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

Tajikistan: Muted Response to Kyrgyz Turmoil

Legacy of conflict leaves Tajiks cautious about unrest of any kind, even if some see the outcome in Kyrgyzstan as positive.
By IWPR Central Asia

Opposition parties in Tajikistan have welcomed the change of regime in Kyrgyzstan, but the measured terms they have spoken in reflect a widespread fear of instability in their own country.


The two countries resemble each other in many ways: both feature a strong authoritarian government which nevertheless allows opposition parties to operate; dire economic circumstances that forces much of the male population to seek work as migrant labour in Russia; and regional differences that are accentuated by difficult mountainous terrain.


But the Tajiks’ recent history sets them apart. The 1992-97 civil war left deep scars and instilled a natural conservatism among both the public and their political leaders, which acts as a brake on anything seen as fostering instability.


“We live poorly, but, thank God, we have peace now and we won’t go through another war,” said Safarali, a resident of Vahdat, a village near Dushanbe.


Tajikistan’s parliamentary election – coincidentally held on February 27, the same day as the first round of voting in Kyrgyzstan – was met with similar allegations of ballot-rigging from the opposition.


Tuigun Karimov, a senior official in the Communist Party, one of only two opposition parties to win seats in parliament, spoke in general terms about the Kyrgyz experience without recommending a repetition in his own country, as some Kazak opposition figures have done.


“A ruling regime should not play games with the people, and when democracy is declared, it should be for everyone.” Karimov told IWPR. “The revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have shown that the bosses’ position is unacceptable to the people. The regime must keep its finger on the pulse of developments in society.”


The Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, the other opposition party to win a handful of seats, issued a statement on March 28 saying events in Kyrgyzstan were “the result of a lack of dialogue and mutual understanding, disrespect for the opinion of the people, and disregard for the role of political forces in society”.


The IRP led the opposition guerrilla forces during the civil war but was legalised as part of the peace deal and is now Central Asia’s only parliamentary Islamic party.


The party’s concern not to be seen as a force for instability was visible in its statement that “we respect the actions of the former leadership of Kyrgyzstan, which did not use force against its own people and thus maintained peace in the country”.


The Social Democratic Party, which won no seats, is a smaller party but has emerged as a vocal opponent of the Tajik authorities since the election. It issued a statement the day after the government building was stormed in Kyrgyzstan saying the regime change was the result of corruption at all levels as well as election violations.


Party leader Rahmatillo Zoirov had earlier promised to organise demonstrations against the conduct of the Tajik vote, but in an interview with IWPR he indicated that these were not imminent. “There will be protests, but all in good time, I can’t put the life of my supporters in danger; we need to prepare ourselves,” he said.


Election officials have rejected demands by the Social Democrats, the IRP, the Communists and the Socialists for re-run elections to be held in the capital Dushanbe. In a March 18 ruling, the Central Electoral Committee said the complaints filed by the parties “lack sufficient grounds”.


The Social Democrats continue to be singled out for attack by the authorities. A number of party activists were detained after the election, and a recent article in the government newspaper Jumhuriyat accused Zoirov variously of being an agent of Uzbekistan, a supporter of the banned Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and being too pro-western.


“Jumhuriyat expresses the official position, so I do not think these constant fabricated insinuations do any credit to the politicians,” said Zoirov, who until 2003 was an adviser to President Imomali Rahmonov.


This vilification of the Social Democrats appears to have its roots in Tajik domestic politics, and relations between the authorities and the opposition as a whole do not seem to have been exacerbated by events in Kyrgyzstan.


Political scientist Rahmon Ulmasov says political attitudes in Tajikistan are still coloured by memories of the civil war. “The Tajik opposition does not enjoy support in many remote parts of the country. Of all the parties, only the IRP would be able to lead the people, but it will not do that as it still gets portrayed as a source of destabilisation,” he said.


Zoirov accepts that the Tajik parties are in a weaker position to effect change, “The Tajik and Kyrgyz opposition are very different in the potential of their members, their finances, and their goals…. In Tajikistan today, all officials are members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party led by President Rahmonov, the leaders of non-government organisations are loyal to the regime, and people in the commercial world support its policies out of fear of losing their business.”


Tajikistan is home to an estimated 65,000 Kyrgyz, most of them in the Jirgatal region adjoining southern Kyrgyzstan.


Zuurakan Davletalieva, an ethnic Kyrgyz elected to the Tajik parliament in the February ballot, said she was unhappy about what was going on across the border. “I feel negatively about events in Kyrgyzstan - we [in Tajikistan] have already been through this experience,” she said.


Jirgatal resident Kalybek Ibrahimov, however, was pleased, saying, “A lot gets hidden from us [in Tajikistan] and the television and newspapers tell us lies - but I think the Kyrgyz were right to oppose Akaev’s regime. Why should national resources only be used by his circle? Why do the authorities always forget about the ordinary people once they get into high positions when they promised so much initially?”


The Tajiks have beefed up security on their border with Kyrgyzstan even before the “tulip revolution” in Bishkek, and immediately afterwards President Rahmonov met his security chiefs to discuss the implications for Tajikistan.


Gulnora Amirshoeva is an IWPR editor in Tajikistan.