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Letter From Dushanbe: A Town Called Apathy

Election posters, Dushanbe
DUSHANBE -- Inspired by President Emomali Rahmon’s promise to hold the first-ever free and fair parliamentary elections, in which his party ended up winning a landslide, I recently returned to my home in Tajikistan.

Our plane landed at Dushanbe airport at three in the morning. It was dark and cold (16 degrees below zero). Sleepy passengers were jostling through passport control. I felt lucky when I saw foreign passengers gathering in the corner of a small room, filling in declarations and migration cards.

I was proud to get through quicker than the others with my blue-colored Tajik passport.

At the checkpoint, I tried to smile at the officer wrapped up in a sheepskin coat. I wondered why his face is so gloomy. He twisted my passport in his hands and stared at the visas from other countries.

"How long have you been outside the country?" he asked, looking at my passport.

"Nearly a year," I told him.

" don't feel drawn to your homeland?" he continued questioning me in his unfriendly tone.

"Life is hard. I need to work," I replied.

Then he raised his head and looked at me from behind his thick eyebrows, compared what he saw with the passport photograph, and stamped it.

For another two hours, I was stuck in a cold hall, waiting for my baggage stuffed with promotional ties and shirts for Radio Ozodi and batteries and tape recorders for my compatriots.

I no longer felt the privilege of being a Tajik citizen. The foreigners had completed their paperwork and joined me in the hall. They had happy faces. Nothing surprised them -- the cold waiting rooms, the baggage delay, even the fact that there was nowhere to sit.

I then realized they were observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). No wonder. These people might have been in a situation worse than this before. They vigorously searched their bags and dragged them to the customs X-ray.

When I came out of the airport it was already a shiny morning. Life was in full swing: street cleaners here and there, traders rushing to the market, milk sellers going from yard to yard offering fresh milk. The same pattern of life for the country that I was used to.

"You're probably very busy, so many guests, the country chooses a new parliament, right?" I said to my taxi driver

"Yes, something like that," he answered.

"You probably already decided who to vote for?"

"What is the difference, to vote or not to vote? If they were going to build factories, I would go to vote. Otherwise, I don't want to waste my time," my driver answered.

I left the taxi driver in peace and enjoyed the view outside.

Support Roghun!

The city was full of posters urging people to give everything to the Roghun hydropower plant (the government has launched a campaign to fund its construction). "Roghun -- the future of the nation" read a huge billboard. The slogans were everywhere, on government buildings, schools, theaters, and kindergartens.

From the third floor of the central post office, dressed in workers' clothes and pointing off into the distance, President Rahmon called on Tajik citizens to go to Roghun -- to the future. Rather than the elections, the country lived and breathed Roghun.

If the old shabby buildings, built in Soviet times, have strengthened my skepticism that Roghun cannot be built with the salaries of poor people, on the contrary, the three-storied palaces built in the style of Dubai sheiks in the city center have convinced me that at least somebody has money.

"Who owns these palaces?" I asked the driver.

"Not poor people," he replied with sadness. "These houses belong to ministers, prosecutors, business leaders, and relatives of great men. Poor people would need three lifetimes to build even half of such a palace, and you're talking about elections? Why conduct elections, there are no changes?"

His answer silenced me once again. Why should the government care about elections when no one takes them seriously? Perhaps in order to improve the country's image abroad and to show a commitment to pluralism and a multiparty system. To prove that they are better than what the world thinks about them.

And why does the opposition take part in the elections, knowing that they will not be free and fair? Perhaps, just in order to stay afloat -- to survive, to try to remain in the public eye until the good, democratic times will come?

"Does the government really intend to share parliament with its opponents?" I asked a local journalist who I met at the launch party for a new magazine, "Elite."

"Yes, of course," he replied with confidence. "They have no choice but to build Roghun, to unite the nation, they need the help of all forces -- friends and foes."

