FAST Update Tajikistan: Trends in conflict and cooperation Apr - May 2007
On the political level, Tajikistan has not experienced any dramatic changes during the reporting period. As depicted on the graph, the country generally maintained its high degree of stability and slightly reduced its level of conflict. On 1 April, by-elections were held in three districts. All three seats went to the ruling Peoplefs Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT). While the elections in two districts were not competitive, in one district the PDPT candidate's opponent, a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), gained two percent of the votes. In April the Justice Ministry attempted to temporarily ban the opposition Social Democratic Party on accusations of violating the country's laws for political parties. The party was accused of having failed to deliver a mandatory annual report of activities, which led to the Justice Ministry asking the Supreme Court to issue a six-month ban on the party's activities. Analysts saw this move as politically motivated because the Social Democrats were one of the fiercest critics of the presidential elections in November 2006 and some even complained about Tajikistan "going the Uzbek way" by moving more towards authoritarianism. However, due to a lack of evidence, the Justice Ministry withdrew its lawsuit on 24 April.
The problem with power shortages mentioned in the last FAST Update has improved with the arrival of summer. Interruptions in power service in rural areas are still frequent but back to a "normal" level. General relief to the country's endemic energy problems can only be expected in the mid- and longer term through massive investments in the energy sector. The government is well-aware of this and is pushing for foreign investment in the energy (mainly hydro energy) sector.
The state's interference in cultural and religious matters increased during the reporting period. On 17 April, the Ministry of Education issued a ban on female students in state universities wearing the hijab, the traditional Islamic head scarf, as well as those wearing too revealing clothes, such as mini-skirts. This double-sided ban is aimed at "preserving the Tajik identity" by protecting it from outside influence - be it strongly Islamic or overtly Western. Combined with the ban of mobile phone usage on campus and the prohibition on driving by car to university, the clothes regulations impose serious restrictions on students' lives. While the ban on the hijab at the university falls under religious control, the other restrictions are officially protecting the students from distractions while getting their education. Observers, however, point to the real problems in the educational sphere such as the chronic underfunding of universities and schools, the lack of professional teaching staff, and the poor quality of education. Although reactions from the conservative parts of the population and the women directly affected are negative and expressed publicly, the ban on the hijab is unlikely to provoke any serious political opposition and the IRPT is way too weak to stage relevant protests.
Another area of increased state interference into the private lives of the population is the ban on lavish wedding and funeral ceremonies. On 24 May, President Rakhmon presented a draft law on "regulating traditions and customs" where he restricts the number of guests and dishes allowed at weddings, the different stages of funerals, circumcision ceremonies, etc. Several accompanying festivities were prohibited altogether. The official motivation behind this is poverty reduction by restricting the population's expenses on ceremonies. Since expenditures for weddings are often the reason for indebtedness and the motivator for emigration (in order to earn money for the children's weddings), this reasoning has some justification. It might even be possible that poorer segments of the population would agree with these restrictions. However, this state interference into private life is seen as another attempt to divert attention from the country's huge economic problems. Critics also point to the luxurious state festivities - such as the 2700-year-anniversary of Kulob or the 2500-year-anniversary of Istaravshan - which were conducted despite economic and budget hardship. This money would have been better spent on education or social needs. Another concern is an increase in corruption; if someone has the money to organize a large wedding that is in conflict with the new regulations, he would also have the money to bribe the law enforcement officers who work on his case. A new state agency (on the republican and local level) will be created to control the abidance by the new law adding to the many state agencies that need to be financed out of the state budget.
The religious sphere also saw an increase in state control. At the beginning of April, Dushanbe city authorities checked and subsequently closed down several illegal mosques in the city. They also conducted raids and closures of underground religious schools that were teaching children in Arabic and Koran people were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Furthermore, when presenting the above-mentioned draft law, the president suggested in his speech institutionalizing the Islamic tradition of zakat, the alms to be paid by pious Muslims, by establishing a "Charitable Fund of Tajikistan." This should help to avoid that the zakat is paid to religious officials who are not sufficiently educated. According to Rakhmon, religious service is not a profession and thus religious officials are not entitled to earn money for their activities. This suggestion is the result of consultations Rakhmon held during his visit to the Middle East (see FAST Update No. 1, February to March 2007). However, critics maintain that the state regulation of zakat is yet another tax ordinary citizens as well as businessmen will have to pay and would again create a state fund prone to corruption. The Tajik press made comparisons with Iran where the Shah's attempts to regulate the clergy's activities by cutting off their income was one of the many reasons for the Islamic revolution. Although Tajikistan is far away from engendering the Iranian conditions of the 1970's, the development in the relationship between the state and the clergy has to be watched closely.
Many residents in Dushanbe are worried about the implementation of the General Plan for the Reconstruction of Dushanbe. This plan stems from Soviet times and envisions the enlargement of living space for the growing city. The areas to be re-built are mainly occupied by private homes close to downtown Dushanbe. This makes them very valuable to both residents and real estate investors who see high profits (thanks to the central location). Several houses have already been demolished and residents given compensation according to the law. However, there is a problem with the calculation of the compensation: the compensation only takes into account the actual space of the living area, i.e. without yard, garden, saray etc. The residents are offered small flats on the outskirts of the city, where the living space corresponds to the one they had downtown but does not compensate for their former "outdoor space" being the garden or yard - the flats are situated in multi-storey buildings with no private gardens. In addition, residents also have to deal with the inevitable increase in transportation costs. This policy is stirring trouble and uncertainty among the residents of central Dushanbe. Due to the fierce resistance of some residents and the echo in the press and the wider society, the demolition of houses has been put on hold. However, the Sword of Damocles still hangs above the residents in central areas and for many people threatened by expropriation, their houses and yards are all they have.