Referendum’s outcome may alienate moderate Tajiks and escalate “radicalisation” with fears of violence on the rise.
Tajikistan may be a small country in Central Asia, but it was once hailed by the United Nations as one of the few international success stories of peace and reconciliation.
Yet the events of this year alone have turned Tajikistan into a model, not for success, but for the failure of the international community in sustaining the democratic achievements of a nation that lost 100,000 lives to end a five-year civil war between 1992 and 1997.
The Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, has moved to make himself president for life, ban and imprison all opposition and silence the media – and the world has remained silent.
Today is the 17th anniversary of the Electoral Law of December 10, 1999, which led to the first multi-party elections observed by the UN and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
This was supposed to put in place a parliament truly reflective of the peace and reconciliation accord of June 1997, guaranteeing a power-sharing system with a 30 percent quota of positions for the opposition, made up mainly of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and the Democratic Party of Tajikistan.
Today, that opposition is all but obliterated. Many have faced suspicious deaths, others allegations of terrorism in “ unfair [trials] behind closed doors, marred by serious violations of due process and credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment in pre-trial detention.” In May 2016, Tajik prosecutors demanded life sentences for leaders of IRPT, which was banned in September 2015.
Tajik President Rahmon, in power since 1992, has gradually tightened the noose: taking full control of the parliament, the judiciary and the elections process, thus overruling the separation of powers.
Controversial constitutional amendments in May 2016 granted him to rule indefinitely, effectively removing all the term limitations. The minimum age for a candidate has been lowered so that the president could hand over to his son.
Where did all go wrong?
But how did this drastic misuse of a UN-observed reconciliation accord happen, and why are the UN, OSCE, Russia and Iran, which designed and observed the process, quiet?
The first reason is the weakness of the opposition itself. The leader of the IRPT, Said Abdullah Nuri, presided over a party that became powerful in the year 2000, with its members filling most of the government positions allocated. It had transformed from an armed organisation to one committed to peaceful and legal political methods.
Yet in the process, the party made too many concessions to the president to ensure those government posts remain intact. This, in turn, created conflict within the IRPT leadership, and deep frustration among many of its members.
The failed democratisation in Tajikistan provides a perfect breeding ground for youth radicalisation.
Moreover, IRPT did not use its power for protecting democratic institutions and democratic rights. Some IRPT members continued to use mosques and madrasas for political activities, despite a legal prohibition. The president used their activities as an excuse to ban and confront them, and then to prohibit Islamic teaching.
Now, 70 percent of all mosques are closed. Important preachers, such as Eishan Nourdinjon Tourajonzoda and Eishan Abdul Khalil, are banned from preaching, religious schools have been closed down and there are cases of forced beard-shaving and removal of headscarves. Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of IRPT, escaped Tajikistan and is currently somewhere in Europe, fearing for his life.
The second reason for the deterioration is that the need for post-conflict stabilisation in Tajikistan was never tackled seriously by the two main international guarantors: the OSCE and the UN. Both organisations initially “continued international support”, yet neither really followed through.
On the 10th anniversary of the peace accord, a by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made no mention of any problems. At a meeting in June 2015, Ban and Rahmon discussed water sanitation. In a joint press conference that followed, one was uttered about “implementing UN human rights recommendations”.
Even at the outset, when President Rahmon changed the constitution to increase his tenure from five to seven years, the UN and the OSCE stood by in silence.
Other UN agencies have been equally silent. While President Rahmon has taken part in several UNESCO events, celebrating Tajik culture, UNESCO has never highlighted the abysmal state of freedom of expression in the arts (and other sectors) in Tajikistan.
Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders have often raised alarms over the treatment of imprisoned journalists, but little UN or OSCE condemnation has been voiced.
Harassment of independent journalists has also intensified. Mohiedin Dustov, the editor of Nigoh is receiving death threats. Several lawyers who defended the IRPT’s leaders were themselves tried and convicted, while two-thirds of the country’s lawyers have been disbarred.
The OSCE the “longest-running operation in Central Asia”, has observed five elections in Tajikistan. While it has criticised the processes every time, it has not been outspoken enough about the failures of the electoral process, the sham referendums and the human rights abuses.
As for Iran and Russia, the two main supporters of the conflicting sides, they seem to have concluded a more important deal between themselves over regional power-sharing. This is why Iran has remained surprisingly silent on the treatment of Islam and the IRPT, which it once supported wholeheartedly.
While the international community remains silent on the abuses in Tajikistan, its failed democratisation has become a perfect breeding ground for youth radicalisation. Official figures say have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS). Other militant groups in the region area also recruiting: the Taliban in Afghanistan, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement of China.
It will soon be clear that this international silence will cost the region dearly.
Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. She was the UN spokesperson in Tajikistan between 1998 and 2000 during the peace and reconciliation process.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.