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Democratization from Below: Civil Society in Tajikistan

Bottom-Up Participation as a Wellspring of Democracy

Of course, democratization can be promoted by governmental and political as well as civil society actors at many levels. That said,  some  practitioners have described civil society as a whole as the ‘wellspring of democracy and development” which can evolve and survive over time in altered forms (https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/1738_ww_human_development_report_undp_072502_5.pdf

However, local participation is often the most powerful source of democratic change. Although the major focus of Fisher’s (2013) analysis was intermediary democratization NGOs, it included a great deal about their essential ties to GROs and the importance of grassroots participation to overall democratization.

Taiwan provides a clear historical example of bottom-up participation being the wellspring, quite literally, of democratization. According to Uphoff (1986: 218) Taiwan’s grassroots irrigators associations and farmers associations, each with their own technical staff, contributed to democratization at the national level.

Wells and wellsprings have to be maintained, however, and that depends on the development of a sense of political efficacy. A sense of political efficacy can translate into political participation, contributing to democratization, even at higher levels. By observing Inter-American Foundation projects in the field, Albert Hirschman (1984:42-57)  found that people with a bent for collective action and social change often failed in their first attempts, but political energy then re-emerged, although not necessarily for the same cause. Collective action by Colombian campesinos failed when agrarian reform was not implemented in 1975, but the same group later organized successful fishing cooperatives. Hirschman described this process as “the conservation and transformation of social energy.” He noted, however, that the failure to perceive it was itself destructive. If followed by success, participatory patterns and a sense of political efficacy are deepened. (Hirschman, 1984: 42-57)

Local Political Activity in Tajikistan

Despite repression, local participation also remains the wellspring of democratic hopes in Tajikistan. One reason for this is that the state depends on local organizations for policy implementation since the latter are often more capable than the state in responding to socioeconomic problems (Ewoh et al,  2012). This capacity, based on past efforts, contributes to the survival of traditional civil society in rural areas.

A second reason for its survival is that 70% of the country is rural. Mahallahs  (local councils) as well as local governments (Jamoats) remain important to local decision-making (Bertelsman, 2020). However, Mahallahs elect their own leaders rather than acquiesce to their appointment by the Jamoat. 

Thirdly, there is considerable evidence that Mahallas have adapted to new political circumstances and challenges, as described by Hirschman. Indeed, the preservation and transformation of social energy are demonstrated by the survival of local organizing capacity under both Soviet and post-Soviet authoritarian rule. Under the Soviets, Mahallas mediated local conflicts in the absence of state-sanctioned professional associations. Some Mahallas were reincarnated as collective farms (kolkhoz), “where they organized service provision, local infrastructure maintenance and dispute resolution” (Frezier, 2015: 281). Others were organized in city apartments, because of the Soviet emphasis on voluntary work. With competition from these “social institutions of tradition,” however, Moscow had difficulties setting up a network of informers, because “an ethnocultural mentality based on traditional patrimonialism, popular Islam and regionalism had survived unscathed.” (Nourzhanov and Bleuer, 2013: 108; 345) During the civil war following the end of Soviet rule, Tajikistan’s Mahallas established a rough form of local governance and distributed international humanitarian aid.

Mahallahs today continue promoting traditions of deliberative talk, which often lead to community development projects. In the absence of viable opposition parties, this strengthens public debate, despite official repression of independent media. Public talk followed by public work can be durable. Public talk also called traditional public deliberation, exists in many cultures. In Tajikistan, public talk occurs not only in Mahallas but also in choikona  (tea houses), gasbar, where young people congregate, mushkilkusho (conversations among women), and alavkhona (fair house or house of fire). Fair houses have existed since before the 7th Century. Common dinners held in mosques are often followed by deliberations that last for days and often lead to activating the centuries-old tradition of the hashar system of voluntary community work.  At the same time, however, clans and hierarchies also persist at the local level and may limit local accountability and transparency  (Zharkevich, 2010,  pp. 18, 37).

Armed with accurate information on each household, the estimated 5000 Mahallas in Tajikistan today collect money, including from international donors, and organize development projects such as local bridge construction or repair. In recent years “Mahallahs have become more professional and the government relies on them.”

Mahallas are not councils of elders, but they have elected leaders and real coercive power to solve conflicts, often based on traditional Islamic concepts of social justice. They also cope with emergencies. Many villages also have councils of elders, called Shura Asakal (Fisher, 2013:120-121). Mahallas often consult with them, especially to organize hashar, or special events.

Adaptability and taking on new tasks also apply to other kinds of GROs. In the Pamir Mountains local citizen associations called Kishlak or Guar promote law and order, local autonomy, and local rights. Other traditional GROs include water user’s associations and patriarchal clan organizations (avlod) that provide assistance with housing and employment based on the high trust levels within extended families. Given this adaptability and the support of several major INGOs, it is not surprising that the total number of  Tajik GROs may have increased in recent years. There are 1400 GROs officially registered by the government, but with 5000 Mahallahs (unofficial) and other GROs, it is difficult to know how many are active. And by defining civil society to include markets, micro-enterprises promoted by INGOs could also be included in this count.

Learning Within Civil Society: An Overview

Hirschmann’s concept of the preservation and transformation of social energy applies not only to local organizational capacity, micro-enterprises, and deliberative traditions, but also to horizontal grassroots networks uniting different communities, intermediary NGOs, and even INGOs. This section focuses on how the connections between GROs and other civil society organizations in Tajikistan contribute to democratization.

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