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As Tajikistan Celebrates Its Independence, Let's Recall What The President Won't

The highest unsupported flagpole in the world, in Dushanbe
The highest unsupported flagpole in the world, in Dushanbe
The five Central Asian states are marking 20 years of independence this year. The leaders of the five will use their independence days to speak of the great accomplishments they've made since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- some genuine and some exaggerated.

But there are some events and names the presidents won't be mentioning in the speeches, and I thought for the sake of balance I'd recall some of them.

Tajikistan celebrates 20 years of independence on September 9. President Emomali Rahmon, formerly Rakhmonov (explanation below), will undoubtedly be standing in Dushanbe, near the world's tallest unsupported flagpole, flying the country's flag, to recount Tajikistan's achievements since 1991.

Unfortunately for Tajikistan and its citizens, the first 10 years were a period of intense violence and suffering, starting with the 1992-97 civil war.

Rahmon will probably not wish to recall that he became head of state after the country had three presidents between September 1991 and November 1992.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon
And Rahmon won't want to remind Tajikistan's people that leaders of the Popular Front -- paramilitary groups essentially serving warlords -- selected him to be speaker of parliament (effectively head of state at that time) at a meeting at the Urukhojayev state farm in Khujand in early November 1992. One Popular Front leader would later say that Rahmon, who had been the chairman of the Kulob provincial council, was only chosen because the group agreed he would be easy to dispense with once he had served his purpose.

With presidential elections due in 2013, this Independence Day is probably not the correct time to remember the 1994 election for the newly recreated post of president, when Rahmon won 60 percent of the vote and his opponent -- Abdumalik Abdullojonov -- won 35 percent, the closest presidential election in post-Soviet Central Asia's history. And observers said the poll was rigged in Rahmon's favor.

Rahmon is unlikely to mention the 1999 presidential election, either. For the first presidential election held after the end of the civil war, the OSCE, UN, and a number of individual countries made great efforts to help Tajikistan hold a poll that would restore the people's confidence in government and put the civil-war days far behind. Instead, all three of Rahmon's contenders withdrew less than one month before election day. In the end, Davlat Usmon of the Islamic Renaissance Party appeared on the ballot but said in interviews on election day that he was not a candidate.

The Tajik president will not speak of Dodojon Atavullo, a leading critic and the editor of the newspaper "Charoghi Ruz," which was banned in Tajikistan. He's been living in Moscow trying to organize the Tajik diaspora into an opposition movement.

Nor will Rahmon bring up the name Mahmud Khudaiberdiyev, the renegade colonel of the Tajik Army's First Brigade who tried overthrow Rahmon -- twice. Absent from Rahmon's Independence Day speech will be any reference to First Brigade's battle with the Eleventh Brigade in late 1995 and early 1996. Khudaiberdiyev defied Rahmon's orders not to attack another army unit and after he achieved victory over the Eleventh Brigade Khudaiberdiyev was made deputy commander of the presidential guard.

There won't be time for Rahmon to name any of the more than 100,000 people who were killed during the civil war or in the shaky reconciliation process that followed. But here are some names that should be remembered:

-- UN observer Austrian Lieutenant Wolf Sponner, killed investigating a clash between the 1st and 11th brigades in September 1995.

-- BBC journalist Muhiddin Olimpour, murdered in December 1995.

-- ORT correspondent Viktor Nikulin, killed in March 1996.

-- Tajikistan's chief Mufti Fatkhullo Sharifzoda, shot dead along with three members of his family and a religious student in January 1996.

-- Otakhon Latifi, a journalist by profession and former "Pravda" correspondent who became a leader of the democratic wing of the United Tajik Opposition, the group fighting Rahmon's government, and later a leader in the reconciliation commission, shot dead outside his home in September 1998.

-- French aid worker Karen Main, captured by a criminal group and killed in an attempted rescue in November 1997.

-- UN military observers Richard Shevchuk of Poland, Adolfo Sherpegi of Uruguay, Yukata Akino of Japan, and driver-translator Jurajon Mahramov, stopped by gunmen on a remote mountain road and shot dead in July 1998

Actually, no one in Tajikistan wants to remember those days.

Rahmon should thank international organizations and individual countries for providing aid to Tajikistan throughout the last 20 years.

But he won't bring up the time in 2003 when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) discovered Tajikistan had obtained three loans worth $31.63 million based on false information. Or the time in early 2008 when the IMF said Tajikistan's central bank provided misleading information about the country's finances to receive $47.8 million in loans.

Rahmon won't need to tell anyone in Tajikistan that in April 2007 he officially removed the Russian "-ov" from his name and became not Rakhmonov but Rahmon. But the Tajik president might not have noticed the slight alteration changed him into a moral and style guide.

He was President "Rahmon" for less than one week when he banned miniskirts and veils for female students. Before the end of that month he made clear he didn't want Tajikistan's citizens spending money on extravagant weddings or funerals. At the end of 2007 he said he didn't like vehicles with steering wheels on the right-hand side. In 2008, students at the country's Islamic university were prohibited from having beards and required to wear neckties on campus.

Lip-syncing or recorded accompanying music were banned from live performances in May 2008.

And recently, minors have been banned from attending mosques and parents are legally responsible for ensuring their children do not cause any problems.

Modesty will prevent Rahmon from recalling he personally went to bandit country in eastern Tajikistan (Obigarm) in February 1997 to negotiate the release of hostages (UN workers, Russian journalists, a Red Cross worker and his security minister).

One thing sure to go unmentioned will be the "flag incident" of August 30. With great pomp and ceremony, the sort Rahmon prohibited his people from indulging in at weddings and funerals, a large flag was raised up the world's tallest unsupported flagpole, in Dushanbe. The problem was that the flag did not unfurl properly, putting a damper on an otherwise spectacular event. Several people found themselves in a great deal of trouble for that.

Visit "Chaikhana" before Turkmenistan marks its 20th anniversary of independence on October 27. You won't want to miss memories of Turkmenbashi and life under "Arkadag."

-- Bruce Pannier