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Tajikistan: Vote On Constitution A Milestone In Peace Process

  • Liz Fuller



On Sunday, Tajikistan will vote on proposed changes to the country's 1994 constitution, including the legalization of religion-based political parties. RFE/RL Caucasus Analyst Liz Fuller analyzes how the referendum is part of an attempt to implement the peace agreement between the Tajik government and the Islamic opposition.

Prague, 23 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Sunday's referendum on changes to the Tajik constitution marks a milestone in the painful and protracted search for a political system that will be acceptable to all sides in the Tajik struggle. The Russian-backed leadership and the Islamic-oriented opposition have been trying to reach a mutually acceptable agreement for more than two years.

In 1997, representatives of the two sides signed a peace accord that ended five years of civil war. Under the agreement, opposition leaders were to return from Iran and Afghanistan. Their armed units were to be disarmed and given a choice of serving in the Tajik army or police force. In return, the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which is made up of several opposition parties, was to be given representation in the government.

But the disarmament process and the formation of a new coalition government were not completed in time to hold new elections in mid-1998. The peace process was repeatedly threatened by local insurrections and political assassinations. Meanwhile, government and opposition representatives could not agree on the opposition's proposed candidates for ministerial posts.

In part, the instability was the logical consequence of the way the peace process was conducted. Representatives of strong regional elites, such as Colonel Mahmud Khudoiberdiev, were excluded. Left out of the peace deal, Khudoiberdiev launched three failed insurrections in a year and a half. The assassination last year of Otakhon Latifi, a widely respected opposition politician, similarly threatened to derail the peace process.

Finally this summer, after weeks of negotiations in which the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also participated, the two sides resolved their outstanding issues. Agreement was reached on the ministerial posts, and the UTO completed the disarmament of its military units. That was a key precondition for the holding of new presidential and parliamentary elections.

Those elections are, however, to be preceded by the referendum on Sunday. Voters are called upon to approve or reject a package of three constitutional amendments. The first replaces the present one-chamber parliament with a two-chamber legislature. The second extends the presidential term from five to seven years. And the third legalizes political parties that have a religious component.

It is that third amendment that is the most controversial. The existing law on political parties, which dates from May 1998, bans religious parties. Included in that ban is the Islamic Renaissance Party, which constitutes the backbone of the UTO.

Last month, following the disarmament of the last opposition military units, the Tajik Supreme Court lifted a ban on four opposition formations, including the Islamic Renaissance Party. The four parties must, however, re-register with the Justice Ministry in order to qualify for the presidential poll set for November and the parliamentary elections in January.

That requirement could serve as a pretext to keep the Islamic Renaissance Party out of the presidential race in November. But an official with the main government party has said opposition participation in the race is important to prove that the elections are democratic.

The present Tajik leadership, and its backers in Moscow, seem confident that the country's war-weary population will opt for stability and continuity, rather than risk a new civil war. But ultimately, the goal of the Islamic Renaissance Party is to come to power, a goal they hope to achieve through peaceful elections. Russia or Uzbekistan might be tempted to intervene to prevent an Islamic government in Tajikistan. Alternatively, tensions may emerge between the moderate and more radical members of the Islamic Renaissance Party over the best way to assume power.

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