The Dictatorship of Civil Society in Tajikistan

by Faisal Devji


The fall of the Soviet Union gave rise to a narrative about the “transition” to democracy, for which the concept of civil society was seen as being foundational. Represented by new-fangled NGOs on the one hand, and on the other by more traditional religious or economic institutions, civil society was meant to establish peace in post-Soviet societies by limiting the reach of the state and indeed politics in general, seen as the source of conflict and violence there. I want to argue here that the reverse is actually the case. Civil society in its post-Cold War incarnation, which is very often funded from abroad, serves both to prevent the establishment of democratic politics, as well as increase the risks of conflict and so the possibility of violence.

What the idea of civil society does in the post-Cold War period is to depoliticize the “people” in whose name it claims to speak. For unlike in its republican conception, the people’s role is no longer revolutionary, to found a new political dispensation. It is meant rather to limit politics either in a libertarian or neoliberal way. Unlike the role it had played from the nineteenth century and late into the twentieth, civil society is not seen in liberal terms today. It is no longer supposed to make politics possible, because this would require the prior constitution of a people in some kind of explicitly political, if not necessarily revolutionary way. In fact the people can only be invoked by or in the name of the state, which also recognizes the presence of conflict and even enmity within it. That the people should be divided and possess enemies is crucial to its existence as a political entity.

What would it mean to be a people without the possibility of conflict and in the absence of a state? Outside this political context the people possesses no meaning, with any claim to represent it as a whole echoing the equally preposterous one made by dictators who rig elections in which they are endorsed by 99% of voters. Without the state and its institutionalization of conflict, in parties and parliaments, violence comes to mark social relations in a way that can lead to civil war. On its own civil society is unable to found a new politics, only to protest against an old one. Whether it is the Occupy movements in Europe and America, or the more successful Arab Spring, civil society activism can at most dislodge governments but never constitute them. And this means that it is condemned eventually to offer up the people to the state in a kind of sacrifice.

I shall take as my example of this sacrifice the recent violence in a region of Tajikistan inhabited by an ethno-religious minority. Previously known after their mountainous homeland as Pamiris, this group is today increasingly identified by the purely sectarian name of “Ismailis”. The change in designation, which disconnects Pamiris from a local and indeed national politics to link them with a transnational and apolitical religious identity, came about as the devastating civil war in Tajikistan was drawing to a close in the late 1990s. At that time the Ismaili spiritual leader – the Aga Khan,  based outside Paris – averted a humanitarian catastrophe by having his NGO, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), provide food and other forms of relief in the region where his followers lived.

The role played by the AKDN in Tajikistan’s Badakhshan province represented a victory for the “neutrality” of civil society in a sensitive region, preventing as it did the direct intervention of the UN, NATO or any regional power in a potentially “separatist” area located on the Afghanistan border. But despite its good work during the decade and a half in which it has dominated the area, the AKDN has come no closer to effecting a “transition” to democracy there, let alone in the country as a whole. This is due to the nature of civil society activism itself, more than to the peculiarities of Tajikistan. For the AKDN’s “success” was due entirely to the weakness of Tajikistan’s new government, with the autonomy of its civil society activism compromised with the regime’s stabilization, and especially once Russia and the US started competing for influence and military bases there.

In July this year Tajikistan launched a large-scale and entirely unexpected military incursion into this technically autonomous region. Ostensibly, the move was about arresting former rebels who had been granted amnesty after the civil war, and who were apparently involved in drug trafficking and violence across the Afghan border. Vastly disproportionate to its apparent cause, this deployment resulted in the killing of at least twenty civilians and the assassination of a number of former rebels. Given that the AKDN had taken on the role of a state in its provision of services and employment over the past decade, these events in Badakhshan constituted a direct attack on its influence and left its reputation there in tatters. Indeed it may not be an overstatement to suggest that the AKDN was as much the target of the incursion as were the former rebels. But what could be more predictable than the attempt of a state to regain control of its territory, even if only to secure a share in the trafficking profits that seem to have bypassed Dushanbe?

