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Tajikistan: Who Let the Watchdogs Out?

The most extensive personnel shake-up of President Imomali Rahmon’s almost two decades in power is going on in Tajikistan. The turnover in the top echelons of government indicates that media outlets are playing an effective watchdog role in Tajik society.

Rahmon launched the shake-up in early January, sacking several ministers including a close relative, Education Minister Abdujabbor Rahmonov. He also reshuffled top security officials. Subsequently, high-ranking national security and law enforcement officers were arrested for drug trafficking. In addition, the state anti-corruption agency made several high-profile arrests of school directors for allegedly soliciting bribes from students and parents. Corruption in the education system is one of the most sensitive public issues in Tajikistan today.

Some observers say the personnel moves are a direct response to fierce media criticism directed at Rahmon’s administration recently. In November, for example, a diplomatic spat with Moscow spun out of control and started posing a direct financial threat to many Tajiks after Russian officials began rounding up Tajik migrant laborers, who contribute some 45 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. The dispute proved a humiliation for Rahmon, who eventually backed down. The Asia-Plus news agency, tapping widespread popular anger over the episode, demanded that Rahmon do something about the daily corruption facing many Tajiks and fire some of his most dishonest ministers.

Independent-minded media outlets have emerged as a “substitute for a non-existent [political] opposition,” according to Nuriddin Karshibaev, chairman of the National Association of Independent Mass Media (NANSMIT), a watchdog group. With the spread of the Internet, authorities have found it increasingly difficult to control the flow of information in the country. No longer can the government rely on the use of traditional means of coercion, in particular libel cases, to thwart journalistic scrutiny of its actions. “Tajik journalists have gained experience and some outlets are quite successful in presenting the current situation, which is critical. Journalists have been warning the president, presenting both their own vision and quoting knowledgeable experts,” said Karshibaev.

Political analyst Parviz Mullojanov agrees that the opposition is too weak to mobilize against the country’s “mass corruption,” but does not believe the press deserves all the credit. “The independent media have matured enough to reflect public opinion, but they lack the capacity to form opinion,” Mullojanov said. “Nevertheless, the media are strong enough to convey essential messages to authorities and depict the popular moods.”

A point that has elicited widespread sniggering in online chat rooms in recent years has been the personality cult forming around Rakhmon. At a government meeting on January 18, Rahmon attacked the state broadcaster for excessive adulation and flattery. The president demanded that executives at state television improve the quality of programming, instead of praising him.

“There are grounds to think that Rahmon made this remark after he read Tajik private newspapers, which mercilessly criticize official television for [its] mediocrity and groveling,” NANSMIT’s Karshibaev said.

At that same government meeting, Rahmon lashed out at the owners of expensive cars with “golden number plates” – tags that include sequences like 7777 or 8888. Such plates are distributed only to the friends and relatives of the most influential movers and shakers in the country. Several days earlier, police had detained the driver of a Nissan Patrol bearing a 7777 plate who had, police allege, thrown 106 kilograms of hashish and 2 kilos of opium from the window while fleeing police, local media reported. Rahmon said the plates must be withdrawn from circulation, that everyone must be equal before the law, even his own relatives.

Despite all the attention-grabbing headlines since the New Year, it is still too early to say whether Rahmon’s responsiveness to the media will last, or is just a temporary phenomenon, according to economist Khojimukhammad Umarov. Observers complain that many disgraced officials are merely being recycled. For example, the ousted education minister ended up in a post that education insiders say is very lucrative -- rector of the State Pedagogical University.

Discontent with government policy remains widespread. The country is experiencing rampant inflation, and, according to the UN, half the population does not have access to safe drinking water. Public expenditures on education and healthcare are miniscule, while officials allow the bulldozing of central Dushanbe to make room for flamboyant and costly government buildings.

"The recent reshuffling in the government will not have any [positive] impact on the national economy. What we see is the same people, and each of them is close to the president. Most of them [the new appointees] are from Dangara” -- the president’s home region -- said Umarov. “Besides, there is a serious deficit of professionals in the government."

Dushanbe-based analyst and journalist Lidia Isamova believes the new appointments will not lead to substantial changes in Tajik politics, nor significant economic improvements. Tajikistan’s political elite is experiencing a “human resource crisis,” she told EurasiaNet.org. “By and large, the ministers rotate from one government agency to another. Often the change is illogical – a person is just sent away to work in a field he is not familiar with.”

Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.

Tajikistan: Who Let the Watchdogs Out?

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