Tajikistan’s Islamists Back Secular Candidate to Send Message

The outcome of Tajikistan’s November presidential election is easy to predict. Emomalii Rahmon will be reelected in a landslide. However, the ballot will also list Oynihol Bobonazarova, a secular lawyer and human rights activist recently tapped by the opposition, including Central Asia’s single legal Islamist party, to run against the first and only president of the former Soviet republic.

Bobonazarova is at first glance an odd choice for the United Reformist Force, an opposition coalition comprised of Islamists, social democrats and several nongovernmental groups.

The Islamists boycotted the 2006 election and failed to put up a candidate for a 2011 by-election for a vacated parliament seat, saying in conjunction with the boycotting social democrats that until election laws were changed, government officials will always be able to manipulate the outcome in advance. Although the Islamists did not encourage their members to boycott the 2011 election, it is clear the opposition forces in Tajikistan are dejected about their chances of electoral victory in any settling.

The upcoming presidential election marks a potential breaking point for perennial president Rahmon. Elected in 1994 and again in 1999. A 1999 referendum extended the presidential term from five to seven years, and a 2003 package of constitutional amendments included a provision permitting a second consecutive term. Although the limit of two terms exists on paper, supporters of Rahmon argue that the limit only applies to elections following the 2003 adoption of the amendments. Rahmon is set to run again this November. Read more “Tajikistan’s Islamists Back Secular Candidate to Send Message”

Central Asia: India’s New Strategic Neighborhood

Indian foreign policy has started to morph in recent years from the idealistic and sometimes naive notions of Cold War nonalignment into a more realistic strategy that recognizes the country’s changing interests. India’s alliance building in Central Asia is emblematic of this policy shift.

Walter Russell Mead recently blogged that in the past, Indian policymakers would list three enemies: Pakistan, Pakistan and Pakistan. But the old rivalry of South Asia now only has an emotional, not a rational connection with either the present or the future. India and Pakistan are working to improve their bilateral relationship. During his second visit to Islamabad last week, India’s foreign minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna reiterated his country’s wish to see a peaceful and prosperous neighbor.

One of the reasons for India’s continuous engagement with Pakistan is that it is on the road to Central Asia. The former Soviet satellite states in the region possess vast energy reserves and have attracted the attention of nearby great powers. Read more “Central Asia: India’s New Strategic Neighborhood”

Badakhshan-Tajikistan Clashes Risk Sparking Insurgency

The response by the Tajik government to the murder of a security official last week — sending troops into the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan — may cause more harm than they anticipated.

Major General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of the regional branch of the State Committee on National Security (formerly the KGB) was apparently stabbed to death on July 22. Two days later, Tajik troops marched into Khorugh, nominally seeking to arrest Tolib Ayombekov, the head of a border post on the Afghan-Tajik frontier and an opposition commander during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war, who has been accused of the general’s murder.

Last Wednesday, a ceasefire was declared but the two sides remain at an impasse. Ayombekov’s forces refuse to surrender their weapons or their leader while the Tajik government, headed by autocratic President Emomalii Rahmon, is not perceivably ready to “save face by collecting some weapons and withdrawing.”

Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow, was quoted as saying that “any campaign that does not end quickly risks getting bogged down in the harsh mountain winter.”

A letter confirmed accurate by sources close to EurasiaNet paints a grim picture in Khorugh, effectively held hostage by the cease fire.

99 percent of local people support these commanders. It’s a small town. Everyone is related. Everyone is family, friends. There is not a specific group the government is fighting: All local men are involved.

Reports on casualties are varied. Government figures estimate seventeen troops, thirty militants and one civilian while other estimates are higher — particularly concerning civilian deaths. Opposition sources cite two hundred overall casualties.

The most recent reports out of the region are inconsistent. Reuters reported that some rebels have begun to surrender after government threats to resume their assault but the report has not been picked up or corroborated by other news sources and only cites Tajik government officials. The situation remains tense in any event.

The shutting off of Internet, mobile and telephone services to the region makes it all the more difficult to decipher precisely what is happening. Early in the conflict, authorities severed access to YouTube in particular and as of Sunday, the websites of at least one Russian television channel and the BBC were blocked. Read more “Badakhshan-Tajikistan Clashes Risk Sparking Insurgency”

Russian-Tajikistan Base Deal Revealed Prematurely

Russian Ground Forces commander Vladimir Chirkin said recently that Russia and Tajikistan will soon achieve “results that will be advantageous for both sides” from the protracted talks between the two on the fate of Russia’s military base near the capital of Dushanbe.

Chirkin went on to claim that the draft agreement allows for Russian retention of the base for 49 years, rent free, as it has been for the past decade.

The Tajik Foreign Ministry, however, stated that General Chirkin’s claims were “premature” and “groundless,” stressing that negotiations continue behind closed doors.

