Tajikistan | Freedom House

Nations in Transit

Tajikistan

Tajikistan

Nations in Transit 2003

2003 Scores

Democracy Score
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5.63

Electoral Process
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5.25

Civil Society
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5.00

Independent Media
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5.75

Judicial Framework and Independence
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5.75

Corruption
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.00

Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.00

Prior to the tragic events of September 11, 2001 (9-11), many in the world had no idea where Central Asia was, what countries it constituted, and which ethnic groups and religions it contained. The terror acts of 9-11 and the consequent U.S. military incursion in Afghanistan catapulted Central Asia, including Tajikistan, into living rooms and onto government agendas. As part of its pledge to Afghanistan and the region, the Western world had promised increased economic assistance to the Central Asian states. Tajikistan's neighbor and rival Uzbekistan, for example, has received substantial amounts of U.S. military and economic support. Tajikistan, however, still mostly a Russian ally, has not seen a significant increase in aid. This has been exacerbated by the fact that economic dislocation and the remnants of a brutal civil war have taken their toll on the well being of the population. Furthermore, a decade into independence, a large democracy deficit remains. Despite some progress, Tajikistan's ruling elite, much of it remnants of the Soviet nomenklatura (state bureaucracy), has failed to allow individual and political freedoms to flourish.

Although a short period of political pluralism called the Tajik Spring followed the emergence of an independent Tajikistan in 1991, this nascent liberalism soon devolved into anarchy, armed violence, and ultimately civil war with its peak violence of summer and fall 1992, where in a span of five months as a result of an inter-regional and ideological conflict as much as 1% of the population (50,000) was killed and another 10% or half-a-million people became refugees and forced migrants. The causes of the war were many. First, when the Soviet Union collapsed, pre- and early-Soviet factionalism among Communists, Islamists, and so-called democrats reemerged. Second, Tajikistan's proximity to Afghanistan, one of the bloodiest epicenters of the US-USSR cold war conflict, helped foment violence within the new nation's own borders. Also influencing the outbreak of war were severe economic dislocation, the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of communism, and the sheer absence in the country of a sense of common history and nationhood. In 1997, the Tajik government and its opponent, the Islamic-dominated United Tajik Opposition (UTO), signed a peace accord brokered by Iran, the United Nations, and Russia. However, the severity of destruction and dislocation caused by the war has hindered anything near a full recovery.

The relative calm enjoyed in Tajikistan today is due largely to the government's entrenched political power and its systematic elimination of armed opposition figures left over from the civil war years. The toppling of the Taliban, the extremist Islamist regime in Afghanistan, in 2001 has also helped in improving stability in Tajikistan. Yet peace is not fully secure in Afghanistan, and the country's drug trade--much of it trafficked through Tajikistan--shows no signs of subsiding. Perhaps the greatest threat to stability in Tajikistan, though, is the prolonged economic slump. Despite positive growth rates in 1997, the Tajik economy measures only about 55 percent of its Soviet-era size. At the microeconomic level the picture is no better, with the World Bank estimating that at least 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. With per capita income lower than $200 per year, Tajikistan rivals many impoverished nations in sub-Saharan Africa and is certainly one of the poorest nations in the former Soviet Union. Tajikistan's depressed economy and dearth of industrial enterprises have also led to what Shireen Akiner, a Central Asian specialist at the University of London, calls a "de-skilling" of the population. When coupled with falling levels of educational enrollment, the result is a growing segment of the population equipped for little more than manual labor.

In 2002, the government improved its record to a degree by making progress in economic stabilization, pursuing and arresting members of armed illegal bands, granting a degree of freedom of expression to select media outlets, and increasing opportunities for nongovernmental groups to engage in the civic life of the country. Nevertheless, a semiauthoritarian regime led by President Imomali Rahmanov and his inner circle continues to dominate the political system. Although some opinion polls indicate that the regime enjoys considerable public support, it is an undeniable fact that the existing leadership has systematically prevented the rise of any viable alternatives. This fact is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. According to the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, Tajikistan faces four major challenges: establishing a viable political system, combating crime, promoting better relations with neighboring states (especially Uzbekistan), and reversing economic decline. Although the government has made some progress since the end of the civil war in holding elections and promoting economic growth, large segments of the population remain poor and negatively affected by the transition process. Failure to address these needs and challenges and to uphold basic political rights and civil liberties threatens Tajikistan's long-term stability and suggests that further turmoil might not be far away.

