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Vladimir Putin and Emomali Rahmon in Kazan. February 21, 2024.

Not so long ago, Tajikistan blamed an ISIS attack on its political enemies. Now it’s helping Russia ‘investigate’ the Crocus shooting.

Source: Meduza
Vladimir Putin and Emomali Rahmon in Kazan. February 21, 2024.
Vladimir Putin and Emomali Rahmon in Kazan. February 21, 2024.
Maxim Shipenkov / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Autocracies in the former Soviet space have long been adopting each other’s strategies for staying in power. But in the wake of the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack, Moscow has employed a new disinformation tactic previously used by one of Central Asia’s most brutal and least transparent governments: Emomali Rahmon’s regime in Tajikistan. Journalist Roman Chernikov, who focuses on Russia’s relations with countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus, explains why this should be just as alarming as the Kremlin’s emulation of Alexander Lukashenko’s repressive practices in Belarus.

‘Investigating’ terrorist attacks

In the first week and a half following the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack, the Islamic State made two statements that contradicted the Russian authorities’ claims of Ukraine’s involvement in the shooting. As Middle East expert Ruslan Suleimanov has noted, the ISIS-associated newspaper An-Naba published an article stating that the Russian authorities were trying to hide their own failure to stop the attack by blaming it on their enemies in the “Western camp.” Earlier, ISIS spokesman Abu Hudhayfah Al-Ansari laid out the group’s motives for the attack: calling Russia a “crusader,” ISIS accused it of waging war against Muslims in both Syria and Africa (including with its Wagner Group forces).

This left little room for even a watered-down, face-saving version of Russia’s propaganda narrative, which held that the attackers may have believed they were acting on behalf of the Islamic State but that the person who instructed them over Telegram to carry out the attack was actually a Ukrainian special services agent. (Russia has not presented any evidence to support the claim that Ukraine was at all involved in the attack.)

But the Russian authorities were not deterred by ISIS’s statements. They maintained that if Kyiv hadn’t organized the attack, it had at least planned to welcome the perpetrators “as heroes” after preparing a “border window” for them to flee Russia. Meanwhile, the Russian Investigative Committee claimed to have found evidence that the attackers received funding from “Ukrainian nationalists.”

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Conveniently for the Kremlin, there’s another country in the CIS region that has faced ISIS terrorist attacks in the past and decided to blame them on a more expedient enemy. It also happens to be the home country of the four main suspects in the Crocus City Hall attack: Tajikistan.

On July 29, 2018, near Tajikistani President Emomali Rahmon’s hometown of Danghara, a car deliberately drove straight into a group of cyclists on a mountain road before circling back and running over several of the bikers. The attackers then got out of the vehicle and stabbed everyone who was still alive. The victims included tourists from the U.S., the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Two days later, on July 31, the ISIS-linked Amaq News Agency published a video in which five terrorists claimed responsibility for the attack. Sitting under a black flag in front of Tajikistan’s Nurek Reservoir, the men pledged their allegiance to “the Caliphate.” The footage seemed to leave little doubt about who was behind the attack. Nevertheless, Tajikistan’s prosecutor general soon began claiming that the ISIS oath was just a cover, and that the attack had actually been carried out by the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) with support from Iranian special forces. The Tajikistani authorities claimed to have extracted this information from the only surviving suspect linked to the attack (the others were killed by police while allegedly resisting arrest).

“We faced an enormous amount of pressure from the authorities after we published several stories supporting the idea that the terrorist attack was organized not by the IRPT and Iran but by ISIS,” a journalist from a Tajikistani outlet later told the author of this story.

The Iran-Russia nexus

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The Iran-Russia nexus

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What do Iran and Ukraine have in common?

There’s arguably nothing analogous to the IRPT in the Russian context. Though some might compare the illegal party to Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which the Kremlin has banned as an “extremist organization,” a closer look at the two entities reveals more differences than similarities: the FBK began as a political structure with a concrete agenda, and it’s difficult to imagine any of its members taking up arms.

