Tajikistan: President’s Pocket Pundit Bullies Opposition
Suhrob Sharipov is something like President Imomali Rakhmon’s mouth. While he may sometimes speak without thinking, what he says -- as head of the Center for Strategic Studies Under the President of Tajikistan -- comes from the top. So when he says journalists spend too much time talking to Tajikistan’s brutalized opposition -- the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) -- we can’t help but wonder if he is foreshadowing another crackdown on the media, the opposition, or both. "Constantly contacting representatives of this party and creating hullabaloo around it, journalists forget about other parties,” Sharipov lamented in comments carried by Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. “This is wrong and unfair.” What other parties? Maybe journalists speak with the affable and articulate heads of the IRPT more than with the leaders of the ruling party because they are accessible and actually have something interesting to say. The IRPT was set up as the political wing of the armed opposition after Tajikistan’s 1990s civil war. In exchange for laying down arms, members took one-third of government positions. Since then, the president has slowly whittled down the party’s power, stealing seats and rendering its influence negligible. Still, the IRPT represents the only real opposition voice to Rakhmon’s People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT). There are several other mock-opposition groups such as the Agrarian Party and the Communists, though their love for the PDPT makes any sober observer realize they are no more than democratic window dressing. Sharipov went on to take a dig at the IRPT’s poor results in last February’s parliamentary elections, when the party received only two seats in the 63-seat Assembly of Representatives. He neglected to mention that authorities had blatantly rigged the vote.The IRPT is in no way a radical organization, but is often the butt of official anti-Islamic paranoia. A few months ago, a room at its headquarters mysteriously burned to the ground after a disagreement with authorities.There has been increasing pressure on followers of Islam lately, who are being told to shave their beards, only read books approved by the state, and stop studying abroad. In authorities’ eagerness to drive all Tajik Muslims underground, it looks like a tough year ahead for the IRPT.