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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1995, Pages 53, 95

Special Report

Tajikistan After the Elections: Post-Soviet Dictatorship

By Walter White

Late in 1994 and again in early 1995, Tajikistan held its first ever elections since becoming a republic. It's not yet clear whether they mark a small beginning toward democracy for this troubled Central Asian nation, or merely set a precedent for more completely predictable elections in the Third World pattern.

A remote mountainous state of about 5.7 million people, Tajikistan shares a 600-mile border with Afghanistan and has similar clan-based politics. The country is trying to recover from a devastating 1992 civil war which pitted a coalition dominated by Tajiks from the southern Kulyab region against a loosely organized nationalist-Islamic revival group. Tajikistan was the poorest republic in the former Soviet Union, and is poorer now than it was then.

Parliamentary elections to the 181-seat Majlis Ali (high assembly), until a few months ago known as the Supreme Soviet, were held Feb. 26. These elections were preceded in November by presidential elections. Although outwardly correct in form and appearance, both contests reportedly were marked by widespread fraud, stuffing or even substitution of ballot boxes, voter intimidation, and other manipulations.

In the parliamentary elections, despite the Tajik government's public promise of a multi-party, democratic contest, the government's electoral commission denied large numbers of aspiring candidates permission to participate, usually on shaky legal grounds. The most celebrated disqualification of a parliamentary candidate was that of Abdulmalik Abdullajonov, who had been defeated in the November 1994 presidential elections.

Such arbitrary disqualifications resulted in many seats being uncontested. The government claimed this was true of only five percent of the seats, but other sources estimated the figure at 40 percent. The Tajik government's claim that these were multi-party elections, therefore, is questionable. Of 181 seats filled, the four officially registered opposition parties elected five, three, two and one deputies, respectively. In addition, voter turnout for the parliamentary elections appeared sparse, although the government claimed 85 percent participation.

Earlier, in the November presidential elections, Emomili Rahmonov, head of the coalition of Kulyabi Tajiks who had won the civil war and who afterwards was appointed Supreme Soviet Chairman and Head of State, was declared the winner with 58 percent of the vote. This figure was disputed by many observers, who suspected vote rigging. The same observers had predicted the election of Rahmonov's opponent, Abdulmalik Abdullajonov, a former prime minister. Abdullajonov is from Kojand, in the northern industrial district of Leninabad.

Regional groupings—Kulyabis, Pamiris, Garmis, and those from the Leninabad area—are politically important in this overwhelmingly ethnic Tajik country. Members of the Uzbek minority make up fewer than 25 percent of the population and have little influence.

Arbitrary disqualifications resulted in many seats being uncontested.

Independent observers viewed the elections as staged events to reinforce Rahmonov's power. Nearly all of those now in charge are ex-communists, many of whom ran Tajikistan before the breakup of the Soviet Union. Despite lip service to democratic processes, therefore, Tajikistan is today a de facto dictatorship.

The trampling of human rights in the election process did not go unnoticed. The European Union (EU) and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) followed the process closely, and various Tajikis who were prospective candidates lodged complaints about unfair practices. The OSCE seconded a number of these complaints and forwarded them to the Tajik government, without any discernable results.

Some suggestions by OSCE, however, particularly on provisions in the election law which was drawn up last November to regulate the parliamentary contest, were incorporated, at least in part, by the Tajik authorities. The government, mindful of its image, invited observers from various countries and international groups to monitor the elections, hoping that would give them legitimacy. Both the EU and OSCE declined to send official observers. There were some 20 international observers at the elections, according to the Tajik government, from Georgia, Iran, Russia, and other Central Asian countries.

Meanwhile, the banned opposition, losers in the 1992 civil war, boycotted both elections, stating that free and fair polling was impossible while Rahmonov remained in power. Loosely organized into four nationalist and Islamic parties, the opposition is based largely in northern Afghanistan, and Iran. There are armed opposition elements in Afghanistan and parts of the southeastern regions of Tavilara and Gorno-Badakhishan. Despite a cease-fire, bloody incursions by opposition forces based in Afghanistan occur fairly frequently against the 25,000-strong, largely Russian, border forces.

A Constant Concern

Security is a constant concern, although the Russian 201st motorized rifle division is stationed in the capital, Dushanbe, to provide security for the city and surrounding region. In addition, there is a Russian-CIS border force which faces the armed opposition in northern Afghanistan.

The Tajik economy is in shambles, largely due to the chaos and dislocations caused by the civil war. Almost 70 percent of the country's foreign exchange was earned from cotton sales before the troubles, but production has been halved over the past two years due to fuel shortages and a lack of spare parts for machines. The overemphasis on cotton growing causes occasional shortages of food crops, particularly wheat for bread.

