Ben Zand visits Tajikistan. From enforced beard shaving to being tracked down by the police, he experiences the sinister and bizarre side to living in a dictatorship.
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What do all these very average looking men have in common?
That's right, they're all dictators.
And that means they love power,
they hate journalists like me
and they are, quite frankly, ridiculous.
I'm on a journey to three former Soviet Union countries
to find out what makes some of the world's most powerful tyrants tick -
and to see the good,
and the completely mental about living under a dictatorship.
This time, I'm off to Tajikistan.
It's been ruled since 1996 by President Emomali Rahmon,
who's also officially known as the Leader of the Nation
and Founder of Peace and National Unity.
Here he is doing some serious dad dancing at his son's wedding -
a lavish party, despite the fact that people in Tajikistan
have an average income of just £800 a year.
As it's a poor country,
Rahmon's dictatorial parades
can't compete with others for their military hardware,
but they would give Bob the Builder a run for his money.
'I was up in the air, somewhere above Tajikistan,
'but it wasn't yet safe for me to land.'
So, I've never had a shave in a plane toilet before.
And I don't really like shaving in general,
because my beard accounts for about 89% of my sexiness.
But none of that matters now, because I'm on my way to Tajikistan,
a place where having a beard can get you in quite a lot of trouble.
I kid you not. So all of this has got to go, sadly enough.
'I'd heard stories of people literally being dragged off
'the streets by the police
'for sporting the kind of facial hair I had.'
The shaver's actually running out of battery.
No, no, no, no, no!
If you're ever going to Tajikistan,
remember to charge your shaver.
Oh, God, it's dead.
This looks more suspicious!
Doing my best to fit in, I'd arrived in Dushanbe,
the capital city.
Getting into these countries is hard,
so we told the authorities we were making a travel programme,
and none of the interviewees would know it was actually a series about
dictatorships - for their safety, and mine.
Despite the lack of cash in Tajikistan,
President Rahmon clearly likes spending public money
on big buildings,
like his crazily bling presidential palace.
He recently made a law that means he can keep the palace and his
presidential summerhouse even when he leaves office.
So this is the square of superlatives.
On the right, you have the biggest museum in Central Asia,
the biggest library and soon to be the biggest national theatre.
But apparently, to really get noticed by other dictators,
what you need most of all
is an absolutely massive flagpole.
It stands at 165 m and in 2011,
it knocked Azerbaijan off the top and now sits
above places like North Korea and Turkmenistan - all dictatorships.
So why are all these dictators
so desperate to have the biggest flagpole in the world?
It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to understand why they do this -
so the president can lie down here and say,
"Look at the size of my wiener".
Rahmon's giant flagpole
isn't the only thing that looks down on the city.
His portrait hangs all over the place,
watching over his citizens.
And it turned out, the police were watching us, too.
So we've been filming for a couple of hours now and we've already had
our first run-in with the law because Olly, the director,
decided to film what was a very nice building, but turned out to be a
government building and then we were very quickly surrounded by a lot of
police and a lot of military telling us to stop and asking us for all our
documents. It just reminds you that in (Dictatorland),
you are being watched at all times.
By everybody. I'm being watched right now by a guy in the window,
but I think he's just curious.
Rahmon keeps a close eye on his citizens,
partly because he's worried about Islamic extremism.
He came to power after a bloody civil war against Islamists and just
across the border is Afghanistan - a hotbed of radical Islam.
Today, in Tajikistan, even a beard can cause a panic.
I met up with Rustam,
whose facial hair had got him in trouble with the police.
When I just walked near the bazaar,
they have stopped me and said that
they have orders from the ministry to shave beards.
They bring me to the police department and shaved my beard.
They actually hold you down and...
Three of them was hold me and shaved my beard.
Since it happened,
Rustam has refused to keep his facial hair in check and so far,
he hasn't been forcibly shaved again.
I mean, how long was your beard?
Oh, not so long.
I mean, it's not big at all. Why do you think they were doing it?
I mean, what were they trying to achieve?
Maybe they thought that they will fight radicalism.
It's probably quite easy if all terrorists have beards.
If you shave their beards, then you don't know who they are!
It seems slightly counter-productive!
Lots of other people were shaved along with Rustam,
but in a country where opening your mouth can get you in trouble,
it's impossible to say how many.
I can't really imagine what that'd feel like if that happened to me.
