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President Imomali Rakhmonov moved to further strengthen his position after winning a controversial constitutional referendum in June that grants him the right to run for two more seven-year terms in office. The vote, which some observers characterized as a first step in legitimizing a possible "president-for-life" scenario, was criticized by members of the international community and opposition political groups. Meanwhile, Tajikistan continued to expand its cooperation with the United States while balancing relations with Russia, which retains considerable influence over this former Soviet republic.
Conquered by Russia in the late 1800s, Tajikistan was made an autonomous region within Uzbekistan in 1924 and a separate socialist republic of the U.S.S.R. in 1929. Tajikistan declared independence from the Soviet Union in September 1991, and two months later, former Communist Party leader Rakhman Nabiyev was elected president.
Long-simmering clan-based tensions, combined with various anti-Communist and Islamist movements, soon plunged the country into a five-year civil war for central government control. In September 1992, Communist hard-liners forced the resignation of President Nabiyev, who was replaced later that year by leading Communist Party member Rakhmonov. The following month, Rakhmonov launched attacks against anti-government forces that caused tens of thousands to flee into neighboring Afghanistan.
As the fighting continued, Rakhmonov was elected president in November 1994 after most opposition candidates either boycotted or were prevented from competing in the poll. The March 1995 parliamentary elections, in which the majority of seats were won by pro-government candidates, were boycotted by the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), a coalition of various secular and Islamic opposition groups that emerged during the war as the main opposition force fighting against Rakhmonov's government.
Following a December 1996 cease-fire, Rakhmonov and UTO leader Said Abdullo Nuri signed a formal peace agreement in Moscow on June 27, 1997, officially ending the civil war, which had claimed tens of thousands of lives and left several hundred thousand as refugees. The accord called for the merging of opposition forces into the regular army, granted an amnesty for UTO members, provided for the UTO to be allotted 30 percent of senior government posts, and established a 26-member National Reconciliation Commission, with seats evenly divided between the government and the UTO. The commission was charged with implementing the peace agreements, including preparing amendments for a referendum on constitutional changes that would lead to fair parliamentary elections.
During the next two years, the government and the UTO took steps toward implementing the peace accord. In a September 1999 referendum, voters approved a series of constitutional amendments permitting the formation of religion-based political parties. This move paved the way for the legal operation of the Islamic opposition, including the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which constituted the backbone of the UTO. The referendum also included an amendment extending the president's single term in office from five to seven years. In November, Rakhmonov was reelected with a reported 97 percent of the vote in a poll criticized by international election observers for widespread irregularities.
As the final stage in the implementation of the 1997 peace accord, Tajikistan held elections in February 2000 for the 63-seat lower house of parliament. Rakhmonov's People's Democratic Party (PDP) received nearly 65 percent of the vote, followed by the Communist Party with 20 percent, and the IRP with 7 percent. Although the participation of six parties and a number of independent candidates in the poll provided some political pluralism, international election observers, including a joint mission by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations, cited serious problems, including the exclusion of certain opposition parties, biased state media coverage, and a lack of transparency in the tabulation of votes. In the March elections to the 33-seat upper house of parliament, in which regional assemblies elected 25 members and Rakhmonov appointed the remaining 8, the PDP obtained the overwhelming majority of seats.
After the elections, the National Reconciliation Commission was formally disbanded, and a UN observer mission withdrew in May 2000 after nearly six years in Tajikistan. However, important provisions of the peace accord remained unimplemented, with demobilization of opposition factions incomplete and the government failing to meet the 30 percent quota of senior government posts to be awarded to the UTO.
Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Tajikistan agreed to open its airspace for humanitarian flights during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. However, it denied having plans to allow U.S. troops or warplanes to use its territory for military strikes against Afghanistan's then-ruling Taliban. Tajikistan's cautious reaction stemmed from fears of possible retaliatory measures by Taliban forces, as well as from other radical Islamist groups. Meanwhile, the government's growing strategic and economic ties with the United States strained relations with Russia, which already had a strong military presence in the country and generally opposed a long-term U.S. role in the region.
