Published in Field Reports

By Oleg Salimov (06/24/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) Mukhiddin Kabiri gave an extensive press conference during the conference “Central Asia – Current Challenges” in Moscow, organized by Russian and Tajik educational and policy research institutions. In particular, Kabiri emphasized the growing confrontation between IRPT and Tajikistan’s government headed by Emomali Rakhmon. Kabiri, currently living in Turkey in self-imposed exile after his party was ousted from parliament in March 2015 elections, spoke about his fear of returning to Tajikistan due to political persecution. Official Dushanbe has yet to comment on Kabiri’s allegations.

Prior to March 2015, IRPT was the largest opposition party in the Tajik parliament, counting up to 40,000 active members. IRPT is a formal successor to the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which it dominated during the Tajik Civil War. IRPT controlled the opposition’s armed forces and coordinated UTO’s efforts during the peace negotiations in 1994-97. IRPT is the only officially registered Islamic party in the former Soviet Central Asia, whose status became possible due to the peace accords signed by the UTO’s previous leader Said Abdullo Nuri and Tajikistan’s president Rakhmon in 1997.

IRPT has previously accused the Tajik government of violating the provisions of the peace accords in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Initially, according to the peace accords, the opposition received 30 percent of the seats in government. Consistent persecution and manipulations allowed Rakhmon to entirely expel the opposition from government. In 2003, IRPT protested new amendments to the constitution, which allowed another reelection of Rakhmon. In 2005, IRPT denounced the parliamentary elections as rigged. In the 2010 elections, IRPT gained 8.2 percent of the votes. IRPT rejected the results of the last parliamentary elections when it gained only 1.6 percent of the votes. At the same time, the party emphasized the peaceful character of their protest and condemned possible outbursts of violence by its supporters.

The harassment of IRPT progressed considerably greatly after the 2010 elections. In the wake of attacks by Islamists in Tajikistan’s Rasht region in fall 2010, the government initiated a series of actions aimed to intimidate IRPT. Thus, the IRPT’s headquarters in Dushanbe were searched and documents and computers seized. Soon thereafter, the IRPT’s all-women mosque was set on fire. In early 2011, official Tajik media started an attack against IRPT, intended to demonize the party and its leadership.

These tactics continued up until the 2015 elections. Human rights groups reported several arrests of IRPT activists at the end of 2013. The leader of the IRPT cell in Badakhshan, Saodatsho Adolatov, received a five-year prison term in January 2014. Also, a series of discrediting reports and videos on immoral behavior of IRPT’s regional leaders was published in the media and social networks. IRPT denounced these reports and videos as false. In August 2014, the government newspaper Jumkhuriat published an extensive article comparing IRPT to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Most recently, IRPT reported the arrest of Kurbon Mannonov, the leader of the IRPT cell in Nurek on June 10, 2015.

After losing last parliamentary elections, some members of IRPT and Islamic clergy called for a dissolution of the party, which they believe has become ineffective and has discredited itself. The call was widely publicized by official Tajik media. The same media depicted Kabiri and his family’s departure to Turkey as an escape from Tajikistan, which only intensified speculations on the IRPT’s termination. During his press conference, Kabiri stated that he is not planning to return to Tajikistan due to the criminal investigation opened against him. Kabiri considers the investigation a pretext of the Tajik government to cover up political persecution against IRPT and himself.

Kabiri characterized his party’s future in Tajikistan as uncertain due to intensified persecution. Kabiri announced that IRPT has submitted an open letter to Rakhmon, describing the discrimination and harassment of IRPT’s leadership and members, following up on a 189-page appeal to Tajik parliament and law enforcement. IRPT calls on Rakhmon to observe the conditions listed in the peace accords of 1997. It should be noted that soon after the elections, the Tajik Islamic extremist group Jamoat Ansarulloh posted an online death threat to Kabiri for cooperating with Rakhmon. Andrei Serenko, an expert at the Russian Research Center of Contemporary Afghanistan, suspects that the threat was staged not by extremists but by Tajik security services to explain the future assassination of Kabiri. 

The post-Civil War reconciliation provided Tajikistan with a unique opportunity to become the most progressive new state among the Central Asian republics by recognizing and allowing the only Islamic party to take part in the state building processes. However, the intimidation and suppression of IRPT and its leadership exhibits a devaluation of democratic principles and advancement of authoritarianism in Tajikistan. Also, the persecution of moderate Islam, as represented by IRPT, can provoke the growth of extremism and radicalism among its followers.