Electoral Process: 

Imomali Rahmanov, a former Soviet kolkhoz (collective farm) leader, was first appointed Tajikistan's head of state in November 1992, when the former Communists and their thuggish supporters in the Popular Front toppled the opposition-dominated government that had declared independence a year earlier. Although armed fighting, assassinations, hostage takings, corruption, economic weakness, social inequality, and censorship have characterized Rahmanov's tenure since then, the president has proved victorious in two national elections, first in 1994 and again in 1999. However, neither election was free from controversy. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) described the 1999 campaign as ridden with irregularities and falling far short of international standards. The next elections are scheduled for 2006. By law, President Rahmanov may not seek a third term, but Parliament is planning a nationwide plebiscite that will mostly likely pave the way for him to do so.

In the early days of independence, there was sincere hope that a genuine multiparty political system might emerge in Tajikistan. Unfortunately, the onset of civil war in 1992 abruptly halted the country's transition. By early 1993, all opposition parties had been banned, and the only legal and functioning political organization remaining was the Communist Party. Although several new parties such as the People's Democratic Party (PDP) emerged the following year, none represented opposition points of view. Today, the PDP, which is headed by President Rahmanov, is the country's largest party. The Communist Party follows in second place. In 1999, the government lifted its ban on opposition parties and allowed political groupings that had formed the UTO, including the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), to reregister.

Although the semblance of a multiparty system now exists in Tajikistan, the government has not allowed true political pluralism to emerge. New parties are small, tend to have very narrow social bases, and are subject to overt government harassment for expressions of political dissent. Nevertheless, some level of normalcy has been reached. In September 2002, for example, the opposition Agrarian Party, whose activities the Ministry of Justice had suspended during the preelection period in 1999, merged with the Democratic Party. The move was intended to keep the Democratic Party intact and increase its membership base. In November 2002, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) resubmitted its registration application to the Ministry of Justice, which soon approved the group as a legal political entity. The SDP had originally complained that its application in 1999 was illegally rejected. Another opposition party called Vahdat (Unity) is also preparing to register.

The origins of the IRP, Tajikistan's most vocal opposition party, can be traced back to the mid-1970s when the Soviet Union's underground Muslim community began to grow more radical. In June 1990, Muslim delegates from across the Soviet Union gathered in the Caucasus and formed the All-Union Islamic Party. The IRP was formed later that year as a branch of the All-Union body. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the IRP became an independent party and its Tajik branch registered as such in October 1991. The party, whose ultimate aim is the creation of an Islamic state in Tajikistan, became a principal force behind the UTO during the civil war years.

Since the end of the war, the IRP has failed to present a coherent view of the role of Islam in post-Communist Tajikistan and has grown rife with internal factions. It also has lost much of its following. That said, a small percentage of the population--primarily from the Gharm-Quarateguine region and other pockets of the country--has consistently supported the IRP and has voted some of its candidates into local and national bodies. Today, the IRP is the only legal Islamic party in the former Soviet Union and enjoys parliamentary and cabinet-level representation.

Of the eight parties in existence by early 2000, six qualified to participate in parliamentary elections that year. Only three obtained more than 5 percent of the vote, the threshold for securing representation. These were the pro-government PDP, the Communist Party, and the IRP. Following the elections, Tajikistan's unicameral legislative body was replaced with a 63-member bicameral body consisting of a 30-member Council of Representatives (lower house) and a 33-member National Council (upper house). The pro-government PDP dominates both houses. An obvious shortcoming of the elections and the current government's makeup is the virtual exclusion of representation from the Uzbek and Pamiri ethnic and cultural groups. Furthermore, many important government positions belong to individuals from Kulob--President Rahmanov's home region.

Civil Society: 

To foster civic activism in Tajikistan, foreign aid organizations and international donors have promoted and funded the formation of Western-style nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). However, civil society in the country is not a new phenomenon. Traditional mahalla (neighborhood) councils, for example, have enjoyed a revival in the post-Communist period. These informal, nongovernmental institutions receive support from local religious centers and mosques and help organize hashar, or community assistance, which can take the form of repairing someone's home, building a local facility, or helping a family prepare for a wedding. Informal institutions like these preserve a space outside the control of government authorities and foster communal identity and solidarity. They also reinforce social values and accepted norms of behavior. Jamoats are official institutions that serve as liaisons between mahallas and provincial governments.

