Is Tajikistan’s Facebook crackdown a sign of things to come?

Is Tajikistan’s Facebook crackdown a sign of things to come?

Earlier this month, Tajikistan blocked access to several sites, including Facebook, that had published articles critical of the Rakhmon government. The crackdown is a sign of things to come, and does not bode well for the country’s economic development.

On October 5, Tajikistan’s state-run telecommunications service reportedly ordered internet service providers across the country to block access to popular social media sites, including Facebook, as well as two Russian-language sites, and Since then, more than five other sites have been blocked, including Lenta.Ru, Vkontakte, Amazon, Wikipedia and YouTube.

Although the decision, as well as the suspension of the country’s text messaging services and blocking access to further social media sites on October 10, did not mark the first time the communications agency has intervened on the part of the ruling party, its timing was important.

Around the time of the suspension, an opposition group known as Group 24 had called for open demonstrations against President Emomali Rakhmon’s rule. In addition, three of the mentioned sites had either posted or shared an article critical of President Rakhmon.

As expected, protests failed to materialize on October 10. The suspension of the Central Asian country’s text messaging services on the same day, however, helped highlight the regime’s fear of the ramifications of popular social mobilization, especially on popular social media sites, as well as more general fears the country’s economic and political situation would get out of hand. In a climate of high repression, as well as growing regional political risk, Tajikistan’s economic prospects will remain highly uncertain.

The country’s dismal economic perspectives under Rakhmon, who was reelected in a widely contested election in 2013, have only worsened in the past year. Youth unemployment levels are higher than even neighbouring Afghanistan’s, and the economy’s dependence on remittances mean Tajikistan is vulnerable to political shocks from outside.

The level of remittances recovered slowly from the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, reaching a dangerously high level of $4 billion, or about 52 percent of GDP, last year, according to World Bank estimates. More critically, the country lacks stable economic cooperation in the region, effectively hampering the country’s development.

Both Tajikistan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan were in principle preferred candidates for integration in the Eurasian Economic Union, which is slated to become active in 2015. They have yet to reap the benefits (and reported disadvantages) of membership in the customs union, which includes Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Belarus, as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan exchanged fire across their shared border in August 2014.

However, no alternative system of regional cooperation has emerged in its place. The predominantly Muslim states of Central Asia ‒ Tajikistan’s linguistic and cultural background is closely linked to modern-day Iran ‒ have struggled to create a basis for regional integration. Additionally, the country’s domestic political situation, in which Rakhmon has ruled uninterrupted since 1994, is not conducive to positive change.

The international economic crisis also significantly harmed Tajikistan’s economy. Although its main trading partners ‒ Russia and Iran ‒ emerged largely unscathed from the global economic crisis, high levels of political risk almost shut down Tajikistan’s primary showcase project, the unfinished Rogun dam, which reopened for construction in July 2014.

Tajikistan’s other showcase announcement ‒ the construction of the fourth line of the China-Central Asia pipeline, which began in September 2014 ‒ largely hides the fact that at 1,000 km, the pipeline will be much shorter than the so-called ‘longest’ pipeline the world connecting Turkmenistan to Xinjiang in western China. As oil prices decline, the country’s ability to reap profits from oil sales to China have also declined.

WSJ and China Real Time contributor Gabe Collins is skeptical the project will be a magic bullet for Tajikistan’s economy. In an article published last year, he warned that structural economic issues could combine with high levels of political risk to create further instability, stating there were “uncertainties in regard to how the country will be able to manage the socio-political challenges that can accompany huge revenue inflows into a small economy”.

Although the government’s ability to crack down on access to social media sites has proven effective in the short-term, it is unlikely this pattern will be practicable in the future. The country’s stark social and economic divisions, as well as generational divide, make the country’s medium-term prospects highly vulnerable to political risk.

About Author

Amelie Meyer-Robinson

Amelie has worked at the German Committee on Foreign Affairs, the OSCE and the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics and the University of Toronto - Trinity College.