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Central Asia Report: June 20, 2003

20 June 2003, Volume 3, Number 21

OPPOSITION RESIGNED TO GOVERNMENT VICTORY IN TAJIK REFERENDUM. On 22 June, Tajikistan's citizens go to the polls to vote in a national referendum on a series of constitutional amendments intended to update the country's 1999 constitution. A total of 56 amendments are being proposed. Many are unexceptional, linguistic or grammatical changes; but seeded among them are some extremely controversial innovations that could affect Tajik politics and society for decades to come. Rather than let voters pick and choose, the government is requiring them to approve or reject all 56 amendments in a package by answering the single question: "Do you support making changes and additions to the Constitution of the Republic of Tajikistan?" A positive answer appears inevitable, to judge by the 100 percent success rate of government-sponsored referendums in Central Asia since 1991. Political opponents of President Imomali Rakhmonov have already warned that, by hook or by crook, the government will make sure it gets the result it wants.

While voters will shrug over many of the proposed changes -- Amendment 1 is to capitalize the words "We, the people of Tajikistan" in the constitution's preamble -- three have generated particular concern. (For the text of proposed amendments, see A revision of Article 38 of the constitution would effectively end the current guarantee of free health care -- "Everyone has the right to free medical treatment in state health establishments" -- by adding the rider, "within limits determined by law." In similar fashion, the existing right to free higher and vocational education, contained in Article 41, would be abolished. The new version would read, "Everyone, within limits determined by law, may receive free general secondary education, as well as beginning, secondary, and higher professional education in state educational establishments." Tajiks who fondly remember the days of full state protection and socialist largesse under the USSR may be appalled, but proponents of the changes can reasonably argue that such generous promises are no longer appropriate for postcommunist Tajikistan, especially for a cash-strapped government. In any case, health care and education realistically ceased to be free in Tajikistan years ago, with informal payments to doctors and bribes to teachers and university administrators being the norm rather than the exception.

The key change, however, would be to Article 65, which now limits a president to serving a single term in office. Inconspicuously tucked at the bottom of the 37th proposed amendment, it reads simply, "to replace the words 'one term' with the words 'two terms.'" Rakhmonov is currently serving the fourth year of a seven-year term under new constitutional provisions passed in 1999. Amending Article 65 would pave the way to extending Rakhmonov's term in office. In fact it would permit the president to run for re-election two more times after his present term expires in 2006, conceivably keeping the 50-year-old incumbent in office until 2020. In the opinion of many observers, this is the whole point of the referendum exercise, with the other amendments merely serving as window dressing to disguise what is essentially a power grab (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 27 March 2003).

Rakhmonov has denied it. "I have been and I am still against being an all-powerful leader. The constitution is not just for Rakhmonov," he said in April, as reported by His position has been that the constitution needs amending to better reflect post-civil-war circumstances, noted on 12 June. Tajik political commentators have disagreed. Nematullo Mirsaidov, writing in the newspaper "Varorud" on 7 May, asked: "Is there any need to make changes which don't in the least strengthen the legal basis of civic freedoms? Where are the guarantees that a group of deputies [the members of the Assembly of Representatives, or lower chamber of Tajikistan's parliament, who voted to hold the referendum] are not once again aiming to serve the incumbent executive authorities in the country?" Another political expert, Suhrob Sharipov, acknowledged in the newspaper "Asia-Plus" on 15 May that over the last decade "we sometimes had to sacrifice some democratic principles to maintain stability in the process of building Tajikistan's young statehood," but those times had passed. Now that the country was making some progress in establishing its democratic credentials, he said the referendum would do "more harm than good."

Tajik oppositionists have been outspoken in condemning the referendum as a power grab and a sham. An appeal by the National Movement of Tajikistan (NMT), reported by Asia Plus-Blitz on 12 June, did not mince its words: it warned that the sole aim of the referendum was to enable Rakhmonov to remain in office, and that "to achieve its goals the government may use all the administrative and financial resources at its disposal and the services of the power-wielding agencies, as well as resorting to a direct falsification of the voting results as happened with the referendum and presidential election of 1998." NMT leader Hokimsho Muhabbatov added that any change to Article 65 must not be permitted to apply to the incumbent, otherwise it would guarantee the total domination of Rakhmonov's People's Democratic Party and the death of multiparty democracy in Tajikistan. The appeal was sent to the United States, European Union, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the countries guaranteeing the General Agreement on Peace and National Accord of 1997 that ended the Tajik civil war, requesting them to intervene to force the cancellation of the referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 June 2003). Since the present constitution was established on the basis of that peace accord, the NMT said it regarded "all changes and additions proposed to the constitution, especially changes made to Article 65, as a breach of the General Peace Agreement and an attempt to usurp political power in the country."

