Despite official denials that civil war-era opposition leaders still pose a national security threat, a rash of arrests of both alleged Islamist militants and former opposition figures in Tajikistan suggests the situation is not as stable as President Imomali Rahmon's administration would like the outside world to believe. Some experts see a connection between the arrests and parliamentary elections scheduled for early 2010.
To some analysts, it appears that the Rahmon administration is using anti-narcotic operations as a cover for rounding up opponents. On June 15, officials said they had arrested former opposition members as part of an anti-narcotics sweep. Authorities did not provide further details.
In late May, security forces kicked off a security sweep designed, they said, to root out narcotics cultivation and smuggling in Tavildara and the adjacent Rasht Valley. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Analysts said the area was never known for drugs and suggest the operation, nicknamed Poppy 2009, is designed to target civil war-era commanders, including the notorious Mullo Abdullo, who was recently reported to have returned, hardened by years of fighting in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Officials deny the link.
The day after trying to calm fears about the operation, the ministry announced the seizure of a large weapons cache in Dushanbe, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers, assault rifles and ammunition.
Other arrests in recent weeks indicate that authorities are intent on pursuing a broad crackdown on Islamists and opposition figures, signaling that Rahmon is concerned about his grip on power amid a string of economic calamities, including crop failures, power shortages and the evaporation of remittances sent home by labor migrants. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Jumaboy Sanginov and Muzafar Nuriddinov, high-profile lieutenants of Mullo Abdullo during the 1992-97 civil war, have both been arrested recently, according to local press reports.
Meanwhile, locals in the Rasht Valley, where Abdullo has been reportedly spotted, say they are concerned about the extra military activity in their region. Negmatullo, a farmer in Garm, told EurasiaNet on June 10 that "the local population does not really understand the situation in the region. We have just noticed that the number of national army forces in this area has increased. We were advised by friends with the local police to remain home after dark and avoid traveling during evenings as well."
Negmatullo admitted that earlier this year Afghan citizens were coming to their region for business and trade. "But now we do not see them and local entrepreneurs tend to avoid any trade connections with Afghans. . . . We do not know who to trust, or whether they are part of some religious groups or are even members of the Mullo Abdullo group," he said.
The situation also remains tense in the northern part of Tajikistan, in the Ferghana Valley. Since May 15, 19 members of the restricted religious groups Hizb-ut-Tahrir have been arrested in Sughd Province for distributing literature that authorities say contains radical content. Dushanbe has routinely rounded up purported Islamists who they say are bent on building an Islamic caliphate in Tajikistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A source at Tajikistan's National Committee of Defense, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic, alleged that some government officials had been taken into custody for supposedly providing support to banned religious organizations. "[Since February] our agency has arrested several members of official state institutions for involvement and supporting the active spread of religious literature brought from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. We have no doubt that [foreign based] extremist groups have enormous financial resources and use every possible means to threaten Tajikistan's national security and the bordering states," said the source.
Though such claims could not be independently confirmed, political analyst Parviz Mullojanov sees a direct connection between the arrests of the former opposition leaders and Poppy 2009.
"Politics, weapons and drugs have always been connected in any conflict in Tajikistan. It is not a secret that most of the former opposition leaders, while in government, were using their official positions for drug trafficking and weapons transport," said Mullojanov. "Under operation Poppy 2009, former opposition members involved in drugs have been arrested again."
On June 15, the drug control agency reported the arrest on June 9 of an international drug trafficking cartel that included Afghans and members from Tajikistan's opposition. "Under special operation Poppy 2009, our agency has arrested several big drug dealing groups in the country . . . there were some members of the former Tajik opposition in this group," a spokesman for the State Agency on Drug Control told EurasiaNet on June 15, without revealing the opposition members' identity.
Khojimuhamad Umarov of the Institute for Economic Studies sees a potential connection between the tightening of political control and next year's parliamentary election. "The current economic crisis and political crackdown in the country certainly have connections with the upcoming elections," he said.
"We have noticed a tendency where the government is giving political parties limited means to participate," he added, noting the shrinking number of seats available to members of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), despite 1997 peace accord stipulations that the party would hold one-third of the seats in the 61-seat lower chamber of parliament. After the retirement of one representative in April, the IRP now holds only one seat.
Ongoing operations will only make it more difficult for the IRP. "Perhaps the latest influence of the spread of radical Islamic groups in the country will make the government rethink its politics towards the traditional Islamic party, even if they might not have any connections," Umarov concluded.
Saodat Mahbatsho is the pseudonym for a Tajik journalist.