Conventional nonprofit, charitable, and voluntary organizations came into existence in Tajikistan in the mid-1990s with international donor support. Though initially a bureaucratic, expensive, and time-consuming process, the act of forming an NGO has been simplified considerably in recent years. In 2001, for example, government Resolution 31 cut registration costs dramatically. The fees for local, national, and international groups declined from $165, $240, and $750, respectively, to $25, $60, and $600. According the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which promotes the development of NGOs in Tajikistan, the number of groups registered with the Ministry of Justice more than doubled between 2001 and 2002, totaling approximately 1,300 by year's end. NGOs focus on a variety of issues, including child welfare, gender equality, civil society training, health, social protection, the environment, culture, business training, and the mass media.

The role of religion in the formal aspect of civil society is minimal, except in the Badakhshan province, where most inhabitants are followers of the Aga Khan, leader of the Ismaili Muslims. The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), a faith-based organization, has promoted an active civil society in Badakhshan and has supported important socioeconomic development projects and educational institutions. The AKF and its corresponding Development Network are perhaps the most unique and successful NGOs in Tajikistan. This is true in large part because they devote considerable time to consulting with local communities and taking their short- and long-term needs into account. They also emphasize project sustainability, reinforce the importance of volunteerism and self-reliance, and to some extent avoid overdependence on external support.

International NGOs such as the Counterpart Consortium, the Eurasia Foundation, and the Open Society Institute also play an important role in Tajikistan. Some groups promote confidence building among Tajik citizens who have been adversely affected by the civil war, ongoing economic problems, and the lack of political openness in the country. Others promote conflict resolution through workshops and discussion-based activities designed for representatives of local village and elders' councils, ethnic and regional groups, and local government officials. Major international bodies and financial institutions like the UN, the European Union (EU), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and even the World Bank have channeled many grants and loans to Tajikistan through NGOs rather than the government. The UNHCR has established an NGO resource center in Dushanbe that offers training in community relations, leadership development, business management, human resources, and fund-raising. During 2002, an estimated 150 NGO leaders participated in these courses.

Although Tajik women are not yet widely represented in government structures, they play an important role in civil society. More than a third of all Tajik NGOs, for example, are headed by women. Some observers believe that greater participation by women in the country's political, economic, and social life would help consolidate the peace process. For this to happen, though, the country's traditional patriarchal mentality must be challenged. Some NGOs and international organizations are trying to do just that. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), for example, has funded a locally staffed organization called Women in Development. Since 1999, the groups Women's Voices, Orzu (Hope), and Oshtii Milly (National Reconciliation) have worked with the OSCE to arrange seminars on human rights, gender, culture, and the role of political parties and local governments in democratizing society. Women's rights groups have also begun to lobby the government.

The expansion of civil society in Tajikistan has not been without problems. For one thing, the primary motivation for registering a domestic NGO is often the pursuit of international funding and secure employment, rather than a sincere desire to address the needs of the community. Many talented and educated individuals have become adept, as in other parts of the post-Communist world, at understanding the predilections of foreign donors and fashioning proposals accordingly. Most NGOs have discriminatory hiring practices, and nepotism is widespread. There are also concerns that substantial portions of foreign assistance never reach the most vulnerable and impoverished strata of society.

According to John Schoberlein of Harvard University, the rebuilding of Tajikistan's social fabric is as important as--if not more important than--the reconstruction of the country's physical infrastructure. One group that is comprehensively addressing this issue is the International Crisis Group (ICG), which, through its field office in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, has been researching the best means of achieving social harmony and preventing conflict in and around the densely populated and ethnically mixed Ferghana Valley, which falls within the borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. According to ICG, poverty and the absence of sufficient authority are endemic in this region. Ultimately, for civil society to take root and be effective in Tajikistan, the rule of law, political and economic stability, and a significant degree of social cohesion must be present. To date, though, the country has been characterized more by uncivil patterns of behavior that have become increasingly entrenched.

Independent Media: 

Violent crime and a quasi-authoritarian regime make journalism in Tajikistan a dangerous profession. This is particularly true for individuals who have dared to investigate power struggles in the political and military elite and drug and weapons trafficking by the Mafia and government officials. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), during the 10-year period from 1988 to 1997, Tajikistan and Russia tied as the third most dangerous spots on earth for journalists. During that period, 29 journalists in each of the 2 countries were murdered. Some sources suggest, however, that as many as 60 journalists may have been murdered in Tajikistan since 1992. Between 1993 and 1999, all major opposition parties and newspapers were banned. Although opposition parties may now function, the dissemination of their platforms through the media is severely restricted.