What it proves is that, at any point,
if the government decide they have an issue with you,
there's nothing really you can do about it, because they own you.
It isn't just the police helping to keep control of people.
I'd heard about a youth group
that also kept an eye out for signs of trouble.
So I am just about to meet, in this fine Tajikistan weather,
a man from the local youth group - Avangard.
This is a group that states they love the President
and the government here,
so I'm going to be trying to find out why that is the case
and to see exactly what they do.
25-year-old student Asliddin founded and runs Avangard,
but he didn't look like any of the students I knew when I was at uni.
You have the most well-ironed suit I've ever seen, you look very nice!
How come you are dressed like this, is this what you always wear?
'Instead of spending their days playing video games in their undies,
'these students get their kicks in a different way.'
This isn't what I expected.
It's a hall of a load of men wearing blue T-shirts.
Asliddin told us that he has the endorsement of the government, so,
when people are told to attend a lecture, they do.
Although people had to be there,
audience participation seemed limited.
After a warm handshake with the police, we headed onto the streets.
I got the sense that people were wary of Asliddin - not surprising,
as it turns out his group have helped to imprison people
that the regime doesn't like.
Do you think that people here are a little bit scared of you,
because you guys do seem kind of scary?
But you can get them into trouble, though, by basically telling
the authorities that you suspect there may be something wrong?
Is that true?
What are you trying to achieve?
Are you trying to check to make sure
that they're doing what they're meant to be doing, or...?
I wondered whether it was just religious extremists
that Avangard kept a lookout for.
There we go, thank you.
I am officially a Tajik informer.
It was starting to dawn on me that I was in a full-on police state.
What's really happening is that groups like Avangard are
just helping to create this culture of informants,
who are making sure that nobody steps out of line and,
more importantly, nobody says anything bad about the government.
Away from prying ears,
I wanted to find someone who could give me a more honest take on
the government, but it wasn't easy.
When I try and speak to people off-camera,
who have no involvement with politics,
and I try to get them to appear in the show,
they're all just terrified to do so
and it's kind of difficult for me to
know whether that's a genuine fear or whether it's completely imagined,
but what is certain is that
everybody here is scared of something.
Maybe one of the country's biggest rap stars
would be man enough to tell it like it is?
How are you? 'I met up with the man who calls himself Baron.'
But it turns out his rap isn't quite what I was used to.
In the video for Motherland, one of his best-known tracks,
Baron is woken by a presidential appeal to young people
to love their country.
A lot of what you rap about seems to be about the awesomeness of the
government and the leader - what exactly makes them so awesome?
Yes, that was genuinely amazing!
You're clearly a really positive dude with really good rap skills,
but what if one day you're not so positive
and you want to say more negative things -
would you do that about the country?
In a country that's well on its way to being a dictator's dream
of everyone snooping on each other, why rap yourself into prison?
And besides, when people do say things they shouldn't,
the government is happy to shut them up.
Twitter is blocked, Facebook is also blocked,
all the social media sites are blocked, actually.
And of course, anything that makes the president look a bit silly...
has to go.
When this video of President Rahmon getting stuck into his son's wedding
with some fancy footwork and a little karaoke went viral,
he did what any self-respecting dictator would do.
He shut down YouTube.
Weddings are a touchy subject in Tajikistan -
even when you're getting married, the big boss can stick his nose in.
I've come to the outskirts of Dushanbe in my finest threads,
because I've been invited to a Tajik wedding.
Oh, is this the bride?
Very nice to meet you!
Thank you for letting me come!
-You don't need...
-I don't do that, by the way!
-Yeah, it's only for her!
Oh, sorry! OK. How do I react?
-Rahmat. Thank you.
-Is she excited?
But she's shy!
HE SPEAKS IN TAJIK LANGUAGE
'For their own safety,
'I told everyone at the wedding I was making a travel documentary.'
Are these hats? Are they hats?
'But I tried to get a bit too immersed into the local culture.'
I would like a Tajik...
How do I find one?
All right, I'm getting in too deep, now!
OK, it started off as a joke,
now I think she is actually taking it serious!
'Thankfully, the groom arrived, taking the heat off me.'
He's finally here, he didn't run away.
'Traditional Tajik weddings used to have crowds of around 500 people,
'but President Rahmon has put an end to that.
'He decided people were using weddings to show off, so now,
'you can be fined if you have more than 150 guests.'
'There are even rules governing how long the wedding can last,
'how many cars can drive the couple around
'and the food that can be served.'