Tajik foreign minister Khamorokhon Zarifi indicated in a statement on Monday that the negotiations were progressing. He was disparaging about Russian defense officials revealing details of the talks to the public, saying that “in a normal, law governed state, there is a specific responsibility for these actions, as this is disclosure of state secrets and important information.” Read more “Russian-Tajikistan Base Deal Revealed Prematurely”

Tajikistan: Between a Rock, a Hard Place and Iran

The head of United States Central Command, General James Mattis, held talks with Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon last Saturday to enlist commitments of continued support for American and NATO operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

Rahmon told Mattis that “Tajikistan would like to see further strengthening of the development of ties with the United States in the sphere of security and the establishment of peace and stability in the region.”

On Monday, Rahmon met with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who came bearing promises of pipelines and railways during the fifth annual Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan.

Ahmedinijad came away from the talks pleased, telling reporters that Tajikistan and Iran are culturally “parts of the same body.”

Caught between the Americans, a thousand kilometer border with Afghanistan, and a cultural connection to Iran, Tajikistan is indeed stuck economically and politically between conflicting interests and allies.

Tajikistan is landlocked, mountainous, and the one of Central Asia’s poorest states. Its government is nominally a republic. In reality, Emomalii Rahmon has been ruling the one party dominant state since 1992.

A political survivor, Rahmon held on to power throughout the Tajik civil war of the 1990s and secured a third term in an election in 2006.

The country is dependent on Russia and Uzbekistan for energy. Its main sources of income are the aluminum industry, cotton growing and remittances from Tajiks working abroad.

Uzbekistan recently announced that it will be stopping the flow of gas into Tajikistan, reportedly in order to meet commitments to larger buyers such as China. Regional analysts believe there is more politics to the stoppage than practicality. Tajikistan’s gas demand annually equals about what Uzbekistan produces in a single day.

The Tajiks are looking for ways to diversify their energy sources and the Iranian promises sound tempting.

Iran and Tajikistan share a cultural and linguistic history but little else. Ideologically and politically they diverge and economically, neither can quite afford to pay for the Iranian promises.

Both countries are predominantly Muslim but Iran is a bombastic Shia bastion and Tajikistan mostly Sunni of the Central Asian persuasion.

Tajikistan is politically secular, as is the norm in Central Asia. Political secularism in the region derives from the Soviet system and is also influenced by Sufism and pre-Islamic regional history. The 2006 election was boycotted by “mainline” opposition parties such as the Islamic Renaissance Party, which receives moral support from Iran and is the only legal Islamic political party in Tajikistan.

To further illustrate the ideological divide, Tajikistan has been criticized by Iranian representatives for imposing “Islamaphobic rules on the population” such as banning the hijab and preventing underage children from attending mosque.

Ideological differences are complicating factors not deal breakers but Iran’s promises remain pipedreams because of economics and security.

Rahmon and Ahmedinijad, joined by Afghan president Hamid Karzai released a statement after talks in the Tajik capital city of Dushanbe which read that the three had “reached an understanding on how to cooperate more productively to accelerate construction of a railway from Iran to Tajikistan through Afghanistan.” They also announced plans to build an “energy line” across the three countries.

Delegations from Dushanbe and Kabul are scheduled to meet in Tehran in two months to discuss the implementation of the projects, according to the same statement from President Rahmon’s office.

The reality is that Tajikistan cannot afford the projects. The technical and security challenges of building a pipeline or railway across Afghanistan are unlikely to be easily surmounted. Iran, the target of multiple international sanctions because of its nuclear program, is also unlikely to be able to fund its promises or attract many investors for the risky venture.

Tajikistan is in a tight spot. Uzbekistan, reportedly irked by Tajik hydropower projects upstream, is squeezing the state by cutting off the gas supply.

Iran is under siege and scrounging for allies. It hopes to exploit the cultural connection with Tajikistan by offering promises which the Tajik government must realize are pipedreams.

The war in Afghanistan goes on and while the Americans plot their exit by 2014, they have made efforts to reenlist Central Asian support for the cause.

Clinton Visits Tumultuous Central Asia

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited different countries in Central Asia to push for improved political freedoms in the former Soviet republics and affirm their role as security partners of the United States. As the war in Afghanistan drags on, these countries, many of which are battling internal disorder, remain significant as part of America’s supply routes.

Clinton attended a summit of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe in Kazakhstan Wednesday where she also spoke with the country’s president and foreign minister. She thanked Kazakhstan for cooperating with the West in the realm of nonproliferation. Earlier this year, she pointed out during a press conference, along with the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan and the United States secured over ten metric tons of highly enriched uranium as well as three metric tons of weapons grade plutonium. “That is enough material to have made 775 nuclear weapons,” she said. “And now we are confident it will never fall into the wrong hands.” Read more “Clinton Visits Tumultuous Central Asia”