Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia in which an Islamic-oriented political party openly and actively participates in the country's social and political life. Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) members are represented in the various government institutions through a power-sharing agreement negotiated to end the country's 1992-97 civil war. However, this arrangement, under which opposition forces are entitled to a 30 percent share of government posts, has looked increasingly precarious of late. Some local political analysts say President Imomali Rahmonov has sent signals that he wants to use the specter of Islamist extremism in Central Asia to sideline his mainstream Islamic political opponents.
Although the peace agreement technically ended the civil war in 1997, armed operations against remaining warlords continued into 2001. During the conflict, a number of political parties and other forces many from the South, the most poverty-stricken region in Central Asia's poorest country faced off against pro-government elements. The rebellious groups coalesced into the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), a group dominated by the IRP, which is headed by Sayed Abdullo Nuri.
International mediation led to a cease-fire and the aforementioned General Peace Agreement, signed on June 27, 1997. The accord contained two major provisions: the disarmament of UTO combatants and their integration into military or civilian structures, and the corresponding guarantee that the UTO would have a 30 percent share of representation in government.
Key UTO figures joined Rahmonov's administration, including Akbar Turajonzoda as First Deputy Prime Minister, Zokir Vazirov as Deputy Prime Minister, Davlat Usmon as Finance Minister (later running for president in 1999) and Mirzo Ziyoyev as Emergencies Minister. In the years following the peace agreement, an uneasy partnership existed between Rahmonov and IRP leaders. At the same time, government forces continued to battle several powerful warlords who maintained opposition to the peace deal.
UTO leaders boycotted the parliamentary and presidential elections in late 1998 on the grounds that Rahmonov's government was not fulfilling its peace deal commitments. In particular, UTO leaders complained that their supporters had not received the 30 percent share of posts in public institutions including educational bodies and public health facilities as specified under the pact.
The UN managed to mediate an end to the crisis. Yet, the IRP-dominated UTO continued to charge Rahmonov's administration with non-compliance. Tensions heightened in 2001, as the president acted to remove a number of politicians including some prominent UTO members from their posts for alleged incompetence. While some analysts claim this was merely a professional reshuffling, others feel that it was a purge targeted at the UTO.
Rahmonov's actions in 2002 were less ambiguous. Emboldened by the war on terrorism and the increased international support for his government, he claimed in a series of speeches that "some members of the IRP, contrary to Tajikistan's law on political parties, are indoctrinating people in the spirit of extremism, which can produce dissent in society." He also implied that connections existed between the IRP and underground radical organizations such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Nuri replied by insisting that the IRP was devoted to acting within the framework of Tajikistani law, and denied any connections to the banned Islamist organizations.
Shortly thereafter, the authorities initiated "proficiency rating" tests for Islamic spiritual leaders, evaluating the heads of 250 mosques and 20 religious schools on their knowledge of Tajikistani secular law. As a result, 10 imams were banned from preaching. Meanwhile, Rahmonov's administration required the leaders of the 250 mosques to swear loyalty to the current leadership. Authorities also closed a number of other mosques in the IRP's northern stronghold, claiming that there were too many in the region, and that some were not properly registered. [For additional information see the EurasiaNet Culture archives].
Secular opposition in Tajikistan is weak; support for the non-Islamist Democratic Party has declined significantly in recent years. Another non-religious party, the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, claims that the Justice Ministry has repeatedly denied its registration on technicalities. Thus, with few viable competitors, the IRP is reaping the dual benefits of a rebirth in Islamic beliefs and increasing dissatisfaction with the current regime. Growing support for the IRP has led its leaders to agitate for a more significant role in governing the country. A central element of its platform is a call for fundamental electoral reform, including scrapping presidential appointment of regional and local leaders in favor of direct elections.
While the IRP and the government dominate politics, there are in fact five officially registered political parties in the country. The government camp includes the People's Democratic Party, the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, while the opposition consists of the Democratic Party and the IRP. In the 2000 parliamentary elections only three political parties won seats in the lower house of parliament: Rahmonov's dominant People's Democratic Party took 30 seats (plus the support of 15 pro-government independents), the Communist Party took 13 and the IRP two.
Recent developments, particularly the events of September 11, have bolstered Rahmonov's political position as he benefits from the increased presence and support of Western governments. The world community has acknowledged and rewarded Tajikistan's efforts in the struggle against terrorism and drug trafficking, despite the country's questionable success and record on human rights in this area. For many in the international community eager to stem the rise of Islamist extremism, the president's avowed commitment to a secular state raises his profile significantly.
The next parliamentary elections will be held in 2005. Presidential elections follow in 2006, although Rahmonov is (at the moment) ineligible due to term limits. The pressure on the IRP may be part of a broader attempt to strengthen his position as he considers either extending his term or amending the constitution in order to avoid stepping down. If Rahmonov does indeed feel threatened by the growing influence of his religious opponents, he may adopt a more combative approach in his quest to maintain a hold on power.
Alexei Igushev and Bahrom Mannonov are freelance writers based in Tajikistan.