Article 135(2) of the Tajik penal code stipulates that "the distribution of clearly false information defaming a person's honor, dignity, or reputation" is punishable by up to two years in prison. Article 137 establishes a punishment of up to five years in prison for insulting or defaming the president. Laws like these, in addition to the general absence of law and order in the country, have forced most journalists to practice self-censorship.

To control nonstate media, the government typically resorts to forms of intimidation. These include holding so-called guidance sessions for journalists, refusing to print newspapers at government-owned facilities, and enforcing burdensome licensing procedures. Local law enforcement agencies harass local journalists, at times resorting to beatings and death threats. Foreign correspondents also have endured threatening conditions when reporting from Tajikistan. Claudia McElroy, a reporter for the British Broadcasting Corporation and The Guardian newspaper, claimed in 1999 that she was under more danger as a foreign correspondent in Tajikistan than during the periods of civil war in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In 2000, Saifullo Rahimov, the president of Tajikistan's State TV and Radio Committee, was murdered near his home in Dushanbe in what appears to have been a political killing. Furthermore, three local television journalists reporting on irregularities in the military draft in the northern Soghd province were themselves forcefully conscripted into the armed forces in 2002.

Other factors constraining the media are the financial costs of media equipment and difficulties procuring basic supplies such as newsprint. Likewise, compared to the Soviet period, when periodical publications were cheap and plentiful and radio and television coverage was available to over 90 percent of the population, public access to the media in Tajikistan is now significantly limited. Widespread poverty, for example, has curtailed demand for newspapers and led to low circulation levels. There are no daily newspapers in the country, and metropolitan papers publish only once a week.

Tajikistan's few independent television stations experience administrative and legal harassment. In Dushanbe, the capital, Biznes i Politika is the only independent newspaper with significant political news; however, its coverage largely favors the government. Similarly, one of the two nongovernmental radio stations, which functions in the northern city of Khujand, is believed to have obtained its broadcast rights on the basis of its pro-government, nationalistic, and anti-Uzbekistan stance. Access to state media by opposition political figures is, for all practical purposes, forbidden. Government censorship is extensive, and access to official sources is quite limited.

According to Human Rights Watch, President Rahmanov and officials close to the regime have used the media for an "uninterrupted laudatory publicity campaign." Prior to the national elections in 1999 and 2000, for example, as much as 40 percent of all state television airtime was devoted to the pro-government PDP; opposition candidates and parties received minuscule amounts of airtime. Independent media that veer from the government's official line risk being shut down. During the 1999 presidential campaign, Junbish, a Dushanbe-based newspaper that published the views of the UTO and other opposition parties, was forced to cease operations. The paper received threats from government officials and was denied access to its regular state printing press.

Despite this negative picture, some improvements in press freedom did occur in 2002. In August, the government reversed a decision prohibiting private radio stations and granted a license to Asia-Plus, a news agency based in Dushanbe. Asia-Plus had applied for an FM license back in 1998. The sudden policy change was thought to be a response to criticism from the OSCE and CPJ of the government's ban on private media. Another hopeful sign came in the launch of Tong, an ethnic Uzbek newspaper published in the Soghd province. The paper aims to inform ethnic Uzbeks of political, economic, cultural, and civic news, in addition to familiarizing young people with democracy and human rights issues.

Tajikistan was one of the last countries on earth to connect to the Internet. It did so only in January 1999, when the Ministry of Communications allowed the establishment of the country's first Internet service provider (ISP). Since then, use of the Internet has been expanding, albeit slowly. Although the government allows relatively unhindered access to the Internet, getting connected is extremely expensive for ordinary Tajiks. Today there are four ISPs in the country and a handful of Internet cafes.

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

Tajikistan's Constitution dates to 1994, a time in which the country was in the throes of a civil war and a ban on opposition political parties was in place. Still, voters approved the founding document with a supposed majority vote of 90 percent. Opposition members, many of whom were associated with the UTO, denounced the referendum and claimed that it was neither free nor fair. The Constitution divides power among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. The president, who enjoys strong powers, makes appointments to government seats and selects the chairman of the central bank, the state prosecutor, the head of the Constitutional Court, and heads of regional administrations. The Constitution provides for a variety of individual freedoms, including the freedoms of privacy, assembly, speech, press, association, and religion. It also bans discrimination on the basis of nationality, race, gender, and religion.

