Rustam Emomali is increasingly the face of his country on the international stage
On January 29, China signed off on an agreement to hand Tajikistan the gift of $2 million to fund the construction of a conference room in a government building.
As grants go, it is not a lot, but the real significance of the development lies elsewhere.
As an official press release asserts, that the money was disbursed at all was the result of a visit paid to Beijing by the 36-year-old chair of the Senate, Rustam Emomali, better known to the public for being the son of President Emomali Rahmon. Common Tajik convention dictates that the son adopt their father’s first name as their surname, hence the echo.
In a pattern reminiscent of the father-to-son transition in Turkmenistan, where Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov yielded the president’s chair to Serdar Berdymukhamedov, in 2022, Emomali has increasingly become his country’s face on the international stage.
He has traveled to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, where he has held meetings with the presidents. In Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, Emomali has met with heads or deputy heads of government.
On January 8-9, he was in Iran, where he held talks with President Ebrahim Raisi and came away brandishing $120 million of cooperation agreements and contracts. It was reported that his China voyage produced $400 million of fresh investments in Tajikistan.
But still, the long wait for transition is making some antsy.
Conversations about a succession plan have been ongoing for around a decade.
Under changes to the constitution approved by a curated referendum in May 2016, the age at which a candidate was permitted to run for presidential office was lowered from 35 to 30. It was thought by many that this was being done to pave the way for Emomali, who was 26 at the time, to stand in the 2020 elections.
There has been more klaxon-volume clue-dropping than even that. In 2017, President Rahmon appointed his son mayor of the capital, Dushanbe, thereby shunting out his old comrade and Kremlin pet, Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloyev. Three years later, Emomali was elected head of the upper house of parliament. He holds both jobs contemporaneously.
There are no more available free rungs on the career ladder in Tajikistan.
At 71, Rahmon is by no means ancient, but he is doubtless aware of his own mortality. His older brother, Nuriddin, died of heart failure at the age of 67 in 2017, despite doubtlessly receiving the best available medical care. And nobody could accuse the corpulent leader of always looking like the poster boy for good health.
So why the wait?
One explanation that has circulated is that there is persistent nervousness about Rahmon handing over the reins to a country that has, after all, known civil war in its relatively recent history. As the poorest country to emerge out of the former Soviet Union, Tajikistan has been assailed by many unexpected shocks.
In the year of the most recent presidential election, 2020, Tajikistan was, along with the rest of the world, brought low by the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic impact of smaller numbers of Tajik migrant laborers being able to earn money to send home, usually from Russia, meant fewer people could afford to buy food.
Once that alarm was more or less weathered, another loomed on the southern border. In August 2021, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, with which Tajikistan shares a difficult-to-monitor 1,357-kilometer border.
The following year, Rahmon brutally dealt with a domestic security crisis of his own making by going out of his way to crush the remnants of the so-called “informal leadership” network of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in the Pamirs.
That confrontation, which culminated in many Pamiri leaders and activists ending up either dead or in prison, was part of a pattern established soon after the 1997 peace agreement that brought an end to the civil war. Every few years or so, Rahmon has picked a fight with one or other constituency that he perceived could challenge his authority and has then proceeded to obliterate them.
Tajikistan has not had a real, viable political opposition group since 2015, the year that almost the entire leadership of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, was thrown behind bars.
The most recent trouble has come in the shape of deadly border conflicts with Kyrgyzstan, in 2021 and 2022. Very much against expectations, though, there are indications that the territorial disagreements that underlay those miniature wars could soon see some kind of resolution. The process is now ongoing.
Observers wonder if tying that loose end could be the key.
“President Rahmon has needed to resolve thorny issues that a young leader could not handle. If internal political issues do not arise in the near future, then after the border issues with Kyrgyzstan are resolved, early elections will be announced,” one source in the halls of government told Eurasianet on strict condition of anonymity.
If that forecast is accurate – and there is rarely any way of knowing beyond doubt – then a timetable could be coming into focus.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov has said that he thinks the Kyrgyz-Tajik border question could be wrapped up toward this spring.
In a recent article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on the Tajik succession question, analyst Galiya Ibragimova saw other bumps in the road for a would-be President Emomali. Citing her sources, she said there is much apprehension among the extended ruling family that Emomali could shut them out.
“Not everyone within Rahmon’s large family wants to see Rustam as the successor,” Ibragimova wrote. “Numerous relatives of the president who occupy high positions in government and in the world of business are afraid of losing everything after a change of power, even if it is a change of father to son.”
The presidential family is indeed large. Rahmon has nine children: seven daughters, many of them with husbands who have secured important government posts or snaffled valuable assets by less-than-transparent means, and two sons.
There is nevertheless an air of inevitability about succession. In recent years, Emomali has become a constant feature by his father’s side, forever standing next to him at opening of new factories and schools. He makes a point of being seen meeting with businesspeople and successful sportspeople. News of his charitable work gets ample airing.
In a state of the nation-style address on December 28, President Rahmon said that municipal leaders would do well to learn from the mayor of Dushanbe, his son, who he said had created large numbers of new jobs.
“I would like to express the gratitude of the government of the country to the leadership of the city of Dushanbe. This year alone they created 40,000 jobs … 5,000 of them for women,” Rahmon said, before the camera cut away to Emomali sitting within a row of other officials