The autocratic dynasty in Tajikistan uses football as a springboard for international legitimacy

Rustam Emomali, the eldest son of Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, has been handed all the official positions in the state in order to inherit the top place in the Central Asian republic, but one of them stands out as extraordinary: head of the national football federation.

Rakhmon, 71, has been in power since 1992, and has a tight grip on power in the ex-Soviet state with a population of around 9 million.

Rumours of an impending dynastic transfer of power have swirled around for several years now, and some are surprised the succession has not happened yet, according to an analysis published by Intellinews.

Since 2020, Rustam, 36, has been the speaker of the Senate, which means that he holds the second position in the state and has the constitutional right to assume presidential powers in the event of the president's death or any inability to perform his duties.

He is also head of the anti-corruption agency and of the financial oversight agency, mayor of capital Dushanbe, and holds the rank of major general, despite not having served in the armed forces.

The position of president of the Tajik football federation comes as the cherry on the top, with a flavour of soft-power and grassroot support.

In 2012, Rustam became head of the Tajik football federation, in a move that The Telegraph described at the time as an attempt to adopt a high-profile public position to showcase his talents and interests. An official panel voted unanimously for Rustam Emomali to head the Football Federation of Tajikistan, according to local media. At the time of his election, Emomali was already head of the anti-smuggling unit of Tajikistan's customs agency. Tajikistan borders Afghanistan and is one of the main drug running routes to Europe.

Rustam Emomali played striker for Tajikistan's most successful side, Istiqlol Dushanbe, a team he also captained, between 2007 and 2012.

In one of his last seasons as a player, fans of a rival team rioted after their side lost at home to Istiqlol. They said the referee had been blatantly biased towards Istiqlol and allowed a dubious late goal for the visitors to win.

The Tajik national team currently languish at 109th position in the global ratings, just above Kenya and Guinea-Bissau.

The next step for Rustam on this path was in 2019, when he was elected as head of the Central Asian Football Association (CAFA), which is one of the five regional bodies on a continent governed by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). CAFA unites the football federations of six countries - Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In 2023, Rustam Emomali announced that CAFA countries will submit an application to host the final tournament of the Asian Cup in 2031 or 2035.

”Our Central Asian region has never hosted the final part of the Asian Cup. I think that this time has come. Our region is represented by very strong teams and I am sure that together with the fraternal countries we will hold the final part of the Asian championship at the highest level”, the official website of the Football Federation of Tajikistan quotes Rustam Emomali as saying.

The AFC Asian Cup is the main competition of the Asian national football teams, and is held every 4 years. Since 2019, 24 teams have taken part in the tournament.

As a long-established Central Asian totalitarian state, Tajikistan is very opaque. There are very few credible sources of information about the social and political landscape.

The analysis published by Intellinews offers a glimpse about the status of the power transfer inside the ruling family. In late 2022, there were social network posts claiming he’d suffered a stroke. Earlier, when Rahmon was not seen for several weeks in March 2021, there were rumours he had health difficulties.

”One thing’s for certain. Rahmon’s years of fondness for strong drink have not done his health any favours. It’s unlikely he can carry out the duties of office for much longer. For more than a decade, there have been preparations for Rustam Emomali to take his father’s place”, according to the text signed by Bruce Pannier, a journalist and analyst covering Central Asia.

Tajikistan’s May 2016 referendum cut the minimum age for a presidential candidate from 35 to 30. Rustam became eligible for the presidency when he turned 30 on December 19, 2017, nearly three years ahead of the next presidential election.

It did appear that Rustam would be elected president in the October 2020 election, but the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to give his father second thoughts. Tajikistan responded poorly to the pandemic. The existence of cases was initially denied, while public events such as the nationwide Navruz celebration and football matches went ahead. When covid cases were acknowledged, their number was suspiciously low. But for Rustam, the recognized pandemic did at least give him the publicity of leading the campaign to contain the coronavirus. Such attempts at boosting Rustam’s popularity during his long and winding journey on the road to the presidency date back to at least 2011. They have formed part of the grooming process, not only for Rustam, but for the Tajik public.

