Two leading officials for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are suddenly out of office after an extension of their mandates was rejected by Tajikistan.
The terms of Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir as the head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and for Harlem Desir as the OSCE representative on freedom of the media expired on July 19.
Both had been nominated for a second three-year term, but in both cases, the OSCE delegation from Tajikistan helped to block their reappointments. Both had also been known have annoyed the Tajik government.
The offices of ODIHR and the representative for media freedom are responsible for monitoring compliance of OSCE commitments by all 57 member countries -- and Tajikistan is far from the only country to receive criticism.
Tajikistan was joined by Turkey in blocking Gisladottir's extension, with both countries issuing diplomatic notes that said ODIHR had allowed "registration of representatives of criminal groups and people who committed terrorist acts" to attend the OSCE's annual Human Dimension Implementation Meetings (HDIM).
The Turkish delegation to 2017 HDIM walked out due to the presence of representatives from the New York-based Journalists and Writers Foundation that Turkish authorities claim is a terrorist organization with links to the Fethullah Gulen movement, and boycotted the annual event in 2018 for the same reason.
Turkish authorities accuse Gulen supporters of trying to stage a coup in Turkey in July 2016.
Gulen outright rejects any involvement with the coup and many rights organizations and individual governments have accused Turkish authorities of using the coup to stage a far-reaching crackdown on alleged political opponents, as tens of thousands were fired from their jobs and detained or arrested after the coup.
Tajikistan's delegation to the 2016 HDIM walked out when representatives from the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) attended and Tajik officials refused to participate in the 2017 conference.
The Tajik government accuses the IRPT -- a moderate opposition group that was previously part of the ruling coalition -- of trying to stage a coup in September 2015, though there is no credible evidence to back this claim.
Tajik authorities used the coup as a pretext to have a court declare the IRPT -- the second-largest political party in the country -- an extremist party, banned its activities, and imprisoned many of the party leaders still in the country.
Tajik authorities have continued to accuse the IRPT of links to terrorist groups without offering any concrete proof.
The IRPT had won parliamentary seats in all the elections from 2000 until 2015, when it failed to win any seats in elections where ODIHR monitors said campaigning was marred by "imbalanced coverage by the state media, negative reporting on the opposition IRPT" and, on election day, the "voting process was assessed negatively in 21 percent of polling stations observed; a high proportion that indicates systematic problems" and "serious violations were reported frequently, particularly regarding a lack of respect for safeguards to ensure that only eligible persons voted and that they did so only once."
The ODIHR final report on Tajikistan's 2020 parliamentary elections, the first in 20 years without IRPT participation, noted, "Systemic infringements on fundamental political rights and freedoms have left no space for a pluralistic political debate, and genuine opposition has been removed from the political landscape."
Azerbaijan reportedly objected to renewing Desir's mandate as the OSCE's freedom of the media representative because of what Baku called Desir's "excessive criticism about the situation with freedom of speech in Azerbaijan."
Tajikistan's reason was presumably similar. Desir had recently criticized the Tajik authorities on Twitter for actions against independent media organizations, most recently for blocking the independent Akhbor.com news site.
And just a few weeks earlier, Desir condemned a physical attack on independent Asia-Plus journalist Abdullo Ghurbati and called on the authorities to find and punish the attackers.
A group of 28 press-freedom, media-development, and journalism-support organizations released a statement about Azerbaijan and Tajikistan's refusal to prolong Desir's mandate, saying, "We respect the need for a consensus vote of all member states of the OSCE on the mandate renewal," but "we understand the move by Azerbaijan and Tajikistan is an attempt to weaken the essential watchdog function of the mandate."
The statement pointed out that "As the COVID-19 pandemic showed, ensuring media freedom is more important now than ever."
One article said Desir's reappointment had been blocked "by two of the worst countries with world press-freedom records."
The reaction was similar from David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
And from Agnes Callamard, a French human rights expert and the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
And from Rebecca Vincent, the director of international campaigns at Reporters Without Borders.
One article went so far as to say, "The blocking of Desir by the two [states] raises the question of whether countries that have a tragic record in protecting journalists and the free press should be allowed to have such power in international fora."
Will Anything Change?
Tajikistan is scheduled to have a presidential election in November and the only question is whether longtime President Emomali Rahmon will choose to run for a fifth term or hand over the post to his oldest son, Rustam Emomali.
Criticism of the poll is almost guaranteed from both ODIHR and the freedom-of-the-media office, but now the process of nominating new candidates must start and it is unclear when that might conclude.
Complicating matters, Gisladottir and Desir's appointments were part of what was described as a "political package deal that was struck under the Austrian OSCE chairmanship three years ago," and "the actions of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey led others -- including France, Canada, Norway, Iceland, and Armenia -- to deny the extension of Secretary-General [Thimas Greminger] and the [OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Lamberto Zannier] at a meeting among OSCE ambassadors in Vienna on July 10."
So there are four top posts that require that unanimous consent of all 57 OSCE members before that package can be realized.
Tajikistan got away with this veto of the extensions, but the Tajik government's revenge on OSCE institutions that have criticized it is likely to prove a Pyrrhic victory.
The new chiefs of ODIHR and the freedom-of-the-media office will be similarly bound to point out the violations that the Tajik authorities have continually committed and show no signs of rectifying.
And in the not-too-distant future, as Tajikistan tries to recover from the damage being done to the people and economy by the coronavirus pandemic, the government might find it has less places to turn to for help.