Tajik “leader of the nation” seeks to extend 28-year rule

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Almaty (Kazakhstan) (AFP)

Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon, who runs for reelection on Sunday, pulled his country out of civil war in the 1990s and is expected to become the longest-serving head of a former Soviet state.

Largely mountainous, the poor and mostly agrarian country of Rakhmon became a partner of Washington after the US invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in 2001.

But the 68-year-old former boss of the collective farm has turned to Moscow – and more recently to China – to strengthen a regime that observers say is defined by corruption and rights violations.

While describing himself as a Muslim believer, Rakhmon is seen as an opponent of the rise of Islamic observance in the secular republic, supporting forced beard shavings, a ban on the hijab, and a desire to exclude “non names.” Tajiks ”during his 28-year reign.

Born on October 5, 1952 in the southern province of Khatlon, Rakhmon became an MP in 1990 after running a collective farm for more than a decade.

Those beginnings drew comparisons with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who is two years younger than Rakhmon and has taken an almost identical path to leadership.

Among the rulers of the former Soviet states, only Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, who retired last year after 29 years in power, ruled longer than Rakhmon.

Few would have guessed that Rakhmon would stay the course when he was promoted in 1992 to President of the National Assembly – a post equivalent to that of Head of State – amid fighting between pro-government forces and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) raged.

He was elected president in 1994, after the post was reinstated, and re-elected in 1999, 2006 and 2013. None of these votes were approved by international observers.

A 1997 agreement that ended Tajikistan’s five-year civil war and claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people granted the OTU some of the government posts.

But Rakhmon gradually pushed aside political competition.

In 2015, authorities banned an Islamic opposition party, seen as a legacy of the peace agreement, and began jailing its members. Several have died while serving their sentences.

– ‘Leader of the nation’ –

In Sunday’s vote, Rakhmon faces four folding candidates, while the parliament, whose upper house is chaired by his son and likely successor Rustam Emomali, is also free from opposition.

As Rakhmon’s personal friend Lukashenko faces an unprecedented challenge in his reign, the Tajik leader has encountered few obstacles.

In 2016, he consolidated his position with constitutional changes that allowed him to run for office an unlimited number of times as “leader of the nation” and “founder of peace and national unity”.

Over the past decade, Rakhmon’s government has embarked on a number of grandiose projects, which critics say are wasteful and expose megalomania.

The capital Dushanbe is home to a flag pole that was once the tallest in the world, as well as the largest library, teahouse and theater in Central Asia.

Construction of the world’s tallest hydroelectric dam, which could facilitate exports to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is also underway, with some calling for its name to be changed from Rogun to Rakhmon.

Tajik state television regularly speaks about Rakhmon and his interior minister Ramazon Rahimzoda has written poems praising his boss.

What everyday Tajiks think of him has always been more difficult to assess.

Although many credit Rakhmon for maintaining the post-war peace, they denounce corruption and nepotism as well as the growing attacks on Islam.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of his reign is Tajikistan’s long-standing status as one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world, with hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrants working in Russia and elsewhere.

Lacking a voice or an opportunity at home, many have chosen to vote with their feet.

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