Muhiddin Kabiri: Closing IRPT will not bring about better life in Tajikistan
Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), has inadvertently become the main newsmaker for Tajik and foreign mass media outlets. Mr Kabiri broke silence he kept for the last three weeks and made himself available for journalists.
Specifically, Mr Kabiri made a statement on June 17, saying a criminal investigation is possible against him in Tajikistan. At the time of the statement and since then, Mr Kabiri is in Moscow where he arrived to participate in an international conference entitled “Central Asia: Modern Challenges”. The party boss saw a cause for a statement of this sort in an article carried by the Jumhuriyat newspaper, a Tajik government media arm, which alleged a criminal investigation was being prepared against the IRPT leader based on facts of illegal privatization 16 years ago.
Mr Kabiri left Tajikistan three months ago, embarking on an extended business trip in European countries. However, his plans to return home had to change in the wake of latest information about legal proceedings. After all, the Tajik society remembers the sad consequences Zayd Saidov, a former industry minister, faced upon returning to Tajikistan. Mr Saidov was arrested in the Dushanbe airport immediately upon his return from Europe and later sentenced to 26 years of imprisonment for alleged fraud, corruption and polygamy. Observers maintain persecutions against Mr Saidov were politically motivated.
Muhiddin Kabiri agreed to speak with Fergana in an exclusive interview to discuss the criminal investigation launched against him, those in the Tajik government interested in having the IRPT closed, the reasons behind people continuing to join the party despite resistance and pressures, and many other aspects of life in Tajikistan.
Mr Kabiri, what do you know about that criminal case, which is being prepared against you in Tajikistan, as Jumhuriyat writes?
The article discusses that criminal charges may be pressed against me. But I have no confirmation as of now. But if a government-owned newspaper wrote about it, then I don’t rule out something is already underway. Although the government-run newspapers have been running such things over the last several years that cannot be easily reasoned: these are points of view of the government or individuals. In any event, we take such publications—and not only publications—seriously. Specifically, a video clip surfaced online recently with a certain Mavlavi Salmon of the Ansorulloh group, who threatened our party and me personally. Although experts later stated the video recording is fake and no person named Mavlavi exists in the first place. Most probably it was produced somewhere else by other people.
The newspaper writes you made illegal deals: you allegedly privatised a building at a lower than fair market price. Are these allegations against you grounded?
There are no grounds to accuse me. It is no secret that I was a businessman before entering politics. I started [doing business] when I still was a university student, and made my first capital back in the Soviet Union days. As far as the building the article mentions is concerned, it is an incomplete hospital building. I participated in an auction back in 1999, which sold a number of incomplete constructions using the Dutch auctioning system, i.e. bidding is done when the highest price is gradually lowered. That said, the government established the prices, not me. I was actually planning to purchase a different building, but someone else has done so before me. And when a sales announcement was made [on the building of my choice], I then chose said hospital. Several of my fellow party members approached me later, having learnt I procured the building, and started asking me to sell the building to them. Honestly, I agreed to do that only after the late Teacher Said Abdullah Nuri asked me to re-register this building under other party members’ names. These people—who later left the party—were quite well known. We agreed that I would re-register the building under their name and they cover the expenditures associated with doing so. So they agreed and prepared notary-verified documents. At the time, they benefited from the fact that this deal was registered as a gift. All this took place in 1999, mind you. I knew nothing more of this building ever since then. For some reason, 17 years later, someone decided to bring this case up again. If someone has misused that land, then that person should be held accountable. But laws, unfortunately, are applied selectively in our country. The same situation unfolded around a marketplace I owned in the town of Tursunzade.
Do you still have any other business in Tajikistan?
