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Qishloq Ovozi

Tajik children watch a supporter of the Islamic Renaissance Party paste a campaign poster on a wall in the capital, Dushanbe, in February 2015. Within a few months it would be disbanded.

June 27, 1997, remains one of the greatest days in Tajikistan's nearly 25-year history as an independent country.

On that day in Moscow, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (then Rakhmonov) and the leader of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), Said Abdullo Nuri, signed a national peace accord. It ended five years of civil war in Tajikistan that estimates now say left some 100,000 people dead.

The core of the UTO was the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (HNIT) and the era of peace in Tajikistan seemed to get off to a good start when President Rahmon, three days after signing the peace deal, arrived in Saudi Arabia to make the "umrah," the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca.

This year only those who sided with the government during the civil war are celebrating National Reconciliation Day. Their partners in peace, the HNIT, are once again outlawed.

On June 23, RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, reported that a 35-year-old man was sentenced to five years in prison for propagating the ideas of the HNIT, a party that was legally registered less than one year ago.

Something To Brag About

For nearly 18 of the 19 years of peace in Tajikistan, the HNIT was part of the country's government. One of the provisions of the peace accord was that the UTO receive 30 percent of the places in government, from ministerial posts down to the village level. Most places went to the HNIT, which was the largest part of the UTO and had done most of the fighting. The percentage eroded away over the years until, in March 2015, the HNIT lost its last two seats in parliament.

During the roughly 18 years the HNIT was part of the government, the party demonstrated its dedication to the peace deal many times. The war might have ended but outbreaks of fighting continued. Sometimes it was former opposition members, sometimes it was former government allies who were responsible. The HNIT always sided with the government.

The HNIT had the credentials to speak authoritatively on matters of Islam, something that proved extremely valuable in countering the views of Islamic extremist groups. The HNIT was once the armed Islamic opposition, but it had reached an agreement with the government.

The HNIT's participation in governing the country was an example that cooperation between a secular government and an Islamic opposition was possible. The HNIT's presence in the government was a reminder to Tajikistan's people of a "happy ending" to a horrible time. The ability of the HNIT and President Rahmon's government to work together reinforced the idea that Tajikistan's civil war had truly been an incredible waste.

Harassment, Attacks

But after a few years, the harassment of HNIT members started; some were beaten, a few were killed. State media started reporting on alleged misdeeds by HNIT members, especially the party's leaders. HNIT leader Muhiddin Kabiri eventually fled the country as it became clear he would soon be charged with some crime.

The HNIT's attempts to hold public meetings or press conferences were sometimes broken up by the sudden appearance of groups of supposedly irate citizens who spontaneously banded together to vent at the HNIT. This, despite strict prohibitions on unsanctioned rallies and demonstrations.

Not long after the HNIT lost its last two seats in parliament in 2015, the Tajik authorities started to claim the HNIT, the second-largest party in the country, did not actually enjoy widespread popularity and that many of its branches around the country had effectively ceased activities.

On this basis, the authorities initiated procedures that in late August resulted in the Justice Ministry ordering the HNIT to cease all activities. At the end of September, the Supreme Court ruled that the HNIT was an extremist group and outlawed the party.

At the start of June this year, 14 leading members of the HNIT were convicted on dubious charges. Some were given lengthy prison sentences.

HNIT deputy leaders Mahmadali Hayit and Saidumar Husaini were sentenced to life in prison for their alleged, and unlikely, involvement in the supposed coup attempt Tajikistan's deputy defense minister led in September, just before the deadline the Justice Ministry ordered the HNIT to cease all activities.

Hayit and Husaini had been targeted before.

On April 19, 2013, two unknown assailants attacked the then-56-year-old Hayit outside his Dushanbe home after he helped plan a public event the HNIT was about to hold to mark the anniversary of the party's founding. He was taken to the hospital with "severe wounds to the head, face, eyes, ribs, back, and stomach."

On April 28, 2014, Husaini, his son, and another HNIT member were attacked in Tajikistan's eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. Husaini said some 15 people were involved in the attack. He told Ozodi at the time he didn't intend to ask local authorities for help in apprehending the attackers because he believed some of the assailants were actually policemen.

End Of Reconciliation

Tajikistan is a poor country, the poorest in Central Asia. At least 25 percent of the country's eligible labor force is working abroad, mainly in Russia. There is little to distinguish Tajikistan today.

For 18 years Tajik authorities could say the country had the only registered Islamic party in Central Asia. Not anymore.

So this year Tajik authorities for the first time mark National Reconciliation Day without their partner in the reconciliation.

President Rahmon is marking the holiday in Gorno-Badakhshan, the poorest region of Tajikistan. He is not popular in Gorno-Badakhshan. The local Lal'i Badakhshan group established by the Pamiri population there was part of the UTO during the civil war.

Rahmon was in the regional capital, Khorog, on June 26 to present the government's gift to the people of Gorno-Badakhshan -- a 30-meter flagpole for an 8-meter-by-4-meter Tajik flag.

According to the president's press service, the project cost some 300,000 somonis (a bit more than $38,000); money that could have been better used in so many ways in this region.

This year's National Reconciliation Day celebration really marks the government's victory in a war it could not win 19 years ago. However, if the Tajik authorities continue on their present course, they could spark unrest and this might be one of the last Reconciliation Days the country marks.

The only government official truly safe from being sacked is the president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov visited his country’s northern Dashoguz Province in mid-June. He fired seven district officials and reprimanded nine others.