As the elections drew nearer, pictures and posters of the opposition parties appeared on the streets. However, given the huge posters for the ruling Democratic People's Party, the small portraits of opposition leaders looked like police "Wanted" posters. Even these pictures didn't last very long. Opposition parties put up posters during the day, only for them to be torn down at night.

Every day spent in Dushanbe convinced me more and more that the majority of the population is just not interested in politics.

"You must be excited that such a big event is taking place in your country and you're probably worried how all this will end up?" I said to a middle-aged woman who I got chatting to in the waiting room of one advertising agency.

I really scared the woman. She looked at me with wide open eyes and anxiously asked: "What is going to happen?"

"No, no, don't worry, you simply choose a new parliament," I reassured her.

"Oh, you scared me. I thought that something important was going to happen."

Generational Differences

Political engagement seems to be a generational thing in Tajikistan. Adults who were educated during the Soviet era were politicized: they know the meaning of elections, talk intelligently about politics.

But the younger generation, while literate, seem to have less interest in what happens around them and are more interested in money. They are young, beautiful, fashionable people, but there is often no logic to their thinking.

Sometimes, they can hardly connect two words together. They can talk with you for an hour, but you will find it difficult to catch the drift of their thoughts. They are interested in everything, including politics, but they cannot explain what the parliament is about or what its role is.

Perennial pressure and restrictions created by the authorities has had a huge impact on opposition parties. In fact, the electorate did not seem to know anything about the opposition parties or their platforms. During meetings with the candidates, people were confused about the party names and the names of candidates. It would have been funny if it hadn't been so sad.

I've always been skeptical about the number of supporters claimed by the Islamic Renaissance Party -- by their calculations it's about 20,000 people. But then again, every second person seemed to know something about the party. A 17-year-old boy dressed in Adidas sportswear, who I met at a photo studio, even tried to convince me to vote for the Islamic Renaissance Party.

"What will I get from your Islamic party?" I said to him.

"Sister, vote for this party. It is a very fair party and can bring us prosperity," he said.
President Emomali Rahmon's party won the election by a landslide

"How do you know?" I continued.

"Here, here it is written that if we vote for them, we all will be well. My cousin works for this party. He is a good man. He knows the Koran by heart."

Local observers say that it was difficult to revive the fortunes of other opposition parties for the elections. A big padlock on the door of the Communist Party's headquarters was a sign that even the experienced Communists did not manage to raise enough money to campaign.

I met with various political leaders two days before the elections. They all looked strong and confident. They proudly told reporters about their election campaigns and their overly optimistic expectations.

At the meeting, which took place in the Dushanbe offices of RFE/RL, Rahmon's deputy in the People's Democratic Party, Safar Gayurov, said: "If we get as many seats as last year we will be happy."

"Oh, yes," was the immediate reply of the witty Mukhiddin Kabiri, the Islamic party leader. "If you get as many seats as last time, we are bound to be unhappy."

Suddenly I felt sorry for serious and intelligent people like Kabiri. The day before this meeting, a friend of mine who works in the government hinted that the list of future deputies was prepared a long time ago, and the elections are just a show for the outside world.

He was right. There were no miracles on February 28 -- only rain. The streets were not crowded. I kept looking to see how many people will enter the polling station in front of my home? I saw only a few. Officials responsible for the turnout nervously walked back and forth on the porch of the polling station.

"Aka-Salom," I said to a neighbor, who shook hands with me while carrying an armful of election ballots to the polling station.

"Alaykum Assalom," he answered politely. "I'm going to the polls to fulfill my duty."

"That's great. Did you decide who you would vote for?" I asked him just out of curiosity.

"No, not yet, but in the polling station there are always smart people who tell us who to vote for," said my neighbor as he proceeded to go and vote for his whole family (and then some).

On the way back to Prague, with the same bags and the usual bribetaking, I saw the tired faces of departing observers. I recognized one of them.

"How did the election go?" I asked cheerfully.

The observer rolled his eyes.

"It was like a badly staged drama."

Sojida Djakhfarova is the head of RFE/RL's Tajik Service. The views expressed in this commentary are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.