DUSHANBE, August 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- With a presidential election scheduled for November in Tajikistan, the young, forward-thinking leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party (HNIT), Mohiedin Kabiri, is in a desperate state following the death of the charismatic leader of the party, Said Abdullo Nuri.
Nuri -- who died on August 9 after "a serious illness" -- was the backbone of opposition leadership in Tajikistan. Kabiri now has the daunting task of leading the party in Nuri's shadow. He also needs to bring energy and a new strategy for his party in the presidential election, and must assert his authority to bring unity to the some 26,000 members of the HNIT.
President Rakhmonov continues to weaken the chances of opposition candidates while appearing to promote what he describes as democratic elections.
Not Enthused About Running
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, the 42-year-old Kabiri spoke of his concerns about what he describes as outside attempts to break up the HNIT. He claims the party is fully united behind his leadership but he is hesitant when asked if he will be a candidate in the presidential election, indicating that he will "first present his case to the party convention in September."
"If the party convention insists and says it has no alternative, I will have my conditions [for becoming a candidate]," he said. "But I'm hopeful that this will not be the case and they will accept my argument, and perhaps have a different view on the selection of a candidate."
But if Kabiri does not want to be HNIT's candidate in the election, who might be possible candidates? The veteran politician Said Ibrahim Nazar, one of the founders of the Islamic Renaissance Party, seems to be the favorite. Another possible candidate is the hard-line Mohammad Ali Haiit, who has remained one of the top officials in the party since 1990. There is also uncertainty about the party's official policy, and Kabiri seems to want to wait before deciding on a strategy.
"In the present circumstances, the easiest and simplest choice, in my view, is to influence the thinking of those in power," he said. "If they are not ready to accept others in power, this could have severe repercussions...if they intend, for example, to stay in power by any means, even by resorting to violence, this is not very helpful. So the best way for keeping peace in society and having influence is to influence those in power."
Party Beset With Problems
An even bigger task is awaiting the Democratic Party of Tajikistan (HDT) in the absence of its influential leader, Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, who is serving a 23-year prison term. The acting leader of the party, Rahmatullo Valliev, says he will announce his candidacy. But there are at least four other contenders and the final choice will be made by party members at their mid-September convention. Valliev, who is in his early 50s, said the party's entire managing board may be changed.
The HDT -- which was one of the most influential in the early 1990s -- still suffers from a split in its ranks in 1994. This has led to a chronic leadership crisis that heated up some six months ago when part of its membership -- allegedly encouraged by the ruling People's Democratic Party --- reportedly became pro-government under the name Vatan.
With that lost support it will be almost impossible for Valliev -- or any other HDT candidate -- to collect the 160,000 signatures needed to register as a candidate. Even though the HDT has only 4,500 members -- according to the best estimates -- Valliev told RFE/RL in an interview that he is convinced they will get enough signatures to register a candidate.
"I think once the party selects a candidate then we will work with our provincial branches to ensure they collect the necessary number of signatures," he said. "So today we are working hard preparing for the elections. Some of our members are in Russia and we have requested the Central Electoral Commission to create the necessary procedure for collecting the signatures of those in Russia...to give them the necessary forms to fill in and so on."
Possible Candidate Recovering
Many observers of the Tajik presidential election are hopeful that the outspoken leader of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Rahmatullo Zoirov, will pose a serious challenge -- if only verbal -- to President Rakhmonov. However, even that hope seemed dashed last month when Zoirov suffered a stroke that affected his speech.
RFE/RL's Tajik Service visited Zoirov at his home on August 22. He has recently returned from treatment in Switzerland and he seemed very well recovered and spoke well. He said he will indeed put forward his name as a presidential candidate. He reiterated his stance that Rakhmonov has been ruling unconstitutionally since 1999. Zoirov said if Rakhmonov is a candidate he will have to withdraw his candidacy from what, in his view, will be an illegal presidential election.
"I am adamant that I was right from the start," he said. "I spoke to several legal experts of high caliber in Russia; they studied the details of the [Tajik] Constitution and said collectively that according to the constitutional amendment in 2003, Imomali Rakhmonov does not have the legal right to put his name forward as a candidate."
