Tajik Society Divided Over Russian Invasion of Ukraine

With authorities remaining tight-lipped, emotions run high in Tajikistan as citizens argue over the ongoing conflict.

Tajik Society Divided Over Russian Invasion of Ukraine

With authorities remaining tight-lipped, emotions run high in Tajikistan as citizens argue over the ongoing conflict.

Thursday, 28 April, 2022


The Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting is a project of IWPR

Davlatali and Muhammadyusuf (not his real name) have been friends for years, but their relationship took a hit after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February. As Davlatali supports Ukraine and Muhammadyusuf endorses Russia’s actions, the conversations between the two men in their late 20s became increasingly heated, then stopped altogether.

“I am not defending the government of Ukraine,” 27-year-old Davlatali told IWPR. “I express solidarity with the Ukrainian people, many of whom died because of the Russian attack; millions of people were left homeless and became refugees. Ordinary people suffer from the war; they are the victims of politicians.”

The two friends are no longer on speaking terms. In a country with deep ties to Russia, personal relations have fallen victim to the ongoing war.

“Our society has practically no culture of discussion and debate, so disputes on political topics quickly turn into personal insults and damage relations. Friends and even relatives just stop talking [to each other],” Rustam Gulov, co-founder of Tajikistan’s first factchecking platform, Factcheck.tj, told IWPR.

Central Asian governments, including Tajikistan’s, have been treading cautiously on their approach to the war. None have openly criticised Moscow, but officials in Kazakstan and Uzbekistan have called for an end to the bloodshed and signaled that they would not recognise Ukraine’s pro-Russia separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent entities.

Tajikistan has assiduously pursued a path of neutrality, its ties with Moscow too critical to risk.

The remittances that about 2.3 million Tajik workers in Russia send home every year are vital, making up 27.8 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, and are estimated to lose up to 22 per cent in value due to sanctions and the plummeting value of the rouble. Russia is also essential for energy and trade markets and is the region’s security guarantor, while Tajikistan hosts the Russian 201st military base near the capital Dushanbe.

The government abstained on several UN resolutions, taking a clear position only on  April 7 when it opposed the vote to suspend Russia’s membership in the UN human rights council. It was one of the 24 states to vote against the decision, which was passed with the approval of 93 countries.

While the authorities remain tight-lipped, discussion in the Tajik society is tempestuous, particularly on social media.

Experts maintain that the polarisation reflects a profound discontent with domestic problems: people are afraid to talk publicly about Tajik issues, so they turn to the war, “blow off steam and get it off their chest,” as one social scientist put it.

The expert, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the influence of Russian propaganda was the main reason behind pro-Moscow sentiments in Tajik society. Russian media had a wide audience and spread the Kremlin’s narratives about the war, shaping public perception of it.

There was also a sense of debt, he continued.

“Ordinary Tajik people believe they are indebted to Russia and [many] still feel like citizens of a single, no longer existing country, the USSR,” he noted. “In Tajikistan, popular media and bloggers are pro-Western…they have maintained a balance to some extent and did not fully engage in pro-Russian propaganda.”

The middle class and part of the intelligentsia showed support for Ukraine, he continued, because they represented a sector with critical thinking skills and understood that Moscow could use the same violence against any other former Soviet republic.

One Tajik journalist described regular arguments with his father, whose sources of information are largely Russian TV channels.

“He watches countless propaganda programs on NTV [Russian TV channel],” the journalist told IWPR, asking for his identity to be withheld. “In the evening, during the family dinner, we watch Iranian music videos on satellite TV channels at my request.

“Then, he turns [NTV] back on. It is hard to listen to this nonsense even from another room.”

The Kremlin’s discourse also flows into the social media feeds of Tajik migrant workers in Russia, who then disseminate it in their communications with families in Tajikistan.

The tajik audience has become a part of the information war, which here Russia wins, although the composition is different,” Gulov explained. “You have the older generation, nostalgic for the USSR, [which] identifies Russia with it, labour migrants who see their future in Russia, officials and security officials who have been trained in Russia’s colleges and are closely connected with their colleagues there.

“On the opposite side, there are people who see themselves as able to distance themselves from Russia, who critically evaluate information and understand that Russia is waging an aggressive war against an independent country… [they see] that Russia begins to resemble Germany’s actions in the 1930s, although the first signs were visible 20 years ago.”

The debate over the war had highlighted strong elements of Russian colonialism within Tajik society, argued renowned journalist Rajabi Mirzo.

“There is a high level of pro-Russian sentiments, but in the medium term, this situation will change, as Russia loses the information war to the West,” the 49-year-old told IWPR. In 2016 Mirzo founded Akhbor Baroi Afkor (Food for Thought in Tajik), a private Facebook group with close to 78,000 members whose posts are often critical of the government.

Mirzo noted that there were nuances: beyond the confrontation between pro or anti Russia and Ukraine, there were citizens who discussed how Tajikistan could benefit or suffer as a result of the war, and others who advocated a cautious approach.

For some, the social scientist noted, detachment was a psychological necessity.

“People taking a neutral position in this dispute are more concerned about their lives and the current problems. This group wins in all respects,” he stated.

Dushanbe resident Obid Shohiyon said that following the developments in Ukraine had affected his emotional state.

“Our national issues are more important for me than this conflict. If I think more about Ukraine, I will distance myself from the current problems of Tajik society. I look at each event from the perspective of national interests and analyse the consequences myself,” Shohiyon said.

Meanwhile, Odinazoda said that he had tried to re-connect with his friend, despite their disagreement over the war in Ukraine.

“I tried to explain to him that our opinions should not affect our friendship…[but] he was not listening,” he said. “I called him several times and offered to meet and talk as we did before, but he refused. Others [told me] that he was offended and did not want to be friends.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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