Published in Field Reports

By Erik Davtyan (06/24/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In June 2015, Armenia and Iran held numerous talks on political and economic cooperation, energy security, and the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. On June 10, Armenia’s ambassador to Iran, Artashes Tumanyan, met with Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security of Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament). Boroujerdi welcomed the fact that Armenia and Iran pursue a high-level political dialogue and successfully cooperate at the level of parliaments, emphasizing the unique role of the Armenian Diaspora in Iran’s development. In turn, Ambassador Tumanyan stressed the importance of deepening political dialogue and economic exchange and expressed his gratitude to Iranian authorities for the warm attitude towards Iranian Armenians and the preservation of Armenian cultural heritage in Iran. Touching upon the current turmoil in the Middle East and security issues, the Armenian ambassador stated that all regional issues should be solved only by political means and that Armenia runs a constructive and balanced policy in this context.

The official political dialogue between the two neighboring states continued in the following days in Yerevan. On June 11, the President of Armenia’s National Assembly Galust Sahakyan received the head of the Friendship Group Armenia-Iran Ali Qaidi and other members of the group. The parties discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, as well as issues related to Armenia’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), parliamentary cooperation and especially the activity of the Friendship Group. On June 12, Iranian members of the Friendship Group were received by Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Nalbandian. Nalbandian stressed the importance of political dialogue at both the executive and legislative levels and emphasized that several Armenians are engaged in Iranian parliamentary affairs as deputies in the Islamic Consultative Assembly.

Simultaneously, on June 11-12 Armenian officials held separate consultations with another Iranian delegation. The consultations were headed by the Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs Shavarsh Kocharyan and Ibrahim Rahimpour. According to the press release of Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the activation of political dialogue and enhancing cooperation in energy, trade-economic, and humanitarian fields bilaterally as well as in the framework of international organizations were on the agenda of the consultations. The counterparts also discussed the realization of joint economic projects in detail. Along with issues of common concern, the interlocutors reciprocally presented the current developments on top priority issues in Armenia’s and Iran’s foreign policies. Kocharyan presented the efforts of Armenia and the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs towards the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. In turn, Rahimpour briefed on the recent developments in the negotiation process on Iran’s nuclear program. On June 14, Ambassador Tumanyan met with Iran’s Minister of Petroleum Bijan Namdar Zangeneh and discussed issues relating to bilateral economic and energy cooperation.

Despite the active and regular interaction between Armenian and Iranian authorities, it is obvious that the vague perspective of constructing a new railway is still the most important problem on the two states’ official mutual agenda. By connecting its railway network to Iran’s, Armenia seeks to circumvent the dual embargo by Turkey and Azerbaijan (imposed more than 20 years ago) and receive the status of a transit state, thereby raising its international importance. For Iran, the new railway will open new opportunities for linking the Persian Gulf through Iran to the Black Sea basin. According to News.am, Tumanyan declared that Iranian authorities will build 60 kilometers of the railway, reaching the Armenian-Iranian state border. Regarding the existing difficulties for this infrastructural program, the Armenian ambassador explained that the construction of an Iran-Armenia railway needs a colossal investment, hence “the railway will be constructed as soon as financial needs are satisfied.”

Tumanyan also said that “Armenia aims at linking Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union” and added that “the members of the EEU are also interested in a broader cooperation with Iran”. In August 2014, the Armenian government approved the railway project at a cost of approximately US$ 3.5billion. Armenia has to build a nearly 300 kilometer-long section of the railway, the construction of which is estimated to be completed in 2022.

Published in Field Reports

By Eka Janashia (06/10/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In May, Georgia’s main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), lost four prominent members. Since the 2012 parliamentary elections, over a dozen UNM members have broken ranks but this was the first time long-standing and high-profile associates quit the party.

Zurab Japaridze, Pavle Kublashvili, Goga Khachidze and Giorgi Meladze decided “to establish a new, open political center, to attract and engage political process professionals,” in order to counter pro-Russian forces aspiring to win a majority in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Private consultations with individuals are ongoing and the prospect of cooperation with other political groups is not yet certain, Japaridze said.

