DUSHANBE, Tajikistan: Along the road passing through an impoverished district of ex-Soviet Tajikistan near the capital Dushanbe, strongman President Emomali Rakhmon’s presence is ubiquitous.
Propaganda posters flank the highway in Gissar, one showing the 63-year-old autocrat—emboldened by constitutional changes passed in a May referendum—in a pensive mood, crouched in a field of red poppies.
In another the former collective farm boss, who led the Central Asian country out of a five-year civil war that began in 1992, is seen reaching joyfully into a heaving bough of grapes.
“Thanks to you Gissar region is prospering,” the poster boasts, as banners bearing similarly grateful messages form a line behind it.
When Rakhmon visited the area in February to open an orchard named after him, state media reported that sections of a 200 meter-long (650-foot) velvet carpet he walked upon were distributed to local pensioners.
“This process is being driven by the president’s advisors,” Rustam Kodir, a prominent Tajik writer and rare critical voice in the country of eight million people, told Agence France-Presse.
“They only honor him and tell him good things. We are moving along the path of Turkmenistan and North Korea,” said Kodir.
The strongman’s burgeoning personality cult troubles many in the secular republic as religious conservatism rises and the economy toils under the weight of the Russian crisis.
The collapse of the ruble in 2014 forced shut many businesses in Russia that once employed Tajik workers who ended up being sent home.
Tajikistan’s currency the somoni fell by over a quarter against the dollar in 2015 and has continued to fall this year.
‘Star of happiness’
Rakhmon’s emerging cult appears set to intensify following a May 22 referendum enabling him to rule for life while opening the door to a possible succession by his son Rustam, now 28.
According to the central electoral commission, 94.5 percent of voters endorsed relieving Rakhmon of term limit restrictions, banning religious parties and lowering the minimum age for presidential candidates to 30.
In the build-up to the plebiscite, the country was awash with initiatives bolstering Rakhmon, whom parliament anointed “Leader of the Nation” last year, a status ensuring life-long immunity from prosecution for him and his family.
They included a new holiday created in his honor and a contest for the best essays by schoolchildren in praise of his “heroic” rule.
Last year, Rakhmon was called by one political ally “the sun” and a “star of happiness” in a newspaper article, while another supporter said his achievements should be recognized with a statue.
“The mass media—especially state television—is the main instrument for the propagation of this cult,” Shokir Hakimov, deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, told AFP.
“There is no space for academic or public discussion about the direction the country is going in, only affirmation,” said Hakimov, whose party has never won seats in Tajikistan’s parliament.
‘Good Tajik Islam’
But experts argue that Rakhmon faces a challenge securing a regime accused of entrenched corruption as religious observance grows.
Rakhmon last year appealed for Tajik women not to wear black—read Islamic—clothes, and wear colorful traditional clothing instead.
In 2015, the government banned as extremist a faith-based opposition party following an apparent mutiny the government claims left more than two dozen dead.
The subsequent detention and trial of key leaders of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan—widely viewed as a moderate political force—drew concern from the United States, the EU and the UN.
In a country where minors are prohibited from attending mosques and police reportedly shave believers’ beards, some fear the party’s closure will force religious groups underground, into the arms of extremists.
“The IRPT was a symbol of peace after the civil war,” said Kodir, referring to the conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives. “We were the only country in the region to have a party like this… Somehow we have shed ourselves of this achievement.”
Mindful of Islam’s growing authority, the government has gone to some lengths to present ex-communist Rakhmon as pious, despite his anti-religious policies.
In Dushanbe’s imposing Nowruz Palace, completed in 2014 at a reported cost of over $60 million (53 million euros), a stone mosaic shows Rakhmon in a business suit sitting beside his mother, hands cupped in supplication.
And in January, the autocrat’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Mecca was covered thoroughly by state media, which noted that he and other officials prayed for the country’s well-being.
Such “performative acts” show the delicate balance Rakhmon must strike as he seeks to both control and harness the religion for the benefit of his regime, Tim Epkenhans, a Tajikistan expert at the University of Freiburg in Germany, told AFP.
This is achieved by “excluding everything that is outside the bounds of a narrowly defined good Tajik Islam,” with state propaganda linking undesirable religious groups to foreign extremists like the Islamic State group, Epkenhans added.
The government claims there are 1,000 Tajiks fighting for IS in the Middle East—among them a former police chief.
“Throughout this all is the image projected of Rakhmon as the decider, who senses threats to his people and deals with them in a timely way,” Epkenhans said. “That image is only going to grow now.”