In the wake of neighboring Kyrgyzstan's revolution, Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov is coming under pressure to open up Tajikistan's political system. In his recent state-of-the-nation address, however, Rahmonov struck an uncompromising note, indicating that he would maintain his existing policy course.
Tajik opposition leaders, along with a significant segment of the country's general population, were left disgruntled by the February parliamentary election, in which pro-presidential parties won an overwhelming majority of seats. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. International observers documented numerous voting irregularities, and some opposition leaders threatened to organize public protests. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Such protests never materialized, in large part because the scars of the country's 1992-97 civil war remain fresh in the minds of most Tajik citizens. There was widespread worry that public demonstrations could spark another round of violent civil confrontation. The same concerns were not present in Kyrgyzstan, which also held parliamentary elections in late February. Vote-rigging in the Kyrgyz election set off a chain of events that culminated in Askar Akayev's ouster in Bishkek on March 24. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Kyrgyz revolution has unsettled authoritarian-minded administrations throughout Central Asia, including Rahmonov's. In his April 16 address during a joint session of parliament, Rahmonov acknowledged that recent developments in Kyrgyzstan "have become a subject of concern for us [in Dushanbe]."
While recognizing that the Kyrgyz revolution could have a destabilizing impact on Central Asia's established order, Rahmonov glossed over the root causes of the unrest. He characterized the Kyrgyz revolution as a "clash of interests between various political forces," ignoring the fact that the explosion of popular frustration with corruption and persistent poverty was the catalyst for upheaval.
Tajikistan is Central Asia's poorest country, and is grappling with many of the same problems that exist in Kyrgyzstan. Yet in his speech, Rahmonov indicated that Kyrgyzstan's experience would not require significant policy adjustments in Tajikistan.
"We can say with absolute confidence that Tajikistan is moving along the right path," Rahmonov said, adding that "the development of a mechanism of collaboration" between the executive and legislative branches would ensure the "stepping up" of political and economic reform.
Rahmonov seemed disinclined to grant opposition parties greater say in policy matters. He brushed aside opposition complaints about the February voting results when he insisted that "the recent [parliamentary] elections were held in keeping with international principles and standards."
His apparent determination to maintain a tight grip on political power would seem to put Rahmonov at odds with Tajikistan's chief benefactor, Russia. Having experienced a dramatic erosion of geopolitical influence over the past 18 months largely as a result of regime-change in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan Russian leaders are anxious to halt the revolutionary trend. Accordingly, many observers believe Moscow wants its remaining allies within the Commonwealth of Independent States to ease up on authoritarian methods in the hopes that a gradual and controlled opening of their political systems would prevent more revolutions from occurring.
Political analysts in Dushanbe interpret the April 3 decision of Russian official to release Tajik opposition leader Mahmadruzi Iskandarov from custody as a sign of displeasure over Rahmonov's reluctance to shift political course. Russian authorities took Iskandarov, the head of the Democratic Party and a vocal Rahmonov political foe, into custody in Moscow last December while considering an extradition request from Dushanbe. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russian prosecutors cited a lack of evidence against Iskandarov when they ordered his release. A senior Russian prosecutor, Vasiliy Glushchenko, also referred to Russia's Law on Immigration, which prohibits the extradition of an asylum-seeker to his/her country of origin. Iskandarov maintained that the criminal charges pending against him in Tajikistan are politically motivated.
Iskandarov is seen as a potential challenger to Rahmonov is presidential elections schedule for 2006. Following his release, he was quick to make his intentions clear. In a letter of gratitude to Russian President Vladimir Putin, written following his release, Iskandarov said: "You gave me freedom and I will try to return it to my nation".
Iskandarov told EurasiaNet that he would seek to return to Tajikistan as soon as possible with the specific aim of altering the country's political landscape. Inspired by Kyrgyz "tulip revolution," Iskandarov, spoke of "the forthcoming Tajik revolution," saying he would promote the consolidation of all opposition groups in Tajikistan into one political force. He added that the Kyrgyz revolution ought to be viewed by incumbent authorities in every Central Asian nation as a warning that popular concerns about corruption and poverty can no longer be left unaddressed. Opposition leaders in Dushanbe welcomed Iskandarov's release, but provided no indication of whether an attempt to unify anti-Rahmonov political forces could be successful.
The sense of optimism underlying Iskandarov's comments may be misplaced, as the popular mood in Tajikistan does not appear inclined toward revolution. Likewise, Russian leaders do not seem to view Iskandarov as a reliable replacement for Rahmonov. Instead, many analysts believe that Moscow sees Iskandarov as an instrument through which pressure can be applied on Rahmonov to promote gradual change. "Russia should softly push CIS regimes to modernize so as to avoid another
Kambiz Arman and Nazar Nazarov are pseudonyms for Tajik journalists, who specialize in covering political developments in Dushanbe.