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The government of President Imomali Rakhmonov continued throughout 2004 to consolidate its power by clamping down on the media and working to sideline perceived and actual political opponents in advance of the 2005 parliamentary and 2006 presidential elections. Although several opposition parties joined forces in a tactical coalition early in the year, their prospects for success in the forthcoming polls appear limited by the dominance of pro-government parties and the weakness and limited popularity of much of the opposition. Meanwhile, Russia strengthened its foothold in the region following a bilateral agreement with Dushanbe on a number of strategic and economic matters, including the establishment of a permanent Russian military base in Tajikistan.
Conquered by Russia in the late 1800s, Tajikistan was made an autonomous region within Uzbekistan in 1924 and a separate socialist republic of the USSR 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 Nabiyev's resignation; he was replaced later that year by Rakhmonov, a leading Communist Party member. The following month, Rakhmonov launched attacks against antigovernment 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 ceasefire, 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 towards 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 local 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.
Rakhmonov's already substantial powers as president were further consolidated in a June 22, 2003, constitutional referendum. Voters approved by a reported 93 percent a package of 56 constitutional amendments, the most controversial of which permits 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. Critics 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.
With parliamentary elections due in February 2005 and presidential elections a year later, the government increased its pressure in 2004 on opposition figures and other perceived potential challengers to the president's authority. Early in the year, Shamsiddin Shamsiddinov, a deputy chairman of the IRP, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on charges that included setting up an armed group, illegally crossing the state border, and polygamy; while in pretrial detention, he was allegedly abused and denied access to legal counsel. The IRP insists that the conviction was politically motivated. The authorities have also targeted exiled opponents, including Yakub Salimov, a former interior minister and Rakhmonov ally, who fled the country in 1997. He was charged by the Tajik government with treason for involvement in a 1998 invasion and brief occupation of northern Tajikistan and was arrested in Moscow in 2003. In February 2004, Salimov was extradited from Moscow at the request of the Tajik government, a decision which some observers speculate may have been linked to bilateral negotiations over security issues. Salimov's trial opened in late November.
In August 2004, Drug Control Agency head Ghaffor Mirzoyev was arrested on charges including abuse of power, tax evasion, and murder. Some observers believe that his arrest was politically motivated because of his close ties with the mayor of Dushanbe, a potential rival for the presidency. Also in August, a Taraqqiyot (Progress) party official was arrested on suspicion of various offenses, including insulting the honor and dignity of the president. The arrest occurred after authorities raided the party's offices and seized a letter to the International Court of Justice protesting the government's repeated refusal to officially register Taraqqiyot.
Although three opposition parties - the Socialist Party, Social Democratic Party (SDP), and IRP - formed a tactical coalition in April of this year the opposition is likely to have few chances of gaining seats in the upcoming elections in the face of the government's overwhelming political dominance. While the stated goal of the coalition is to ensure the proper conduct of the election, the three parties announced that they would field separate candidates, weakening their chances of capturing enough votes to enter parliament. In addition, the IRP faced internal struggles during the year regarding the party's political agenda. A new electoral law signed by Rakhmonov in July was criticized by opposition groups and international observers for failing to ensure truly independent electoral commissions and imposing excessively high registration fees on candidates. After the approval of the electoral law, the Democratic Party reversed its earlier decision not to join the opposition coalition, saying that the new law did not reflect sufficient input from the opposition and international bodies.
On the international front, Russia and Tajikistan finally reached agreement in October on a number of issues that will solidify Russia's military presence in Tajikistan and increase bilateral economic relations. Under the terms of the agreement, Russia's 201st Motorized Rifle Division in Tajikistan will be upgraded to a full military base, even as responsibility for guarding the Tajik-Afghan border will be transferred from Russian to Tajik jurisdiction over the next two years (most of the border guard officers are Russian, while the troops are Tajik conscripts); Russia will gain control of the Okno space-monitoring system at Nurek in Tajikistan; and Moscow will forgive Dushanbe's massive debts and invest in infrastructure projects in Tajikistan, including a hydropower plant. While the conclusion of the agreement ended a period of prolonged, and often tense, bilateral negotiations, the living and working conditions of the several hundred thousand Tajik migrant workers in Russia, who often face official harassment and discrimination, remained a source of friction between the two countries.
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. The mines had been designed to prevent renewed invasions by Islamic radical groups that had entered into Uzbekistan via Tajikistan several years earlier. Tajikistan continued to benefit from technical and financial assistance from the United States, which was in the process of constructing a permanent embassy in Dushanbe during the year.