President Rakhmonov's already substantial powers were further consolidated in a June 22, 2003 constitutional referendum. Voters were asked to approve or reject a package of 56 constitutional amendments, the most controversial of which would permit the president to serve two additional seven-year terms beyond the next presidential election in 2006; the constitution previously limited the president to a single seven-year term. Rakhmonov, who argued that this change would better reflect post-civil war circumstances and bring the country continued stability, could theoretically remain in office until 2020. Other amendments included abolishing the legal right to free higher education and free universal health care, which de facto already require payments.
Official results showed that 93 percent of those voting in the referendum supported the amendments, while turnout was reported to be more than 96 percent. The OSCE, which did not send observers because the Tajik government invited the group too late for it to prepare a monitoring mission, nevertheless questioned the accuracy of the results. Critics also charged that most voters were not fully aware of the proposed changes, which were not printed on the ballot papers and had not been given much media coverage. The opposition Democratic Party urged its supporters to boycott the vote, while the opposition Social Democratic Party and the IRP adopted less openly confrontational positions.
On the international front, negotiations with Moscow were ongoing during the year over upgrading a Russian military division in Tajikistan to a military base, a move seen as an effort by Moscow to reassert its influence in the region. Meanwhile, the living and working conditions of the many Tajik migrant workers in Russia, who often face official harassment and discrimination, caused tensions between the two countries. Tajikistan continued to benefit from substantial technical and financial assistance from the United States, which began constructing a permanent embassy in Dushanbe. Relations with Uzbekistan, its more powerful Central Asian neighbor, remained uneasy, with Tajik civilians continuing to be killed accidentally by land mines laid by Uzbekistan along the Uzbek-Tajik border. Uzbekistan refused to remove the mines, which were designed to prevent renewed invasions by Islamic radical groups that had entered into Uzbekistan via Tajikistan several years earlier.
Citizens of Tajikistan cannot change their government democratically. The 1994 constitution provides for a strong, directly elected executive who enjoys broad authority to appoint and dismiss officials. Amendments to the constitution adopted in a 1999 referendum further increased the powers of the president by extending his term in office from five to seven years and creating a full-time, bicameral parliament whose members would be appointed directly by the president or elected by indirect vote through local parliaments led by presidential appointees. Constitutional amendments adopted in a 2003 referendum allow the president to run for two additional seven-year terms in office. Neither the presidential polls in 1994 and 1999 nor the parliamentary elections of 1995 and 2000 were free and fair.
Patronage networks and regional affiliations are central to political life, with officials from the Kulyob region--the home of President Imomali Rakhmonov--dominant in government. The pro-Rakhmonov PDP is the dominant political party. Secular opposition parties, including the Democratic Party and Social Democratic Party, are weak and enjoy minimal popular support. A 1998 ban on religion-based parties was lifted the following year, leading to the registration of the IRP, currently the only legal religiously-based party in Central Asia. While the IRP has limited political influence within government structures, it also faces opposition criticism of having been co-opted by the authorities.
With parliamentary elections due in 2005, the government increased its pressure during the year on leading officials of the IRP and other perceived potential challengers to the president's authority. Rakhmonov has recently tried to discredit the IRP by hinting at links to terrorist or extremist Islamist groups. In June, the party's deputy chair, Shamsiddin Shamsiddinov, was arrested on charges of murder, setting up an armed group, and other crimes; he was reportedly physically abused while in detention. Another senior IRP official, Qosim Rakhimov, was arrested in July on statutory rape charges. The trials of both men were ongoing as of November 30. The authorities have also targeted exiled opponents, including Yakub Salimov, a former ally of Rakhmonov, who was arrested in Moscow in July on charges including participating in a coup attempt; as of November 30, Russia was denying extradition requests by the Tajik government.