President Rakhmonov, meanwhile, is benefiting from the might of his political apparatus and his total control of the media and has found grounds to jail any other possible contender, such as his ex-bodyguard, General Ghaffor Mirzoiev, or former Interior Minister Yaqub Salimov. Rakhmonov continues to weaken the chances of opposition candidates by all means possible while appearing to promote what he describes as democratic elections.
Ukrainian journalists trying to cover Kazakhstan's presidential election being expelled from the country in December 2005
MUZZLED MEDIA: Below is a brief overview of key media issues in each of the five Central Asian countries. (prepared by Daniel Kimmage)
Although Kazakhstan has seen the harassment of journalists and media outlets that fall afoul of the state, the larger problem is one of access -- both to sensitive information and to the larger public.
Asked whether freedom of the press exists in Kazakhstan, Darigha Nazarbaeva -- the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and a media magnate in her own right -- said recently that one need walk only five minutes in Almaty to find a publication that elaborates "what a bad president we have and how I've monopolized the entire press." And she's right -- an opposition press exists.
But national television, with its enormous potential to shape popular opinion, remains either state-controlled or subordinate to allied interests -- as witnessed by a strict taboo on investigations of alleged corruption in the Nazarbaev family.
Nowhere in Central Asia has the fate of the media reflected political upheaval as strikingly as in Kyrgyzstan of late. The true fall of President Askar Akaev in March 2005 took place not when he fled the seat of government before an advancing crowd, but when opposition leaders later made an impromptu appearance on state television. A heady period ensued, with revelations of Akaev-era skullduggery suddenly front and center in national media. But the honeymoon proved short-lived.
A post-Akaev political morass deepened through 2005 and early 2006 amid high-profile contract killings and frustrated expectations of political and economic reform. And the media environment followed suit, with initial gains eroded by renewed state interference in television, salaried partisanship in the print media, and the rising influence of organized-crime groups.
Tajikistan's media environment has seen no such political upheavals. President Imomali Rakhmonov could rule through 2020, as long as he continues to secure reelection. He has consolidated his power in recent years -- seemingly with that aim in mind.
The media have also felt the consequences. As the country nears the end of its first decade since the 1992-97 civil war, the state maintains a firm grip national television and politically relevant print outlets. Meanwhile, a handful of tiny independent newspapers fight an increasingly uphill battle for access to printing facilities and readers.
The case of Turkmenistan speaks eloquently of a total stifling of media under blanket state control. News outlets trumpet the cult of President Saparmurat Niyzov and tout the purported glories of Turkmenistan's golden age under his rule. This reduces them to little more than a peephole on an otherwise sealed regime.
The media unfailingly broadcast Niyazov's pronouncements and feast on the latest official to fall from grace. On April 24, for example, former Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanov, who recently stepped down after a decade of dispatching onetime colleagues to unenviable fates, begged for mercy on the evening news as the president vilified her for corruption. Those same media outlets ignore whatever fails to fit the script of the decreed golden age.
President Islam Karimov insists that Uzbekistan's media are at war. What foreign media reported as evidence of a massacre in Andijon in May 2005, the president and officials have described as an "information attack" intended to undermine Uzbekistan's stability and sovereignty. Print and broadcast outlets, controlled either directly or indirectly by the state, are required to fight off this alleged assault by detailing extremist threats and foreign plots. They are also tasked with explaining the country's shift of geopolitical allegiance to Russia and China.
What space remains goes to a sanitized portrayal of Uzbek reality, with some warts left in -- local corruption and economic difficulties -- to lend credence to the grand official narrative espoused by slogans such as "Uzbekistan, a country with a great future."
Of Related Interest:
Turkmenistan: RFE/RL Journalists Given 15-Day Sentence
Uzbekistan: New Media Resolution Tightens The Screws
Central Asia: Internet Fills Void Left By Media On Religious Freedom Issues
Central Asia: RFE/RL Speaks With Media Monitor About Press Freedom
THE COMPLETE STORY: To view an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of media-related stories, click here.
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