At this time, the majority of facilities and buildings my family owns have been either seized or pressured in such a way that speaking of business in its true meaning is simply impossible. I have always done business honestly and transparently. I have never held any government positions, and no one and nothing depended on my signature; hence the impossibility of accusing me of power abuse. By the way, I have earned my major assets before I became a member of parliament. Over the last several years when I was an MP and headed the party, I actually lost what I owned. In other words, I not only was unable to increase my assets, but on the contrary, I started losing parts of it, while I used other parts myself. Supporters of our party would often come to me seeking help. My social status obliged me to help and share my property and money. I have no regrets. On the contrary, it is good that I have always helped all these people. Otherwise all [those assets] would be misappropriated anyway. I was told on one of these days that some people approached my elder brother who owns a small family farm in Fayzabad. They issued an ultimatum: either he leaves the party or face problems with the farm. And even before that there were many inspections administered and fines imposed. So we decided to simply open the farm doors and tell our neighbours to take one cow each. These animals could benefit someone in this way than ending up in the hands of corrupt ones, who will simply misappropriate them.
How secure do you feel yourself at this time?
I do not believe I am facing some clear-cut threat. I have no guards; I visit different countries and participate in various events. I continue living and working as before, and making no changes into my plans in the foreseeable future.
Lately, you have been often saying that there is a campaign launched in Tajikistan to discredit your party. Do you believe it aims at closing the IRTP?
There are no reasons or grounds for closing our party. The party would have to have been systematically violating some laws. That said, competent government bodies must have had issued warnings several times about violations being committed. If the party fails to correct those violations in a certain period of time, then the issue of closing that particular party is considered at court.
But you said yourself laws are applied selectively in Tajikistan…
I am discussing the legal procedures. True, this is not always the case. But there is also common sense in additional laws. I hope that common sense is not completely lost in Tajikistan.
Then why do [your accusers] need all those video clips, articles and criminal prosecutions of your followers, members of their and your families? All this is undertaken only for weakening the IRPT? Or could there be more serious goals?
I think they only want to weaken the party for the time being, but their ultimate goal is closing the party. Someone is conceiving of such plans, but I hope common sense will prevail. But such people—who look at the problem from a narrow viewpoint and believe closing the party will resolve all the problems—are wrong. We have experienced something like this when a decision was adopted to close us and we know what it all turned into. I am not threatening anyone—only reminding about history. I have once told my friends in the government: if you want to close the party this much, then explain how are we hindering you or the nation of Tajikistan [in your work, etc.]? If we seize to exist, what use will it bring to the government, nation, and country? Maybe electricity supply to the population will improve, salaries will rise and labour migrants will return? Closing us would not bring about a better life for the nation of Tajikistan. They say, ‘Well, if such a decision was made, then that is what must be done. They know better up there.’ There is no logical explanation to this. I have already spoken about the fact that neo-bolshevism is growing in our country—some people think they know best how the people must live their lives.
And you still continue talking about common sense…
I am not a supporter of looking at the government as if it were a single person. It is very diverse. I know there are a big number of quite smart guys, who do care about the nation. They are true patriots, but they are afraid. Nobody wants to stick out and be a white crow. We know what befalls those who express their opinion; therefore, experiencing the overall situation up there firsthand, they are forced to adapt to those realities. Therefore, we want to explain those who can influence the decision-makers that it is time to stop.
I recently watched a documentary on the BBC, where a now elderly aide to the Iranian shah is asked, “You saw that everything was moving toward a crisis. Why did you not explain to the shah that everything was bad, it was time to stop and the nation was about to perish.” He responded, “Well, nobody wanted to spoil his mood; everybody was afraid. Everybody used to say, ‘The people love you and you are on the correct path.’ And if someone now says everything is moving toward a dead-end, the shah would understand it incorrectly. But when everyone realised that we were facing a catastrophe, a group of aides decided to tell the shah the real situation. He agreed that some steps had to be undertaken, but it was late—a revolution took place in just a week.” Listening to him had me thinking about our situation, where everyone reports to those in the upper echelons of power on how everything is great in the country, except for some few Islamists who criticise the authorities—they must be crushed and everything will then be wonderful. But I believe there are still people who are able to tell the president the truth.
