RAKHMONOV’S ELECTION MANEUVERS AND TAJIKISTAN’S FUTURE

By Moukhabbat Khodjibaeva (02/02/2000 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Tajikistan slid into a civil war soon after independence in 1991. The conflict extended the rivalry between pro-Communist and pro-Islamic forces inside the country and quickly turned into severe inter-ethnic strife. The full-scale war form 1992 to 1997 almost paralyzed the country of five million people, leaving nearly 60,000 dead and one in five a refugee or displaced. A number of countries such as Russia, Iran, Uzbekistan and others directly or indirectly involved themselves in Tajikistan affairs during the war to assist the vying parties and to expand their own influence. The Russian supported government of President Emomali Rakhmonov was unable to achieve a military solution to its six year civil war until it gave into pressure by the international community and agreed to talks with its main enemy, the United Tajik Opposition (UTO).

When UN sponsored talks led to a peace accord in 1997, the civil war ended. Extensive clashes ended, UTO key leaders returned from exile, and UTO military units were integrated into the government. The international community responded positively to the political stabilization by increasing Tajikistan’s aid. However, Rakhmonov did not follow the course of reforms he charted, falling short of ensuring democratic freedoms and human rights. The implementation of the peace accord dragged on showing of bad faith on the government’s part. With the UTO distracted by the peace process, the government announced a referendum on constitutional amendments extending the presidential term from five to seven years and adopting a new bicameral parliament. The OCSE, other European institutions, and the United States State Department criticized the election process for a lack of political freedoms, an unfair campaign and lack of media access. President Rakhmonov was reelected with 98% of the votes.

Soon after his inauguration, President Rakhmonov made changes in government to simulate reforms. He replaced his prime minister and changes were made in the ministries of finance, welfare, education and labor and in some other less important government offices. Almost all key ministers retained their offices. A few regional administrative leaders were replaced, but these changes will not likely to have any impact on the Rakhmonov’s reforms. With only a few weeks before the parliamentary election on February 27, there isn’t a sliver of a doubt that Rakhmonov’s Peoples’ Democratic Party will be victorious as the PDP maintains control of the government and military as well as the media.

IMPLICATIONS: Rakhmonov’s election maneuvers are intended to convince the international community that he is making real reforms though his political maneuvers are focused on strengthening his own position and much less toward democratic or market reforms. President Rakhmonov remains deeply dependent on foreign aid and he is determined to meet the strict regulations imposed by World Bank and IMF to sustain vital assistance for as long as possible. Such highly visible though relatively meaningless government shuffles shows that the government is more intent on maintain its grip on power than it is in genuine reform.

While in the short run, Rakhmonov’s election maneuvers will not have a major impact, they hold promise of influencing long term reforms. With less than a month to go before the parliamentary elections, several political parties have been allowed to compete for seats in the lower house including the Communist party, the Democratic Party, the Socialist Party, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), and the Justice Party. The upcoming parliamentary election will be the first within a former Soviet country in which an Islamic party, in this case the Islamic Renaissance Party, will be insured legal participation. The government’s decision to include the IRP is partly due to the present weakness of the Islamic Renaissance Party that is divided over a disagreement between its two leaders. However the IRP may soon restore its power by forming a coalition with other parities to oppose the Rakhmonov’s PDP. Even under such a coalition, the seats they gain in parliament are expected to be minimal.

Rakhmonov hopes to create a new public image and reinforce the people’s existing confidence in him as a peace builder, the reputation he won during the current period of peace and reconciliation. His strategy in allowing a few opposition parties to participate in this election is a clear effort to build the public’s trust for Rakhmonov’s leadership. The strategy does not involve a lot of risk. The Communist Party clearly supports Rakhmonov and will guarantee a majority for the PDP. And with the UTO, Rakhmonov is currently attempting to divide UTO unity by cooperating with liberal UTO members while driving a wedge between them and the more radical UTO factions. So far the UTO suffers from a deep rift between its two leaders with leader Akbar Turajonzoda openly supporting the president during the election, and leader Said Abdullo Nuri still holding strong pro-Islamic beliefs. On the international front, Rakhmonov must build his prestige by settling the tense border problems along the 1,500 km Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. And he must melt icy relations with his huge neighbor Uzbekistan. Tajikistan is seeking closer military and political alliance with Russia in order to ensure its security in the region.

CONCLUSION: A victory for the PDP will lead to near total control by President Rakhmonov of the executive and legislative branches. The court system is subordinated to the government already. Rakhmonov’s recent political maneuvers give a bit of optimism that real reforms will take place. Tajikistan’s people understand that the government does not adequately invest in the peace it recently achieved and know that substantial monetary support is greatly needed to rebuild its shattered national economy.

Rakhmonov is oriented to national reintegration and political stability and thus seeks to increase the degree of compromise in his domestic and regional policies. Rakhmonov needs to solve a number of pressing problems such as illegal arms, paramilitary units’ activity, and severe drug infiltration from Afghanistan. The current relationship with Western countries and its sources of monetary support must be readjusted for Tajikistan’s future development. The strongest symbol of Tajikistan’s poor relationship with the West is its status as the only CIS country that never opened an embassy in Washington, DC. Likewise, the United States embassy in Dushanbe has remained inactive because of security reasons. When these embassies open it will show that Rakhmonov’s truly desires or is desperate for reform.

AUTHOR BIO: Moukhabbat Khodjibaeva is a former TV reporter in Tajikistan. Her recent works on "The role of TV in Tajik conflict" and "Between Paris and the Taleban’ were published in Central Asia Monitor.

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