Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajik Socialists in Trouble

Opposition party is torn apart by a power struggle with old roots, but apparently driven by manipulation from outside.
By Salima Vahobzade

One of Tajikistan’s smaller opposition parties, the Socialists, is so divided that it is a breakaway faction, not the original party, that has been allowed to field candidates for the upcoming parliamentary election.


Socialist Party leader Mirhusein Narziev says the rival faction has been manufactured at the behest of the Tajik authorities, whom he accuses of trying to weaken a major opposition coalition of which he is a member, and destroy his party in the process.


The Socialist Party is one of four opposition parties which form the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, a bloc set up last year to campaign against the ballot-rigging that has been a feature of earlier elections. The coalition members – who are all standing separately in the February 27 ballot – also include the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, the Democratic Party, and the Social Democrats. The Communists, the second biggest parliamentary party after the pro-presidential People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan, PDPT, are not a member, and the IRP is the only coalition member represented in the legislature.


The coalition has already been weakened by the arrest in Moscow of Democratic Party leader Mahmudruzi Iskandarov, and the decision of Tajikistan’s Central Electoral Commission, CEC, to refuse to allow many candidates from its bloc’s constituent parties to stand for election.


For the last year, the Socialist Party has being crippled by a bitter leadership struggle between its chairman Mirhusein Narziev and a faction led by one-time acting leader Kurbon Vosiev and his ally Abduhalim Gaffarov, who claims to be the party’s rightful chairman. Vosiev is currently an adviser to Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov, while Gaffarov is Socialist Party branch chairman in Dushanbe.


Narziev says it’s all a plot by the Tajik authorities to hamstring the Socialists as an independent force, and ultimately win control of it through Vosiev and Gaffarov. That is a view shared by some independent analysts.


Party leader since 2001, Narziev led his followers into a confrontational stance with the authorities by joining the opposition coalition last May. The Socialists may never have been formally allied with Rahmonov’s PDPT but during the 1992-97 civil war they were on the same side, against an opposition guerrilla force whose heirs are the now-legal IRP and Democratic Party.


In June, a group of Socialist Party members led by Gaffarov convened a congress and announced the formation of an alternative party faction. Once set up, the grouping duly left the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections.


In December, the two factions led by Narziev and Gaffarov held rival congresses to select candidates for the election. Narziev’s bloc put forward five candidates, while Gaffarov’s group selected 11.


In January, the CEC accepted Gaffarov’s list and rejected Narziev’s. CEC chief secretary Muhibullo Dodojonov’s explanation was that Narziev must first sort out his party’s affairs and formally register as party chairman with the justice ministry.


That will be difficult, as justice minister Khalifabobo Hamidov wrote to the CEC in December ruling that Gaffarov is the legal head of the Socialist Party.


At the start of each year, all political parties have to re-register with the justice ministry. Gaffarov managed to get his application in before Narziev, and has also written to the ministry claiming his rival was elected party leader “illegally” on a technicality. “The Socialist Party [registration] list was submitted to the justice ministry with Gaffarov’s signature, because he is its acknowledged head,” said Vosiev.


In an article in the newspaper Ittihod last August, Vosiev accused Narziev of various misdeeds: being responsible for financial intrigues within the party and being illegally elected as head of the party.


Narziev has now submitted an appeal to the Tajikistan’s supreme court asking for the CEC’s decision to be overturned. “If our demand is not examined according to the laws of Tajikistan, we will be forced to appeal to an international court,” he warned.


A CEC representative gave an assurance that “if the court satisfies Narziev’s appeal, then our decision will be countermanded”.


The deputy head of the CEC, Mizrob Kabirov, said the dispute is not really the election body’s problem, “We do not have the right to break the law of Tajikistan. These are internal disputes within the party, and they should decide for themselves who the actual head is. The sooner they come to an agreement between themselves, the better it will be for the candidates.”