According to the former UNM members, the UNM was the only political force capable of challenging oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s “puppet government.” The party peacefully handed over power to the victorious political force after the 2012 parliamentary elections and even survived despite significant pressure from the new government. However, UNM failed to renew itself in order to regain the confidence of the Georgian public. According to a joint statement by the former UNM members, the “Complete renewal and openness of a political force is required for achieving a victory,” implying that the affiliation with former President Mikheil Saakashvili is a major drawback for UNM. In 2013, Saakashvili was re-elected chairman of UNM, apparently putting the party’s ability to renew itself into question.

The four insisted then that they preferred to stay with the party as they felt obliged to contribute to its unity and survival. However, as parliamentary elections are approaching, they now endeavor to “reshape the political spectrum” in order to defeat the “oligarchic rule.” 

UNM lawmakers termed the decision an “absolutely irresponsible” move, made at the most decisive moment, and suggested that it was a consequence of the enormous pressure from Georgian authorities. While UNM claims that the party “stands firm” and additional defections from within its ranks is not expected, PM Irakli Gharibashvili asserted that UNM is in a process of disintegration.

Most political analysts say that a new re-grouping among the pro-western parties should be considered normal, given the large number of undecided voters. According to a public opinion survey, conducted throughout Georgia in April by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), 27 percent of the respondents were undecided on which political party they would vote for if parliamentary elections were held tomorrow; 6 percent did not intend to vote at all and 12 percent declined to answer. Several political actors are now repositioning to target hesitant voters, who now compose 45 percent of the electorate.

For example, the recently established social movement Iveria, co-founded by former foreign minister and Saakashvili associate Grigol Vashadze, plans to unite people of different professions and to establish the structure for a political party by the fall. It is composed of former high-ranking officials who occupied different posts during UNM’s term in power but were never actual members of the party.

Meanwhile, the Free Democrats, once a part of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, did not exclude cooperation neither with the four former UNM lawmakers, nor with Iveria. The re-composition of pro-western political forces could well be a tactical maneuver aiming to introduce a new political coalition detached from Saakashvili’s leadership.

Nevertheless, it is not clear to what extent the moves of these former Saakashvili confidantes will convince potential voters. Japaridze might be an exception in this regard, as he joined the UNM after the recent parliamentary elections and then became the party’s executive secretary in September 2014. In contrast, the remaining three have long been prominent UNM members and Saakashvili allies. Kublashvili was chairman of the parliamentary committee on legal affairs in the previous parliament, while Khachidze was Minister of Environment Protection and Natural Resources in Saakashvili’s government. The same can be said for high-profile officials now converging around the social movement Iveria.

However, rumors about the UNM’s disintegration and its disappearance from the political scene are likely exaggerated. The UNM is a party with great managerial skills and has shown an ability to deal with the challenges it has faced over the last few years. From the Rose Revolution in 2003 to its current role as an opposition party, the UNM has managed to keep a reasonable degree of unity. Despite the vast public discontent in 2007 and the war with Russia in 2008 and its painful implications, the UNM preserved the legitimacy to run the country. After handing over power to the winning coalition, the party was subjected to intensive pressure. Former Prime Minister and UNM Secretary General Vano Merabishvili, former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, as well as former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava were arrested and sentenced while pre-trial detention in absentia has been ordered for Saakashvili. Despite these setbacks, the UNM has yet to fall apart.

Given its high disapproval rating, the party has focused on international issues with a focus on Ukraine, and has sent several officials and experts to advise the Ukrainian government. On May 30, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed Saakashvili chairman of the state administration (governor) of Ukraine’s Odessa province.

Apparently, the UNM expects to contribute to Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Russian orbit, in turn helping Georgia to sustain its Euro-Atlantic path, and by extension to regain public confidence in the UNM at home. According to Saakashvili, “If Odessa ever falls, God forbid, then Georgia might be wiped out from the map.” 

Published in Field Reports

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (06/10/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On June 4, after more than two years of deliberations, the Kyrgyz Parliament overwhelmingly approved amendments to the law on “non-commercial organizations” in its first reading. According to the new amendments, NGOs receiving funding from abroad will be labeled “foreign agents.” If passed in two more readings and approved by the President, the bill will impose severe limitations to the activities of civil society actors and will put the country’s democratic development into a great jeopardy.

