Tajikistan: Our strategic neighbor

By K.N. Pandita

I have been a close watcher of the history of Tajikistan – geographically our closest neighbor in Central Asia – for last thirty years. I have travelled extensively in that country not once but at least a dozen times. I have interacted with almost all outstanding intellectuals and academics of that country during the three decades of my association with them, and have attended several high profile seminars on Tajikistan, in and outside Tajikistan. 

I have seen Tajikistan under Soviet power and have also written a travelogue of those days under the title My Tajik Friends, which was translated into Russian also and won me the Sovietland Nehru Award 1987 at the hands of late President Shankar Dayal Sharma . The President of Tajikistan, Imamali Rahmon has made me honorary member of the prestigious Tajik cultural organization called Payvand. I have visited Tajikistan in post-Soviet period also.

With this background, I hope my readers will allow me the liberty of writing with fair amount of confidence and self-assurance.

Prior to the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, and emergence of independent Central Asian Republics, Indian government hardly cared to reach any one of five Central Asian and two of the Trans-Caspian States of the erstwhile Soviet Union. At the best, MEA had opened a small one-person-manned cultural office in Tashkent, which served nobody’s interests other than that of the incumbent.

It was only in 1996 that India belatedly opened its diplomatic mission in Dushanbe. The mission was lodged in a four room Hotel Tajikistan suit, though later on it did occupy a somewhat modest accommodation and moved into that.

India’s interest in Tajikistan was sensitized when the Taliban toppled the government of Dr. Najibullah in Kabul and established sway over most parts of the country except Northern Afghanistan, or to be precise Panjsheer Valley, where the writ of celebrated Afghan commander of Tajik extraction, Ahmad Shah Masud ran unquestionably. This fiercely nationalist warrior had fought first against the Soviet incursion and then against the radical Taliban. He had received his professional education in engineering in India and was a friend of our country. He was shot at and killed by a videographer, who, as the grapevine says, was handled by the Saudi intelligence agencies.

Despite Ahmad Shah’s approaches, direct and indirect, to the Indian authorities for logistical support, the MEA adopted its usual lackadaisical attitude till France jumped into the fray and relieved Ahmad Shah of his obsession with the Indians.

War scenario in Afghanistan changed with the exit of Ahmad Shah Masud, and the Russians tried to support Tajik border guards against the inroads of the Taliban into Tajikistan. The Indians could not maintain a position of influence despite the fact that Tajikistan had allowed Ainy air strip to the Indian Air Force for modernization and security purposes. Indian policy planners at the helm were sadly indifferent to futuristic vision of strategic chemistry in Central Asia and Tajikistan.

But then erupted civil war in Tajikistan in 1991-2, which brought radical Islamic elements and political dissidents to Imamali regime together and the capital city of Dushanbe lay under the siege of insurrectionists for nearly five years and consumed more than a hundred thousand lives. Finally in 1996, on the intervention of Teheran, rapprochement among warring factions was forged and the dissident and Islamic radical groups were made part of the inclusive government headed by Imamali Rahmon.

Subsequent to declaration of independence, all the Central Asian States including Tajikistan wowed to transit to democratic system. Some infrastructure that vouched for semblance of democracy was put in place and under a new rubric elections were held successively in Tajikistan and other States. But actual power remained in the hands of the erstwhile communist echelons. The former General Secretaries of provincial Communist Parties now appeared in the avatar of elected Presidents. Tajikistan was not an exception. They sealed their legitimacy as elected Presidents but ensured that the highest position of power did not slip out of their hands. This was true of almost all Central Asian Republics.

At least four presidential elections have been held from the time of declaration of independence till date and all the four elections returned Imamali as the successful candidate. Much is being said by political observers about the fairness of these elections. And much resentment is being expressed by the civil society that democracy in letter and in spirit is not getting rooted in their land.

Presidential elections in Tajikistan are scheduled for November 6. But this election seems of extraordinary significance and could be the harbinger of a new page in Tajikistan’s political history. United Reformist Forces, a merger that brings together the Islamic Republican Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the Social Democratic Party, and several non-governmental groups and influential political players in the opposition, will be fielding a woman candidate from outside the fold who is a democrat, secularist and human rights activist. A lawyer by profession, Madam Oinhol Bobonazarova is best known for her advocacy of human rights and her work with Western institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Open Society Foundations.

The leadership of IRPT generally considered radical Islamists have decided to support her though it is not yet clear how they are reconciled to her secularist ideology. However, Turajonzadeh, the most vocal and powerful Islamist chief of IRPT has forwarded strange logic for supporting Bobonazarova. He says that she wears European dress and is a lady and as such, she will not be projected as a radical and conservative Islamist as IRTP is projected. Secondly, she will not be persecuted by the official machinery as has been done with previous opposition Presidential candidates in Dushanbe.

Turajonzadeh has dispelled the doubts that in case Bobojobnaarova wins the Presidential elections, Tajikistan will be transformed into an Islamic Theocratic State, the propaganda unleashed by the official circles and pro-Imamali Rahmon partisans.

Ignoring for a moment the outcome of the Presidential election, the decision of the Islamic radicals and others to join hands and project a secularist, democrat woman as the party candidate speaks a lot about the changed thinking of the opposition. It could well be the beginning of taming the more radicals in Tajikistan and pave a path for true democracy to dawn upon that nation.  Obviously, IRPT seeks to transform its profile from a conservative radical party to a more tolerant and secularist party.

This could be the harbinger of new ideas and new political strategies in Central Asia. Curiously the air of transformation has blown in a country which is economically the most backward of all the Central Asian States. If the initiative succeeds, it will trivialize the theory that backwardness helps proliferate radicalism.

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