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Tajikistan: A Role Model for Central Asia? - 2002-07-27

After a five-year civil war that took more than 50,000 lives, a coalition government came to power in Tajikistan. Though shaky and not assured of permanence, it is the only example of such a government in the central Asian states of the former Soviet Union. As such, say analysts, it can serve as a model for its more authoritarian neighbors.

Government and opposition forces in Tajikistan were as contentious as any in Central Asia. But Grant Smith, who served as U.S. ambassador from 1995 to 1998, thought there was a possibility of reconciliation. So he brought representatives from both sides to the United States, where they observed American democracy in action, in particular the interplay of religion and politics.

They went home, he believes, with an understanding of how a religious party can be accommodated. So today the Tajik government shares power with the only officially recognized Islamist party in Central Asia.

He notes the Islamic Renaissance Party won only two seats in parliament in the rather dubious elections of 2000, though it has positions of some importance in the administration.

"The Islamic Renaissance Party successfully contested the elections in the year 2000," Mr. Smith said. "They obviously feel they should have had more elected, but I do not think they see that under normal circumstances they would have gotten a majority, and they are functioning as an opposition party, as a registered legal party working around the country and appealing to people outside of the capital."

Muriel Atkin, professor of history at George Washington University, cautions not to make too much of this political arrangement. There may be less than meets the eye.

"There is a question of who really wields power as opposed to who nominally holds positions and that may be much less of a coalition than the formal list of appointments would indicate," Professor Atkin said. "But at least, the factions represented in government seem to be accepting the situation and not overtly struggling aggressively for more power at the expense of others."

Professor Atkin said inevitably some Islamists and others will not find a home in the Renaissance party and will oppose the system. The government continues to make arrests of groups allegedly threatening it.

But the coalition seems to be working in concert, said Ambassador Smith. "In the course of two years, they have acted against renegade warlords who used to be with the opposition and some strong men who had been on the government side. Tajikistan has at least for the time being addressed the security concerns, but it now needs to turn to the economic issues so that these do not cause future security problems," Mr. Smith said.

Ambassador Smith said, despite the aid it has been given, Tajikistan has not reached the economic level of the Soviet period. With little foreign investment, it remains dependent on cotton and aluminum, whose prices are falling. There are serious pockets of poverty that can easily give rise to extremism.

A combination of drought and war has led to a heavy illicit drug traffic, said Professor Atkin. "A lot of this has to do not only with people of criminal intent who are trying to make money off an illicit trade, but also with the destitution and desperation of ordinary farmers who have had every legal kind of agricultural activity made impossible for them, who are producing the opium poppy simply as a way of having a source of income," he said.

Twenty thousand Russian troops remain in Tajikistan, largely on the border with Afghanistan, but Ambassador Smith stresses the continuing non-military involvement of the United States in a new country that needs plenty of help and welcomes it.