A prison riot in Tajikistan leaves scores dead and the government blames it on Islamic State. As the possibility of political transition grows imminent in this remote but strategic Central Asian state, the government will likely amp up the threat from Islamic extremists in order to bolster their legitimacy. But observers and policy makers should beware, little is at it seems and the ruling elite are politically and morally bankrupt. Their chief currency is fear, and as presidential elections loom next year it is probable that there will be ever more of it in circulation.

According to the Tajik Justice Ministry three prison guards and 29 inmates died on 19-20 May when rioting broke out in a high security prison not far from the capital Dushanbe. It was the second prison riot in less than six months, also blamed on Islamic State. As is often the case, be it an unforeseen riot or a carefully planned security operation, among the victims are political opponents of President Emomali Rahmon who has been in power since a bloody civil war in the 1990s lefts tens of thousands of Tajiks dead.

Since then, Rahmon has traded on the fear and exhaustion war causes, and when it seems like the country may be about to move on — more than half of Tajikistan’s population is too young to have direct memories of the civil war — more threats to the state are created and genuine threats are exaggerated to the point of incredulity. In a corrupt and repressive state like Tajikistan, the government can coast on its own narrative for many years, but the inevitable fall out from this this degree of misrule should be of concern not just to Tajikistan’s near neighbours, Russia and China, but to Western powers also.

Rahmon has obliterated the political opposition in Tajikistan branding them terrorists and traitors. Politicians and activists who were not able to secure exile are languishing in Tajikistan’s prisons on dubious charges, confessions obtained through torture while their extended families are continually harassed by the security services. As result, even if the population were looking for an alternative to the Rahmon clan in the upcoming elections, there are no options left other than the President has his equally venal family.

Nobody should be under any illusions about the nature of power in Tajikistan. It is a house of cards shoddily glued together by nepotism, graft, the ongoing theft of the nation’s resources and grave human rights abuses. Thousands of ordinary citizens fear the security services and the notion that the law might be applied equally to all is alien. To date, Tajikistan’s international partners have been less than robust in their criticisms. This is in part because of Tajikistan’s geographic position. It has a long, porous border with northern Afghanistan, and in the east it nestles against China’s troubled Xinjiang region. Russia has a military presence in the country and appears unworried by Rahmon’s excesses so long as he is capable of maintaining the status quo. China has quietly slipped into the area with a military base at what was once a Soviet outpost in use during the Russian-Afghan war. Meanwhile, the US has funnelled money to the government’s coffers to train Rahmon’s personal guards, enhance border security and stem the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan, with no real measure of success. Still, the funding continues.

But yet Tajikistan is an economic mess and would be hard pressed to defend itself from an external threat. It is deeply in debt to China. Most working aged men, and some women in this intensely patriarchal society, move to Russia for jobs. The brain drain suits Rahmon as it rids the country of those most likely to scrutinise or protest. However resentment bubbles away, not only among those economically marginalised but increasingly among those Rahmon might have once considered his natural allies. The president has been so focused on concentrating power in the hands of his family that he has excluded other influential networks from government. Banks, entire government departments, state owned and private entities of any worth, are controlled by his dependents. A violent internal backlash, should it occur, could destabilise Central Asia beyond Tajikistan’s borders. But by billing Islamic State and its alleged cohorts as the main danger to Tajik stability, Rahmon has externalised the threat and seeks to divert attention elsewhere.

Up to 2,000 Tajik citizens are believed to have joined Islamic State, including the high profile defection of a senior security chief to the group in 2015. In July 2018, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a brutal roadside attack that killed four Western tourists. But Tajikistan’s neighbours and partners should be clear eyed. The main risk to peace, progress and stability is Rahmon’s iron fist. As it stands, the 2020 elections are not an opportunity for positive change but just an upcoming episode in the Rahmon family saga featuring real and imagined villains.

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