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Tajikistan: Will Opposition Leader Become Stumbling Block In Relations With Moscow?

Dushanbe has been strongly critical of Moscow following a decision by Russian authorities to release Tajik opposition figure Mahmadruzi Iskandarov. Tajikistan sought Iskandarov's extradition to face trial at home on charges of embezzlement and ties to a terrorist group. The Democratic Party of Tajikistan head was arrested in Moscow in December, at Dushanbe's request. So what does Iskandarov's release mean for Russian-Tajik relations?

Prague, 12 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojan Bobokhanov used harsh language when reacting to Iskandarov's release.

Speaking yesterday at a press conference in Dushanbe, Bobokhanov said his office has renewed an arrest warrant for Iskandarov.

He also said he would demand an explanation from Russia as to why they agreed to his release. "He is wanted as an especially dangerous criminal. Nobody -- neither a political party nor an individual citizen -- has the right [to help Iskandarov avoid] his arrest. No money collected for bribes will help him. His relatives and accomplices should not try [to help him escape arrest]. Sooner or later he will be brought to justice," Bobokhanov said.
With Russia in the midst of its own self-declared battle against terror, the Tajik prosecutor said it was wrong to release a prisoner facing such charges.

Bobokhanov said Russian officials had repeatedly asked for additional information and documents on Iskandarov’s case while reviewing the extradition request. After that, he said, the opposition figure's release came as a surprise.

Bobokhanov described that decision as a mistake that Russian authorities should correct. He added that a new charge had leveled against Iskandarov -- that of organizing an attempted coup in Tajikistan.

In addition to the new charge, Iskandarov is wanted in Tajikistan on charges of terrorism and embezzlement. The Prosecutor General’s Office has accused him of organizing an attack at the local Interior Ministry office and prosecutor's office in the eastern region of Tajikabad in August 2004.

He has also been charged with keeping a team of bodyguards after the conclusion of the five-year civil war (1992-1997), when personal guards became banned by presidential decree.

With Russia in the midst of its own self-declared battle against terror, the Tajik prosecutor said it was wrong to release a prisoner facing such charges.

But releasing Iskandarov last week (April 8), Russian officials refused to extradite him, saying they did not have sufficient evidence of any wrongdoing.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Tajik Service after his release, Iskandarov called the charges against him "ridiculous" and politically motivated. “They accuse me of terrorism. It’s ridiculous. I wasn’t involved in terrorist activities during the civil war (eds: 1992-97). Why would I get involved in terrorism today? As far as the charges on banditry and having weapons and bodyguards are concerned, it was President [Imomali Rakhmonov's] decision to give me bodyguards. When I changed my political position, authorities accused me of something they allowed me to do [when I was on their side],” Iskandarov said.

Iskandarov was speaking from Moscow. He says he plans to run in Tajikistan's 2006 presidential elections. But it is unclear when he will return to the country, or whether he will be able to avoid arrest once he does.

Some independent observers claim the Tajik president has sought during the past several years to remove his political rivals from power. The charges against Iskandarov were leveled after he announced his intention to run for president. The criminal charges barred Iskandarov from running for parliament in Tajikistan's February polls.

They also coincided with another notable arrest last summer. General Gaffor Mirzoyev, the president's former ally and the head of the country's anti-drug agency, was arrested and charged with crimes ranging from murder to illegal weapons possession and tax evasion.

Following his release, Iskandarov thanked President Vladimir Putin for allowing him to continue his fight for the freedom of the Tajik people.

Moscow's decision to release Iskandarov is especially surprising because Moscow has traditionally backed the Rakhmonov regime. Rakhmonov’s recent meeting with Putin (6 April) in Black Sea resort town of Sochi, which was devoted to the situation in Kyrgyzstan, was also seen as a coordination of efforts against a possible revolution in Tajikistan.

The Tajik opposition welcomed Russians’ decision on Iskandarov. Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, called it a sign that the Kremlin has changed its policy towards post-Soviet countries.

“This is a clear indication that Russian authorities will collaborate not only with [Tajik] authorities but also with opposition forces that exist on the political scene of Tajikistan," Hakimov said.

Sergey Mikheyev, who heads the CIS department at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, says the Kremlin learned a lesson in Ukraine when it backed the unsuccessful presidential bid of pro-government and pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovych. He says that since then the Kremlin has begun establishing contacts with the opposition forces.

"I think the Russian government is trying to revise its policy in the post-Soviet space and move toward more pragmatism. Russia’s priority is to keep a pro-Russian stance [in the post-Soviet republics], or at least have constructive relations [with them]. Taking into account that the leaderships of some post-Soviet states were unable to keep power in their hands, the Russian government decided to establish contacts with opposition leaders too,” Mikheyev says.

Mikheyev tells RFE/RL the harsh words from the Tajik prosecutor may cause some displeasure. But he doubts the case will have a negative impact on Russian-Tajik relations.

Moscow has offered no official reaction to the case.

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