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Tajikistan: What's The Political Message Behind Drug Czar's Arrest?

The balance of power is shifting in Tajikistan. The latest sign comes in the recent detention and impending arrest of Tajik counternarcotics chief Gaffor Mirzoev -- a powerful official from the country's Kulyab area, a source of strong government support during the 1992-97 civil war. There are many in Kulyab and elsewhere who are wondering what effect Mirzoev's sacking will have.

Prague, 10 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Until 6 August, Gaffor Mirzoev seemed to be a model of government service in Tajikistan.

Mirzoev became the commander of the presidential guard during the last few years of Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war.

He remained in that position until January, when he was named the head of the Tajik counternarcotics agency, an organization praised by the United Nations for its effectiveness.

But now the ambitious official is facing arrest on a number of charges, including weapons possession, illegal property privatization, abuse of power, tax evasion, and murder.

But some speculate that Mirzoev's detention is also the result of his political ambition. A journalist attending a news conference with Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov asked if Mirzoev was planning a run for the presidency in the 2007 elections.
"Moves by the [Tajik] president to neutralize those who are sufficiently powerful to be rivals [for the presidency] is completely logical in the battle for power in the post-Soviet states." -- Russian journalist Viktoriya Panfilova

"What do you think? Every day he is in the newspapers -- 'Ruzi Nau,' 'Niru-i Sukhan,' 'Charoghi Ruz,' 'Biznes i Politika.' What does that tell you? He likely does have some goal. Only time will tell," Bobokhonov responded.

Bobokhonov mentioned that if Mirzoyev was found innocent he would be released. But, he then added, "you can forget about the release."

Russian journalist Viktoriya Panfilova has covered events in Central Asia for more than a decade. She said Mirzoev's dismissal should have been expected once it became clear he might compete against incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov in the 2007 ballot.

"Moves by the [Tajik] president to neutralize those who are sufficiently powerful to be rivals [for the presidency] is completely logical in the battle for power in the post-Soviet states," Panfilova said. "For example, it is enough to recall how Heidar Aliyev, Eduard Shevardnadze, Robert Kocharian dealt with people who were competing for power. They all got rid of their rivals. Therefore President Rakhmonov's approach is far from original."

The embattled Mirzoev is finding support from an unexpected source -- the leaders of the former United Tajik Opposition, the very people Mirzoev fought against during the civil war.

As part of the 1997 Tajik National Peace Accord that ended the civil war, the opposition received 30 percent of the positions in the government. That percentage decreased after the 2000 parliamentary elections, but former opposition figures continue to hold some places.

Rakhmonov appears interested in maintaining an appearance of balance and diversity in his government. In the past, whenever a pro-government official has been dismissed, a pro-opposition is sacked soon afterward, and vice versa. Observers say Rakhmonov uses the tactic to demonstrate he does not play favorites.

Mirzoev's move from the presidential guard to the less prestigious position at the head of the counternarcotics agency came shortly after the dismissal of opposition leader Mahmudruzi Iskandarov as head of the state electrical company.

Now many from the former opposition wonder if Mirzoev's arrest might mean someone from among their ranks will be next to go.

Said Abdullo Nuri is the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Mirzoev, he said, always enjoyed close ties with the government. If someone of his stature could be dismissed, then no one can feel secure in their current position.

"When the government detains a person who has performed great services for the government -- and nobody can deny this -- and he is arrested for such trivial matters that could be easily resolved, anyone from the among the opposition commanders could find themselves in the same situation," Nuri said.

Mirzoev's sudden departure from the government also impacts on the future of another representative of the once-powerful Kulyab region in a high-ranking position in the government -- Mahmadsaid Ubaidullaev, the mayor of Dushanbe and chairman of the upper house of the Tajik parliament.

Ubaidullaev has also been mentioned as a potential rival to Rakhmonov in the 2007 presidential elections and in the past was often referred to as the "real power" in the Tajik government.

Mirzoyev supported Ubaidullaev. The loss of the former drug czar leaves the mayor of Dushanbe in an unenviable situation.

(Iskander Aliev and Soljida Djakhfarova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)