Tajikistan's Politics: Confrontation or Consolidation?
Asia Briefing N°33
19 May 2004
Tajikistan's hard-won peace and stability is at risk. Indeed, the agreement that ended the bloody civil war in 1997 seemed briefly under threat in early 2004 when a series of confrontations between President Emomali Rakhmonov and former warlords sharply increased tensions in the country's murky political life. As parliamentary elections approach in early 2005 the president seems intent on consolidating his power, at the expense not only of the warlords, but also of opposition groups, including the legal Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). But this has dangers. Discontent is finding expression in radical fringe Islamist groups, and the increasing strength of a small clique around the president makes any battle against corruption and criminality increasingly difficult.
Progress has been made in some areas. In 2000, few people ventured out on the streets at night, and shooting was still common. Now Dushanbe is a fairly bustling capital, increasingly host to international visitors and conferences. Economic growth of more than 10 per cent in 2003 partly reflects high commodity prices, but at least some of it is outside the traditional export sectors: cotton and aluminium. There has been some trickle-down to ordinary people. Sectors such as construction are providing jobs.
Nevertheless, the situation remains difficult. Poverty is evident everywhere, and much of the population remains partially dependent on international food aid. The economy still reflects its Soviet past, with too much state intervention and very little in the way of the rule of law. Corruption is almost universal, foreign investors rare.
Tackling the economy requires a robust political strategy that brings technocrats into government and starts to reform some of the most corrupt state structures, such as the police. But the political system is fragile, and warlordism and regionalism govern much of its dynamic. Through the peace process, warlords on both sides retained effective control in many regions, including the Kulob-based Popular Front of Tajikistan (PFT) and the Islamist-democratic opposition (the United Tajik Opposition -- UTO), mostly based in the eastern Rasht Valley and the Pamirs. The president has gradually limited their powers and enforced the state's writ, but in some areas success has been only partial. These are positive steps towards a viable state, but instead of replacing warlords with a broader-based government, Rakhmonov's ruling circle is increasingly dominated by close allies, many from his home region.
The opposition in the civil war was a motley collection of parties, mixing democratic, Islamist and regional aspirations. Inclusion of the IRPT, as well as others from the UTO, was an important element in the peace, but much of this apparent pluralism has always been window-dressing. Although the end of the war was seen by many outsiders as a compromise resulting in coalition rule, many in the government regarded it as their victory over the Islamist opposition. Underlying hostility between the two sides remains evident. Continued pressure on the IRPT, and failure to draw a clear line between it and more radical Islamist groups, has sometimes threatened the basis of the peace.
All these tensions look likely to increase as parliamentary elections approach in February 2005, followed by presidential elections in 2006. Little is being done to avoid the malpractice of previous elections. Pressure on the secular opposition, a weak group of small parties, has increased, and few expect parliamentary elections to be free and fair: the ruling party is anticipated to win almost all the seats.
Dushanbe/Brussels, 19 May 2004