Talking politics in Central Asia is often unwise, so I try to bring it up casually. ‘Oh you won’t believe this,’ my friend Maha squeals. ‘I know him! He’s such an asshole.’ He is Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the former commander of the Tajik secret police, who released a video from Syria on May 27 stating that he had defected to Isis. ‘I knew him when I worked at the [U.S.] Embassy,’ Maha continues. ‘He was always crazy religious. He saw me with the American guys and told me to stop talking with them. He said if I was good I could be his third wife. He has eight children and two wives! What an asshole.’
Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, is abuzz with speculation since news of Khalimov’s defection was confirmed. I hear that he had a falling out with the president and was exiled, falling into the arms of Isis. Also that he’s part of an Isis push north into Central Asia – but the people behind it vary with the telling: Isis themselves, and Russia, and of course the CIA. He’s also actually just infiltrating the group and will return home with golden intel. In Russia they’re saying he was purged from the ranks years earlier for being overtly religious, before buying his way back in. I ask a young guy which is his preferred rumour. ‘I hate those guys,’ Gulasan shrugs, referring to Khalimov’s former command. ‘They pull me over in my car for no reason.’
Like all dictatorships, Tajikistan, and especially Dushanbe, runs on rumour and speculation. With the government so tetchy, I’m surprised to find Khalimov’s picture on the front page of a paper titled CCCP – the acronym of the communist party – with the fantastic headline ‘Snake shan’t have child other than snake, bad palm shan’t bear other than bad fruit!’ (The Tajiks are a poetic lot – the newsstand where I found the paper is on the corner of the main street of Dushanbe, Rudaki Boulevard, named after the great 10th century Persian poet.)
Young people make up a huge proportion of the population, and they’re not happy, because social media has been turned off since Khalimov’s video was released. It’s the government’s weapon of choice whenever something doesn’t go to plan. Already this year it was blacked for all of March. ‘I don’t see why they have to turn off Instagram,’ Maha complains. ‘It’s only pictures.’
President Emomali Rahmon, né Rahmonov – or ‘the guy in charge’, as one contact was careful to call him when we spoke in public – has taken more of an authoritarian turn over the last couple of years. With his electric-blue suits and Brezhnev eyebrows, he’s adopted the Iranians’ penchant for hanging soft watercolour billboards of himself around the city. In one, he is caressing wheat alluringly like a perfume-ad model in a field of flowers. In another, he’s sternly wearing a hard hat (but I can’t laugh, can I, given Australian political leaders are pictured in hard hats almost daily).
That Tajikistan, and its Central Asian neighbours Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have embraced the security state shouldn’t come as a surprise. At the crossroads of geopolitical interests, these states have been adept in converting the largesse of the great powers to their own specific needs. The Russians retain an interest for history and expediency: Boris Yeltsin said of Tajikistan’s southern border with Afghanistan, ‘this is effectively Russia’s border, not Tajikistan’s.’ Since 2001, the US has taken a strong interest in security in the region, and accepted authoritarian excesses as the price for stability. The Chinese, meanwhile, have paid off the ruling family to exploit Tajikistan’s mineral wealth. The EU even once gave Tajikistan drug-detection dogs to help stem the flow of opium from Afghanistan. The dogs were used for breeding.
Social media gets turned back on after a few days because there’s an international water conference in Dushanbe, and Ban Ki-Moon is visiting later in the week. Khalimov’s 12-minute video, where he calls for Tajiks to have the right ‘to pray and wear Islamic hijabs’ before shooting a tomato is being parodied on YouTube, where a voice dubbed over the top of his video invites Tajiks to come over to Syria as he has some shashlyk on the grill.
People say there is a noticeable religious revival underway in Tajikistan, with the prevalence of head coverings and beards increasing. Maha, who has been working overseas recently, says she’s finding it hard to understand the television, as using Arabic loan-words has become commonplace. But the Isis threat, like al-Qaeda before it, has been exploited by the region’s regimes as a grab for resources and excuse for tyranny. For most Central Asians, Islam is more cultural than it is spiritual; as my Kazakh friend Dina jokes, they pray five times a week.
Corruption is the central problem here. ‘Religious crackdowns’, such as policing beard length that we hear about in the west are more likely to be the work of creative cops looking for a new way to extract a bribe, but at the same time it’s hard to understate the benefits that being tough on religion has brought to Central Asia’s ruling families.
Just as I think I have a read on politics of the place, the government announces it’s offering amnesty to all fighters who renounce Isis and return home. On first glance it seems contrary to the spirit of the regime, until one considers that the regime’s faith lies in the security state, even despite such a high-profile incident. Assholes like Gulmurod Khalimov already make life hard for Tajiks. The cruel irony is that his defection is likely to be the pretext to make it even harder.