Despite these guarantees, the government frequently breaks the letter and spirit of the law with arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, the use of torture, suppression of opposition political voices, and bans on independent media. During the height of the civil war in 1992 and 1993, there were thousands of extrajudicial killings, the majority of which could be attributed to government forces and their armed militant allies. Although much of the horror of the civil war ended with the signing of the 1997 Moscow Peace Accord, the government continues to violate human rights in a variety of ways, including through the imprisonment of political activists and suspected radical Islamists belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

Although the Constitution guarantees an independent judiciary, the judicial branch is not independent of the executive. Judges and prosecutors may be dismissed by the president. They also are subject to pressure, intimidation, and bribery by corrupt paramilitary groups and government armed forces. There are long delays in the commencement of trials, and the defendant's right to public counsel is not always upheld. It is generally understood that despite the type of crime committed--if any--accused persons can secure their freedom from prison by paying a sufficient bribe. Many prisoners languish in filthy prisons for years, or even die, because their families cannot afford the several hundred dollars needed to bribe their release.

Tajikistan's criminal code is a holdover from the Soviet era. Though amended, it contains many of the flaws inherited from that period, including a basic presumption of one's guilt until proven innocent. The code places few checks and balances on the activity of the police and prosecutors. In spite of the government's admission that its security forces regularly violate the law and have been infiltrated by criminal elements, it has taken few concrete actions to prevent further abuses. By law, the police need the permission of a prosecutor to search personal premises and homes, but in practice they avoid this requirement and frequently conduct arbitrary searches and arrests. The government clearly uses the power of the police to arrest and harass opposition political party members, often by framing them for possession and smuggling of narcotics. A seminal case in Tajikistan was that of the 1999 arrest, detention, and death of Abdulhafiz Abdullojonov, the brother of exiled opposition member Abdumalik Abdullojonov, on trumped-up narcotics possession charges.

The only significant change to the criminal code has been an increase in punishments for crimes such as rape, theft, and drug possession and use. Although the government has made some progress in efforts to end the ill-treatment of prisoners, the conditions of detainees are still among the worst in the world. Many face illness, hunger, maltreatment, and even death in Tajikistan's extremely underbudgeted, overcrowded, and unsanitary prison system. Some of the problems are the product of a Soviet-era policy calling for self-funded prisons to grow their own food and produce limited goods for the Soviet economy. The practice of growing food in Tajik prisons has resumed; abusive conditions, though, have not subsided.

Responding to international (mainly European) criticism for its continued use of the death penalty, the minister of justice announced in 2002 that Tajikistan would not eliminate the practice and cited political and economic conditions in the country as justification. He went on to say, though, that Tajikistan hopes at a future date to commute all death penalty sentences to life imprisonment and to produce minimum standards for treating prisoners that would observe their constitutional rights and meet international standards. In 2002, the government delivered death sentences at an alarming rate of at least five per month.

According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, armed militias from the Ministries of the Interior, Defense, and Emergency Situations are known to carry out kidnappings, extortion, beatings, and the killing of civilians. During 2001, there were several assassinations of government officials, including Shamsullo Jabirov, the deputy security minister; Habib Sanginov, the deputy minister of the interior, and his two bodyguards; Sobirjon Begijonov, the chairman of a northern Soghd district; and Karim Yudoshev, a senior adviser to the president. In 2002, the authorities took concrete steps to identify and hold accountable perpetrators of these and other killings, but most of the resulting trials were closed, including to international observers. Several verdicts carried the death sentence. In March, for example, four men charged with one of the 2001 government murders were sentenced to death; others received long prison terms. However, it is widely acknowledged that at least three of the men were tortured and made coerced confessions.

Overall, the government's efforts to subdue warlords and criminals might be paying off. There are indications that since the events of September 11, 2001, the security situation in Tajikistan has improved substantially. In 2002, no major incidences of assassination or kidnapping were reported. In May 2002, the government brought 82 members of the armed band of renegade UTO commander Rahman "Hitler" Sanginov to trial for murder, hostage taking, banditry, and robbery.

