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Tajikistan: Out With the Old Guard

Sacking of powerful military commander raises spectre of military coup.
By Lidia Isamova

When Tajik president Imamali Rahmonov sacked a long-standing and powerful ally last week it was his most daring step yet in a round of dismissals designed to shake out the disloyal, the corrupt and the incompetent, analysts said. So daring, in fact, that it sparked rumours of a coup plot against him.


Lieutenant-General Ghafur Mirzoev had commanded the Presidential Guard for nearly a decade.


As Tajikistan began to detach itself from the Soviet Union, Mirzoev was one of the paramilitary leaders whose private militias became known as the Popular Front. As civil war broke out in 1992, they installed Rahmonov - a former collective farm boss and like most of them a southerner from Kulyab province - as Tajikistan’s president, and defeated the opposition, driving civilians and paramilitaries alike over the border into Afghanistan. The second phase of the conflict – the protracted guerrilla war that followed - ended only in 1997 with a peace deal that included an element of power-sharing for the opposition.


Unlike some of his contemporaries, Mirzoev remained a constant ally of the president over the years, commanding an elite guard force of several hundred men. The centrally-based force is of considerable importance given the overall weakness of Tajikistan’s armed forces.


Like many former commanders from either side of the conflict, the general also developed a sideline in business. His most visible assets are a casino and restaurant in downtown Dushanbe.


Mirzoev’s summary removal from office on January 26 clearly came as something of a shock to him. Nor did the offer of alternative employment, heading up the government’s department for sport, hold much appeal.


“The decree came as a surprise to me, and so did the offer to take the post of chairman of the sports committee, which is lower than the current rank I have as head of the country’s national Olympic Committee,” the general said at a press conference the following day.


“I consider that this decree is wrong,” he said.


In the same decree, Rahmonov announced that the Presidential Guard would be re-designated the National Guard, although it is not yet clear whether it will perform a new role.


Mirzoev was clearly unhappy about that change, too. “I didn’t know anything about the transformation… and no one consulted me on the personnel [issues],” he said, proposing a formal review of the force, which he said would show it had performed well over the years.


He said he thought he had been sacked because of “intrigue within the president’s circle”.


Rahmonov’s office gave no reason for the move. But analysts believe that the president may have been concerned at Mirzoev’s long-standing close relationship with Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev, a powerful figure who enjoys considerable influence as mayor of Dushanbe and speaker of the upper house of parliament.


The analysts note that relations between the president and the mayor – never warm in recent years – have grown even chillier recently. Removing Mirzoev from a position close to the centre of power may weaken Ubaidulloev.


Many in the Presidential Guard – although their jobs require them to defend Rahmonov to the last – retain a fierce personal loyalty to their commander. The general noted that 200 soldiers had tendered their resignations to show their solidarity with him.


IWPR learned from a source close to Mirzoev that immediately after his dismissal he conferred with allies such as fellow guardsmen and former Popular Front members. Remarkably, the private meeting was also attended by figures from the opposition – the enemies he fought during the civil war. It was unclear what was discussed.


Rumours began circulating in Dushanbe that a military coup was in the planning stages. Some troops in the capital were placed on higher alert.


Mirzoev had earlier gone out of his way to stress that he “will not take up arms, and I will not go against the people”.


The tension was relieved, if not defused entirely, after Rahmonov and his general met face to face on January 30, and agreed on a compromise whereby Mirzoev becomes director of the national Drugs Control Agency. Observers note that the position is equivalent in rank to Mirzoev’s old job, and the agency is prestigious because of the United Nations funding it receives under a programme designed to help Tajikistan block the trade in opium and heroin.


Mirzoev’s removal was only the latest in a series of personnel changes which have resulted in many senior officials being demoted or removed in recent weeks. The casualties include Rahmonov’s chief of staff, his spokesman, a deputy premier, the energy minister and the head of the government’s broadcasting committee.


Analysts say such reshuffles are not unusual, but this one is different because the president has generally been reluctant to remove people who have been part of his team for a long time.


At a cabinet meeting on January 24, the president lambasted unnamed officials for the procrastination and general lack of professionalism which he said were holding the country back.


Analysts came up with several different – but not mutually exclusive – readings of the reshuffle.


Some agree with the official view that the aim is to bring new blood into the system. A statement by Rahmonov’s office ministries and provincial government are undergoing "fundamental changes” designed to promote “young and capable personnel who are competent and enterprising”. The appointment of a number of up-and-coming officials to replace those who were dismissed tends to back this up.


Another interpretation - which IWPR heard from a source in Rahmonov’s administration - is that the president is determined to root out corruption and simple incompetence among his officials.


"Dossiers of compromising material were produced on some officials, showing them to be corrupt, abusing their official position for personal gain, or indulging in harmful habits," said the source. "The president has warned them to put a stop to this on several occasions, promising that if they did not, he would dismiss them regardless of the many years they had worked together.”


All this is taking place within a wider context, as Rahmonov struggles to bolster his position ahead of a parliamentary election in just over a year’s time, and is under pressure – particularly from abroad – to make progress on economic reform.


The move to tackle corruption and recent signs of movement on privatisation may show that the government is heeding advice from the International Monetary Fund and other lenders.


"The latest reshuffles of government and ministries may indicate that the government is prepared for the final phase of the privatisation process," said Rustam Samiev, an independent economist.


This apparent responsiveness may in turn reflect a shift in the domestic balance of power.


"The latest dismissals may have allowed one force within government to triumph over the other," political scientist Tursun Kabirov told IWPR. "There are signs that there are at least two sides within the presidential administration, one of them oriented towards Russia and the other towards the West. It appears that the pro-western group have won a temporary victory, as the people who were dismissed were mainly officials who used to work in Russia, or who mistrust western countries and local organisations that maintain ties with the West."


What can be said with certainty is that Rahmonov has emerged the winner from these personnel changes – he has pushed out officials who displeased him, sent a signal to the international community that he is committed to fighting corruption, and shown foe and friend alike that he remains firmly in charge.


Meanwhile, a rueful Mirzoev is left to ponder his future, and his past as a commander who helped bring Rahmonov to power by force of arms. “They always say that some people make a revolution, and others enjoy the fruits. That’s politics,” he said.


Lidia Isamova is IWPR project manager in Tajikistan. Zafar Abdullaev is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.


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