Sunday, November 05, 2006

Tajik Presidential Elections: An Opportunity Squandered?

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Talk given at a panel on the Tajikistan election at IFES in Washington, DC on November 1, 2006

As Tajikistan gets ready for its presidential elections next week, the thought that continues to go through my mind is that the government of Tajikistan is passing up an important opportunity to demonstrate its interest in more fully integrating into the international community. Taking serious strides to reform the country’s electoral system during this election would have won Tajikistan significant praise internationally and would have instilled confidence in foreign investors. Instead, the Government of Tajikistan appears to have made only cursory improvements in its electoral system and its implementation, leaving an impression that the country is not ready for democracy.

In general, observers of Tajikistan’s political realm do not expect much from these elections. As the second presidential elections to be held since the end of the civil war, it is thought that Tajikistan requires time to heal from the wounds of the war’s violence. Not expecting much from the elections, however, also translates into low expectations of Tajikistan in general, and that is not good for the country’s development and international profile. Most importantly, it is not good for foreign investment.

In my estimation, Monday’s elections are a critical event in Tajikistan’s political development, and the Tajik people and government should expect more than the election will actually deliver. Central Asia is quickly changing, and each country in the region is increasingly taking its own path towards the future. In terms of governance, there are two models emerging in the region – one is a gradual adoption of democracy, which is apparent in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, albeit not without growing pains. The other is a hard-line authoritarian system that differs politically only nominally from the Soviet system, which is apparent in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In my opinion, Tajikistan has yet to demonstrate which way its political system is headed—in the direction of democracy or in the direction of increased authoritarians. If this election is any indication, the direction does not look very promising.

Yes, Tajikistan does have multiple political parties, and on the surface that makes it look like it is a country that is gradually accepting democracy. That being said, with the exception of the People’s Democratic Party and the Communist party, none of the major parties in the country have chosen to participate in Monday’s election. While the government can point to the fact that the various opposition parties in the country chose themselves not to run presidential candidates, it should also be noted that there were not signs from the state that they would be given a fair opportunity to participate.

If one is to disregard Turkmenistan (which essential has not had anything approximating real competitive elections since independence), only Uzbekistan lags behind Tajikistan in the implementation of elections in the region. Tajikistan does not allow domestic non-partisan monitors to observe elections. Election commissions in Tajikistan are formed through a top-down process that originates with the President. Tajikistan’s media, particularly national-level television, is tightly controlled, and the government regularly closes down opposition newspapers that become popular. While the Government of Tajikistan eventually changed its decision on the regulation of the internet during this election campaign, initially the government blocked access to three websites that are the most critical of the government and its implementation of democracy.

To be perfectly honest, it is difficult to look at Monday’s elections and see them as an improvement on the past. This has also apparently not escaped the attention of Tajik citizens. Both from media reports and from the OSCE interim report, one gets an impression that the people of Tajikistan have virtually no interest in Monday’s elections. The operative words used in most reports are passivity and indifference. While people will undoubtedly turn up at polling stations as they had throughout the Soviet period, there is neither lively public debate about the election nor an excitement on the part of the populous about participating in the elections. In short, the elections will not serve what should be their most important function – empowering citizens through giving them a voice in choosing their government. Such empowerment at this point in Tajikistan’s development is critical if the country is to leave its Soviet past behind and flourish as an economically viable part of the international community in Central Asia. Most unfortunate, this election could have been much different. The majority of the country has confidence in the president, and Mr. Rakhmanov would have undoubtedly won the election regardless of the degree of control over the process. In this context, this election provided a great opportunity to begin implementing reforms in the electoral system and to allow for serious competition for the first time in Tajikistan’s short history of independence.

Having said all of this, I do not want my comments today to merely serve as criticism of Tajikistan. It is an important country with great human capital. It is a country that could play a critical role in the ongoing reconstruction of Afghanistan as well as in the security of southwest Asia more generally. To realize this potential, however, Tajikistan needs to demonstrate serious interest in political reform. Such reform does not need to happen overnight, but it needs to begin with earnest political will from the highest levels if the country is to stay competitive in the region.