In his address to the Kyrgyz Parliament, Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, a lawmaker and one of the initiators of the amendments, stated that locally registered NGOs have received around US$ 10 million from foreign countries over the past 3 years. In his words, “NGOs receive funding from abroad and try to influence our internal politics. Therefore, we have the full right to know where their money goes and for which purposes they are used. The bill will improve our national security.”

By contrast, local and international human rights organizations believe that the law fully resembles the one passed in Russia in 2012 and has nothing to do with national security. “The bill is aimed at taking full control of the institutions that speak against certain unpopular policies of the Government,” according to Dinara Oshurakhunova, a Bishkek-based civil society activist. The bill would indeed, as the Russian experience shows, limit the activities of civil society institutions. It will impose burdensome reporting requirements on them and allow governmental agencies to send representatives to participate in internal activities and decide whether this or that organization complies with its objectives or not. Failure to do so will result in their immediate termination.

Local experts are therefore hotly discussing the degree of Russia’s involvement in the development of these legislative changes that speak against the fundamental values of democracy. Several media sources have even reported that the Kremlin has a direct influence on these processes by buying off MPs and exercising direct pressure on the government, and that this process will likely exacerbate as Bishkek is now an official member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

The position of Kyrgyzstan’s President is another interesting aspect of the controversy. During his trip to Brussels in 2013, President Atambayev stated clearly that there was no need for Kyrgyzstan to adopt a law on “foreign agents.” However, in a recent interview to the public channel, the president seemed to be in favor of adopting the bill. Atambayev said, “I will check if the law corresponds to the interests of the country, whether it complies with human rights standards. Now I do not want to promise you anything. Today we are facing the fact that under the guise of human rights organizations, NGOs are opening and trying to destabilize the situation in the country and international relations.” The sudden shift in the president’s opinion can be explained by Bishkek’s new international orientation, which seemingly comes at the expense of the country’s relatively successful democratic transition.

In its first reading, the bill was supported by 83 parliamentarians against the 23 who opposed it. Daniyar Terbishaliev, an MP from the ruling coalition, argued that based on the suggested law, all MPs must also register as “foreign agents.” In his words, “all the MPs interact with international organizations and civil society groups go on study tours funded by them. We all know that our country is donor dependent, and it is wrong to underestimate the degree of the international community’s assistance.”

Some experts also believe that the initiators of the bill want to pass it before the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2015, in an effort to take control over the democratic institutions. If adopted, the law will pave the way for persecution and pressure on NGOs that will observe the elections and address political concerns.

In the meantime, civil society activists have already launched a campaign to collect citizens’ signatures against the bill. According to the legislation, 10,000 signatures will allow for the submission of a new bill to the parliament, which would repeal the document on foreign agents.

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Joint Center Publications

Article Mamuka Tsereteli, “Russian Aggression in the Black Sea Cannot Go Unanswered” The Hill, September 11, 2017

Article Bilahari Kausikan, Fred Starr, and Yang Cheng, “Asia’s Game of Thrones, Central Asia: All Together Now.” The American Interest, June 16,2017

Article Svante E. Cornell “The Raucous Caucasus” The American Interest, May 2, 2017

Resource Page "Resources on Terrorism and Radical Islamism in Central Asia", Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, April 11, 2017.

Silk Road Monograph Nicklas Norling, Party Problems and Factionalism in Soviet Uzbekistan: Evidence from the Communist Party Archives, March 2017.

Oped Svante E. Cornell, "Russia: An Enabler of Jihad?", W. Martens Center for European Studies, January 16, 2017.

Book Svante E. Cornell, ed., The International Politics of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict: The Original 'Frozen Conflict' and European Security, Palgrave, 2017. 

Article Svante E. Cornell, The fallacy of ‘compartmentalisation’: the West and Russia from Ukraine to Syria, European View, Volume 15, Issue 1, June 2016.

Silk Road Paper Shirin Akiner, Kyrgyzstan 2010: Conflict and Context, July 2016. 

Silk Road Paper John C. K. Daly, Rush to Judgment: Western Media and the 2005 Andijan ViolenceMay 2016.

Silk Road Paper Jeffry Hartman, The May 2005 Andijan Uprising: What We KnowMay 2016.

Silk Road Paper Johanna Popjanevski, Retribution and the Rule of Law: The Politics of Justice in Georgia, June 2015.

Book S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell, eds., ·Putin's Grand Strategy: The Eurasian Union and its Discontents, Joint Center Monograph, September 2014.

The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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