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: the Assembly of Representatives (lower chamber), whose 63 members are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms; and the National Assembly (upper chamber), whose 33 members are indirectly elected, 25 by local assemblies and 8 by the president, all for five-year terms. 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 religious-based parties was lifted, leading to the registration of the IRP, currently the only legal religious-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.
Corruption is reportedly pervasive throughout society, with payments often required to obtain lucrative government positions. One of the conditions for Tajikistan's receipt of development assistance from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development is the country's efforts to fight corruption. Tajikistan was ranked 133 out of 146 countries in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, independent journalists continue to face harassment and intimidation, selective 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. Most television stations are state-owned or only nominally independent, and the process of obtaining broadcast licenses is cumbersome and expensive. Although the government does not block access to the Internet, the high cost of Internet service puts it out of reach of most citizens.
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 January 2004, the prosecutor-general's office announced that it had established a special group to investigate the killings.
Independent and opposition journalists and media outlets faced growing government pressure in 2004 in advance of the February 2005 parliamentary elections. Dodojon Atovulloev, the editor of the opposition newspaper Charogi Ruz, which is banned in Tajikistan for it antigovernment stance, returned briefly to Tajikistan from exile in Russia in June after having fled the country more than a decade earlier. However, Atovulloev left Tajikistan just four days later out of concern that the authorities could not guarantee his safety after he received death threats. Rajabi Mirzo, the editor of the opposition weekly Ruzi Nav, was assaulted in July near his home for what may have been political reasons; the paper frequently printed articles critical of the Tajik authorities. As of November 30, no arrests had been made in connection with the case. In August, the authorities closed down Jiyonkhon, an independent printing house, for the alleged tax violations of one of the opposition newspapers it printed; the charges were believed to be politically motivated. Jiyonkhon had published several opposition newspapers, including Ruzi Nav and Nerui Sukhan, which the state printing house in Dushanbe refused to print, forcing the newspapers to cease publication or find alternative printing facilities abroad. After Ruzi Nav contracted with an independent printing house in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, tax authorities impounded copies of Ruzi Nav upon their arrival at the Dushanbe airport in November. In October, the Russian-language newspaper Vechernii Dushanbe lost a libel case brought by Dushanbe's city court deputy chairman, who claimed that an article in the paper had defamed him.
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 (SCRA), a process that some local authorities have used to prevent the activities of certain groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses. In contrast to previous years, there were reportedly no mosques closed and no imams removed by the SCRA. Members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate throughout the Muslim world, have been given lengthy prison sentences on charges including subversion, distribution of extremist literature, and inciting religious hatred.
According to the 2004 U.S. State Department's human rights report, the Tajik government does not restrict academic freedom. However, the country's educational system suffers from inadequate funding and resources, declining enrollments of pupils owing to poverty, and corruption in the grading system. Students are frequently conscripted to work on cotton plantations and have been forced to pay a fine or have been expelled from school if they do not comply.
Although a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in the country without restrictions, the state strictly controls freedom of association for organizations of a political nature. Registration requirements are often lengthy and cumbersome. 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 bargain collectively, which they do in practice. Although the law does not restrict the right to strike, it is necessary to apply to local authorities to receive permission to organize a strike; no strikes occurred during the year.
The judiciary is directly influenced 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. The government took some steps to address the problem during the year by arresting some corrupt judges and prosecutors. Police often conduct arbitrary arrests and beat detainees to extract confessions. Detainees are frequently refused access to legal counsel and face lengthy pretrial detention. Prisons are severely overcrowded and suffer from unsanitary conditions and rampant disease. In 2004, Rakhmonov signed a moratorium on the death penalty, replacing capital punishment with a 25-year prison term.
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. A 2004 agreement to gradually transfer border guard service along the Tajik-Afghan border from Russian to Tajik control raised concerns about potential increases in cross-border drug trafficking, since Tajikistan's limited resources are likely to render it even less successful than Russia in stemming the flow of narcotics.
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. According to the Tajik Center of Strategic Research, about 15 percent of the incomes of small and medium businesses go to bribery and payoff of officials. Child labor, particularly on cotton farms, is reportedly commonplace.
Although women are employed throughout the government and the business world, they continue to face traditional societal discrimination. Violence against women, including spousal abuse, is reportedly common, but cases reported to the authorities are rarely investigated. Tajikistan is a source and transit country for persons trafficked for prostitution. In 2004, Rakhmonov signed a new law against human trafficking that addresses prevention, protection of victims, and the prosecution of traffickers, and a Tajik court applied the law for the first time in a trafficking case in November. In August, the Council of Ulems, the highest religious body of Muslims in Tajikistan, issued an edict banning women from mosques that do not have the necessary facilities to allow men and women to pray separately; Rakhmonov stated in November that he would not interfere with the decision.