Four Tajik political parties summed up their views on the referendum at a news conference in the capital Dushanbe on 16 June. Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, leader of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan (DPT), announced that his party was refusing to send observers to the polling stations and called on its members to boycott the vote. He said that the president and parliament had ignored the DPT's recommendations about the amendments, and that consequently the party did not want to be held responsible for them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 June 2003). Iskandarov claimed the referendum's outcome was predetermined anyway. The order had already gone out to all regional and municipal heads to return to a vote of 95 percent in favor, he alleged, or else the responsible officials would be sacked, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Asked to predict the results, Iskandarov replied, "only Boltuev knows." Boltuev is the chairman of the Central Commission for Elections and Referendums.

At the same press conference, Social Democratic Party Chairman Rahmatullo Zoirov said he saw no point in boycotting the referendum -- or, for that matter, participating in it, "especially as its results are known already today." He asserted that only 1 percent-2 percent of voters were familiar with the proposed amendments, and only 30 percent-35 percent of voters had even heard about the referendum. Moreover, due to the large exodus of Tajik labor migrants -- at least 220,000 according to official statistics, in reality probably many more -- a sizeable proportion of potential voters would not have an opportunity to take part in the referendum, assuming they knew about it in the first place, Zoirov said as cited by Asia Plus-Blitz.

Meanwhile, acting Socialist Party Chairman Mirhuseyn Narziev said his party would take part in the plebiscite, although he personally planned to vote against the amendments because he believed they would undermine social stability and lead to more poverty and ignorance, which in turn could provide fertile ground for extremism and terrorism. Two pro-government parties -- the president's own People's Democratic Party and the newly formed Vahdat -- told journalists they supported the amendments (see "RFE/RL Newsline,"18 June 2003).

Conspicuously absent from the 16 June news conference were representatives of Tajikistan's main opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). The party opposed the referendum from the beginning, arguing that the 1999 constitution was too new to start modifying it already, and that ramming through amendments after only a few months of desultory debate could destabilize Tajik political life. But this stance has led to mounting tensions between Rakhmonov and the IRP, which must watch its step doubly carefully as an opposition party with an Islamic coloring when crackdowns against Islamic groups are being staged across Central Asia with renewed zeal. The recent arrest of IRP Deputy Chairman Shamsiddin Shamsiddinov on charges of creating an illegal armed group, allegedly responsible for a variety of crimes including murders, highlighted government antagonism towards the IRP (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 12 June 2003).

With all other opposition parties resigned to Rakhmonov getting his way on the referendum, IRP Chairman Said Abdullo Nuri apparently reckoned little was to be lost by softening his party's position towards it. He duly did so at a press conference on 9 June. Nuri announced that the IRP would not support any statement issued by other antigovernment groups hostile to the referendum, citing concerns that such opposition could lead to confrontation and instability, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. At the same time Nuri tried to maintain the IRP's oppositionist credentials by indicating the party was not exactly for the referendum, either. "The holding of the referendum is not a priority," he said. "The immediate task of the Tajik leadership ought to be poverty reduction."

Meanwhile, foreign governments and international organizations are on the sidelines. On 9 June U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Lynn Pascoe visited Dushanbe, where he discussed the referendum with Rakhmonov. He said he told the president that Washington was "interested in the referendum being held in accordance with international standards and being consistent with the necessary requirements," Tajik TV reported. However, "as far as the details of the referendum are concerned, I think that it is Tajik society's own business, not the USA's, to discuss them," Pascoe said. The U.S. envoy added that he had stressed the role the OSCE could and should play in assisting to ensure that elections and referendums met international standards.

Unfortunately, neither the UN nor the OSCE is sending observers to monitor the referendum because Tajikistan, either by design or oversight, invited them to participate too late for them to prepare monitoring missions. As Vladimir Sotirov, head of the UN Tajikistan Office of Peace-Building, told Asia Plus-Blitz on 16 June, the Tajik government failed to respect UN rules that the organization must be notified of coming elections or referendums four months before they are held. Instead, Sotirov complained that the UN had only been officially notified a few days previously.

The OSCE is similarly hamstrung as a result of the Tajik government's absentmindedness. However, the OSCE was one of the first organizations to pitch in with concerns about the referendum when its chairman-in-office's personal envoy for Central Asia, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, raised the matter with Rakhmonov during a visit to Tajikistan in March. But as sources familiar with those discussions have informed RFE/RL, Ahtisaari was not really the best man to drive it home to Rakhmonov that a president remaining in power for decades on end is unacceptable in a modern democratic country. Ahtisaari's predecessor but one, Urho Kekkonen, was president of Finland for 26 years.

