At first glance there appears nothing unusual about the ruling party's "landslide victory" in the March 1 parliamentary elections in Tajikistan. All authoritarian regimes, in Central Asia as elsewhere, use "elections" as an administrative tool to formalize their grip on power. On closer examination, it becomes clear that no matter how authoritarian and power hungry the regime in Tajikistan may be, it still had to accept the popularity of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Even though the regime allocated only 7.7% of the vote to the IRPT in the "new" parliament which was formed as a result of electoral fraud, as attested to by many international observers, the fact that IRPT is still legally present on the Tajik political scene is a great achievement based on Central Asian standards.
Considering the power base, history and socio-administrative resources of the IRPT, the Islamic movement in Tajikistan should have long ago neutralized the regime's ability to cheat its way into power. However, it has still not reached this level of proficiency. To see why the IRPT is still not fully able to defend the rights of the people to choose their destiny and how it can reach this level, the stages of IRPT's struggle and the environment in which it operates must be examined.
The IRPT was formed in the mid-1970s by a group of students led by the Islamic scholar Kori Mohammed Rostamov, better known among his followers as Mavlavi Hindustani. A group of his students under the leadership of Said Abdullo Nuri kept the Islamic spirit alive in Tajikistan during the communist era when persecution of the believers was rampant. Said Abdullo Nuri and his comrades were arrested several times by the communist regime but due to his prestige even among non-religious Tajiks, the regime did not dare to execute him for fear of a severe backlash.
Mavlavi Hindustani's students automatically attracted a large following as the USSR began to collapse in the late 80s. The fact that Hindustani spent 25 years in jail made him and his students a credible opposition to the communist imposed order. Hindustani's students survived the persecution and lived to witness the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately Muslims living in the USSR did not heed the proposals put forward by the IRPT at its first public convention in Astrakhan in 1990. Most people had not even heard of IRPT and those who did had very superficial knowledge of its ideas and methods of establishing an Islamic state in Tajikistan and other Muslim territories of the USSR.
As the Soviet Union's collapse became imminent, the Moscow-based KGB leadership realized that it was simply a matter of time before genuine opposition movements like the IRPT would emerge to take over leadership in the post-Soviet area. Therefore, the KGB began creating its own "opposition". The first step for launching such manufactured "opposition" occurred in February 1990 when the communist leadership instigated a massacre in Dushanbe. As Tajiks protested against the false rumor that Armenian refugees from Karabakh would be given free housing at their expense, an unknown gunman opened fire and all hell broke loose. This instigated a series of chaotic events which led to the independence of Tajikistan and resulted in power in the hands of the "right" kind of people. Immediately after the proclamation of independence, Tajikistan acquired its "new" leadership led by Rahmon Nabiyev, a former First Secretary of the Communist Party who had ruled Tajikistan on behalf of Moscow from 1982 to 1986. The falsified "elections" infuriated most people and Tajiks began to demonstrate. As these grew in size, the government launched counter demonstrations. Unable to rally enough people, the regime handed out weapons to its supporters and ordered them to disperse opposition demonstrators. This was the start of the civil war in Tajikistan.
Since IRPT was the best organized political group and its members were ready for sacrifices more than any other group, it automatically became the leading opposition force and many secular-nationalist groups formed an alliance with it. The opposition alliance came to be known as the United Tajik Opposition (UTO). The UTO captured Dushanbe within few months and established a provisional government in September of 1992 in order to pave the way for new presidential elections. However, the communist elite led by the current president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rakhmonov, and backed by Russian armed forces stormed Dushanbe in December of 1992 and grabbed power.
In 1993, the UTO launched a guerrilla war against the illegitimate regime. Due to brutal massacres perpetrated against practising Muslims by the regime's forces, the IRPT leadership and hundreds of thousands of Tajiks were forced to flee to Afghanistan to seek asylum there. As years went by many members of the UTO began to sell out and defect. By mid-1995 there was practically no UTO, only the IRPT. The inability of Rakhmonov's regime to defeat the IRPT militarily forced him to consider a peace deal. In 1997, the IRPT and the Dushanbe regime signed an Iranian-backed peace deal that established a Commission of National Reconciliation (CNR) which was lead by Said Abdullo Nuri and Emomali Rakhmonov. The 1997 peace accord guaranteed amnesty to all members of the armed units who fought during the civil war and who did not commit war crimes. The IRPT was allocated 30 percent quota in government, and armed units of the IRPT were to be incorporated into the security forces of Tajikistan. However, the most significant reality to emerge from the peace deal, apart from ending the brutal civil war, was that for the first time in Central Asia an Islamic movement was legally recognized by a ruling regime as a legitimate socio-political player.
