дошта бошад. Масалан яке аз онҳо нақши “энгри бёрд”-ро дошта бошаду ҳар касе зиди шумои азиз ҳарфе гуфт худфидоёна алайҳаш битозад, якеи дигар нафари мулоиму боҳикмат ва насиҳатгар бошад;
  • Мувозиб бошед, то онҳоро бо ҳам иваз накунед. Яъне нашавад, ки аз номи нафари боҳикмату насиҳатгар ворид шуда, нақши “энгри бёрд”-ро бозӣ кунед;
  • Each of your fake accounts should have a specific character and principles. For example, while one should play the role of an “angry bird” and mercilessly bomb everyone who says a single word against you, another one should use softer, more diplomatic language.
  • Be careful not to mix these roles up. Having logged in with your softer, more diplomatic fake account, do not fall into the “angry bird” role.

Connecting with the people

But what about the real you? Even if these aspiring politicos did live in the country, state media would never show their faces.

National TV coverage is for the regime, and that means online oppositionists have to be everywhere else — and looking very important — in order to appeal to the one fifth of the population with regular internet access.

  • Бо ҳар касе чой нӯшидед, сӯҳбат кардед, тасодуфан дар кӯча вохӯрдед, аз нафари раҳгузаре хоҳиш кунед шуморо аксбардорӣ кунанд;
  • Ҳамеша вақти аксбардорӣ чунон вонамуд кунед, ки хеле ҷиддӣ ҳастед ва бо мусоҳибатон сӯҳбати муҳиме анҷом медиҳед;
  • Беҳтар аст мусоҳибатон хориҷӣ ва синнаш аз 40 боло бошад. Бо ин роҳ метавонед ӯро ягон вазири масалан Ҳолланд муаррифӣ кунед;
  • Whenever you had a cup of tea with someone, or met someone accidentally in street, or talked to, ask a passerby to take a picture of you both;
  • When the picture is being taken, look serious and pretend having an important discussion;
  • Better if your picture buddy is a foreigner and is above 40-years-old. You can introduce him as, for example, a Dutch minister;

Kings without a kingdom

In recent years, internet speeds have slowed in Tajikistan, and the strengthening political crackdown has turned users away from politicized posts. But even if such posts do attract a loyal following, what then?

As Sheraliev, whose own post attracted 140 likes explains, the life of the country's online oppositionists are defined by a tragic futility:

Дар натиҷа, баъди ин таблиғҳо, як гурӯҳи дигаре аз шогирдони воқеъӣ пайдо хоҳед кард, ки хоҳанд пиндошт шумо ҳамон нафаре ҳастед, ки “шогирдонатон” муаррифӣ мекунанд ва шумо ба як лидери…. фейсбукӣ табдил мешавед. Бале танҳо фейсбукӣ.

If all this propaganda helps you find a group of real followers who accept you as a true object of promotion, you will acquire the status of a … Facebook leader. But it will only ever be on Facebook, and nothing more.

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