NEW KAZAKH GOVERNMENT FORMED, SETS OUT PRIORITIES. Continuity in change has been the defining theme of Kazakhstan's new government, appointed over the course of the last week following 46-year-old Prime Minister Imanghaliy Tasmaghambetov's resignation on 11 June. The fresh cabinet features many of the same faces as the previous one, while the new premier, 49-year-old Daniyal Akhmetov, promised to keep the policies of his predecessor in place.

Tasmaghambetov, whose resignation on 11 June was accepted by President Nursultan Nazarbaev the same day, had been in office for only 18 months. The official reason Tasmaghambetov gave for stepping down was shock at learning that the results of a vote of confidence on 19 May, which his government survived, were allegedly falsified. That vote was intended to gauge support for a government proposal to introduce private ownership of agricultural land (see "Kazakhstan: Prime Minister Resigns Over Government Land-Reform Dispute," 12 June 2003). As required by the Kazakh Constitution, the prime minister's decision to quit automatically triggered the resignation of his whole cabinet.

Nazarbaev presented his new candidate for the post, Pavlodar Oblast Governor Daniyal Akhmetov, to a joint session of parliament on 13 June. Akhmetov was approved in an almost unanimous vote by 36 of 39 senators in parliament's upper chamber and 73 of 77 members of the Mazhilis, or lower chamber (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 June 2003). Addressing the parliament immediately after his confirmation as prime minister, Akhmetov indicated there would be few differences in personnel or policies between his government and the last one, Interfax reported.

That said, there were hints that this government may pay more attention to regional problems. When introducing Akhmetov to the parliament, Nazarbaev said that the next prime minister would need to have experience in oblast government because the country had to speed up the pace of social and economic development, Khabar news agency reported on 13 June. The president called him "a strong organizer, who knows the real economy well and who has the experience of working in the regions, where the new programs will be implemented."

Furthermore, Akhmetov's remark to parliament that there should be no dissidents in Kazakhstan, but rather a constructive dialogue in an atmosphere of mutual understanding, could be optimistically interpreted as a softening of the government line on oppositionists. Against that view, unfortunately, is his reputation as an administrator with little tolerance for opposition, and the fact that he was reportedly nicknamed "The Terminator" in Pavlodar for the cleanup campaign he conducted against allies and sympathizers of his predecessor as governor, the jailed founder of the opposition coalition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 June 2003). Akhmetov is also said to have closed down and harassed independent media outlets while Pavlodar's governor, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported on 16 June.

The promise of few ministerial changes was borne out as it emerged that two-thirds of the members of Akhmetov's cabinet were holdovers from Tasmaghambetov's. On 14 June, Nazarbaev reappointed seven ministers from the last government: the ministers of agriculture, the interior, education, defense, environment, energy, and economics all returned to their posts. A further seven appointments were announced on 16 June, of which five were repeats from the previous cabinet: the ministers of justice, health, labor, transport, and culture. The only newcomers are 33-year-old Yerbolat Dosaev as finance minister and Adilbek Jaksybekov as minister of trade and industry. The former used to lead the Agency for Regulating Natural Monopolies, according to Khabar. The latter had been the mayor of Astana. He was replaced by Temirhan Dosmukhanbetov as the Kazakh capital's mayor, which was also upgraded to a cabinet post. A number of appointments were also made to the presidential staff (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 17 June 2003). One of the familiar faces on the president's team was Tasmaghambetov himself, whom Nazarbaev made a state secretary.

Akhmetov claimed the new government represented "a symbiosis of continuity and young forces, which will allow us to achieve our goals," "Kazakhstan News Bulletin" reported on 18 June. But given the number of returning ministers around the table on 17 June, when Akhmetov held his first cabinet meeting, even presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbaev acknowledged to Interfax-Kazakhstan that "we cannot speak of Akhmetov's 'new team.'"

The prime minister set out his government's priorities at the meeting, with economic development topping the list. He singled out the need to implement an industrial-development strategy stressing innovation, a program for exploiting hydrocarbon reserves in the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea until 2015, and projects to promote the agricultural sector and combat poverty, RIA-Novosti reported. Akhmetov also promised more support for small and medium-sized businesses and domestic manufacturers. He warned his ministers against complacency. The country may have registered 10 percent annual GDP growth for four years in a row, he said, but that did not mean Kazakhstan had achieved a sustainable level of development.