Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Holding Islam at Bay Ex-Soviet State Votes on Pro-Moscow Slate with Most of the Opposition in Exile, Observers Worry That Tajikistan's Ballot Won't Be Democratic

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Holding Islam at Bay Ex-Soviet State Votes on Pro-Moscow Slate with Most of the Opposition in Exile, Observers Worry That Tajikistan's Ballot Won't Be Democratic

Article excerpt

TAJIKISTAN, a small former Soviet republic that was torn apart by warring ex-Communists and Islamic forces two years ago, will hold its first presidential elections this weekend. But both human rights activists and international observers say the balloting will be anything but fair.

In most fledgling nations, elections would be a step toward democracy. But in Tajikistan, where ruling former Communists have banned all opposition parties, publications, and broadcasts since seizing power in 1992, the poll will mean nothing, independent observers say.

The government has support from Russia, which has a stake in maintaining the status quo in the only Persian-speaking former Soviet republic. By providing military support to the Tajik authorities, Moscow is trying to prevent radical Iranian-style Islamic ideas from spreading throughout Central Asia.

"The potential for fair elections is limited," says a Western diplomat. "Troops are subtly `advising' residents, and there is no real system of accountability. Basically, the government is running the show."

Tajikistan, a poverty-stricken Central Asian nation of 5.1 million, became embroiled in a civil war that claimed thousands of lives a year after the republic gained independence in 1991. The losing side - an alliance of pro-Islamic and liberal groups with Iranian support - fled into Afghanistan and has attacked Tajik and Russian targets across the country's lawless southern border ever since.

More than 840,000 Tajiks have fled the country in the past two years, and only 70 percent of the electorate lives in Tajikistan, according to an exiled opposition leader living in Moscow.

Sunday's poll, to be held at the same time as a referendum on a new constitution, pits head of state Emomali Rakhmonov against Abdumalik Abdulladzhanov, the former prime minister and current ambassador to Moscow. Both members of the ex-Communist elite, the two men share a taste for iron-handed rule, a slow transition to a market economy with limited privatization, and closer ties with Moscow.

Opposition leaders are telling their supporters not to vote for either candidate.

"We will not take part in the elections, and we will not recognize the result of the elections," said Otakhon Latifi, head of the opposition coordinating center in Moscow. "They will only further complicate the situation in the republic."

In September, opposition forces and the Tajik government agreed on a Moscow-brokered truce following months of negotiations there and in Tehran. The truce called for a temporary cease-fire that came into effect Oct. 20, and also mandated that elections, originally scheduled for Sept. 26, would be postponed to Nov. 6 to allow the rebels to return home.

But there has been no widespread return to the country, and the opposition is demanding that the elections be postponed again until the safety of its supporters can be guaranteed. …

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