Muhiddin Kabiri. The photo taken from the politician’s Facebook page
Experts suggest exerting this strong pressure on a moderate party, which could be had a constructive dialogue with and come to agreements, is unreasonable and reckless. Maybe the reason for this is that the authorities continue seeing a foe in the IRPT due to strong feelings still lingering since that civil war?
Again, I am against seeing the government as a single person. There is a group of people within the authorities who want to take revenge. They think they did secure complete victory after the civil war. In other words, they were forced to accept truce and compromise, because they could lose everything otherwise. Indeed, the frontlines of the UTO [the Unified Tajik Opposition] reached the east of Dushanbe by that time. The situation was very tense and they had to compromise. So some people are still harbouring the desire for complete victory. But these “hawks” were very young at that time and have only recently attained authority—they have not gone through the school of reconciliation. And if such people as Talbak Nazarov, Abdumajid Dostiyev, Abdullo Habibov, i.e. those who have experienced the reconciliation process and know what that is, were in power now, then I am certain we would not be in this situation. But there are new generals and young functionaries, who want to show themselves, their power and eliminate all those who they believe are their enemies. These are the “hawks” that are bringing about this atmosphere. Therefore, I think, there are some people in the country who need a small conflict, which they can manage and emerge triumphant from. I am analysing the situation [and asking myself] why are they pressuring us, provoking us into a conflict and protest even though they know this could lead to negative consequences. Why?
Perhaps because they feel they are strong enough and capable of managing that conflict…
They think that the situation at the international scene would support their efforts. Everyone—including Russia and the West—is busy with the ISIS, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, and Islamophobia is on the rise in the world. So Muslims and everything related to Islam is under a significant international pressure and nobody would not offer even an informational support if several Islamists are killed somewhere or an Islamic party is forced to close. A scandal would arise if Tajikistan bans, say, same-sex marriages; however, if the rights of an Islamic party are violated, nobody would pay any attention.
People are afraid a new civil war could break out and are prepared to put up with anything—lawlessness, lack of electricity and petty pensions. As long as stability [is not disrupted]. Taking the situation at the global level and our nation’s tiredness of conflicts into consideration, the revanchists came up with an idea—why not create a conflict and again accuse the religious figures or opposition in that they are making the situation worse and then emerge as the nation’s saviours and conflict resolvers. But the danger here is that such ambitious projects and myopic intrigues actually bring about big tragedies. If we were able to come to an agreement in early 1990s, there would be no conflict in the first place.
Were you able to meet with people in the government who are capable of influencing the situation around the IRPT or, at least, convey your grievances to the decision-makers?
Not yet. These people are afraid that they would be misunderstood as if they are speaking in favour of our party. There are people who now have unshakable ideological viewpoints and those are quite radical views. They think they are responsible for a certain field and want to achieve results here and now; they do not think about what would unfold after they leave. Some of the secular radicals in Tajikistan harbour similar thoughts: “I now have power and I must fulfil that ideology which I am tasked with. If I am told that there can be no Islamic party in the country, then that is what is going to happen.” So, knowing our realities, [I can say that] such conversations would not [improve] the situation.
Were you proposed to change the party’s name or remove the word “Islamic”? Are you prepared to take such a step in exchange for permission to continue your activities, [whereby you would agree to] changing the character and working as a secular entity?
Such discussions have been taking place among our party’s members for 10 years. But the way, I initiated this idea already during the lifetime of Teacher Nuri. I proposed the idea; he thought and agreed, saying that doing so was indeed reasonable. But then The Teacher decided that since we signed a peace agreement with President Rakhmon, it would be good to consult the authorities on this issue because there was a signature of an Islamic party’s chairman at the end of the agreement. But to our surprise, Nuri said following high-rank consultations that it appeared everyone in the government was satisfied with and agreed to the title—extra sensitivity to our party’s title was expressed earlier and everyone was accustomed to it by that time. Moreover, the IRPT is a joint achievement, because Tajikistan is the only country in the CIS where an Islamic party exists.