During 2002, the Tajik government made some efforts to respond to Western criticism of human rights violations in the country. For example, the authorities dropped criminal charges against exiled opposition journalist Dodojon Atovullo, relaxed censorship of the Internet, reduced the cost of registration for local NGOs, and worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to provide full access to the country's prisons. Nevertheless, repression continues in Tajikistan, and the government appears to be using the U.S.-led war on terrorism as a pretext for the systematic persecution of its political opponents. Since September 2001, the government has accused Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a transnational Islamist organization that advocates the non-violent establishment of a caliphate in the Ferghana Valley, of having ties to al-Qaeda and has handed down lengthy prison sentences to its alleged members. The government has also criticized the northern Soghd province for serving as a safe haven for religious extremists, closed several mosques, and kept a close watch on the activities of local Islamic leaders. A fact frequently cited by the regime is that three of the prisoners being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay are Tajik citizens from the Isfara district of Soghd.

In June 2002, Abdujalil Hamidov, a former Soghd governor and a relative of exiled opposition leader Abdumalik Abdullojonov, was sentenced with 18 others to 15 years in prison on charges of embezzlement and attempted assassination of the president. The group was also charged with maintaining ties to the IMU. Mr. Hamidov apparently suffers from cancer and was forced to confess under duress. One of his co-defendants reportedly has died in prison. Four others have received death sentences. The trial was closed.

According to some observers of Tajikistan, the country's civil war was caused mainly by economic decline and low living standards, particularly in rural areas where women do not traditionally work outside the home. However, since the war caused the death of as many as 25,000 male heads of household, many women have been forced to provide for themselves and their dependents. Despite some progress in recent years, though, the status of women in Tajik society remains relatively low. An estimated 70 percent of women face some form of discrimination, with conditions being of particular concern in rural areas. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), some women are even driven to suicide by the prevalence of violence against them and their lack of rights.

Although Tajik law forbids discrimination based on ethnicity and language, there is widespread discrimination against non-Tajiks. Few ethnic Russians continue to work for the state, and emigration is steady. Those who remain in the country work primarily as contractors for the Russian armed forces that are stationed there. Some, especially in Khujand, are small-scale merchants. Anti-Uzbek sentiment--much of it condoned by the government--is also strong. Even though a quarter of the population can be categorized as Uzbek, the main state television broadcaster rarely offers Uzbek-language programming. Uzbek music, for all practical purposes, is forbidden on both radio and television. In some regions of Tajikistan, especially those adjacent to Uzbekistan, one encounters Uzbek villages in which few speak or comprehend Tajik and where households regularly tune in to radio and television programming from Uzbekistan. One positive point is that schooling for children in the Uzbek language remains available in Tajikistan.

During the civil war of the 1990s, many ethnoregional minorities who were perceived to side with the losing opposition were forced to flee their homes and villages. As a result, thousands of families living in the Qurghonteppa region of Khatlon province fled to northern Afghanistan, Badakhshan, other parts of Tajikistan, and other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Although most refugees returned after the peace accord was signed in 1997, they have faced occasional incidences of physical harm and regular discrimination. Some refugees, including the ethnic Kyrgyz of eastern Tajikistan, fled to Kyrgyzstan during the war and have remained there ever since. Thousands have even become Kyrgyz citizens.

Religious minorities also face discrimination and occasional persecution in Tajikistan. As many as 60 non-Islamic religious groups are registered in the country, including Zoroastrians, Jews, Buddhists, Baha'is, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Protestants, Catholics, and even Hare Krishnas. The non-Islamic religions have taken root primarily in the capital, Dushanbe, and in some poorer pockets of the Soghd and Khatlon provinces. To date, the government has banned only the Jehovah's Witnesses for the alleged violation of an obscure Tajik law. Prior to 1991, there were 15,000 to 20,000 Jews in the country, the majority being of Bukharan ancestry and tracing their roots in the region to the 14th century. Soon after independence, though, most Tajik Jews emigrated. Sizable settlements of Jews from Tajikistan are now living in Israel and New York.

Two prominent Baha'i leaders were assassinated in Dushanbe in 2001, as was the leader of Tajikistan's small Zoroastrian religious minority. In 2000, three Christian churches were firebombed and a total of seven worshipers killed. In all likelihood, these incidents were hate crimes that occurred without the government's involvement. However, with the tacit approval of Russia and Western powers, the government is persecuting devout Muslims who may or may not sympathize with fundamentalist Islam. The government now insists on monitoring and limiting the number of mosques in the country, criticizes the practice of traveling to Mecca, and arrests anyone possessing material that appears to favor Hizb-ut-Tahrir. As many as 200 Hizb-ut-Tahrir supporters, the majority of whom can be considered prisoners of conscience, are currently serving sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years. Most are thought to be from the northern Soghd region and the Leninski district near Dushanbe; many are of Uzbek ethnicity. To promote inter-religious harmony, during 2002 the OSCE held at least one Central Asia-wide conference and several workshops on the importance of tolerance and religious freedom.

