Where is Tajikistan on the long, hard slog toward democratization? Even in the early 2000s, Tajikistan was classified as “not free”, although it scored relatively higher on the Freedom House index than any other Central Asian country then. As Shamsiddin Karimov told me in 2006, “We have more freedom than democracy,” and, despite even lower international democracy ratings, he suggested essentially the same thing in 2021. The survival of a degree of freedom and the survival of Tajik civil society are closely linked. Civil society organizations of all kinds continue to learn about participation, democracy, and development from each other.
Here we will explore the strength of each sector of civil society in relation to their ties to GROs. For GROs, learning how to adapt and survive often begins with horizontal ties to each other. Secondly, civil society in rural areas now includes a novel “sphere of public debate”, the internet.
GROs are often based on patriarchal ties, which can lead to competition or even hostility among them, and horizontal connections among GROs (sometimes called social movements) can be difficult. Nevertheless, regionally-based grassroots ties have emerged in Kulob, the Pamirs, and the central part of the country, although not in the North.
According to Karimov, “These are not umbrella organizations! But they are regionally active… There are [approximately] 105 Social Unions for the Development of Village Organizations (SUDVOS) and 11 Associations of SUDVOs in Tajikistan. SUDVOS are not traditional organizations…although some of their member organizations may be. They are not intermediary NGOs either. [they are]…community-based organizations, [with] many local members…a type of GRO network, with a leading GRO that gets outside support, including technical assistance.” One SUDVO, supported by the World Food Program (WPF) works in 7 villages to improve food security in four Gorno Badakha Districts by increasing water access and growing vegetables. (facebook.com/asudvo/)
Parviz Mullajanov observed that “Trade occurs and development ideas are shared among members in some regional Mahallah networks, as well as in other networks created by local activists, with international support…however, the numbers of GROs [ and networks] are down, even for those supported by the Aga Khan Foundation”.
Mahallah networks, despite their autonomy from Jamoats, have demonstrated their adaptability through cooperation with regional governments. A group of Mahallahs in Dushanbe built a gas pipeline because of a shortage of cooking fuel and turned to TASIF (Tajik Association of Social Investment Funds) for help. Members now have natural gas in their homes. Spurred by this success, the Mahallas created a micro-projects committee, which has improved water systems, constructed an electric main, and supported low-income families.
Local civil society ties to Jamoats have been limited by the declining autonomy of larger regional governments in Badakshan and the Rasht Valley, which previously enjoyed some autonomy. Jamoat leaders have been replaced with regime loyalists and a legal provision allowing municipal councils to design their own budgets and elect their own leaders has not been consistently implemented.
In spite of a lack of funding, both Jamoats and local GROs continue to promote local participation in other areas. (Ewoh et al, 2012, pp. 7-8). Mahallas also assist Jamoats by attracting funding, resolving land disputes, and preventing the re-emergence of warlords (Zharkevich, 2010, p. 35). It is more likely that Jamoats learn from GROs than the other way around.
Grassroots Networking and the Internet
As Zuhra Halimova observed, “At the grassroots level there has been a striking increase in a new dimension-virtual space, which has begun to dramatically increase the adaptability of civil society.” As a “sphere of public debate,” the internet is expensive, but Halimova views an Open Society Foundation’s $3.5 million investment in rural internet access as “strikingly successful.”
This “new dimension” has led to the creation of new kinds of GROs that, in turn, create more grassroots networks. Some networks organize around environmental issues such as cleaning up plastic. “Most of these are led by young people, but they cooperate with other community members and Mahallas for special events and to maintain traditional culture. Their digital connections…also enable them to become varied kinds of CSOs,” according to Halimova. “Although civil society is not suppressed the way political parties are, human rights issues are difficult. Yet there are shared values, at localities— cities and towns. Even Mahallahs now use social media.”
The internet has, in effect, multiplied the impact of traditional associations, promoted their networks and created many small spheres of public debate. Moreover, it has added new “markets” to rural civil society. As elsewhere, people create small online businesses and enhance economic ties with each other. As Halimova observed, “Among such networks are unions of handicraft producers and groups promoting tourist opportunities such as local Bed and Breakfasts.”
The internet has, in effect, multiplied the impact of traditional associations, promoted their networks, and created many small spheres of public debate. Moreover, it has added new “markets” to rural civil society. As elsewhere, people create small online businesses and enhance economic ties with each other. As Halimova observed, “Among such networks are unions of handicraft producers and groups promoting tourist opportunities such as local Bed and Breakfasts. “
Traditional GROs “have responded positively to internet organizing, while maintaining their ability to promote local engagement and maintain traditional culture.” Both the traditional and the new internet cultures promote and enable associational life and a sphere of public debate. And now, with the addition of local markets tied to the internet, the freedoms provided by local civil society are very much alive.
Grassroots Support Organizations: The Intermediary Level
The universal problem that limits what Intermediary NGOs and GROs can learn from each other was expressed by a South African interviewed in 2006: “There are amazing small organizations working in rural areas and urban townships…Promoting participation is the most crucial task of all intermediary NGOs…but it is not easy. You can’t say, ‘let me help you do it better’, because then you destroy it.” (Fisher, 2013: 89)
Despite this impediment, Tajik democratization NGOs led by women were challenging the legal system and promoting law-based civil liberties in 2006. Women headed 16 of the 29 democratization NGOs interviewed, concentrating on such issues as bringing domestic violence perpetrators to justice, judicial reform, and international sex trafficking legislation. They also supported Mahallahs that were beginning to include women.
Despite such encouraging signs, Tajikistan’s civil society in 2006 was characterized by institutional weakness, limiting what CSOs could learn from each other. Although women were instrumental in building ties to GROs, democratization NGOs, ironically, sometimes lagged behind environmental NGOs in the strength of their grassroots ties. Many democratization NGOs interviewed in 2006 for Fisher’s (2013) book are still active, but key activists have moved on to different topics and issues at the grassroots level.