Berdymukhammedov visited the western Balkan Province at the end of May. Twelve provincial and district officials were fired and 13 others reprimanded. Qishloq Ovozi has written about earlier dismissals this year.

Regular dismissals of Turkmen government officials have become something of a tradition. The only person truly safe from being sacked is the president. A very, very small number of officials have lingered on; you could count them on one hand.

But 2016 has already been different. The rate at which officials are falling or receiving warnings about “shortcomings” is more accelerated than seen before in Turkmenistan.

To look a bit at the history of the tradition of the “Turkmen sack” and explore what might be prompting this recent, unprecedented wave of dismissals, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a majlis, or a panel discussion.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir* moderated the talk. Luca Anceschi, chairperson of the Central Asian Center at Glasgow University, participated in the Majlis podcast, as did Ruslan Myatiev, who runs the Alternative Turkmenistan News website. I like talking with both of those guys, so I joined in also.

The symbol for the Turkmen government’s coat of arms should be a turnstile."

Turkmenistan’s people -- and those watching the country from outside -- have long grown accustomed to an endless rotation of officials. The symbol for the Turkmen government’s coat of arms should be a turnstile.

Myatiev explained that these changes of officials have reached the point where "very few people know who their governors are, who their deputies are, what their duties are..."

As concerns “who” they are, most of us stopped even trying to learn their names, since they don’t stay in their positions for very long. As Anceschi said, “The fact that we can’t even remember their names shows...that the politics of Turkmenistan is really personalized.”

And the ultimate person in the country’s politics, the one who makes policy is, seemingly, the president. That is, of course, currently Berdymukhammedov. But the architect of Turkmenistan’s unique system of governance is Berdymukhammedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

That system includes a steady reshuffling of officials, most believe, to ensure that no one could ever have the time to develop a support base of any kind and potentially become a rival to the president.

There are inherent problems with this constant rotation.

Turkmenistan is an isolationist state. Few people get in and few get out. That extends to education. Turkmenistan’s education system has been hit hard since independence, to the point where some required course material deals with the mythology of the president that the state has been pushing on the people for 25 years. Subjects that could provide valuable management skills are not stressed in the curriculum.

“I think that they lack competence,” Myatiev said, “because for 30 years Turkmenistan did not manage to prepare young professionals, who have, for instance, received Western educations...”

Anceschi explained, “The reasons they’ve been appointed are not because they are more competent than their predecessor.”

Loyalty to the president is clearly key in Turkmenistan’s system, but Myatiev said that, beyond that, “God knows what [the president’s] criteria for these [appointments] are -- whether it’s tribal things, whether it’s personal devotion, whether it’s anything else."

And Anceschi said officials “are staying [in office] only if the president wants [them] to stay.”

So that brings us to the present and the wave of dismissals this year. As opaque as Turkmenistan’s internal affairs are, it is clear the country is suffering serious economic problems.

The dismissals of dozens of provincial and district officials, and a few ministers, this year seems to show some desperation on the part of the government.

Anceschi characterized the Turkmen government as a “highly paranoid regime” and said this trait can be seen in these recent mass dismissals.

“When you have seven or eight dismissals at willayat (provincial) level or even etrap (district), you have to think that someone must have said to the center there might be a problem here or there,” Anceschi said, adding, “Decreasing loyalties are punished pretty quickly.”

It was noted that despite a shrinking state budget, officials are required to meet government targets that would be difficult to achieve in better economic times. Without adequate funding or proper resources, these officials inevitably fail to fulfill their work.

In the meantime, Anceschi pointed out the average tenure of some district or provincial officials is not even long enough to become familiar with the requisite tasks.

Beyond that, Myatiev noted, it is not just the district chief or his deputy involved. A new official, Myatiev said, “gets a new assistant; he gets new key personnel within that district. It can be as low as changing a school director or a factory chief.”

Stability and productivity are difficult in such a situation.

The panel agreed this constant replacement of officials was generally counterproductive but is especially detrimental during these current hard economic times.

But these frequent dismissals do serve some purpose.

Myatiev said, “It’s a very expected move by President Berdymukhammedov, given the financial state of the country.” And Anceschi added that many officials “are sacked because the government needs that kind of rotation.” It makes other officials afraid, providing a crude form of motivation.

But Anceschi also said he senses “an elite instability” and noted that Berdymukhammedov appears to “trying to narrow down the elite and make himself the center of a patronage network which is narrower and narrower.” Anceschi added that in some ways this could be a sort of rite of passage.

“Berdymukhammedov has got to the point in which his grip on power is so stable that he can do exactly the same things that Niyazov was doing,” Anceschi said.

And he has an opportune moment. The pieces of the “pie” the elites are fighting for are getting smaller and that, to some extent, probably explains some of the ministerial dismissals. The rich in Turkmenistan will not stay rich by taking from the poor. Turkmenistan’s people are too poor to offer much. So it is necessary for the rich to rob from the rich.

But when a top official falls, so, too, do all the lower level officials whose fortunes were tied to that individual. That is leading Turkmenistan into dangerous territory.

The panel looked at these issues in greater detail and discussed other topics related to the dismissals in Turkmenistan, the patronage network, and how people such as Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov have managed to stay in office for long periods of time.

Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan's 'Body Count'
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

* Muhammad will be heading to RFE/RL's Washington, D.C., office soon. We’ll miss him in the Prague studio, but he will continue to moderate the Majlis podcast from the U.S. capital. All the best in Washington, Mr. Tahir!

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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