Narziev blames the Rahmonov administration for orchestrating the split as part of its election strategy. “In this way, certain sections of the authorities are trying to weaken the coalition of political forces, and to get control of the Socialist Party,” Narziev said in an interview with IWPR, adding that the conflict is being directed by the “party of power”.


“The alliance created by the four-party coalition, together with the neutral stance taken by the Communist Party, leaves the party of power, the PDPT, on its own. Naturally, there are people who will profit from a split within the SPT and a weakening of the coalition.”


Narziev says that neither Gaffarov nor Vosiev holds current party membership, nor have they played any role in it for years. “It was only after the Socialist Party joined the coalition that these people suddenly started speaking on behalf of it,” he said.


He has the full backing of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, which issued a statement in early January accusing both the CEC and the justice ministry of breaking the law and unwarranted interference in the party’s internal affairs. It said that after the coalition was set up, “there suddenly appeared a second, alternative bloc, which instantly received support from the government in the shape of the justice ministry”.


According to Narziev, the rival faction has an insignificant following of 1,000 members, while he has more than 15,000 behind him. The independent Association of Political Scientists calculates total Socialist Party membership at 14,700.


Political scientist Tursun Kabirov believes the schism has its roots in profound antagonisms that already existed within the party, but it was exacerbated by manipulation from outside.


“Of course, external forces were involved here, and the catalyst in the split was the ruling PDPT, which does not hide the fact that it supports Gaffarov’s bloc. This is shown by the fact that Vosiev and Gaffarov take part in all PDPT events,” said Kabirov. “A [PDPT] leaflet from September 2004… pictures Gaffarov captioned as a presidium member of the PDPT’s Dushanbe branch. That shows how directly he is connected to the PDPT.”


Like the PDPT, the Socialist Party has its roots in the strange politics of the civil war period. It was founded in 1996, two years after the PDPT was set up by President Rahmonov.


Its founder and leader was Safarali Kenjaev, a colourful figure who played a major role in the turbulent events of 1991-92, leading thousands of armed paramilitaries into Dushanbe in an attempt to restore Communist president Rahmonov Nabiev. The outcome of these events was twofold – the neo-communist faction of which Kenjaev was part installed Rahmonov as Tajik leader, and a violent conflict ensued, ending only in 1997 when the Islamic and Democratic Party opposition forces disarmed and came back into politics.


By 1999, Kenjaev the warlord had become Tajikistan’s human rights commissioner, but he was gunned down in March that year. It was rumoured that using the Socialist Party as his vehicle, Kenjaev was planning to run against Rahmonov in a presidential election in November that year – a ballot the incumbent duly won.


His death was an immense blow to the Socialists, in a country where personalities are often more important than ideology. Kurbon Vosiev stepped in as acting leader until Kenjaev’s son Sherali was elected leader. Popular support for the party dwindled, and Narziev was elected in 2001 in a move to get the Socialists back on their feet.


“After the death of its founder Safarali Kenjaev, no worthy successors were found within the party, and it went through a profound crisis, which created favourable conditions for a split,” said political scientist Rashid Abdullo. “Now, on the eve of elections, certain individuals in the party are trying to be first in the list, relying on the help of the authorities, and they are having some success.”


The signs are that the Socialist Party is under threat of collapsing as a result of the rift, or else dividing into a much-weakened opposition force and a co-opted pro-government faction.


Rasul Mamadrahimov, an independent political analyst, thinks the authorities may have been tempted to drive a wedge into the opposition coalition because it is concerned that the regime change seen in Georgia and Ukraine could be attempted in Tajikistan, too. Few analysts regard that as a realistic possibility.


“The people of Tajikistan have already gone through a revolutionary phase and experienced the consequences,” said Mamadrahimov, referring to the unrest which sparked the civil war. “So neither the PDPT leadership nor Tajik society as a whole has any need for a victim like the Socialist Party.”


Salima Vahobzade is an independent journalist in Dushanbe.