Aluminum, produced at a plant which was one of the largest in the former Soviet Union, has been Tajikistan's other major foreign exchange earner. Now aluminum production is down to a reported 40 percent of previous levels. A state monopoly of cotton and aluminum adopted at the end of 1994 may eliminate some of the abuses and corruption under the previous free market system.

On the consumer level, the government has been unable to pay its employees for months. Cooking gas and hot water, supplied centrally to apartment buildings and single residences in Dushanbe, frequently goes off without warning and may stay off for days—cut off by the Uzbek suppliers when the Tajik government doesn't pay its bills. Gasoline is sold by the jerry can, often by roadside entrepreneurs, and the price fluctuates daily, depending upon the supply.

A limited amount of foreign luxury goods may be bought—in rubles, at prices too high for most Tajikis to afford—in shops at the city's two leading hotels and at several other locations. Goods for sale include cigarettes, vodka, cookies, candy, sardines, salami, and cosmetics. Prices are at least double those in the West. Many of these items are undoubtedly smuggled, but others come legally overland from Turkey on huge trailer trucks.

A walk down Rudaki Street, Dushanbe's main avenue, reveals numbers of half-finished apartment buildings, looking like skeletons with missing doors and windows; huge potholes and breaks in the pavement; Western-type shops with attractive facades that, upon closer inspection, seem to be permanently closed; neatly-dressed Russian-appearing women selling newspapers on corners; and a strong Russian military presence, with passing army vehicles and groups of soldiers in camouflage battle dress.

A stroll down Rudaki Street after dark is ill-advised, due to the prevalence of street crime. Foreigners in Dushanbe observe an informal curfew: be inside by dark if you're on foot. Social events such as national days are rare, but they are usually held during the afternoon. Muggings and other street crime abound during hours of darkness, and woe unto the vehicle that is left at night in an unguarded lot or not locked in a garage.

Recently a U.N. officer set out for home on foot after midnight following a downtown drinking party. According to a U.N. security officer, he was able to take only about a dozen steps before being held up, then beaten up because he wasn't carrying enough money. Driving isn't much safer. Automobile traffic continues until close to midnight, but usually at a high rate of speed. A few random gunshots are heard almost every night.

For those who have spent time in Middle Eastern capitals, Dushanbe is strangely different. Despite being Muslim and an area with historic ties to Iran, the city appears more Russian than Middle Eastern. Ramadan seems to be only half-heartedly observed in the city, and mosques are infrequent. The Russian population, an estimated six percent at independence, is concentrated in Dushanbe and is very evident, though those Russians who could, especially professionals, fled the country during the civil war. Russian, not Tajik, is the main lingua franca of the central government. At a concert in late winter co-sponsored by the American Embassy, the official welcome and announcements were in Russian. Only the American ambassador spoke in Tajik.

A number of international peacekeeping and relief groups are resident in Tajikistan. Largest among these is the United Nations Mission of Observers to Tajikistan (UNMOT), which has about 50 military and civilian officers in the capital and at seven field stations in the countryside. Established by the U.N. Security Council late in 1994, UNMOT helps ensure the cease-fire by noting and tracking violations, which are reviewed by a joint commission of the government and opposition, chaired by UNMOT. The joint commission works fairly smoothly. UNMOT has been praised by both the opposition and the government as a valued peacekeeping organization. Both have urged its continuance, which is dependent upon renewal of the cease-fire this spring.

Dushanbe appears more Russian than Middle Eastern.

Another large U.N. body is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which operates at various centers north of the Afghan border and has been very successful in resettling refugees from the 1992 civil war. UNHCR has stated that its mission will be completed by June 1995, at which time it plans to phase out its operations.

In all, 28 international groups are operating in Tajikistan, including the Aga Khan Foundation, Mercy Corps International, Relief International, and the World Food Program. Tajikistan needs all the help it can get. If national reconciliation doesn't occur, there is the prospect of another civil war, or, at the least, a prolonged continuation of border raids, violence inside the country, economic chaos, and other unsettled conditions.

Three rounds of U.N.-sponsored talks have been held between the government and the opposition, beginning in April 1994, in Moscow, Tehran, and Islamabad. Because of intransigence on both sides, these talks achieved little.

A fourth round, scheduled for Moscow, has been delayed for months due to opposition objections to the location. Until there is a coming together of both sides, however, there is little likelihood that conditions will get much better, or that genuine democracy will get even a toehold in Tajikistan.

Walter White, a retired U.S. foreign service officer, has recently returned from a contract assignment with the OSCE mission to Tajikistan.