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President Imomali Rakhmon, politically secure after his latest reelection in 2006, extended his sway to the cultural sphere in 2007, encouraging the de-Russification of surnames and banning lavish weddings. Meanwhile, the government noticeably tightened its control over the practice of religion. Internationally, Tajikistan continued to cement ties with China amid an apparent move to distance itself from Russia.
Conquered by Russia in the late 19th century, Tajikistan was made an autonomous region within the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan in 1924 and a separate Soviet republic in 1929. Tajikistan declared independence from the Soviet Union in September 1991, and two months later, former Communist Party leader Rakhmon 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. In September 1992, Communist hard-liners forced Nabiyev’s resignation; he was replaced later that year by Imomali Rakhmonov, a leading Communist Party member. The following month, Rakhmonov launched attacks against antigovernment forces that caused tens of thousands of people 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. Similarly, progovernment candidates won the March 1995 parliamentary elections amid a boycott by the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), a coalition of secular and Islamic groups that emerged during the war as the main force fighting against Rakhmonov’s government.
Following a December 1996 ceasefire, Rakhmonov and UTO leader Said Abdullo Nuri signed a formal peace agreement in June 1997. 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.
A September 1999 referendum that permitted the formation of religion-based political parties 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 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.
In February 2000 elections to the 63-seat lower house of parliament, Rakhmonov’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP)—which he joined in 1998—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 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.
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 presidential powers were further consolidated in a June 2003 constitutional referendum, which paved the way for him to remain in office until 2020. The PDP easily won the 2005 parliamentary elections, taking 52 of 63 seats in the lower house. OSCE monitors concluded that “despite some improvement over previous elections, large-scale irregularities were evident.” In the run-up to elections, a number of Rakhmonov’s prominent former allies were jailed, often on dubious charges.
The pressure on potential opposition continued ahead of the November 2006 presidential election. The four registered challengers were little known and broadly pro-Rakhmonov, suggesting a government-engineered attempt to create the impression of a competitive election. Rakhmonov won the contest, garnering more than 70 percent of the vote, although the OSCE pointed in its report to lackluster campaigning and a general absence of real competition.
With the political opposition safely sidelined, Rakhmonov broadened his influence to the cultural sphere in 2007. He de-Russified his surname to “Rakhmon” in March and in May signed legislation establishing spending limits on birthday and wedding celebrations. While the authorities denied rumors of a campaign to de-Russify surnames, and some reports indicated popular support for the enforced “austerity” measures, the moves raised fears of an increasingly erratic and culturally interventionist presidency.
On the international front, Tajikistan continued to receive significant Chinese investments in 2007, mainly in the form of preferential loans for infrastructure projects. One report put total Chinese investment in Tajikistan at over $700 million. Meanwhile, business ties with Russia cooled. In August, Tajikistan revoked a 2004 contract with Russian Aluminum to build a major hydroelectric station, planning instead to create an international consortium around the project.
Tajikistan is not an electoral democracy. The 1994 constitution provides for a strong, directly elected president who enjoys broad authority to appoint and dismiss officials. Amendments adopted in a 1999 referendum further increased the powers of the president and created a full-time, bicameral parliament, while 2003 amendments allowed President Imomali Rakhmon to serve two additional seven-year terms beyond the 2006 election. In the Assembly of Representatives (lower chamber), 63 members are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. In the 33-seat National Assembly (upper chamber), 25 members are chosen by local assemblies, and 8 are appointed by the president, all for five-year terms. Elections are neither free nor fair.
Patronage networks and regional affiliations are central to political life, with officials from the president’s native Kulyob region dominant in government. Rakhmon’s PDP is the ruling political party. Secular opposition parties are weak and enjoy minimal popular support. The limited influence of the IRP, currently the only legal religion-based party in Central Asia, was further reduced by the August 2006 death of Said Abdullo Nuri, the party’s widely respected leader.
Corruption is reportedly pervasive throughout society, with payments often required to obtain government positions. Tajikistan was ranked 150 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, independent journalists continue to face harassment and intimidation, and the penal code criminalizes defamation. The government controls most printing presses, newsprint supplies, and broadcasting facilities. Most television stations are state owned or only nominally independent, and the process of obtaining broadcast licenses is cumbersome. 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 despite some recent efforts to conduct investigations.
In August 2007, three journalists faced criminal charges for “insulting” a popular singer. The same month, Rakhmon signed legislation criminalizing libel on the internet and allowing courts to sentence journalists to up to two years in prison for libel in print publications.
While the government generally respects religious freedom in this predominantly Muslim country, it has shown an increasing willingness to impose restrictions. In October 2005, the minister of education banned the wearing of the hijab (headscarf) in schools and higher educational institutions. In 2006 and 2007, expulsions and other restrictions continued to take place under this regulation. In March 2007, the authorities shut down large numbers of unauthorized mosques, while August saw new, tighter rules for licensing religious leaders. In October, officials suspended the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tajikistan.
The government at times restricts freedom of assembly and association. Local government approval is required to hold public demonstrations. Unapproved protests are rare because of the fear of reprisal from the authorities and concerns about a return to the political unrest of the civil war period. All nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Ministry of Justice. Citizens have the legal right to form and join trade unions and to bargain collectively, which they do in practice.
The judiciary lacks independence. Many judges are poorly trained and inexperienced, and bribery is reportedly widespread. Occasional high-profile anticorruption campaigns have had little real impact. Police often conduct arbitrary arrests and beat detainees to extract confessions. Conditions in prisons—which are overcrowded, unsanitary, and disease-ridden—are often life-threatening.
The Tursunzadah relocation program appears to have been phased out in 2007, reducing concerns of government-sponsored ethnic manipulation. Most of the population lives in poverty and survives on subsistence agriculture, remittances from relatives working abroad (mainly in Russia), and foreign humanitarian aid. Child labor, particularly on cotton farms, remains a problem.
Tajikistan is a major conduit for the smuggling of narcotics from Afghanistan to Russia and then on to Europe. A side effect has been an increase in drug addiction within Tajikistan, as well as a rise in the number of cases of HIV/AIDS. Although there were less than 1,000 officially registered HIV cases in Tajikistan in 2007, unofficial estimates put the real number at up to 10 times that many.
Sexual harassment, traditional discrimination, and violence against women, including spousal abuse, are reportedly common, but cases reported to the authorities are rarely investigated. Despite a 2004 law against human trafficking that addresses prevention, Tajikistan remains a source and transit country for persons trafficked for prostitution.