In Kenyan author Ngugi Wa-Thiong’o’s classic satirical novel The Wizard Of The Crow, the dictator of a fictional African country looks to two loyal enforcers to preserve his corrupt, authoritarian rule.
One minister presents himself as the ruler’s “eyes” — even going as far as having his eyeballs surgically enhanced to make them the size of lightbulbs.
The other calls himself the ruler’s “ears,” and duly has his ears stretched “larger than a rabbit’s…primed to detect danger at any time and from any direction.”
In Tajikistan, national-security chief Saimumin Yatimov and Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda have been the eyes and the ears of authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon since 2010 and 2012, respectively, overseeing the most repressive stretches of a three-decade-long reign.
To that end, they have somewhat overshadowed Prosecutor-General Yusuf Rahmon, who has been in his post since 2015 and is a namesake — rather than a blood relative — of the head of state.
But now, Rahimzoda and Yatimov are reportedly in a tight spot over their ties to a well-known entrepreneur, who was recently jailed after publishing a memoir that included moderate criticism of the government.
The businessman, Abdukhalil Kholiqzoda, cited the two officials as his friends and brothers in the book, and even acknowledged that they had contributed anecdotes.
According to sources quoted by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, the prosecutor-general has decided to use this situation against them in the battle for the 70-year-old president’s affections.
In the past, the duo might have fired back.
But that has become much harder now, after Prosecutor-General Rahmon’s son married President Rahmon’s youngest daughter at the end of last year.
Much Ado About A Book
If this sounds like a messy new chapter in the struggle for power in Tajikistan, then it is only fitting that it began with a book.
Businessman Kholiqzoda is best known as the founder of the upscale private health clinic Ibn-Sina in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe.
How much longer he will have any interest in that lucrative business at all remains to be seen.
Kholiqzoda was arrested on August 7 and jailed on charges of inciting “social, racial, national, regional, religious enmity or discord…as part of a group of persons by prior agreement,” according to a document sent recently to RFE/RL’s Tajik Service by the Tajik Supreme Court.
While the Supreme Court’s response to RFE/RL’s information request did not mention Kholiqzoda’s book, there is little doubt that the 300-page tome is what landed the entrepreneur in trouble.
After Events Of My Life was published in March, copies of the book became available in several Dushanbe book stores. This summer, though, those copies disappeared from the shelves, and not because the memoir was a bestseller.
According to sources in the government who spoke to RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, Kholiqzoda’s book was on the agenda of a mid-July meeting inside the presidential administration, where President Rahmon, his prosecutor-general, and police and national-security chiefs were all present.
Prosecutor-General Rahmon directly asked Yatimov and Rahimzoda “how can you be friends with and stand up for a person who opposes the policies of [the president]?” said the source, who was informed of the discussion by another official who attended the meeting.
But what made the book such a political hot potato?
Events Of My Life is partly a commentary on Tajikistan’s journey through independence and partly a commentary on Kholiqzoda’s journey as a businessman.
It overwhelmingly praises Rahmon for leading the country out of a civil war that broke out at the very beginning of post-Soviet independence — a period during which Kholiqzoda’s own brother was briefly abducted and held for ransom by Islamic opposition field commanders.
But it also reflects on a number of shortfalls, including in the business climate, where officials regularly demand kickbacks and government seizures of successful businesses are common.
Kholiqzoda was critical, too, of the health system’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, while trumpeting the role his own clinic played during that crisis.
Yet the passages of the book that caught the attention of social media users were the author’s descriptions of the various provincial populations of Tajikistan, such as his description of people from Khatlon, the president’s home province.
Kholiqzoda, an ethnic Tajik, noted that people from this southern province have benefited from their “long-term coexistence and mixing with their neighboring Turkic peoples.”
Rather than exhibiting the “soft behavior [and] hypocrisy of Tajiks, which in the writings of our ancestors are one of the unique characteristics of the [Tajik] nation,” the Khatlonis are known for their “agility and stability,” Kholiqzoda mused.
After its publication, dozens of Facebook users complained that Kholikzoda’s book was an insult to the Tajik nation.
Three users told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that they had subsequently been contacted by officers from Yatimov’s State Committee for National Security with requests to delete their comments about the book from Facebook.
This activity on the part of the secret services may have been what piqued the interest of the prosecutor-general, who “has become very bold” due to his son’s politically fortuitous marriage, according to Zafar Sufi, a Tajik journalist, poet, and political commentator who lives in de facto exile outside Tajikistan.
“Apparently, Yusuf Rahmon, having become the president’s in-law, has decided to push other people close to the head of state into the background,” Sufi told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service of the much-discussed scandal.
‘Directly Insults The Prosecutor-General’
For the moment, it seems like a loss of face rather than a fall from grace for President Rahmon’s top two.
Both Yatimov and Rahimzoda appeared at the latest meeting of the cabinet on August 30.
But this scandal comes at a sensitive time, with President Rahmon expected by many to hand over his office to his son, Dushanbe Mayor Rustam Emomali, in the near future.
And that future appears to be picking up pace.
On the same day as the cabinet meeting, a column on the affair appeared in the government newspaper Jumhuriyat.
Penned by Tajik Ambassador to Uzbekistan Abdujabbor Rahmonzoda, the column criticized both Kholiqzoda and the “friends” that helped him write the book — seemingly an oblique reference to Yatimova and Rahimzoda.
Notably, Rahmonzoda complained of a passage in the book in which Kholiqzoda alleges that a resident of Penjikent gave a large bribe to the Prosecutor-General’s Office in order to close a criminal case.
“Here the author directly insults the prosecutor-general and discredits him in the eyes of the public,” fumed Rahmonzoda in the column, which was originally published as a post on Facebook.
Then, on August 31, came the arrest of the book’s editor, the well-known writer Abduqodir Rustam.
Sources close to Rustam told RFE/RL that Rustam had been questioned on multiple occasions prior to his arrest close to the Ibn-Sina clinic, where he holds a senior post.
The questioning and the arrest were both carried out by men from the Prosecutor-General’s Office.
Yusuf Rahmon arrived in his post in a year that perhaps more than any other since the civil war’s end in the mid-1990s represented a “before and after” in Tajikistan’s political atmosphere.
His prosecutors led the charge against the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), an opposition party that was banned and labeled a terrorist group after being accused of attempting a coup.
By the end of 2015, most of the IRPT’s top leaders were put in jail, where several have since died, effectively marking the end of formal competition to Rahmon’s regime.
But competition inside the regime seems to be heating up, a situation that may even suit Tajikistan’s constitutionally enshrined Leader of the Nation, Emomali Rahmon, as he considers his next steps.
Indeed, the government sources that confirmed to RFE/RL’s Tajik Service the details of the tense mid-July meeting in the presidential administration additionally suggested that it is not just the prosecutor-general that Rahimzoda and Yatimov have a problem with.
One source stressed that the president’s eldest daughter and chief of staff, Ozoda Rahmon, has regularly expressed her irritation that the duo take matters directly to the president without briefing her.
Nevertheless, the source noted, Rahmon is seemingly happy to continue meeting with them without them first consulting his daughter.
Source : Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty