Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Zayd Saidov. (Photo: Elita magazine)
A month after launching a new political party in Tajikistan, former industry minister Zayd Saidov has been arrested. His prosecution looks like a way of stopping him in his tracks before he can build up enough power to present a challenge to the current system.
Saidov, 55, was taken into custody early on May 19 as he returned home from a foreign trip.
Launched on April 9, his party, called New Tajikistan, did not position itself as an opposition force, and made it clear it would not be fielding a candidate to stand against President Imomali Rahmon in this autumn’s election. Instead, it is focused on the interests of the emerging business class, and as such should have been uncontroversial.
Nonetheless, the authorities quickly moved against Saidov, accusing him of two offences at once – embezzlement and polygamy. The state anti-corruption agency alleges that a construction firm partly owned by Saidov stole about 400,000 US dollars from city funds while it was building the Dushanbe Plaza, the capital’s tallest structure to date.
When the criminal investigations were made public on May 11, Saidov was in France. He denied the theft, saying the matter had been resolved. On the polygamy accusations, he said he had one wife, but took care of children he had with other women.
In a May 20 briefing, the anti-corruption agency detailed another allegation – that Saidov had accepted a 100,000-dollar bribe in a privatisation deal he handled as minister in 2005. Saidov denied this charge, too.
The timing of these charges makes them look like a determined effort to sink the ambitions of a man with the makings of a powerful political player – an inside knowledge of Tajikistan’s ruling elite, independent wealth, support among the business class, and good connections with the Russian establishment.
The criminal charges were announced a day after the New Tajikistan party gave a press conference saying Saidov had received warnings, by phone and through an intermediary, that he should stay away from politics. A report linking him to an Islamist guerrilla leader, Mullo Abdullo, who was killed two years ago, was also distributed to media outlets.
Saidov refused to be cowed by the campaign against him, and promised to pursue his political activity “whatever the cost”. That cost seems to have come swiftly, in the shape of formal prosecution.
As a regime insider until recently, Saidov was one of the few political survivors of a remarkable compact that ended the 1992-97 civil war in Tajikistan. He sided with the United Tajik Opposition during the conflict, and came over as part of a deal that saw rebel guerrillas disarm while their leaders were given a one-third share of government posts.
Over time, most of these opposition figures were edged out of positions of power, but Saidov showed he was able to work with Rahmonov and his circle, and was accepted into the fold.
An economist by background, he held various government jobs until his term as industry minister in 1999-2006. He now chairs a grouping of business associations.
Setting up a niche political party is not necessarily a recipe for trouble. Tajikistan already has a similar group, the Party of Economic Reforms, also set up by a former minister.
Saidov presents more of challenge because his business interests have given him the kind of financial resources that most established opposition parties lack.
Second, he has the potential to win support at home and abroad. He is popular among entrepreneurs, intellectuals and educated young people, who are chafing at the control exerted by Rahmon’s inner circle over both politics and the economic sphere.
He is also linked to Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev, a veteran politician who is both mayor of Dushanbe and speaker of the upper house of parliament. Ubaidulloev is seen by some as the second most powerful figure in Tajikistan and a possible successor to Rahmon.
Finally, Saidov has extensive contacts with the Russian elite, nurtured both during his time in government and through his business activities.
Russia retains massive influence in Tajikistan as economic sponsor, security ally, and host to the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from the country. But the political relationship is fraught at times, and as the presidential election approaches, there has been speculation in both the Tajik and Russian press that Moscow is unhappy with Rahmon’s leadership and might be looking to back a viable replacement. The New Tajikistan party might have served as the vehicle for such a figure.
Following his arrest, Saidov’s options look limited. Whatever the outcome, legal proceedings will distract him from growing his political party, and members are likely to be pressured to defect. He might be convicted and have his assets confiscated. Alternatively, he might have an opportunity to flee the country and set up opposition abroad.
Abdumalik Kadirov is IWPR Tajikistan Country Director.
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