Instability in Tajikistan

On Nov. 6, presidential elections were held in Tajikistan, with the head of the Supreme Soviet, Imamali Rakhmonov, defeating former prime minister and Tajik ambassador to Russia, Abdulmalik Abdulajanov. The secret to Rakhmonov's success is simple: He played dirty. In a country where more than half the territory is under martial law, there can be no talk of "free and fair" elections.

Rakhmonov mobilized all the government's resources to support his campaign. Ministers and the heads of Supreme Soviet committees campaigned actively among the population, accompanied by armed escorts. Members of the ruling Kulyabi clan frightened voters at campaign rallies with threats of a new civil war. "We came in bloodshed and we will leave in bloodshed," they declared openly.

And such statements are more than just words to the locals. Many former Kulyabi guerrilla groups have been officially incorporated into the Tajik army and the security forces, while others remain completely independent. Naturally the campaign of fear was effective, as shown by the fact that almost none of the Tajik refugees in Afghanistan participated in the election.

Another important role in Rakhmonov's victory was played by the support of the leadership of the joint peacekeeping mission in Tajikistan, commanded by Russian General Valery Patrikeyev. In mid-October, Patrikeyev spoke at the town of Kulyaba and openly declared his support for Rakhmonov. General Anatoly Chechulin, the commander of Russian border troops in Tajikistan, made similar statements. Many Russian generals see a possible Tajik war as an excellent way of inflating Russia's military budget.

Moreover, the data released by the State Election Commission cannot help but make one think that Dushanbe even stooped to rigging the vote. Official statistics say, for example, that 95 percent of the voters of the Garm region, which is a stronghold of internal opposition, voted for Rakhmonov.

The heart of Tajikistan's instability is ethnic/clan-based conflict. The downfall of the "popularly elected" President Rakhmon Nabiyev, who (like Abdulajanov) represented the interests of the Leninabad political elite, destroyed a delicate political balance. The civil war brought the Kulyabi to power and pushed the representatives of other regional elites to the side. During the campaign, the threat of losing power temporarily overcame the internal conflicts among the Kulyabi, and they were able to muster a united front. However, Rakhmonov does not now seem to be in a position to control even his own supporters, many of whom continue to maintain their own guerrilla formations.

For the last year, Rakhmonov has been acting head of state, and his "year without war" has not improved living conditions for the population of Tajikistan. There are breadlines and irregular energy supplies; in many cases, wages have been withheld for months. Crime is on the rise. The Russian-speaking population continues to emigrate, having suffered during the civil war and now finding itself increasingly the victim of ethnic discrimination. A recent case in which a Tajik policeman was able to evict a Russian pensioner and take over her apartment was far from atypical.

The situation is unlikely to change even after Rakhmonov takes the title of president. His victory will only serve to stimulate the process of disintegration in Tajikistan. The region of Gorny Badakhshan has already declared itself an autonomous republic in defiance of the national constitution. Balkhiyer Zamirov, the head of the local administration, stated on the eve of the elections: "Abdulajanov or no one!"

Other regions of Tajikistan are also following the path toward autonomy. The Khojand (formerly, Leninabad) district, in which as much as 70 percent of the country's current industrial potential is concentrated, has been unable to reconcile itself to the idea of losing its leading role in national politics. Seventy-five percent of the district's voters came out for Abdulajanov, who is from the region. The district has already begun taking real steps to expand economic contacts with neighboring Uzbekistan.

The government has also made concessions to the separatist aspirations of the "Uzbek" regions to the west of Dushanbe. In the Tursun-Zadinsk region, Rakhmonov came to the support of local military commander Ibod Baimatov, who two months ago was removed from his post by the Supreme Soviet for turning his guerrilla force into a "municipal police force." However, two days later the local legislature returned him to his post. Baimatov's policies have been oriented more toward Tashkent than Dushanbe and Rakhmonov's support is likely to encourage this tendency.

In the Garm region, the situation remains extremely tense. Local partisans, some of whom are commanded by leaders currently in Afghanistan, are carrying out actions against "collaborationists." Government forces have responded by taking civilians hostage.

Currently, the main opposition to the government is based in Afghanistan and has refused to acknowledge the results of the election. However, these groups would have preferred to see Abdulajanov, who is thought to be a businessman with whom one can strike a deal, as president. During the campaign, Abdulajanov made a gesture to the opposition, promising that if he won he would alter the constitution and hold new presidential elections. Now that that alternative has failed, the opposition feels it has no choice but to resume active military action against Rakhmonov's regime. When the mountains become passable in the spring, the fighting will once again flare up -- and, one way or another, Russia will be involved.

Vladimir Gubarev is a reporter for RIA-Novosti. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.