In Tajikistan, only the president is permitted to enjoy an unfettered public profile. An intriguing exception to this norm is emerging, however, with another figure amassing huge levels of apparent popularity and prominence.
This person too is a member of the ruling family.
Ismoil Mahmadzohir, who turned 26 last month, is the grandson of President Emomali Rahmon. His mother, Firuza, is one of Rahmon’s seven daughters.
Mahmadzohir – a visually distinctive character on account of his moustache; not a popular fashion choice in Tajikistan – owes his recognizability to a considerable extent to Instagram, where he has 2 million followers. Each post generates hundreds of likes and comments. Mahmadzohir describes himself in English on the platform as an entrepreneur, athlete, and a philanthropist.
Instagram reveals the young man to have a fondness for fancy cars, of which he owns several. One is appointed with the vanity plate number 1111. He further professes to be a fan of buzkashi, a highly rough-and-tumble horse-riding competition in which two teams fight for possession of a headless goat.
There is a more formal, workmanlike aspect to Mahmadzohir’s activities too.
Since November, he has served as president of the Judo Federation of Tajikistan. In May, Dushanbe hosted the 2023 Judo Grand Prix, an event that serves as a stepping stone to qualification for the Olympics. The event attracted a certain level of positive international media attention for Tajikistan, which tends to mainly make the news for its dramatically worsening political freedoms and security-related concerns.
Mahmadzohir is not backward in trumpeting his charitable works either.
Last year, he reportedly paid for villagers in the Khuroson District, in southern Tajikistan, to be connected to the water supply grid. As a result, around 3,000 people received access to safe drinking water. Nobody appears to have questioned why the government didn’t do this earlier.
Visits to orphanages do not go unnoticed.
Mahmadzohir is likewise eager to publicize his pious credentials. In 2021, he paid for 20 low-income families to perform the hajj to Mecca. News about this was shared on Instagram.
None of this is to say he purports to be modest in his tastes and spending abilities. His Instagram feed is littered with images of trips to places like France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. He likes nowhere better than the United Arab Emirates, though. Judging by the photos, he appears to have struck up a friendship with the 40-year-old Crown Prince of Dubai, Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum.
Mahmadzohir has taken a strong lead in trying to popularize Tajikistan’s tourism appeal as well.
In April, Mahmadzohir organized for mega-popular Russian video blogger Gusein Gasanov to visit Tajikistan. Gasanov, who is known mainly for his prize giveaways, a gimmick he seems to have borrowed from U.S. YouTubers like Mr. Beast, toured the countryand was mobbed by crowds of fans along the way. At the end of his trip, Gasanov uploaded a video, produced by Mahmadzohir’s IM Group production company, speaking fulsomely about Tajikistan’s appeal as a destination. It has not been stated explicitly that Gasanov was paid for the visit, although it is probably safe to assume he was.
But there is a political awkwardness to all this fanfare.
While President Rahmon, 70, has no cause to fear Mahmadzohir’s mounting profile, there is another person who might. It is widely assumed that Rahmon’s eldest son, Rustam Emomali, 35, is being primed to take over running the country at some point in the near future.
Emomali’s apprenticeship for this eventuality has been a decade in the making. Over the years, he has been rotated through jobs, from head of the customs service to chief of the anti-corruption service, and now a double role as mayor of Dushanbe and, much more significantly, chair of the upper house of parliament.
But unlike Mahmadzohir, Emomali is a dour personality who eschews the limelight and appears ill-at-ease when required to attend public functions alongside his father. He has no social media presence.
The challenge from the younger upstart is not purely theoretical. Under changes to the constitution effected in a choreographed referendum in 2016, the age at which a candidate may run for presidential office was lowered from 35 to 30. It was assumed at the time this was being done to pave the way for Emomali’s imminent rise to office. But it so happens that Mahmadzohir will be 30 by the time the next scheduled vote comes around in 2027.
This may all be wild speculation, however. Some question the genuineness and depth of the popularity indicated by those Instagram figures.
“I don’t think he has any political ambitions at the moment,” one political commentator who requested to remain anonymous told Eurasianet. “For now, he is most likely just a young guy who likes to be the center of attention. And with all the resources he has at his disposal, that is easy for him to do.”
Mahmadzohir’s untrammelled success as an influencer of sorts may be put down to the sheer paucity of life in Tajikistan’s media scene, which has been obliterated at the hands of the police state.
“Those people who would like to write something negative prefer to remain quiet, naturally. They understand that there is a level of risk in this even if the criticism is constructive,” the commentator said.
Sure enough, what happens instead is that every time Mahmadzohir posts on Instagram, the replies are filled with praise, including from employees of the state broadcaster, university scholars, civil servants and the like.
In a rich field of competitors, the prize for main flatterer may go to state TV presenter Ulugbek Salimbekzoda, who took to Facebook in July to congratulate Mahmadzohir on his birthday.
“Masculinity and tenacity, gentleness and kindness, generosity and patience are among the least good qualities of our honorable Ismoil Makhmadzoir!” Salimbekzoda said in a post written in English, for reasons unclear. “He has love for the greatness of the seas, his heart is pure and peaceful like a river… We are proud of his presence on earth with all his love and sincerity.”