Events, however, continued to work against implementing a leadership change in Tajikistan. In late April 2021, Tajik and Kyrgyz troops fought a brief border war. Another such conflict occurred in mid-September 2022.

The Taliban returned to power in neighbouring Afghanistan in August 2021. Rahmon’s government was opposed to the Taliban when they took power in Afghanistan in the 1990s. His stance did not change when they formed their second regime. The other Central Asian governments have engaged with the Taliban, but Dushanbe has kept its contact limited to electricity exports. Tajikistan remains the only Central Asian nation openly hostile to the Taliban.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 had a strong effect on Tajikistan as Russia is its leading trade and security partner.

For Tajikistan, there has been no opportune time in recent years to switch power from father to son. But all the indications are that a dynastic succession remains the plan.

The last formidable political opposition in the country was removed in late 2015 when the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the country’s second largest registered party, had its registration revoked. Tajikistan’s Supreme Court later declared IRPT a proscribed terrorist organisation.

Some analysts feel the harsh crackdown in Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) was in part connected to clearing away the last potential resistance to the Rustam succession. GBAO’s Pamiri peoples differ ethnically from Tajiks and sided with the government’s opponents during the Tajik 1992-1997 civil war. Located high in the Pamir Mountains with only two poorly maintained roads connecting it to the outside world, plus a small airport, often closed due to mountain weather, GBAO has proved difficult to control for Dushanbe.

Ahead of a planned May 2022 rally, Dushanbe responded with a security operation, ostensibly to thwart a terrorist attack planned by outside forces. Dozens of locals were killed, including prominent community leaders. Hundreds of Pamiri activists, journalists, bloggers, lawyers and others, were arrested. Many are still in prison.

Despite all the preparations for Rustam’s ascension, he still faces significant challenges, as people know little about his personality. State television shows him giving prepared speeches, but he does not give press conferences, nor does he mingle with the public. More importantly, it is unclear how other powerful figures will act if Rustam is president and his father is dead. Rustam has one brother and seven sisters. Most of his sisters’ husbands are connected to lucrative businesses in Tajikistan.

One sister, Ozoda, who is nearly 10 years older than Rustam, has headed the presidential administration since 2016. Some people see her as a potential president, but Tajikistan’s patriarchal society makes that unlikely. However, any of Rustam’s siblings or their spouses could oppose him if they perceive their share of Tajikistan’s wealth is jeopardised by his presidency.

There are also relatives of Azizmo Asadullayeva, Rustam’s mother, to consider. Her brother, Rustam’s uncle, Hasan Asadullozoda, is head of Tajikistan’s Orienbank and owner of Somon Airlines and various other smaller companies.

Another maternal uncle is Amonullo Asadulloyev, head of Somon Sughd, a construction materials producer and flour and wheat dealer. Asadulloyev was previously a top official at Barqi Tojik, the state power company.

Powerful government figures include Saimumin Yatimov, the State Committee for National Security chief since 2010. Yatimov and Rustam Emomali are said to be on bad terms. Unconfirmed reports a year ago claimed Rustam shot and wounded Yatimov for failing to launch a GBAO security operation. In 2008, reports claimed Rustam shot his uncle Hasan Asadullozoda.

Rustam, besides having to watch out for ambitious relatives, must also contend with the military. There was talk that when Rustam was given the rank of general in November 2013, many high-ranking officers were displeased. Most of those officers have been replaced in the past 11 years, but resentment might linger. That would bode ill for the military’s loyalty towards the heir apparent.

”There is little doubt that Rustam Emomali is on his way to becoming president. But he might not be able to count on the support of the people closest to his father, including those related to him by blood or marriage”, writes Pannier.