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Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
18 October 2001
Tajikistan Is Getting Used to Peace
By Markus Wehner
Moscow Correspondent

DUSHANBE. When the air fills with dust, the sun disappears for days on end and Dushanbe lives in a milky cloud of clay powder, the locals blame it on "the Afghan." The desert storm from Afghanistan dominates the weather in southern Tajikistan. Both the government and international organizations in the capital hope that the approaching political storm from the country to the south will not disturb the peace in Tajikistan the way that "the Afghan" does.

"What we are seeing in Afghanistan could also have been the fate of Tajikistan, if the population had not had the wisdom to stop the war," says Ivo Petrov, a Bulgarian who heads the local office of the United Nations, which is trying to foster the peace process here. In 1992, Tajikistan slid into a bloody civil war that brought the country to the brink of disaster within five years. In June 1997, however, the United Nations brokered the formation of a ruling coalition consisting of the Islamic and national democratic opposition and the government. The opposition, with its stronghold in the east, now has two deputy prime ministers and half a dozen other ministers.

Nevertheless, calm returned to the country slowly. Just two years ago, residents of Dushanbe say, the sound of Kalashnikovs firing was commonplace, as rival gangs fought gunbattles on the streets and armed men in jeeps with tinted windows terrorized the city. One car driver paid with his life for daring to pass one of the vehicles. People waiting at a bus stop were among the victims of another shoot-out. The city was like a ghost town after six in the evening, and weddings were moved forward to the early afternoon.

Today, Dushanbe's cafés and restaurants are open late, the traffic lights work again, and the stores are busy. The city also boasts a number of small commercial enterprises that call themselves "cybercafés" because they have computers. Young Tajiks who have not immigrated to Russia are trying hard to make a living.

Poverty is, admittedly, visible everywhere. The minimum public pension amounts to the equivalent of DM3 ($1.38) a month, teachers earn between DM10 and DM15, and a police officer DM30 -- barely sufficient to survive for a few days. Apartments with hot running water, gas and heating are a rare luxury. In the city's problem areas, 10 or 12 people share an apartment, the crime rate is high and drug addiction widespread.

The government of President Emomali Rahmonov has managed, however, to stabilize the situation in the capital and elsewhere in the country of 6.6 million. The government has generally been able to assert its influence, even if this means making deals with influential regional clans; a person's origin is still of crucial importance in Tajikistan.

Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia where the collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by a change of the ruling elite. Former communist leaders in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are in power, and in Kyrgyzstan the new president also comes from the same clan which previously held power.

But the ascendancy of Mr. Rahmonov in Tajikistan has seen a transfer of power, including key cabinet positions, to a new clan from Kulab, southeast of Dushanbe. Mr. Rahmonov, who consolidated his power last year in what observers said were democratically suspect parliamentary elections, still needs the former opposition because of its considerable influence in the eastern part of the country. Some former opposition fighters have returned to civilian life, while others have been integrated into the political administration and the army. One of them is Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, once an influential field commander and one of the leaders of the national democratic wing of the opposition. For the last two and a half years, he has been director of state-owned Tajik Gas.

The civil war is still tangible in his busy reception office on the fourth floor of a dilapidated concrete high-rise. Among those seated are three young bodyguards, two casually cocking their machine guns and the other his revolver. Fortunately, they are framed by two civilian secretaries -- one, in Muslim dress and her face framed by a headscarf, represents the traditions of her country, the other, in makeup and a shiny silver sweater, belongs to the dwindling group of Russian state employees who no longer have senior positions but still play a major role in the administration.

Mr. Iskandarov is a perfectly civil man with a dignified appearance -- the type you could sit down with for a pleasant cup of tea. He was actively involved in the fight for the independence of Tajikistan -- a war, he says, that degenerated into an interregional power struggle. The opposition, he admits, allowed the politically far more experienced government to outmaneuver it during negotiations. "But the most important thing -- peace, an end to the bloodshed -- we did achieve," he says.

The former opposition groups surrendered their weapons last summer. Many of them were trained as soldiers in Afghanistan, as was Mr. Iskandarov, who received his training in 1993 in a camp run by the recently assassinated leader of the Afghan opposition, Ahmed Shah Massoud. The Tajik government dispatched its armed forces against the field commanders who resisted integration. Over the summer, Mr. Iskandarov says, he destroyed the last group, led by a certain Rahmon Sanginov (also known locally as "Hitler") with "our forces." Other steadfast opponents of the regime went to Afghanistan.

This is also the current residence of Juma Namagani, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and a close friend of the terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden. Two years ago, he launched an Islamist invasion from Tajikistan into the Kyrgyz part of the Ferghana Valley, where his fighters took four Japanese scientists hostage and seized control of several villages. After withdrawing to Afghanistan, he repeated the scenario a year later.

Most of his recruits were from villages bereft of job opportunities for young people. He paid well and proved to be relatively successful. If the fighting in Afghanistan escalates to full force, Mr. Iskandarov says he would not rule out Mr. Namagani's returning a second time to Tajikistan. "If he returns, we will try to destroy him," says Mr. Iskandarov, who stresses that his government has until now attempted to accommodate Islamist leaders.

Mr. Iskandarov says he hopes the Afghan population will not have to suffer even more, but he wants to see an end to the Taliban and a permanent solution to the Afghan question. "This is above all in Tajikistan's interest," he says.

The coalition government is far from a representative leadership. Large ethnic groups, for example the quarter of the population of Uzbek origin, are not represented in either the government or parliament. The north, which once provided the ruling communist elite, was not taken into consideration. There appears, however, to be no alternative to the experimental coalition of secular clan members and the former opposition. Tajikistan, says Mr. Petrov, the UN diplomat, is "one of the success stories of the United Nations."

He still sees poverty as the main problem. "Development aid here is primarily conflict prevention," the Bulgarian says.

He expresses hope that the horrific experience of an unwanted civil war will have immunized Tajiks against new adventures -- a view similar to that of Mr. Iskandarov. Although he admits a free press and multiparty politics are still some way off in Tajikistan, the country has worked to prevent itself from evolving into a second Afghanistan. For him, the crucial step is to revitalize the economy and establish democracy in the country, and he has called on Mr. Rahmonov to take the bold move of announcing an amnesty so as to ensure a transition from an ubiquitous black market to a legal economy.

"We made peace back then, because we were presented with the example of Afghanistan," says Mr. Iskandarov. "We cannot rule out a return of Afghan conditions. But this is now already very unlikely."

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