With a naïve faith in its own resources and international connections, especially in the West, the AKDN had in effect destroyed its own bargaining position with the Tajik regime, not only by urging the disarmament of former rebels, but also by dismantling the structures of local authority in Badakhshan. Tying “development” there to an unrepresentative organization run and funded from abroad, the NGO set itself up as the chief spokesman for the Pamiris with the state, through the Aga Khan’s “Resident Representative” in the capital of Dushanbe. This process of dismantling local authority was also extended to the cultural and religious life of Badakhshan, with arbitrary changes made in leadership, ritual and doctrine. It was all done in the name of efficiency, the same reason given for the AKDN’s unrepresentative model of development. Their poverty has allowed the institutions of Pamiri religious as much as economic authority to be transferred into the hands of strangers in Europe.

The Tajik state no doubt appreciated the truly “efficient” way in which the AKDN, and the Ismaili religious bodies that it informally supported, deployed their political neutrality and resources to depoliticize the Pamiri population and speak on its behalf, purely in the language of development and civil society. Yet the AKDN’s influence and foreign connections would also have worried any government concerned with its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In the process the Pamiris, who had long been a regional majority and a national minority – which is to say a recognizably political entity – were quickly being transformed into a transnational religious movement. And this only allowed them to be attacked as traitors and religious deviants with access to funds and assistance from abroad. And indeed, despite its wholesome reputation for development, the absorption of Pamiris into a non-state organization like the AKDN put them in the same structural position as more sinister movements of transnational militancy, some of which have also adopted a civil society model. 

Having helped to save Pamiris from violence, pestilence and famine during the civil war, the AKDN, together with the Ismaili religious organizations that shadow it, ended up making them more vulnerable to attack. This is partly due to their entering into what appears to be an informal pact with the government, in which the latter is allowed to have its way while the AKDN and its religious shadows engage in murky financial and other transactions. A number of the Ismaili religious bodies, for example, seem to have no official existence in Tajikistan, though the funds they receive from abroad appear to be transmitted by the AKDN, even though its role is not meant to include this kind of support. These organizations then hire Pamiris who, in violation of Tajik law, possess no recognized employment status or identification, and can therefore be picked up at any time by the state’s security agencies.

In addition to the uncertain tax implications involved in such arrangements, they guarantee the quiescence and loyalty of Pamiris. Unlike the expatriates who run the AKDN and its religious outliers, for instance, Pamiris are often kept for years on short-term consultancy contracts with no benefits such as pensions or health insurance, making them vulnerable to the state as much as to their employers, who can dismiss them at will for any reason at all. Their loyalty, in other words, is bought by insecurity as much as gratitude for the employment given them as a favour. However necessary these arrangements may be thought to be in a post-Soviet context, they also end up making the NGO sector dependent on the state and complicit in its actions. For the AKDN and its satellites require the government’s favour to engage in such dealings in the same way as they dispense favours to others.

Tied as they are in a relationship of co-dependency, in which the state is increasingly coming to dominate civil society, the AKDN has itself become a threat to the security of Pamiris, partly because it appears to confuse its own protection with that of the people it claims to represent. In the wake of July’s violence, for example, neither the AKDN nor any Ismaili religious body has issued any public statement condemning the state’s actions or, indeed, giving Pamiris any instructions or advice, apart from demanding their further disarmament. Given the rumours of another attack by Tajik forces, this silence by the “neutral” institutions of a foreign-funded civil society works only to prevent a resolution to the problem brought to light by the violence this summer. So a letter recently sent to the Aga Khan by a number of Pamiris, an electronic copy of which I received over Skype from some of the authors in Dushanbe, contains the following plea:

We are deeply concerned about the lack of responsibility, empathy and participation of the leaders of the National Council who, according to community members, do not attend community meetings when invited by the people through the local khalifas, stating that they must remain neutral in such a situation […]. We are confused by their response and are at a loss--whom can we turn to in such a dire situation that affects the lives and securities of all jamati members? We feel that the unwillingness of those appointed as your representatives, either in the AKDN or the jamati institutions, to engage with, advise or instruct members of the community, is a dereliction of leadership and responsibility that is deeply demoralizing. We have heard no word about the progress of any negotiations or the planning for any contingency in the uncertain political atmosphere of Tajikistan, and this can only increase the anxiety of your murids.

