Tajikistan Flirts with and Breaks Up with Democracy

Tajikistan, like most of the Central Asian former Soviet Republics, has a system of government that is much more like their ancestors’ tribal monarchies than even a solid, modern despotism. As something of a bow to foreign sensibilities, they pretended this year to allow opposition candidates a chance to contest the presidency. This was despite two inconvenient facts. First, Emomalii Rakhmon, the country’s president-all-but-for-life, is unlikely to allow any end to his dynastic rule. Second, most Tajiks have no such intention either.

So when Oynihol Bobonazarova, a human rights activist and widely considered to be the only credible opposition candidate, failed to register the 5% voter signature threshold needed to contest the election, she and the usual assortment of human rights NGOs cried foul, claiming government interference and so on.

This is almost certainly true. It’s also almost certainly true that she wouldn’t have managed to get the signatures required if she’d had a free hand. Tajiks have a very long history with a certain kind of government, and variations on “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” and “this could be so much worse” are common. Rakhmon is a despot who has done most of the damage he can do; Tajiks assume Bobonazarova could be as bad or worse, and without the bad stuff already done.

Nevertheless, the entire affair stinks of the usual utter failure of the Central Asian -stans to do much more than maintain their tinpot despots in place until the corpse is mouldering. If Rakhmon was going to go through with this sham of an election, he could have at least had the good grace to have signatures faked with the same zeal that he would stuff ballot boxes.

The core problem for the -stans is not merely that they have no democracy, but they have very little in the way of a non-tribal civil society and no real concept of ordered government and democracy. They tend to think that the mere act of voting legitimizes a government, and are constantly somewhat mystified by attempt to explain ideas of free and fair elections. The urban dwellers, who run a fairly sophisticated black box internet access network, understand these things well; but they are numerically no match for anyone else, and tend to fall back on tribal custom as often as not.

Tajikistan is thus another monument to the slow death of the Western dream of real democracy for all in this arid land.

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