After just a few days in Tajikistan,
I'd seen how difficult it is to avoid the presence of the big boss
in basically every aspect of life
and anyone who challenges him can face a brutal end.
when the leader of an opposition party in exile in Turkey
was at dinner with his family,
they were all poisoned, even his five-year-old son.
Realising what was happening,
they fled the dinner only for the opposition leader
to be gunned down outside.
It isn't stating that the government
gave the order for the assassination,
but what is clear is that speaking out can get you killed.
Having spent my entire trip in the capital Dushanbe,
I wanted to take a look at the rest of the country.
93% of Tajikistan is mountainous.
A large proportion of the population live in mountain villages,
cut off from the relative wealth of the capital,
in simple conditions that have barely changed for 100 years.
Probably the first time the BBC have rocked up.
It's definitely very different from Dushanbe.
Look at that.
'While the president lives in his lavish palace in the capital
'and spends money on things like giant flagpoles,
'people here remain poor.
'The government has made some progress in reducing poverty,
'but a third of Tajiks still don't have enough food to eat.'
The good thing about living in a village like this is that you're so
far away from everything
that you don't really have to worry about politics,
but the downside to that is you are so far away,
that politics doesn't really worry about you.
You're completely left alone.
The locals might be ignored as long as they keep out of trouble,
but it's not so easy for foreign journalists to slip under the radar.
The secret police had arrived in the village, looking for us.
We just can't escape them.
The fact that he's come here, which is quite far away,
shows that they're always watching.
They always know where you are when you're in Tajikistan.
Having taken our details, the police didn't stick around,
but their visit gave a clear indication of how easy it would be
to put a foot wrong here.
So, after being here for one whole week,
it's safe to say that this is probably not a society I would
want to live in. It's a very unusual system for me,
people cannot really be who they want to be and there's no real free
speech, but it's also a place that has a lot of issues that
Britain just doesn't have.
It has major problems with Islamic extremism coming in from
Afghanistan, it has real problems of poverty,
and it also was in a civil war just 20 years ago.
Some say Rahmon is just bringing the stability this country needs,
but observers say Tajikistan is in the midst of a serious human rights
crisis. Either way, he's going nowhere any time soon.
In this episode, Ben Zand travels to Tajikistan to experience the sinister and at times bizarre side to living in a dictatorship.
But before he gets there, Ben has some preparation to do: in the airplane toilet, he shaves his beard off. This is a country in which people have been dragged off the streets for sporting overly long facial hair.
Landing in the capital city Dushanbe, Ben heads to see one of Tajikistan's biggest claims to fame: the second tallest flagpole in the world. Of course it was built as the tallest, but has now been pipped to the top spot by Saudi Arabia, another dictatorship. Other authoritarian regimes dominate the Big Five when it comes to flagpoles - countries like North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. Could it be, wonders Ben, that while rich middle-aged men get a fast car as a midlife crisis-inspired penis enlargement, dictators go for giant flagpoles instead?
Still wowed by the size of the pole, Ben goes to meet a man called Rustam, who was forcibly shaved by the police a couple of years ago. He finds out that the president of Tajikistan is worried about beards because he's terrified of Islamic radicalism. To find out more about how the government is keeping control of radical Islam, Ben heads to meet Aslideen, a youth activist who set up a movement that does the government's dirty work for it - keeping an eye on people out on the streets, reporting any suspicious behaviour to the police, and generally terrorising the locals. Tajikistan is starting to feel like a police state, in which independent thought is quickly stifled.
On a mission to find some signs of dissent, Ben goes to meet a prominent young hip-hop artist. Around the world, hip-hop is a way for the youth to express their frustration; surely the rapper Baron will tell Ben what's wrong with this country? Instead, Ben finds Baron rapping about how great the president is, and he tells Ben that it would be stupid for him to rap about anything critical of the regime.
It seems the population is so well trained that the government barely even needs to censor people. Though of course if it has to, it will, and it's more than happy to shut down any social media sites that become a problem. When a video of the president dancing embarrassingly at his son's wedding ended up doing the rounds online, the president did what any self-respecting dictator would do - he shut down YouTube in the country.
As Ben is shown a beautiful but simple mountain village, surrounded by snow-capped peaks in the middle of nowhere, the secret police suddenly turn up. The country may be poor, but there's always money for flagpoles and the surveillance of dissent.