Comment & analysis

The evolving role of civil society in peace and security in Tajikistan: challenges and opportunities

17 March 2020 Olimjon Bakhtaliev The evolving role of civil society in peace and security in Tajikistan: challenges and opportunities

Over the past decade, civil society has had a diminishing role in addressing security issues in Tajikistan. Given its close relationship with the people and ability to help with government reforms, this is cause for concern, writes Olimjon Bakhtaliev.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a tumultuous first decade of independence in the ‘90s, Tajikistan saw its first non-governmental organisations spring up in response to the immediate needs created by the destructive civil war from 1992-1997. Civil society space continued to grow through the 2000s, with many humanitarian, human rights and peacebuilding groups addressing people’s needs in the aftermath of the war. Many of these groups forged particularly close ties with communities given their close proximity. But with their growing influence, the government became suspicious that these groups represented foreign interests and did not always align with government policy – leading to restrictive measures including the closure of some non-governmental organisations in the country. This has led to less direct support from non-governmental sources for peace and security initiatives (an area the government sees as only its own domain), limiting people’s options for resolving conflict or seeking to address their grievances.

Enduring legacies

The government’s distrust of non-governmental groups stems from a complicated history in which non-state actors played a central role in social mobilisation and destabilisation in the 1990s. Informal leaders who appeared in Tajikistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union mobilised their supporters in a struggle for power and influence. These informal leaders attracted supporters through kinship and regional ties, rather than through a shared sense of national identity – and ultimately used this support to stoke tensions and consolidate power.

Despite now having full control of the country, the government still often cites ‘non-state actors’ as a cause of civil war in the 1990s as well as the interference of ‘foreign powers’ in fuelling instability during that period. Because ‘civil society’ as it is commonly understood includes both these things, the government has automatically become suspicious of any groups working outside of its domain. As a result, it is careful in how it allows non-state groups to work on community-based security issues or on governance, and points to the war to drum up popular support for its suppressive measures.

Some officials in the government see foreign powers as destabilising, and because many of today’s civil society organisations receive some funding from foreign sources this suspicion can often be transferred onto them. Despite programmes that directly support government initiatives such as police reform efforts, there is still mistrust. The government also points to popular movements and ‘colour revolutions’ in other former Soviet states as evidence of civil society’s destabilising influence. As a result, many civil society groups either avoid working on sensitive issues or take great risks to work on them.

Growing government recognition of civil society’s role in security

Despite these obstacles, in the last few years, parts of the Tajik government have taken small steps toward recognising the importance of civil society’s role in addressing some aspects of community-based security issues and as a complement to some of its own efforts – to a degree overcoming its associations of civil society with groups that helped ignite the war in the 90s. For example, civil society groups today have the advantage of being ‘closer’ to communities, and so can better understand their needs. People have close networks within society and generally try to solve their problems without approaching the government. As a result, community-based solutions are often more effective at addressing people’s real concerns and needs.

An important component of the government’s police reform in Tajikistan – which began in 2014, with the support of the international community – is the increased adoption of a community policing approach which prioritises communication, coordination and cooperation between police and communities to address communities’ safety and security needs jointly. This ensures that the authorities are more transparent, and that they share space with the people they serve as well as with civil society Initiatives like community policing platforms – which bring together authorities, civil society and communities – encourage civil society organisations to take the lead on ensuring that safety initiatives are the result of joint collaboration.

Civil society has become a crucial bridge between the people and the police in this effort, allowing them to unite citizens and law enforcement by physically bringing them into a room together and facilitating trust- and partnership-building. They lead on policy-making initiatives through government-run civil society platforms like public councils and partnership teams, while also playing a major role in supporting community safety and security initiatives, providing access to law enforcement departments and identifying security gaps. Most importantly, these platforms are crucial to voicing people’s concerns (whereas in the past they would often censor themselves when in the presence of government officials, leading to greater mistrust). But with civil society as a crucial bridge, this seems to have become less of an issue, reaffirming the important support it can provide to government institutions in helping overcome historical mistrust, building communications and coordination, and supporting reform efforts of its institutions. Civil society also has an important role to play in advocating for meaningful change as part of the government’s commitments to police reform – and it should have the space to push for government accountability in reaching these goals.

Towards a more active civil society in Tajikistan

Civil society organisations face a range of challenges including capacity (skills and expertise), resources and legitimacy. Some organisations lack the skills and capacity to effectively engage with communities and authorities on security issues in an inclusive and participatory way. Fierce competition for funding has damaged their standing in society because many communities see them – whether accurately or not – as more interested in competing with each other for grants than in listening to communities’ concerns. There is also a concern from government officials that these organisations are solely reliant on foreign funding, and are therefore beholden to other countries’ priorities. This could be addressed by providing more funding inside of Tajikistan from the government’s coffers, and seeing more investments and commitment from among its citizens to creating change. These commitments could be supported partly through capacity-strengthening partnerships with international organisations, and also by setting up civil society platforms to promote greater coordination and cooperation within the country. The latter would require funding and steady support.

There are also several other ways to support civil society in Tajikistan to address community safety and security concerns.

First, international organisations and the government should provide more opportunities – through workshops, meetings, and dialogue – to help strengthen the knowledge, skills and networks of civil society representatives who will work to address community security issues. From the government’s side, this should mean greater consideration of civil society’s ideas and recommendations toward the shared goal of serving its people. Together, they could work on analysis and methods for identifying security concerns, mapping them out with communities, and developing and implementing action plans to address them.

Second, big international donors can balance their support for government institutions with support for civil society. Much of the funding that used to go to civil society now goes to supporting government initiatives, which has diminished civil society’s role and limited opportunities for these organisations to operate in the country. Given that international organisations are the main funders and supporters of CSOs, this point is crucial. 

Third, more regular contact between government institutions and civil society would help demonstrate the important role civil society groups play in ensuring community safety. The creation of effective civil society platforms would be a good start toward this goal, and would encourage greater collaboration between communities, civil society, governmental institutions and the international organisations that support them. These platforms, as well as international and national organisations, should continue to lobby the government for greater participation of Tajikistan civil society in decision making. For example, Saferworld has created a civil society platform for 30 organisations across the country, where they can come together, build skills and brainstorm ideas. An important precondition of such initiatives is that they do not impose issues to address, but give the space to work with communities to identify their concerns and the best ways of addressing them. They should also make sure to always have a strong sensitivity to complex conflict and gender dynamics in different parts of the country.

Fourth, to address the concern that civil society organisations are too reliant on foreign support, there needs to be more willingness to fund these groups within Tajikistan by its citizens. But for this to happen, citizens will need support in bolstering their skills in civic engagement and in pushing for change.

Lastly, learning exchanges could involve civil society from different countries getting together to share their experiences, lessons learnt and best practices. Civil society can also better share the successes of their work with citizens to raise awareness and encourage greater contributions – both financially and otherwise – from those they represent.

Where CSOs are actively engaged in calling for, participating in and monitoring consultative reform of the government and working with its key ministries, they enhance government effectiveness, help deliver better services for people and contribute to a more peaceful and just society.


Photo: © Saferworld 2019