By Oleg Salimov (11/26/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Tajikistan’s Parliament passed a newly revised law on rallies and demonstrations on November 13. The law regulates all public and street meetings and gatherings. Although the ruling and opposition parties unanimously declared that the new law improves the application of principles of democracy in Tajikistan, the political conditions that surrounded the passage of this law point in the opposite direction.
First, law was passed in the aftermath of events in Ukraine and, most recently, the stand-off between protesters and police in Hong Kong. Second, the law is the next step in a set of measures taken in Tajikistan after the calls for protests launched by the opposition Group 24 on October 10. Soon after the protest appeal was announced, the Tajik government blocked internet in the country, put the police and military on high alert, and designated Group 24 an extremist organization.
The new law substituted a similar law from 1998. In essence, the new and harsher version of the law aims to control and prevent mass protests and demonstrations. The law regulates the presence and legal status of journalists and reporters during rallies, demonstrations, and meetings. In other words, the newly added provision imposes government censorship on all information about meetings and demonstrations. The law successfully monopolizes the government’s control over the flow of information and interpretation of events during public rallies and demonstrations.
Also, the new statute grants additional power to police during meetings and demonstrations. Police is allowed to stop and disperse a public gathering if its organizers violate the government approved agenda or order of a meeting. Thus, the determining factor of a meeting’s longevity will be the police’s vision of the order of a meeting.
The new law also prohibits “coercion” of the public to participate in rallies and demonstrations. The coercion provision is seemingly inspired by the recent protest movements in Ukraine and Hong Kong, which demonstrated the potential for internet and informational technologies as protesters were widely informed and got involved through the spread of text messages and on-line social networking. In the conditions of authoritarian rule, the simple mobilization of supporters for a protest rally through text messages or on-line social networks can easily be interpreted as coercion.
Rakhmon understands that the “immunization to protests” which Tajiks obtained through the Civil War might have started to wear out. Generations of young Tajiks not familiar with the bloodshed during the Civil War and unfamiliar with any other leadership than that of Rakhmon, are now adult. Having previously targeted nonconforming individuals, Rakhmon is currently refocusing on the masses. Political instability in Badakhshan Autonomous Region, where the last public unrest took place as recently as May 2014, is a clear signal for Rakhmon to reassess the probability of mass protests in Tajikistan. Regardless of its failure, the attempt last month by Group 24 to organize an opposition meeting in Dushanbe became a turning point for Rakhmon to adopt more serious measures to subdue undesirable public actions.
The Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party’s leader Mukhiddin Kabiri pointed out that Tajikistan has not had violent protests in the last twenty years. Over the same period, neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which demonstrates as low economic development and high corruption indicators as Tajikistan, had experienced two waves of upheaval in 2005 and 2010, resulting in the overthrow of two governments. By passing the new statute on rallies and demonstrations, Rakhmon reveals his regime’s increased perceived vulnerability to political opposition, which can produce an outcome similar to Kyrgyzstan.
Another important factor in the new law on rallies and demonstrations is the Tajik opposition’s unanimous endorsement of Rakhmon’s latest legislative initiative. The leaders of the largest opposition parties represented in Tajikistan’s parliament, the Islamic Renaissance Party and the Communist Party, collectively supported the law significantly restraining opposition. When justifying support of the law, Kabiri and Shabdolov emphasized their commitment to peaceful resolution of all disagreements with the current regime. This commitment is now secured in the newly passed law on rallies and demonstrations.
From the legal standpoint, the new statute is intended to protect the general public from potential outbursts of violence, unruly crowds, and street mobs during meetings and demonstrations. However, in Tajikistan, justice as the foremost principle of the legal system is often substituted by political considerations and objectives of the regime. In the context of a weak separation between the executive, judicial, and legislative powers, the law can easily be manipulated for the regime’s benefit. While the law can meet the criteria of justice, its interpretation and application can deviate significantly from its initial intent.