Kambiz Arman 5/02/07
Tajik President Imomali Rahmon’s grip on power seems tighter than ever. But that doesn’t mean some of his rivals in exile have abandoned dreams of regime change and the introduction of political reforms.
In recent weeks, Rahmon, who won a third presidential term last November, has taken steps to remake the country in his own image, prompting some observers to voice concern that he was laying the groundwork of a cult of personality. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. First, the president announced that he was Islamicizing his identity, dropping the Slavic "ov" from his last name. Then, he imposed new standards of behaviour on school children, including a ban on miniskirts and headscarves. He has also demanded that Tajiks lead more austere lives.
In his April 30 state of the nation address, he chided the bureaucracy, along with the general population, for not following his earlier order against holding "extravagant rituals."
"If we do not do this [curb ostentatious displays], I will issue another, more serious order," Rahmon cautioned. He added that as the duly elected leader of the nation, he "enjoyed the right to introduce certain orders for the sake of progress, prosperity and the prestige of the nation."
The recent moves appear to be an outgrowth of views embodied in books that Rahmon has authored. These volumes, the last of which was published in late 2006, conjure a romanticized notion of Tajikistan’s history, as well as its future. In a review of the most recent volume - titled, Tajikistan in the Mirror of History - Khovar, the national information agency of Tajikistan, had this to say: "In this book, Imomali Rahmon provides accurate and scientifically proven answers to questions on the origin of Aryan civilization, the Tajik nation and its place in global history."
The president’s website characterizes the book as "a spiritual present to the nation of Tajikistan from the head of state."
It’s also notable that the president’s historical works are now used as textbooks in Tajik schools. The subject matter and style of Rahmon’s tomes have prompted comparisons to the Rukhnama, the spiritual guide of the deceased despot of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A decade ago, Rahmon’s control over the government was far more tenuous. Under a deal that brought a five-year civil war to an end in 1997, Rahmon had to share power with his main enemies, the leaders of the Islamic Renaissance Party. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since then, however, the president has steadily expanded his influence and outmaneuvered his rivals. [For background see the Eurasia Insight]. It has reached the point today that no individual politician or political party can muster a viable challenge to his authority.
Despite the present appearance of the president’s political invincibility, opponents living outside Tajikistan have not abandoned hope for change in the Central Asian nation. This aspiration has propelled some to forge a new political movement called ?Vatandor’ (Patriot), complete with an idealistic motto: "A new path, new authority, new ideas, and a new life."
"We want Imomali Rahmon to leave his post voluntarily and enjoy the privileges of an ex-president for the rest of his life," Vatandor’s leader, Dodojon Atovulloyev, told EurasiaNet. "We intend to establish a government of national reconciliation followed by truly democratic elections with numerous contenders."
Atovulloyev, a dissident journalist who has lived abroad since 1992, is convinced that hundreds of thousands of Tajiks are prepared to support the new movement, given the fact that poverty in the country remains widespread and Rahmon’s government has yet to show itself capable of promoting economic growth.
Atovulloyev claims that Vatandor unites several ex-premiers, regional and religious leaders, various party representatives and, most importantly, some members of the government with close ties with Rahmon. But "over a million Tajik guest workers abroad constitute the cornerstone of the movement," he said. The remittances made by guest workers to relatives back home play a major role in propping up the Tajik economy.
Tajiks are tired of being migrant workers, Atovulloyev insisted. He has a simple message for these supposed legions of the disgruntled citizens yearning for a different life: Rahmon’s departure from power would solve a lot of problems.
For some opposition politicians still inside Tajikistan, Atovulloyev’s remedy for perceived problems is simplistic. Living in exile makes it difficult for Vatandor’s leadership to obtain an accurate reading of the popular mood, suggested Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party. The population has grown politically apathetic and has long been conflict averse. "It is impossible to urge Tajiks to gather for an anti-government rally after the civil war," Kabiri explained. It’s unlikely that an outside party like Vatandor can have a tangible impact on the political process, Kabiri maintained.
But the deputy head of the Social Democratic Party, Shokirjon Hakimov, suggested that Vatandor might be able to make political inroads since it is not burdened with the same restrictions that domestically based opposition parties must contend with. The lack of such restraints could give Vatandor more leeway to attract support. Some observers add that if Vatandor succeeds in its goal of capturing the hearts and minds of migrant workers, it indeed could become a force that Rahmon would have to reckon with.
Dushanbe’s reaction to Vatandor’s appearance suggests that Rahmon’s administration is far from dismissive of the new movement. In an official statement distributed by Tajikistan’s Embassy in Moscow, Atovulloyev was vilified as "a provocateur, and traitor." It also called him "a terrorist associate and a self-obsessed maniac," and described Vatandor as a figment of Atovulloyev’s imagination.
Editor's Note: Kambiz Arman is the pseudonym for a Tajik journalist.