One of the most notorious figures in Tajikistan’s post-independence history and a once-indispensable ally of President Emomali Rahmon was released from jail on June 21.
Yakub Salimov, whose storied life includes stints as a racketeer, pogrom organizer, warlord and Interior Minister, was sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2005 on charges of treason for attempting to mount an attempted coup in the late 1990s. Unusually for Tajikistan, the charges were almost certainly justified. The sentence was subsequently commuted by amnesty.
Salimov’s release has long been trailed but remains no less surprising considering the extent of the bad blood between him and Rahmon.
The coup charges against Salimov were filed in 1998, but he managed to evade arrest for several years before finally being deported from Russia in 2003.
His rise to the post of Interior Minister came in April 1992, when the exiled Supreme Soviet, based in the northern city of Khujand, appointed a Cabinet composed almost entirely of natives of Kulyab — Rahmon’s primary power base — and Khujand, where most of the Soviet-era Tajik elite emerged. Dushanbe was under armed opposition control at the time.
With his experience as a feared gangster, Salimov became one of the tough men of the hour. Still, notwithstanding the unfolding war of the time, that a man with his past should have been picked to become head of the police provoked much disbelief.
Salimov graduated in Soviet times from the Tajik institute of physical education and then “got into commerce,” as newspapers reported in potted biographies at the time of his elevation to the Interior Ministry. He had previously spent a four-year stretch in jail for racketeering. In 1990, he landed behind bars again for his leading role in instigating the pogroms against the Armenian community. Moscow correspondents claimed at the time that Salimov doled out much violence to the Slavs living in Dushanbe too. He was sprung from jail as the civil war broke out.
Accounts of people who recall those days remember a very different President Rahmon. Unlike the confident, strutting figure of today, the president was still a diffident figure that insiders say came in for regular verbal browbeating and, on occasion, physical mistreatment at the hands of Salimov and other top inner-circle operators.
Salimov’s disdain is well captured in an anecdote relayed by long-time exile opposition figure Dodojon Atovulloyev, with whom he crossed paths in Moscow.
“It was the first time we were in a big delegation in Moscow. There was a reception and, of course, everybody boozed hard. Afterward, [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin came and shook everybody by the hand and went to climb the stairs. And suddenly our Emomali goes and stops him,” Salimov is said to have recalled.
“Boris Nikolayevich, could I talk to you for a minute?” Rahmon apparently asked.
Yeltsin turned and waited.
“Could I call you papa from now on?” Rahmon supposedly pleaded, to his fellow Tajiks’ crushing embarrassment.
Salimov's greatest military victory, secured only with hefty assistance from Uzbekistan’s armed forces, came in December 1992, when he and his fellow Kulyabi roughneck Sangak Safarov burst through armed opposition lines around Dushanbe and captured numerous government buildings.
Salimov then embarked on negotiations with the opposition units that had held Dushanbe. Few gave the government’s claims of good intentions much credence, however, given how Safarov and Salimov had spoken openly of the need to physically obliterate the opposition. Waves of arbitrary detentions and killings duly followed the government takeover of the city, precipitating a rush of refugees into Tajikistan’s mountain regions and Afghanistan.
No sooner had the government-supporting People’s Front taken control of the capital that the infighting began. In early 1993, one prominent warlord, Faizali Saidov, laid siege to the Interior Ministry headquarters with a demand that he be given “some job.” Bloodshed was averted on that occasion, but within weeks Saidov and Safarov would both be dead in what is widely to have been an armed clash.
Given those circumstances, Salimov should probably be grateful that he made it out the 1990s alive, and yet Safarov’s fate seems to have provided him few lessons in personal development. His time in charge of the Interior Ministry is a catalog of indiscretion and high-handed behavior.
In June 1994, he arrived with 20 armed men at Dushanbe airport ahead of the departure of a Tyupolev-154 plane to Moscow. Twenty passengers were thrown off so Salimov and his gang could board the flight. Word at the time was that he was in a desperate hurry to get to Tel-Aviv for some unknown reason.
A more important — and fairly credible — theory was that Salimov and Rahmon had got into fisticuffs the week before. Rahmon disappeared from public view for several days and refused to see even his closest associates, which was taken as evidence of his bruised appearance.
Despite this uneasiness, Salimov returned to Dushanbe and contrived to reportedly also bash then-deputy prime minister and now-mayor of the capital, Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloyev, who made the mistake of tut-tutting at the Interior Minister’s late arrival at a meeting.
It was good he was eloquent with his fists, since he was no great orator. On one occasion he got up before the Supreme Soviet and delivered a speech that included the line: “Hey, come on dudes, enough chit-chatting, let’s build democracy!”
Since Salimov’s only familiarity with law enforcement before becoming Interior Minister had been in his capacity as a criminal suspect, the law-and-order situation in the country predictably degenerated. To make matters worse, Salimov stuffed the ranks of the police force with droves of his criminal associates.
In time, he was sidelined with an ambassador’s post in Turkey — an indelicate appointment given Salimov’s notorious televised outburst a few months earlier in which he stated that he “would not tolerate meddling by a bunch of Turks in the internal affairs of the republic.”
The opening of the Tajik embassy in Ankara in December 1995 seems to have been quite the lavish affair, going by a scabrous report published in Kazakhstan weekly Karavan.
A delegation of around 100 people — top officials, friends, entertainers, journalists and “women of easy virtue” — was flown into Turkey from Tajikistan on a chartered plane at Salimov’s own expense and each was given a $100 bill as they arrived. It was particularly shocking that such wasteful celebration was going on as Tajikistan was still mired in devastating civil war and famine. Officials in Dushanbe fumed at the Karavan report but never actually denied any of its contents.
Salimov returned to Dushanbe as head of the customs department, another lucrative posting. But he was unable to resist the lure of warring and in August 1997 engaged in a days-long battle outside Dushanbe with an Interior Ministry brigade headed by a rival warlord. The fighting was ostensibly a battle for influence in the post-civil war settlement.
When the inevitable charges of coup-plotting came, Salimov was able to avoid arrest and seems to have freely flitted between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Unaccountably, he reportedly also dabbled in an alliance with the exiled opposition in Russia, which must have elicited particular anxiety in Rahmon. Tajikistan observers note that Moscow likes to keep a reserve of Tajik opposition figures on its soil as back-up in the event of a regime-change being required.
The charges leveled against Salimov stemmed for his alleged association with another of Rahmon’s recurrent bête noires — Makhmud Khudoiberdiyev, a freelance warlord and Tashkent proxy that the Tajik government likewise accused of plotting to seize power.
Salimov was arrested in June 2003 at held at Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison before finally being extradited in February 2004.
Now in his late fifties and weakened by time in jail and, according to his relatives, illness, Salimov is hardly the formidable figure of earlier years. Still, the release of such a contentious personality once deeply feared by Rahmon is remarkable given the relentless elimination of former and current opponents to the president’s rule.