Eighteen years after a painstakingly negotiated peace treaty brought an end to Tajikistan’s devastating civil war, a wave of intimidation by the authorities against the opposition is reopening old wounds.
Tired of tolerating even marginal expressions of dissent, President Emomali Rahmon’s government is liberally jailing opponents and hounding those it has not yet arrested into exile. Others have been killed in murky circumstances.
Against that backdrop, this year’s celebrations for National Unity Day, which commemorates the signing of the UN-brokered peace agreement on June 27, 1997, felt especially hollow.
Under that treaty, the loose coalition of Islamists, nationalists and minority Pamiris that formed the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) was promised 30 percent of government positions.
Rahmon began reneging on that and other commitments in the peace accord even before the ink was dry.
Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva of Lali Badakhshan – a party that sided with the UTO during the civil war – says she fears Rahmon’s administration is making the same kind of mistakes that lead to the outbreak of conflict in 1992.
“I don’t like to think of the civil war. It is a terrible milestone in the history of our country, but I have a feeling that we did not learn anything from this bitter and painful lesson,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
This spring, the main political successor to the UTO, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), was shut out of parliament for the first time in a vote marred by fraud and government intimidation. IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri has since gone into self-imposed exile, fearing prosecution on bogus charges.
With the opposition neutered, official media are now busy rewriting history. Days before National Unity Day, state television aired a documentary about the civil war that focused almost entirely on how Rahmon – who is in his 24th year in power – singlehandedly ended the conflict.
That account entirely ignores Rahmon’s hawkish stance at the outbreak of the conflict and writes out the joint architect of the peace deal, then IRPT leader Said Abdullo Nuri, who died of cancer in 2006. It also fails to make any mention of Rahmon’s failure, after the 1997 deal was signed, to live up to promises to release political prisoners, allow UTO exiles in Iran and Afghanistan to return home and integrate opposition fighters into the regular army. Addressing the opposition’s indignation, some concessions were eventually hammered out, but then swiftly dropped amid the clamor of the U.S.-led military operation against neighboring Afghanistan in 2001.
In his speech marking the National Unity Day holiday, Rahmon struck a harsh and hostile note.
“The glorious Tajik nation will never forget the treacherous deeds of some groups and people who in the early 1990s pulled our ancestors’ motherland into bloodshed and our newly independent country into the flames of war,” he said.
He mentioned nothing about the role of the opposition in ending the war or building peace.
Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency published an opinion piece in response, noting that while National Unity Day used to be about unity, it has now become about “victory.”
The government signaled that celebrations this year would be markedly different when, less than two weeks before the holiday, state-run newspaper Jumhuriyat published a tirade accusing Kabiri, the IRPT leader, who was out of the country at the time, of breaking the law during a property transaction 16 years ago.
Kabiri and his friends took the publication as a clear warning. Other that have dared to go against Rahmon are paying a heavy price. Opposition-minded politician Zaid Saidov, a former regime insider who turned against his former allies, was arrested on his return to Tajikistan in 2013 and later sentenced to 26 years in jail.
Kabiri told EurasiaNet.org in Moscow on June 18 that he fears returning home. He did not go to Tajikistan and IRPT leaders boycotted the holiday, although they were not in fact even invited to any government celebrations in the first place.
“We will not celebrate National Unity Day until real peace is restored, until pressure on our party members stops,” IRPT first deputy leader Mahmadali Hayit told EurasiaNet.org.
In the days before the holiday, 20 videos appeared online of IRPT members saying they were abandoning the party.
Mulloabbas Radzhabzoda, the head of the IRPT branch in Sughd Province, announced in a video posted on YouTube that he was resigning his position and closing the party’s Sughd office, which stopped working on June 20. Others quickly followed.
Hayit says the members were acting under pressure from regional officials.
Some officials have also tried to link the IRPT, the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia, to Islamic terrorism. Kabiri believes Rahmon’s administration feels emboldened by the West’s preoccupation with radical Islam.
“Islamophobia is rising [internationally]. Some people in government feel that now is a good chance to take revenge on our party. This is a big mistake because they are creating a new conflict. They did this 20 years ago and it started a civil war,” Kabiri said.
It is not only the IRPT facing unprecedented pressure. The few remaining independent media outlets are gutted by self-censorship, non-governmental organizations are facing new legislation aimed at limiting their activities, and critics of Rahmon face all sorts of pressures, including sometimes violence. One prominent opposition leader was assassinated in Istanbul in March.
“We need […] national reconciliation. We need to sit down at the negotiating table,” said Mamadshoeva of Lali Badakhshan. “Instead we have an escalating situation.”