The recognition of IRPT as a legitimate political player set a strategic socio-political and psychological precedent which will eventually trigger changes in the region. How soon and how strategic these changes will be will depend on the IRPT's ability to expose the ruling regime's unwillingness to improve the socio-political environment in the country. After the 1997 peace accord, the IRPT has set one key goal which Said Abdullo Nuri stuck to until his last moments and which he instructed his followers to uphold to the best of their abilities: to avoid the regime's incitement to armed conflict.
The regime is aware that the IRPT's strategic goal in transforming Tajikistan into an Islamic state is to show through social and economic works that the existing problems in Tajikistan can be solved only through Islamic principles and by a muttaqi (God conscious) leadership that does not seek power to advance personal interests. Therefore, the regime has tried to gradually sideline IRPT from the political process. Since 1997 the regime has introduced several changes through which it attempts to monopolize power. One of them is the introduction of financial barriers for political parties to participate in the political process.
In 2004, Rakhmonov introduced a law requiring candidates running for parliament to pay a registration fee of more than US$1,000 which would be returned only if the candidate secured more than 5% of the vote. Additionally, political parties are required to pay a large amount of money in order to participate in elections. Since in Tajikistan political power also means economic power, the financial barriers benefit those who use their current position in government to acquire wealth. In addition to these barriers, the regime also violated several sections of the peace deal. In 2004 the regime arrested a veteran leader of the IRPT, Shamsuddin Shamsuddinov, accusing him of organizing armed gangs. Shamsuddinov died in prison in 2008 under mysterious circumstances.
Along with eliminating leading figures of the IRPT, Rakhmonov also purged the ranks of his supporters. The most prominent personality among Rakhmonov's allies to be purged was the commander of the Presidential Guards, Ghaffor Mirzoev. In 2006, the regime sentenced Mirzoev to life in prison. Apart from eliminating potential challengers to his power, Rakhmonov also amended the constitution in order to run for president for two additional seven-year terms.
The IRPT has not put up strong resistance to such violations of the National Reconciliation Process. Its response to the regime's oppressive policies has been limited so far to advancing its social network of hospitals, schools, housing projects and working hard to win the hearts and minds of people. The IRPT is also attempting to attract non-practicing Muslim members of Tajik society by appointing Muhiddin Kabiri as leader who resembles a typical contemporary politician. All these activities benefit the larger Tajik society that is extremely poor and is still suffering the ill-effects of the civil war that killed more than 50,000 people.
At present, escalating the conflict with the regime will damage the IRPT and Tajik society as a whole. If hostilities escalate into armed conflict, the regime will get Russian and American help. The US might be deterred if the IRPT manages to get the Afghan Tajiks, currently one of the dominant groups in Kabul, to object or even resist such involvement. Nevertheless, Russian forces stationed in Tajikistan will definitely support the regime. If IRPT chooses the path of armed resistance, it must prepare for a lengthy struggle that must take into account Russian involvement. Armed resistance, however, may not be its best option. Also, ideologically it is committed to peace and currently the political process carries more benefits than armed resistance for the movement.
However, the IRPT can mobilize those purged by the Rakhmonov regime after 2006 and use the dissatisfaction of their clans to sharpen divisions within the regime's power base. Without directly confronting or allying itself with the regime or its internal opponents, the IRPT can play a tactical balancing role between opposing sides. By playing this role, the IRPT can entangle the regime in its internal problems and significantly weaken it. This can broaden the scope of its social work that the regime is so eager to shut down in order to conceal its own incompetence and corruption. The fact that a large part of Tajik society was secularized by communism during Soviet rule and that it underwent a costly civil war the IRPT's options are limited. However, the overriding character of the Tajik people who are open to the idea of resisting oppression, unlike other former members of the USSR, can alter the situation at an opportune moment.