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Democratization from Below: Civil Society in Tajikistan

Tajikistan’s score on democracy has fallen in recent years (Freedom House: 2020).  As a nepotistic autocracy, the ruling family has banned the opposition, jailed human rights leaders, censored media, restricted religious groups, and clamped down on civil society. In recent years Tajikistan has boycotted the OSCE meetings on human rights. Public meetings and assemblies are prohibited, and the press is increasingly restricted. In November 2021 the regime intervened militarily against people in Badakhshan who protested a killing. Both the protests and the military response by the regime have escalated since then and the internet has been cut off in that region.

Another dark corner of this picture is what has happened to the media since 2006. While associations are episodically targeted in Tajikistan, another sector of civil society, the “sphere of public debate” is under direct and sustained attack. Asia Plus, an independent press outlet, has been blocked since 2018. Facebook and YouTube were blocked after they published an interview with an opposition leader (CIVICUS, 2020). It is unclear how long NGOs such as the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan and the Coalition of Female Journalists of Tajikistan will be able to resist (Buriev, 2020: 4).

At the same time, the state has failed in its attempt to double the price of internet service.  After an authentic though rather small protest of 200 people, Rahmon backed down and canceled the price increase in 2019 (https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-caves-to-public-pressure-on-internet-price-rise-sparking-glee), perhaps testifying to his political weakness. Also, as we will see below, the spread of the internet continues, particularly in rural areas.

Restrictions on civil society are not confined to the media or even human rights organizations. A  2007 law required re-registration for all NGOs, and some of them alleged that the Ministry of Justice had extorted bribes during the registration process  (Ewoh et al, 2012, p. 6). Official repression increased after 2018, with requirements to post annual reports to combat  “terrorist financing,” often aimed at human rights activists and advocacy organizations.  Madrassas are closed and Christian churches are persecuted (Swerdlow, 2020). Organizations avoid requesting permits for demonstrations because official approval is required. Taxes are imposed on websites and requirements to post financial reports are onerous for small organizations. In 2020,  penalties for not registering CSOs increased fourfold and the complexities of “re-registering” continued. What is more, a majority of civil society professionals at the intermediary level have left the sector. The government promotes so-called grassroots movements such as ” Vanguard” to co-opt student opposition. Amid all this, Zuhra Halimova, former head of the Open Society Foundation in Tajikistan observes  “Independent GROs are in better shape [than intermediary NGOs] — the government relies on them.”

In addition, Halimova continues, “As of 2021, with only 4 official regulators in the regulatory office, the government lacked sufficient capacity to enforce civil society regulations. NGOs have to report all grants, but the Ministry of Justice has only a few analysts to review 3000 financial reports.”

Moreover, state corruption is massive and systemic. As Shamsiddin Karimov suggests, “Corruption softens repression,” even though it makes democratization more difficult.

Both bureaucratic weakness and corruption should become amendments to discussions of repression, such as those that categorize authoritarian state interactions with CSOs as “legitimizing discourses, repression, and co-optation” (Toepler et al, 2020: 649). Some NGOs are, of course, targeted. But, overall, CSO staff are more likely to be harassed than jailed, according to Halimova, “A new law has loosened the concept of linking foreign grants to being a foreign agent…it is not a black and white situation.”

“There are also divisions within the government”, according to Karimov, “between officials who understand the role of civil society and those who equate democratization with instability.” Although government ministries sometimes bring in CSOs, providing them with a platform and financial support, government corruption continues, and INGOs may contribute to it through what Karimov calls “inadequate vetting of their local staffs for corruption,” an internal governance failure known from other contexts (eg, Prakash, 2019).

Since the Pandemic, the contrast between the treatment of the media, on the one hand, and CSOs, on the other, has actually increased. The government announced fines of up to $1000 for false information, mainly targeted at the media, but uses GROs to distribute PPE and humanitarian aid to health workers. (Buriev, 2020). Effective civil society COVID policies also attracted government support, as in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAR). The head of the region, Edgor Fayzov, former chair of the Aga Khan Foundation, used his civil society experience to design and implement the regional government’s pandemic policies (Buriev, 2020).

Grassroots Political Participation

As noted above, the primary focus of this paper is political participation, and, more specifically, grassroots organizations and movements that promote democratic participation in the course of working on local development and providing services to their own communities, despite an autocratic national government. Because GROs are connected to the larger civil society, the ties and interactions of GROs with each other and with GRSOs are central to the analysis, along with interactions with local and national governments and international donors which may be initiated for either economic or participatory purposes. Recent evidence from Tajikistan supports the following:

1)  Local political activity can continue as a wellspring of democratization, despite authoritarian governance at the top. The evidence presented below suggests that two out of the four defining characteristics of democracy seem to be advancing at the local level in Tajikistan-political participation and democratic political culture, based on participation in GROs and the surprisingly positive impact of the internet, described below. Advances in law-based civil liberties are more dependent on programs initiated by intermediary NGOs, and loyal opposition is probably the most difficult of the four characteristics, not even obvious in more advanced countries. 

2) There is potential both for survival and continued learning among civil society actors networking at the local, regional, and national levels in Tajikistan, which can support grassroots participation. This has also been advanced by increased rural access to the internet.

3) The Tajik evidence supports the idea that the causal relationships between participation and socio-economic development work in both directions.

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