On October 11, Emomali Rahmon was reelected President of Tajikistan for a fifth term with almost 91 percent of the vote. This outcome could have been described as dull and predictable—if this wasn’t 2020, and the post-Soviet space wasn’t gripped by wars and revolutions. Rahmon has been in power longer than anyone else in the former Soviet Union, and looked doomed to become yet another victim of this crisis year. But he managed to get reelected for yet another term without any mass protests or other hitches. The regime in Tajikistan has fused so closely with Rahmon’s extensive family that neither a new generation nor the coronavirus pandemic can dent his power.

Despite the landslide result, there had for several years been speculation in Tajikistan over who precisely from the Rahmon family would run for the presidency. Back in 2016, the constitution was rewritten to allow the leader of the nation—Rahmon—to run for president an unlimited number of times. The constitutional changes also included a reduction in the minimum age requirement for presidential candidates from thirty-five to thirty. This change was clearly aimed at Rahmon’s son Rustam, who is currently only thirty-three.

Rahmon looks around him and sees that in Uzbekistan, the daughter of late president Islam Karimov is languishing in jail following her father’s death. In Kazakhstan, the family of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down from the position last year, is gradually losing influence. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko dresses his son Kolya in a bulletproof vest amid mass protests against Lukashenko’s contested recent election victory. The regime in Tajikistan is entirely controlled by one family, so problems with relatives of the president are a particular threat to its survival. 

It’s possible that the sixty-eight-year-old Rahmon had originally planned to put forward his son as president this year, in order to hand over power within the family while he is still in control of the situation. We could have been watching right now as the last autocrat in Central Asia, who has been ruling the country since Soviet times, relinquished the office of president. But circumstances put paid to that plan.

Tajikistan admitted very late that there were coronavirus cases inside the country, having continued to hold huge public events in the meantime. The country received more than $300 million in international aid to combat the epidemic, but even that wasn’t enough to save Tajikistan—nearly 30 percent of whose GDP comes from remittances from Tajiks working abroad—from economic problems. Given the circumstances, it was decided to hold the elections earlier, before public anger grew too great, and Rahmon also postponed the handover of power to his son. 

Rahmon’s official result was over 90 percent of the vote, but there’s no point in expecting to see anything like the Belarusian protests—not to mention the revolution in Kyrgyzstan—in Tajikistan. In the decades he has been at the helm, Rahmon has methodically concentrated all the power in the country in his own hands, appointing relatives to key positions and cracking down harshly on any hints at opposition.

Rahmon’s nine children and their spouses, along with other relatives, head up entire business empires and hold senior positions in state structures, from speaker of the upper chamber of parliament and head of the presidential administration to deputy chairman of the central bank and head of the country’s biggest bank. It’s virtually impossible for people who don’t have personal connections with Rahmon’s relatives to do any kind of business. In 2012, the president’s son-in-law was accused of appropriating his partner Umarali Quvvatov’s share of their business. Three years later, having fled to Turkey, Quvvatov was shot dead in front of his family. Nor are foreign businesses immune to such raider attacks.

In these conditions, there is very little opportunity to do business in Tajikistan. Nearly half of all employed people work in agriculture. According to the World Bank, in 2017, 40 percent of all Tajiks aged fifteen to twenty-four were not in work and not studying. For most Tajiks, working abroad is the only way to feed themselves and their family. Most—about 1.3 million, or up to 15 percent of the population—go to Russia.

With young and ambitious Tajiks moving abroad to work, there is no real political opposition left in the country. The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan was banned as a terrorist organization in 2015, and when its chairman, Muhiddin Kabiri, spoke at an online event at George Washington University in the United States in September, the internet was turned off throughout Tajikistan for an hour. The authorities will do anything to stop the public from seeing any kind of opposition, and there are no large-scale protests in the country.

Consequently, it’s impossible for now to imagine anything like the Belarusian protests taking place in Tajikistan. For decades, all the state media has been repeating the same mantra: that Rahmon brought peace and calm to Tajikistan following several years of bloody civil war.

It may be that Rahmon wanted to stay on to be at the center of celebrations next September, when Tajikistan will mark thirty years of independence. Still, it will be difficult for him to complete his fifth term in entirety. It’s impossible to predict what difficulties may arise for the regime, and as he gets older, it will get harder for Rahmon to cling onto power. For this reason, he will most likely follow the example of his Kazakh counterpart in a few years’ time, and step down from the presidency.

Unlike the transition in Kazakhstan, however, in Tajikistan, the succession will be a family affair. Rahmon has long been preparing his eldest son Rustam for the presidency. Rustam began his career in state service at the age of nineteen, and worked in several state economic bodies before becoming mayor of the capital Dushanbe in 2017. Since April this year, he has been the speaker of parliament: the second most senior position in the country after the presidency. 

Having had a reputation in his younger days as a spoiled and extravagant partygoer, Rustam is now considered a moderate liberal and technocrat. Some hope that he would finally implement the kind of reforms seen in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.  

Yet there are still obstacles that Rahmon junior must overcome to take power. Other relatives in the extensive Rahmon family might oppose his candidacy, and the leaders of neighboring countries might not take him seriously on account of his youth. For now, the elder Rahmon is managing to keep a tight grip on both the country and the ruling clan, but there are no guarantees that his son will be able to do the same so successfully and for so long.

  • Temur Umarov