Corruption: 

A decade after independence, corruption, crime, and insecurity continue to hinder a smooth post-Communist transition in Tajikistan. Bribes, some in the forms of unreasonable fees, have become ingrained in nearly all transactions with the government and government service providers. The acquisition of legal documents, for example, is nearly impossible without a bribe. Applying for a passport can take three months to a year with minimal bribes and fees to the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of the Interior. For the right price, though, a passport can be acquired in less than a week.

The road police are among the most corrupt, and all drivers, excluding those from international agencies, should expect to bribe them on a regular basis. Troops from the Ministry of the Interior also extort money from drivers and passengers at arbitrary stops and checkpoints. At airports, security officials even threaten travelers with charges of possessing stolen goods or taking drugs in an effort to induce payments. The greatest sums of money are extorted from small-business owners and street vendors. On a larger scale, foreign buyers of cotton fiber are required to pay off certain government officials and their cronies. According to one Western diplomat, control of the country's most important industries--cotton and aluminum--rests in the hands of President Rahmanov's friends and family.

Although economic crimes such as bribe taking, fraud, and the misappropriation of public funds were common during the Soviet period, they took place mostly at the institutional level and, according to Shireen Akiner at the University of London, left "relationships between individuals and personal morality generally contained within perceived bounds of propriety." Since independence, though, lawlessness has spread into every sphere of Tajik life and violence has become entrenched. Stories of abductions, assaults, murders, and corruption by high-profile public figures now abound. The situation is made worse by an illegal arms and munitions trade that has persisted since the civil war.

Drug trafficking is one of the most significant areas of crime in Tajikistan. Central Asia as a whole has replaced Myanmar as the Golden Crescent in the world's drug trade, and Tajikistan plays its part by serving as a major conduit for opiates from neighboring Afghanistan. For example, most of Afghanistan's drug exports to Europe in 2002 passed through the Tajik-Afghan border, where Russian-led border guards intercepted only a small portion. Although the UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention operates in Tajikistan, its officers are underpaid and its few impressive drug busts have failed to quell allegations of drug-related corruption. In particular, regional leaders on both sides of the Tajik-Afghan border appear to benefit directly from the drug trade, and trafficking via the Badakhshan and Khatlon provinces still appears to abound. High levels of poverty and unemployment in Tajikistan have made drug trafficking a tempting source of income. This in turn drives prostitution, money laundering, protection rackets, and gang warfare. The drug trade can also impact the political process by extending lucrative support to unscrupulous contenders for high office.

The privatization of state-owned enterprises--one of the cornerstones of post-Communist transitions--has engendered corruption and cronyism in Tajikistan as well. Asset valuations and tenders for sale lack transparency, and influential business and political figures purchase lucrative state assets at rock-bottom prices. Auctions for enterprises are often fixed, and independent bidders are threatened if they fail to back out of the bidding process. Most government officials maintain strong ties to the business community and expect the money made from business deals related to their work to exceed their official salaries. Land privatization has engendered similar problems, prompting opposition groups to openly criticize the government for unfairly and illegally distributing land rights. According to a 1998 USAID-funded household survey, an estimated one-fifth of all households in Tajikistan are landless, not even enjoying access to small vegetable gardens. Instead, land reform and privatization have favored mainly local and national elites. The transfer of ownership of small agricultural plots known as dehqan farms has especially bogged down, and farmers who enjoy lifelong leases on properties must pay a variety of fees and bribes to secure the actual legal deed.

Although allegations of government corruption have yielded few investigations, the president has periodically fired or replaced officials who are either rumored or proven to engage in corrupt practices. In January 2002, for example, the president dismissed the head of the country's tax committee and the commander of the Tajik border guards for alleged drug trafficking. Save occasional dismissals like these, though, the government has failed to address official corruption in a serious way. The country's minimal anticorruption legislation, which includes the Law on Conflict of Interest and Financial Disclosure, is seldom enforced. Furthermore, there are no laws against racketeering, and the country has yet to sign the OSCE's Convention on Combating Bribery. It is not surprising, then, that in its most recent Index of Economic Freedom, the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation categorized Tajikistan's economy as "Mostly Unfree" and ranked it 143rd out of 161 countries.

