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Democratization from Below: Civil Society in Tajikistan


Over a decade ago, Fisher (2013) explored the role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina. Despite continuing global autocratic trends since then, South Africa and Argentina have remained vibrant democracies with strong civil societies. Tajikistan, in contrast, remains autocratic, and civil society has apparently weakened in recent years. However, at the grassroots level, a combination of traditional grassroots organizations and internet organizing provides a more complex picture of the relationships between local participation, ties with other civil society organizations, democratization, and development. The purpose of this paper is to highlight both these relationships and the contrast between local democratization and national autocracy.


From 1973, when the “Carnation Revolution” overthrew the fascist Estado Novo in Portugal, until the early 21st Century, democratization had a good run in much of the world. By the turn of the century, however, political scientists had already begun to write about the “global democratic recession”, a trend that has continued. Between 2005 and 2020 the number of “free” countries declined from 89 to 82 according to Freedom House (https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores), while the number of “part free” countries (58-59) remained stable.

Based on extensive in-country fieldwork between 2005 and 2008, Fisher (2013) charted the emerging trends by investigating the contributions of civil society to democratization in two flawed democracies (South Africa and Argentina) and one autocracy (Tajikistan) on three different continents. She found that in all three countries, both intermediary democratization NGOs and grassroots organizations were strong and often connected with each other. Argentina and South Africa have since continued to benefit from lively civil societies, including continuing development of provincial civil society networks. In the absence of continuing democratization, Tajik civil society survives, albeit with altered contours, as described below.

The primary focus of this paper is participation at the grassroots level in Tajikistan, where traditional grassroots organizations, newer grassroots organizations, and internet organizing co-exist and can impact democratization. The paper also provides a  complex and updated picture of the relationships between local participation and other civil society organizations.  Both local participation and other civil society relationships can impact the relationship between democratization and development. The overarching purpose of the paper is to highlight the continuing contrast between local democratization and national autocracy.

In this paper I use Robert Dahl’s (1972) defining characteristics of democracy, based on: 1) Law-Based Civil Liberties; 2) Political Participation; 3) Loyal Opposition: as well as Fisher’s (2013) addition of 4) Democratic Political Culture. Democratization is thus defined as the long-term process advancing these characteristics.

Civil society is understood here as “markets, associations and a sphere of public debate.” (Perez Diaz, 1993: 56). Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) encompass many kinds of nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, theaters, religious institutions, some media, and universities, as well as trade unions, professional associations, other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and grassroots organizations (GROs). NGOs, in turn, fall into two categories:

1) International NGOs (INGOs)  based in a foreign country, or network of countries.

2) Intermediary NGOs, including national advocacy and welfare groups and Grassroots Support Organizations (GRSOs) working in communities other than their own. GRSOs may be provincial or national and primarily focused on democratization, development, or both. Fisher (2013) used the term “democratization NGOs” in order to group some national advocacy organizations such as those working on human rights with GRSOs.

Grassroots organizations (GROs) work in their own communities and are also known as CBOs (community-based organizations).

Background on Tajikistan

“We are at the very beginning of a great thing.” — Shamssidin Karimov

Tajikistan is among the most remittance-dependent countries in the world. A million migrants working in Russia remit 3 billion dollars, a third of Tajikistan’s GDP (Bertelsman Foundation, 2020). Migration leads to family dysfunction, increasing poverty, and high rates of domestic violence, all of which are worsened by a high birth rate (UNDP, 2021). The situation deteriorated with the Pandemic since many migrant workers lost their jobs in Russia and had to return home.

Another 30% of the GDP comes from the drug trade, including opium and heroin…smuggled into the country each year from Afghanistan, either for local consumption or for transfer to Russia and Europe. Despite the Tajik government’s policy against illicit drug trafficking in cooperation with foreign governments and international organizations, trafficking, and cross-border violence continue to increase (Shamsiddin Karimov, personal communication, June 27, 2021). Tajikistan also relies on cotton exports (as well as gold and aluminum), but the farming sector depends on monopolies acting as loan sharks. One is owned by the son-in-law of President Emomali Rahmon.

On the positive side, Tajikistan does not suffer from transnational Islamic extremism or terrorist attacks. It has been a crossroads of religious diversity since ancient times, and “people practicing Islam on a daily basis, venerate Sufi shrines, as well as the spirits of nature.” (Zharkevitch, 2010: 25). The corpus of Muslim literature includes inherited lyrics and stories written in Old Persian, which is the root of the Tajik language (Nourshanov and Bleuer, 2013:235). The political impact of Tajikistan’s moderate brand of Islam waned after the Tajik Civil War (1992-1995), fought partly on religious differences. Motivated by the need for peace, villagers became less likely to support even the Islamic Renaissance Party, which represented a moderate version of Sunnism, and was, in any case, banned by the Rahmon regime in 2015.

Despite continuing religious and political repression, a recent detente in the previously hostile relations with Uzbekistan may contribute to this generally positive picture. Moreover, the country continues to benefit from the social investments and administrative cohesion of the Soviet period, “which increases stability.” (Zharkevich, 2010: 43). Simply put, Tajikistan is not a fragile state. Seventy-one percent of the population has access to clean drinking water, and literacy is almost at 100%. Life Expectancy is over 70, although malnutrition among children is a stubborn 17% (UNDP,  2020).

Tajikistan is not, however, a strong state. The Constitutional Court is inactive, with anti-corruption cases confined to the lower courts. Tajikistan ranks 149 of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index and corruption is closely tied to the authoritarian government (https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2021) Anja Mihr (2022) of the OSCE Academy (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in characterizing Central Asia as a whole, observes that “It is impossible for any ordinary citizen without ties to organized crime to run for office…except for a handful of women and people with disabilities to show to international donors.”

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