While it may be too late to make Monday’s elections into a meaningful political event for the country and its people, this election could become a springboard for future reform. I am quite sure that nobody who is familiar with the situation in Tajikistan doubts the victory of president Rakhmanov on Monday. With a new mandate to lead the country, it is critical that Rakhmanov outline a roadmap for political and civic reform. First and foremost, such a roadmap needs to empower independent media in the country to increase public discussion of political issues of concern to the population. Along these lines, the country needs to reform its media regulations and encourage all who wish to establish media outlets to do so without financial and political hindrances. In addition, the Tajik government must focus on creating a level playing field for the development of political parties, which will provide people with vehicles to express differing opinions in an environment that is not hindered by fear and control. Among other things, this would require the president personally ensuring that all political parties can work freely throughout the country regardless of the political orientation of local government officials. Finally, Tajikistan must undertake electoral reform, including the allowance of non-partisan observers and the establishment of an improved mechanism for the formation of electoral commissions that can be trusted to implement free and fair elections. I can say with confidence that political will for such reforms at the highest levels in the Tajik government would be met with significant assistance from the United States and the EU, which already are trying with difficulty to implement programs to promote democracy in the country. Tajikistan, for example, would be a prime candidate for the Millennium Challenge Account program of the U.S. government, which could bring significant investment and assistance into the country’s public and private sectors. Before it could qualify for such a program, however, Tajikistan would need to demonstrate serious intentions to reform its political system and to promote the observation of human rights.

If the country does not pursue such reforms, Tajikistan may also face a host of problems over the next decade. A population that is not integrated into official political processes, for example, is vulnerable to underground and radical movements that can undermine governmental authority through discrete channels. We have already seen that radical organizations such as Hizb-ut-tahrir are growing in popularity in the country by praying on the disenfranchised and the politically and economically frustrated. The longer that Tajikistan’s political system does not allow for the growth of a citizenry that is empowered by elections, a free media, and a field of viable and competitive political parties, the more popularity one can expect such organizations to garnish. Given Tajikistan’s proximity to the volatile states of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, an increase in the political activities of such underground radical organizations can only destabilize the country.

Likewise, while managed democracy provides for short-term stability, its long-term prospects have proven problematic. Foreign investors, whether from the U.S., Russia, or Kazakhstan are acutely aware of this, and they will continue to approach Tajikistan with caution as long as the country’s political system appears to lack the mechanisms to ensure long-term stability.

Finally, without political reforms, Tajikistan risks squandering its human capital. The restrictions on the availability to information in Tajikistan over the long term will lead to an increasingly passive and poorly informed population that will have difficulty competing with neighboring countries. Furthermore, the best and brightest in Tajikistan will seek more open environments in which to work. As such, the country will only face increasing difficulties in cultivating a viable state and a growing economy.

In closing, I want to reiterate that I am being especially critical of the upcoming presidential elections because I truly believe that Tajikistan has great potential that is yet unrealized. While the country’s slower path to political reform is understandable in the context of the bloody civil war that Tajikistan experienced at the onset of independence, the country should now be ready to move forward if it is to be a sustainable state that is regionally competitive. I think it is fair to say that the fifteen years since the fall of the Soviet Union have taught both those in the former USSR and those outside that the transition from Soviet socialism to democracy and a viable free economy is not simple. They are not developments that happen overnight, but they are developments that require serious long-term reform efforts. Most importantly, however, they are processes that are intertwined. It is wrong to believe that political reform can happen without economic development, but it is equally erroneous to assume that economic development can continue without steps towards democratic reform. This is the challenge that Tajikistan faces today. And, it is difficult to make the case that Monday’s elections will be a significant step forward in the development of democracy in the country. That being said, there is no reason that this election cannot serve as a watershed for Tajikistan. Once the votes have all been cast and counted and the international observers have left the country, president Rakhmanov could begin a well-planned program of political reform that would ensure that the next time a presidential election is held in the country in 2013, it will represent a free and fair competition with significant public participation. Such steps would also provide a clear indication that Tajikistan is on a gradual path to establishing a sustainable and viable democracy, separating it clearly from the increasingly closed states of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the region.

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