In other words, the government thought in mid-2000s that an Islamic party’s existence was a positive phenomenon?
Yes, they said themselves that our presence with this title was quite beneficial for the government; so why not leave the title intact in the state’s and nation’s interest? The argument was deemed rather convincing. And when this issue arose again, it was voiced by other individuals and we started pondering over the problem again. We were prepared to consider the matter if it were made part of an open discussion with us, which would eventually lead us to mutual understanding. But we only heard voices voicing a condition: we must remove the word “Islamic” from the party name.
A condition on the part of the government?
No, but the matter was brought up by certain individuals in an incorrect manner. For instance, the issue of our party’s name was raised during a meeting between the president and the official clergy in the summer of 2013; that said, the issue came up in a negative context. We were first accused of all possible sins; then they said we are abusing the name of Islam and must therefore change the name of the party. Obviously when an issue is raised in such a context, then this is an external pressure, and no party that has respect for itself would agree to making such a move. So we decided to halt internal discussions of the issue. As soon as things settle, we can return to it. If doing so is indeed in the interests of our country and nation, then why not? A party name is not a goal in and of itself.
Muhiddin Kabiri speaking at an international conference in Moscow in June 2015
At a conference in Moscow you said the guarantor-states of the agreement on peace of 1997 must promote the resumption of the dialogue between the government and opposition. And many experts supported you on this. But some could oppose [this proposal], saying the peaceful process has been completed long time ago and today you are a part of the Tajik society just as any other political party is. What kind of a dialogue are you talking about and how do you see it unfolding?
If they did indeed see a part of the Tajik society in us, our party would not be facing these problems in the first place. After all, nobody was saying until very recently it was necessary to re-utilise a contact group so it would promote the complete implementation of the agreement on peace and return its spirit to Tajikistan. This problem arose just when they stopped seeing us as part of the society. As I have already said, somebody is trying to marginalise and completely exclude us from all internal processes in Tajikistan. Even right now, I am not a supporter of re-utilising the contact group or the UN. I am still hopeful that there is an opportunity to discuss the issue as if it were a family matter—limiting it to the Tajik society. But if there is no other option left and laws and agreements are ignored, we would then address the member-countries of the contact group and the UN, since they are an international structure under whose auspices our peace negotiations took place. This would be the last resort, which the government of Tajikistan is forcing us to appeal to. The fact that the experts community supported us in this means that everyone wants to help Tajikistan: our nation and the government. They did help us out one time, because we were unable to come to an agreement ourselves. Why not use this help again now that the government is again refusing to hold a dialogue? The authorities do not want to recognise even the right of its citizens to hold peaceful activities abiding by laws!
But if the authorities are not willing to sit down at a dialogue table, you reckon external forces could influence them into changing their approach to opposition at home?
It is difficult for us to understand the supposed logic behind the Tajik authorities’ actions. But if the government does not want to hold a dialogue, then it is not responsible for what is unfolding in the country. Those who avoid dialogues with their own people, then they are apparently afraid of such dialogues because perhaps they have no arguments [to bring to the negotiations table]. In any developed country, the parliament serves as a platform for discussions. But we are deprived of such a platform at this time. If we appeal to the UN, then I think it could help us resume the dialogue, since the main task before the UN is preventing conflicts. They have a preventive diplomacy programme. We will also engage the OSCE, Iran and Kazakhstan.
Believe me, I am worried about the fate of the nation of Tajikistan more than that of the party. A political party is only an institution humans establish when necessary. And these very citizens can close the party if they wish to do so. No single party is worth more than a human life. The party is not the issue at hand, but humans and values are. Because our party is not about only self-identification, peace and stability, but about humans primarily.
Thank you for your answers.