Governance: 

Owing mainly to the personalistic nature of power in Tajikistan, the boundaries between state and society are blurred, and formal institutions such as Parliament and the judiciary lack genuine authority. The regime attempts to cloak itself in legitimacy by holding elections, but real power at all levels of the state rests with informal clan networks. The use of force and the dispensation of patronage engender loyalty from supporters and rivals alike.

Although such realpolitik dominates governance in Tajikistan, the country's 1994 Constitution does outline a political system based on pluralism and an American-style separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The 1999 plebiscite on constitutional amendments (approved by 72 percent of voters) created a seven-year presidential term and formed a bicameral parliamentary system. Parliament technically can override presidential decrees by a two-thirds majority, but both houses are dominated by the pro-government PDP. Appointed government positions are dominated by the Kulobis, people from President Rahmanov's home region. Despite constitutional guarantees of transparency and access to information, the national legislature often drafts and discusses laws behind closed doors.

Under the peace accord ending the civil war, the government is obliged to set aside 30 percent of all major government posts for the UTO. The appointments of Akbar Turanjonzoda and Mirzo Ziyo, two former senior UTO officials, to the posts of deputy prime minister and minister of emergency situations, respectively, helped fulfill the requirement. Furthermore, the selection of Oqil Oqilov, a businessman from the northern town of Uroteppa, as prime minister was another significant step toward pluralism and may have curbed antigovernment discord among the citizens of the northern Soghd province. However, the continued ban on the activities of the National Revival Party, which is thought to have widespread appeal in Soghd, is disturbing, though not surprising. Similarly, institutional changes in Tajikistan have emphasized the rights of the titular majority population--the ethnic Tajiks. When coupled with the country's economic downturn, this policy has prompted the emigration of most ethnic Russians, many of whom were the country's leading technical experts.

Tajikistan is divided into oblasts (provinces) and raions (districts). Badakhshan, Soghd, and Khatlon are the main provinces; the Regions of Republican Subordination surrounding the capital constitute their own de facto province. Fifty-two districts are scattered throughout the provinces, and five municipalities (Dushanbe, Nurek, Kofarnihon, Rogun, and Tursonzoda) govern the major industrial centers. Parliament has power over the regions and can contest the decisions of local legislatures. It can even disband such bodies that it deems in violation of Tajik law. Under the Constitution, the president has the power to appoint and dismiss the regional heads of governments, subject to approval by provincial legislatures. The central government determines the budgets of municipal districts, most of which operate at a deficit. Under the 1996 tax code, though, regional governments may retain a set portion of local revenues as they are collected.

For several years after independence, Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries experienced declines in the power of the executive. In time, though, presidents took measures to increase their power as a counterbalance to a perceived loss of control over socioeconomic and political development. To govern and maintain power, President Rahmanov relies to varying degrees on the armed forces of the Ministries of the Interior, Defense, and Emergency Situations. The president also relies on the Russian-led 201st Army Division and its estimated 15,000 soldiers, many of whom are guarding the border with Afghanistan. The regime still exercises considerable control over the capital and the Khatlon province but has difficulty exerting its full power and authority over other regions, especially opposition strongholds such as the Gharm and Quarateguine Valleys, the area of Kofarnihon to the east of Dushanbe, and the Badakhshan province.

Incidences of armed invasion, hostage taking, and rebellion in 1998 and 2001 forced government troops and the former UTO to fight side-by-side. The two have now, to a large extent, merged into one army. During 2002, the government limited, and in some cases eliminated, the activities of some 15 warlords, that is, ex-field commanders of the civil war who have their own quasi armies. Dozens of gunmen were arrested on charges of murder, terrorism, or treason and sentenced to prison; five were sentenced to death.

Despite the collapse of communism, the elites running Tajikistan have not really changed. Entry and advancement in the civil service is dominated by cronyism and nepotism, and public administration is shaped by regionalism and clan politics. Large parts of the country, for example, are run by local strongmen who tax the country's cotton, metals, and narcotics trades. Although the government has not focused sufficiently on capacity building, Parliament has adopted a Law on the Civil Service and created, with World Bank insistence, a special Public Administration Reform Unit. The World Bank has also imposed on Tajikistan a technical assistance project on institutional building. As with many other technical assistance projects, though, much of the funding for this project has been spent on foreign consultants, computer equipment, and development tours of the West for ruling Tajik elites, and the main emphasis has been placed on maximizing the privatization of state properties and government services.