Corruption is reportedly pervasive throughout society, with payments often required to obtain lucrative government positions. Tajikistan was ranked 124 out of 133 countries in Transparency International's 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, independent journalists continue to face harassment and intimidation, politically motivated tax audits, and denial of access to state printing facilities. The penal code criminalizes publicly defaming or insulting a person's honor or reputation. Consequently, journalists often avoid reporting on sensitive political issues, including corruption, and directly criticizing the president and other senior officials. Most newspapers in this impoverished country are weeklies and suffer from low advertising revenues and poor circulation. Television and radio are dominated by state-run channels. The process of obtaining broadcast licenses is cumbersome and expensive, and licenses are sometimes withheld for political reasons.
In late 2003, the state-run printing house refused to print the independent weekly Ruzi Nav after the paper published articles critical of government officials. The editor of the independent Nerui Sukhan was questioned during the year by the prosecutor's office after publishing an interview with an opposition leader, and the paper was visited by tax inspectors after printing a series of articles criticizing government policies. In September, the country's broadcasting commission rejected a television broadcasting application by the media holding company Asia-Plus, which in 2002 had established the first private radio station to broadcast in the capital. Dozens of journalists were murdered during the country's five-year civil war in the 1990s, and most of the cases have not been solved. In July, two suspects were convicted of the murders of the head of the BBC's Persian language service bureau, Muhiddin Olimpur, and Russia's ORT TV journalist, Viktor Nikulin, in 1995 and 1996, respectively. The high cost of Internet service puts it out of reach of most citizens, who live in poverty. In mid-2003, authorities blocked access to an Internet news site run by exiled opposition journalist Dodojon Atovulloev.
The government generally respects religious freedom in this predominantly Muslim country, although it monitors the activities of religious institutions to prevent them from becoming overtly political. Religious communities must register with the State Committee on Religious Affairs, a process that some local authorities have used to prevent the activities of certain groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses. Authorities closed down a number of unregistered mosques in 2002, a process that continued in 2003. Members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which calls for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate throughout the Muslim world, have been given lengthy prison sentences on charges of subversion for distributing copies of the group's literature; several alleged members of the group claim they were tortured while in police custody.
According to the 2002 U.S. State Department's human rights report, released in March 2003, the government does not restrict academic freedom. However, the country's educational system suffers from inadequate funding and resources, declining enrollments of pupils due to poverty, and corruption in the grading system.
Although a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in the country without restrictions, the state strictly controls freedom of assembly and association for organizations of a political nature. Registered groups must obtain permits to hold public demonstrations, and organizers of protests have at times faced government reprisals. Citizens have the legal right to form and join trade unions and to strike, but the country's poor economic climate deters workers from engaging in strikes.
The judiciary is influenced directly by the executive branch, on which most judges depend for their positions, as well as by some criminal groups. Many judges are poorly trained and inexperienced, and bribery is reportedly widespread. Police routinely conduct arbitrary arrests and beat detainees to extract confessions. Detainees are frequently refused access to legal counsel and face lengthy pretrial detention periods. Prison conditions have been described as life threatening because of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. Since the collapse of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan, narcotics trafficking across the porous, mountainous border with Tajikistan is reportedly on the rise. Organized crime groups involved in the drug trade allegedly have connections with members of the country's security and police forces.
Most of the population live in poverty and survive on subsistence agriculture, remittances from relatives working abroad, mainly in Russia, and foreign humanitarian aid. Widespread corruption, patronage networks, regional affiliations, limited privatization of land and industry, and the growing narcotics trade restrict equality of opportunity and limit economic growth.
Although women are employed throughout the government and the business world, they continue to face traditional societal discrimination. Domestic violence is reportedly common, and there are credible reports of trafficking of women abroad for prostitution. In August, parliament adopted criminal code amendments that punish trafficking with 5 to 15 years in prison. The participation of women in criminal activities, including the drug trade, has increased as a result of the country's widespread poverty.