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Tajikistan: Fractured Opposition Faces Uphill Battle Before Election

  • Bruce Pannier --> President Rakhmonov's position appears unshakable (file photo) (AFP) Tajikistan's political opposition wields little power, and it arguably poses little threat to President Imomali Rakhmonov's hopes of reelection in November. But to make matters worse, at least one party leader is facing criminal prosecution, another has inflamed prosecutors, and one of the country's longest-standing parties has split. RFE/RL examines the latest obstacles confounding the Tajik opposition in a presidential election year.

PRAGUE, April 18, 2006 -- There is still fight left among the opposition despite the recent setbacks.

Social Democratic Party Chairman Rahmatullo Zoirov provoked the wrath of authorities when he went out on a limb earlier this month on the topic of political prisoners:

"In Tajikistan [today], there are at least 1,000 political prisoners," Zoirov alleged. "Among them are 30 wrongly sitting in jail for their political activities. There are more than 200 people jailed not for politics but for their participation in political parties. And a third group is those who are suffering because of the politics of the state."

Hare-Trigger Prosecutors?

Zoirov's remarks quickly caught the attention of Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov, who suggested Zoirov could face prosecution over his comments:

"We will without a doubt invite him [Zoirov] here [to the prosecutor's office]," Bobokhonov said. "He must prove to us that each and every one of these 1,000 [inmates] is a political prisoner. If he cannot, then he will answer before the law."

The prosecution of Zoirov would not be unique among Tajik opposition leaders. Said Abdullo Nuri, the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), is currently facing slander charges over his suggestion of financial impropriety at a public utility. Nuri told the newspaper "Millat" in January that foreign aid bound for the Dushanbe waterworks had gone missing and suggested that public officials might be responsible.

In cautious remarks to RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Deputy Chairman Muhiddin Kabiri dismissed the charges against the IRP leader.

"We have believed from the start that this was clearly a fabricated case and there was no need to go to court," Kabiri said. "But since some circles had an interest in [Nuri's prosecution], they brought the case to court. We will see what happens."

Past Experience

The sweeping realignments could simply signal attempts by political forces to jockey for position ahead of the presidential vote scheduled for November. But in a country where prosecutors devote so much attention to the political opposition, it is tempting to see ulterior motives in such cases.

The leader of one of Tajikistan's oldest political parties, the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Mahmadruzi Iskanderov, is serving a 23-year sentence for terrorism, banditry, and embezzlement after his conviction in October. Less than six months later, his party has split.

The acting party chairman, Rahmatullo Valiev, has suggested that outside forces lured party members away in exchange for cash.

"This group [of party members who chose to split] just shows that the living standards are low in Tajikistan," Valiev claimed, going on to charge, "People have appeared who can be bought for a few somoni [the Tajik national currency]."

Social Democratic Party leader Rahmatullo Zoirov (RFE/RL file photo)

The Socialist Party also suffered a split last year, and some in that party have accused the government of causing the rift. Since then the Socialists have all but vanished from Tajikistan's political scene.

Social Democrat Shokirjon Hokimov is not surprised by the more recent setbacks for the opposition. He told RFE/RL it was to be expected given the pervasiveness of political intimidation.

"Of course on the eve of important political events there are such incidents," Hokimov said. "I think that certain circles want to intimidate people, to put fear in their hearts and show the dominance of the government."

Ahead of the last presidential election, in 1999, all three of Rakhmonov's would-be challengers were barred from competing in the poll. Pressure from a number of foreign governments and international organizations finally succeeded in getting one challenger registered in time for the election, but it was too late to have made a difference.

With the constitutional path clear for Rakhmonov to hang onto the presidency for two more terms -- and his party dominant on the political scene -- Tajikistan's opposition might be wondering whether it has been sidelined once again in the race for power.

(Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)