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Will A Critical Voice Again Echo In The Tajik Parliament?

Suhrob Sharifov: "It's normal to have different positions and points of view."

Suhrob Sharifov: "It's normal to have different positions and points of view."

Tajikistan's 63-strong parliament is notorious for its lack of lively debates or real discussion.

That may be about to change, however, with an outspoken critic of the government's policies poised to enter the rubber-stamp legislature.

Suhrob Sharifov, head of the state-run Center for Strategic Studies, is on a short list of candidates to fill a parliamentary seat left open by the recent death of lawmaker Safarali Rajabov. Sharifov is one of four vying for the seat, which will be decided in a December by-election. He will run as a candidate from the ruling People's Democratic Party.

Little is known about his challengers, and Sharifov appears to be taking victory as a foregone conclusion.

"As a member of the party, I support its program and position, but I also have my own position and principles as a human being and an expert, and I will voice them if I'm elected," says Sharifov, 47.

"Lawmakers should know it's normal to have serious discussions and disagreements over different issues until you reach consensus. It's normal to have different positions and points of view," he adds.

'Black Sheep'

The Moscow-educated former philosophy professor has spent more than a decade working in the administration of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, including a two-year stint as a presidential adviser. Sharifov is still considered a government official in his capacity as the head of a think tank affiliated withthe president's office.

"But he is a black sheep there," says Dushanbe-based political observer Rustami Sami. "The current circle that surrounds the president is made up of people who are predictable and overly cautious. Sharifov is different.

Tajik President Emomal Rahmon

Tajik President Emomal Rahmon

"Sharifov stands out with his sharp intellect, his ideas, and he doesn't follow the so-called rule that dictates that only [the president] can decide on state issues."

In an environment where voices of dissent are not tolerated, Sharifov has built a reputation as an outspoken critic, publicly criticizing decisions made by top authorities.

He has repeatedly spoken out against Tajikistan hosting a Russian military base. And he famously condemned Dushanbe's decision to place the Okno airspace control facility in southern Tajikistan under Russian control.

Sharifov has gone as far as calling for limiting the president's powers and transferring some of the president's authority to parliament and the prime minister.

And in a bold statement for any official within the president's circle, he has said Tajikistan is not immune to the Arab-style uprisings that brought down autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Famous Microphone No. 6

Tajik media and observers of the country's political scene are wondering whether Sharifov might become a voice of dissent in parliament, a voice that has been missing in the Tajik legislature since the early 1990s.

Some draw parallels to the legendary Microphone No. 6 episode, during which a prominent Tajik opposition member broke a long-standing taboo by speaking out against autocratic government policies in the last years of the Soviet Union.

Parliament sessions broadcast live on national television in 1990 became a nationwide sensation, as newly elected parliamentarian Tohir Abdujabbor challenged the authorities. Abdujabbor, the leader of the opposition Rastokhez (Renaissance) movement, was the first within the halls of parliament to publicly call for Tajikistan to break with the Soviet Union.

Abdujabbor did so by speaking through Microphone No. 6, making the phrase synonymous with free speech and political freedom in Tajikistan. The microphone was switched off when subsequent public uprisings were followed by a civil war.

Rahmon was introduced as the new leader of the country in an emergency parliament session in November 1992 and has remained in power ever since. His People's Democratic Party has dominated every parliament elected since the mid-1990s, silencing voices of opposition.

Not Crossing the Line?

Is Sharifov the man to break the silence?

Sharifov himself says he hopes to end lawmakers' routine of silently agreeing to every government proposal. He touts a record of fighting against rampant corruption, nepotism, and regional factionalism, calling them key reasons behind the country's stagnation.

"I want to call for changes to existing laws that make the fight against corruption more effective," Sharifov says.

Says Dushanbe-based political observer Rustami Sami: "Sharifov will become one of the very few deputies who will really work."

Rahmatilo Zoirov

Rahmatilo Zoirov

Others are less optimistic.

Rahmatilo Zoirov, head of Tajikistan's Social Democratic Party, points out that Sharifov's criticism of the authorities has never pushed beyond certain limits and that his critical remarks have always been made with the tacit approval of the authorities.

Indeed, Sharifov openly defends the current political climate in Tajikistan, saying, "There is more political freedom in Tajikistan than in some of its neighbors, such as Kazakhstan, where the president's party occupies all parliament seats."

"We're making a first, tentative step toward democracy," Sharifov says. "It takes quite a long time to make a complete transition from an authoritarian system to a democratic system, by Western standards."

Zohirov believes Sharifov would be a welcome addition to parliament, but "unfortunately he will have only a single vote" to make real changes.