The IRPT is a different story. While Tajikistan’s political opposition has renounced the idea of an armed struggle, its members have wielded more than a few weapons since the country’s civil war in the 1990s. In the remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, local militant leaders openly opposed the authorities as recently as 2022, each backed by 150–200 armed fighters. Unable to defeat these unruly opponents, Rahmon was forced to make agreements with them.

Iran, which Tajikistan’s government has accused of allying with the IRPT, plays a similar role in Dushanbe’s propaganda to the one that Ukraine plays in Russia’s: it’s presented as a country with a similar language and culture (Farsi and Tajik have different writing systems but are mutually intelligible) but has a diametrically opposed political system (just as Russia’s presidential autocracy is at odds with Ukraine’s parliamentary democracy, Tajikistan’s secular dictatorship is antithetical to Iran’s Islamic republic).

Meanwhile, these fundamental differences have prevented neither of these pairs from building close economic relationships (with strong elements of corruption) during certain periods. In 2017–2018, for example, Tajikistani state TV showed propagandistic “investigations” into Tehran’s alleged involvement in murders and coup attempts in the Central Asian country. By 2019, however, economic expediency prevailed, and the two countries’ presidents shook hands and forgot about the dramatic accusations as if they’d never happened.

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But Iran isn’t the only external enemy Tajikistan has blamed for terrorist attacks. The Rahmon regime gave a similarly implausible explanation for an incident in late 2019, when the Ishkobod border post on the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan border came under attack. According to Dushanbe’s official account, a group of armed men entered the country through Afghanistan, stole multiple cars, and drove to the border post, where they fired on the guards on duty.

The Tajikistani Interior Ministry shared photographs from the scene on its official website: in addition to burnt-out vehicles, one of the photos showed a dead person lying on their stomach with their hands tied behind their back. The corpse was later cropped out of the image, and eventually the photo disappeared from the site altogether. The reported casualties also raised questions, with the authorities claiming that 15 militants were killed and five arrested, while only two border guards were reported to have died in the encounter.

“I don’t think anybody believes this,” an Uzbekistani official later told the author of this story. “All of it was necessary so that they could later say, look, we warned you: Afghanistan poses a huge threat.”

There are numerous reasons why Rahmon could have wanted to find “Afghan terrorists” in the country. Among other things, he may have intended to win additional funding from Moscow and to increase his own significance amid ongoing talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, which would sign the Doha Accord just three months later.

The changing face of Tajikistan’s capital

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The changing face of Tajikistan’s capital

Redeveloping Dushanbe Construction is booming in Tajikistan’s capital — but at what cost?

From deterrent to ally

Tajikistan under Emomali Rahmon has never exactly inspired confidence in Moscow; the Russian authorities have generally considered the country too corrupt and poor to defend its extensive border with Afghanistan. From 1993 until 2005, Russian soldiers were posted along the border, and Russia’s 201st Military Base in Dushanbe is currently the country’s largest military facility outside its own territory.

In 2024, the idea that Moscow can play a constructive role in the post-Soviet region is less popular than ever. But it’s worth remembering that not so long ago, the Kremlin’s oversight played a key role in preventing Rahmon from imposing his own fictional reality on his citizens with the sole goal of enriching himself. Unfortunately, with the Kremlin promoting its own tales about biolabs, infected birds, and Ukrainian-aided terrorist attacks, today’s Russia is no longer capable of serving as such a guarantor.

Now these two partners (or, more accurately, three, as Alexander Lukashenko appears eager to join them) are set to “investigate” one of the largest terrorist attacks in Russian history. Each side has its own incentive to lie and a great deal of experience making up fantastical explanations for dramatic events. Each side is also aware of the other’s weaknesses — and knows perfectly well what to say and do for the other’s political expediency.

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Original story by Roman Chernikov. English-language adaptation by Sam Breazeale.

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