Tajikistan, the poorest state in Central Asia, is also the only one to legitimize a political opposition. But the country remains under the firm direction of president Emomali Rakhmonov, who has just paid his first official visit to Washington, where he met with President Bush.
Tajikistan is the arbitrary creation of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, who fixed its borders in 1924, in the process excluding two-thirds of the Tajik population and the ancient cities of Sammarkand and Buhkara. Truncated Tajikistan has been struggling ever since.
Plunged into civil war after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Moscow-backed government forces and the opposition eventually signed an historic peace accord. It grants the largely Islamic opposition a 30 percent share of government the only power-sharing to date in authoritarian-ruled Central Asia.
On his first official visit to Washington, Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmonov paid tribute to this political arrangement in a talk he gave to the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. "For the peace process that we have achieved today, I want to give credit to the opposition and its leaders for working with us in Tajikistan. We especially appreciate the willingness of the opposition to compromise, even though we have not reached complete agreement. And that is why members of the opposition are part of the government."
Grant Smith, a former U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan, says the peace agreement set a precedent for Central Asia, if its nations would choose to follow it. "The members of the former opposition, most of them, who came into the government under the power-sharing arrangement following the peace agreement in 1997, are still there. And the Islamic Renaissance Party, which was one of the component parts of the United Tajik opposition, does now have seats in parliament and is functioning as an open opposition party."
How well it is functioning is another matter, says Ambassador Smith. It gets some rough treatment.
Mehrdad Haghayeghi, professor of political science at Southwest Missouri State University, was in Tajikistan in October. He says opposition members exist in a formal sense but are clearly limited, "but the government has not given them enough room to maneuver. Back in July-August, some nine imams in the Isfara region were demoted and not allowed to sermonize any more. And these imams are basically part of the United Tajik opposition. So there is a gradual crackdown."
Professor Haghayeghi says there is not much left of power-sharing. President Rakhmonov has been chipping away at it and consolidating his own power in the now familiar pattern of Central Asia. "Tajikistan is the only culturally Persian country in that region. So there are significant cultural differences. But this man pretty much is from the same fabric as the other men that are leading Central Asia in that they are all the product of Soviet authoritarianism."
But President Rakhmonov is not just a politician, says Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. He is truly a man of the people of Tajikistan. "In reality, he has engaged in real work, honest work as an electrician, in trade unions, in the agricultural field. I do not think there is another president in the region with a more practical experience with life."
But poverty reinforces political repression in Tajikistan. As in other central Asian states, the security force is a law unto itself; that is, lawless.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group reports that under-funded police earn much of their pay from various rackets and extortion. They do not fight crime effectively because they are involved in it. ICG says they have to break the law simply to carry out their duties like extorting petrol from drivers for their patrol cars.
Drug trafficking is out of control. Widespread corruption hurts the economy by upping the cost of doing business in Tajikistan.
Amnesty International is alarmed by the increasing executions in Tajikistan and the brutal treatment of prisoners, including forced confessions after savage beatings.
But Tajik authorities say conditions have improved since the administration of prisons has been transferred from the interior department to the justice ministry. They say police who tortured prisoners have been punished.
Since 1992, nineteen Tajik newsmen have been murdered, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Most of these occurred during the civil war, says the CPJ, but harassment continues, and the press is notably restrained in its coverage.
Amnesty International also says the war against terrorism has given President Rakhmonov an excuse to crack down on his opponents. He can label them terrorists.
That is the downside of the U.S. presence in the region, says Professor Haghayeghi. "Since 9/11, there is more impetus for these countries, particularly the ones that have given us the right to use their territories for our war efforts in Afghanistan, to become more authoritarian. We see that in particular in Uzbekistan but also to some extent in Tajikistan."
But this is offset by U.S. and western economic assistance, says Professor Haghayeghi. It is vital for Tajikistan, as President Rakhmonov emphasized on his Washington visit.
Ambassador Smith says Tajikistan is fully cooperating with western donor agencies on economic reform such as privatization. But it must answer to another power as well. "Russia ever since independence has had the major role on the security side in Tajikistan and still has Russian border forces there, plus a motorized rifle division based in the capital and parts of it elsewhere in the country."
Professor Haghayeghi does not expect Moscow to lose any interest in the state that was once under Soviet control. "Russia plays a dominant role. With all the changes in the security dynamics after we ended up going into the region and Afghanistan, I thought there would be a strategic shift toward the United States and the west, but Rakhmonov is firmly in the grip of Russia."
Even so, in his talks at the White House, President Rakhmonov is said to have discussed the possible establishment of a U.S. military base in Tajikistan that would offset the 25,000 Russian border troops.
Tajikistan and the rest of central Asia are now in geo-political contention, says Professor Haghayeghi. U.S. and Russian troops are in the same region with future plans that are subject to much debate. Meanwhile, a perplexed China observes this potential challenge to its own regional interests. Tajikistan, says Professor Haghayeghi, should ultimately benefit from all this international attention.