The passage quoted above is from the second letter sent their imam by some of the signatories. They had received not a word of response, no doubt for legal and diplomatic reasons, to a first letter sent to the Aga Khan late in August. At that time demonstrators had peacefully taken to the main square in Khorog, asking for its council to convene and legalize the gathering so that protestors could demand the army’s withdrawal as well as the resignation of the provincial leadership for acquiescing in its violation of Badakhshan’s autonomy. The head of the Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan, however, persuaded them to rely upon the informal negotiations that he and others were conducting with the government. While leading eventually to the army’s replacement by the secret service, the agreement reached seems not to have addressed popular concerns, and those supporting the demonstrators continue to be harassed and arrested. The important thing to note about this event, however, is that it made clear the fundamentally anti-political attitude of Badakhshan’s “civil society” institutions, which worked to dissuade people from acting as citizens and institutionalizing conflict in the political process. Surely if there was any sign of a transition to democracy in post-Soviet Badakhshan this was it, but such a move would threaten the ability of the AKDN to speak on behalf of Pamiris.

The AKDN, of course, together with the Ismaili religious bodies (known as jamati institutions) linked to it, are most likely involved in extensive behind the scenes negotiations with the government and other parties in order to secure the protection of the Pamiri population. This security they probably think will only be compromised by demonstrations and demands, but the question to ask is how responsible these civil society organizations might have been for the violence whose repetition they are now working to prevent? The authors of the letter to the Aga Khan are clear about the fact that the non-availability of political action, or rather its forestalling by the AKDN, together with the latter’s own secrecy and silence, may well encourage a self-destructive resort to arms by some young Pamiris:

We do not wish to hide from you the rumors that some of the younger members of the Jamaat have identified a weapons supply lines and are arming themselves as we speak, preparing themselves for the new offensive, and although they lack experience of warfare, many of them do not wish to act as passive observers to the unjust attack, and we therefore are concerned that the repercussions of this offensive will end in greater loss of human life. […] We, your spiritual children, feel helpless and scared right now, as we prepare ourselves for another attack. Unless something is done, we foresee a large number of us taking up arms to physically defend our land and community, while others are forced to leave the country.

Recognizing the fact that the AKDN and its associated “jamati institutions” have become the mainstays of Badakhshan’s subservience, the Tajik government now flaunts its patronage of these organizations. The President claims to have made their operations possible, and newspapers report that permission for the Aga Khan to visit his followers might be withdrawn for his own security given prevailing conditions. In other words the institutions of civil society are being held hostage to guarantee the good behaviour of Pamiris, thus acting as a brake on their autonomy and political development. Facing the prospect of being humiliated before their own clients, who have until now been fed with unrealistic stories about the wealth and power of the Aga Khan, these institutions are not likely to do anything more than submit ever more unctuously to government decrees, if only in order to maintain their authority over the Pamiri population and continue the work of development which is somehow meant to lead to freedom. The fact that TCELL, the mobile phone company partly owned by the Aga Khan, ceased working during the army action in July and for a couple of months afterwards, is already being seen as a sign of civil society’s capitulation to the state, in a move damaging to the AKDN as a whole.

This is the conclusion to which the supposedly smooth and efficient provision of services, achieved by the elimination of political rivalries, is inevitably driven. Politics cannot be avoided and must be engaged with, a fact that the transitory power of the AKDN and its form of civil society had only obscured over the last decade. Fractious though it may always have been, Pamiri society had at least possessed its own forms of cultural, religious and other authority even in the Soviet past. But their fragmentation and transportation abroad in the era of global civil society activism have done nothing more than limit the possibility of social integrity and political agreement in Badakhshan. Pamiris must realize that in some ways the AKDN and its religious satellites need them more than the reverse, since the profile and credibility of these institutions would be severely damaged without a role to play in Tajikistan. The task before them is therefore to take control of such institutions while at the same time participating in political life under their own name, and not as part of Ismailism’s “frontierless brotherhood”. In no other way can a transition to democracy, even if only at a provincial level, ever be achieved in Tajikistan.        


About the Author: Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Director of the Asian Studies Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.


About Thesigers: Thesiger & Company (‘Thesigers’) is a London-based research and advisory firm, providing a wide range of services to clients whose interests and activities demand in-depth knowledge of emerging and frontier markets. Current Intelligence is Thesigers’ quarterly bulletin of current affairs.

Company registered in England and Wales.  Company registration number: 7234402.

VAT number: 135658985

Email: | Web:

© THESIGER & COMPANY LIMITED (‘THESIGERS’) 2010-2012.  All rights reserved.  No reproduction of this essay is authorized without prior permission of the publisher. Permission to republish in whole or in part will be considered on a case-by-case basis, and may require payment of a licensing fee.