WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 665, December 18, 2011 POLITICAL MANOEUVRING IN KYRGYZSTAN As party seen as troublesome is sidelined by its partners, some see the shift as a way of allocating top posts to president’s party and allies. By Timur Toktonaliev
CENTRAL ASIA 20 YEARS ON CENTRAL ASIANS FRUSTRATED BY BORDER CHECKS Political tensions, trade rules and simple corruption make travel between Central Asian states a complex and unpleasant business. By Almaz Rysaliev, Askar Aktalov, Inga Sikorskaya, Dina Tokbaeva, Timur Toktonaliev, Lola Olimova INTERVIEW NEW KYRGYZ POLITICAL SYSTEM "STABLER THAN NEIGHBOURS" Authoritarian systems increasingly unsustainable, Moscow analyst says. By Timur Toktonaliev CENTRAL ASIA 20 YEARS ON MULTIPLE MARRIAGES IN TAJIKISTAN Polygamy now so commonplace that some say legalising it might be best option. By Haramgul Qodir **** NEW ************************************************************************************ KYRGYZSTAN ELECTION UPDATES 2011: http://iwpr.net/focus/kyrgyz-election-2011 LATEST PROJECT REVIEWS: http://iwpr.net/make-an-impact/project-reviews VACANCIES: http://iwpr.net/what-we-do/vacancies **** IWPR RESOURCES ****************************************************************** CENTRAL ASIA PROGRAMME HOME: http://www.iwpr.net/programme/central-asia CENTRAL ASIA RADIO: http://iwpr.net/programme/central-asia/central-asia-radio NEWS BRIEFING CENTRAL ASIA: http://iwpr.net/programme/news-briefing-central-asia CENTRAL ASIA HUMAN RIGHTS: http://iwpr.net/programme/central-asia-human-rights-reporting-project BECOME A FAN OF IWPR ON FACEBOOK http://facebook.com/InstituteforWarandPeaceReporting https://www.facebook.com/iwprkazakhstan https://www.facebook.com/iwprkg FOLLOW US ON TWITTER http://twitter.com/iwpr http://twitter.com/IWPR_Kazakhstan http://twitter.com/iwprkg **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** DONATE TO IWPR: http://iwpr.net/donate **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** POLITICAL MANOEUVRING IN KYRGYZSTAN As party seen as troublesome is sidelined by its partners, some see the shift as a way of allocating top posts to president’s party and allies. By Timur Toktonaliev With the formation of a new ruling coalition in Kyrgyzstan, President Almazbek Atambaev’s Social Democrats have successfully engineered an overwhelming majority in parliament while excluding their former partner Ata-Jurt, even though that party came first in last year’s election. After protracted negotiations, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, signed a coalition deal with the Ata-Meken, Ar-Namys and Respublika parties on December 16. Shortly afterwards, they agreed that the small Respublika party would get the prime minister’s post. The new governing bloc controls 92 of the 120 seats in parliament. This majority is important because under the 2010 constitution, which reduces the powers of the president, the majority party or coalition gets to form a government. Until two weeks ago, the governing coalition consisted of Ata-Jurt – which came first in the October 2010 parliament polls but did not secure a majority – plus the Social Democrats and the smaller Respublika. After winning the October 31 presidential election Atambaev, previously the prime minister, was inaugurated on December 1. His party walked out of the coalition the following day, citing disagreements on various matters including judicial reform and economic policy. There is little doubt that Atambaev waited till he had secured the presidency to ditch Ata-Jurt and forge an alliance more to his liking. When the coalition broke up, Social Democrat Damira Niazalieva said a new grouping was needed to bring together like-minded members of parliament and make lawmaking more effective. “We would like to see old as well as new partners in the new coalition,” she told the state news agency Kabar on December 2. ATA-JURT SIDELINED ONE YEAR AFTER ELECTORAL SUCCESS Ata-Jurt, which came to the fore only last year, was never a partner the long-established Social Democrats were going to be comfortable with. “That coalition was an enforced one,” Pavel Dyatlenko, a political analyst with the Polis Asia think-tank told IWPR. “It didn’t emerge because the [constituent] factions shared a common view of Kyrgyzstan’s present and future.” The Ata-Jurt party has a pronounced Kyrgyz nationalist streak, and its unexpected electoral success last year followed ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south in June 2010, after which the established parties in the then interim government, including the Social Democrats, were accused of inaction. Ata-Jurt was also seen as a vehicle for former allies of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, ousted following mass unrest in April 2010. To remain in the political game, the Social Democrats had little option but to work with and accommodate Ata-Jurt. “It was a transitional coalition, designed to maintain stability,” Dyatlenko said. He added that the frictions were already in evidence. “There were cases where the Ata-Jurt faction came out against the coalition government, and thus breached the coalition agreement,” he said. Marat Sartpaev, the pseudonym for a blogger who writes for the leading website www.neweurasia.net, said Ata-Jurt’s star seemed to be waning after an initial burst of popular enthusiasm following the June 2010 ethnic violence. “Times have changed and that topic [nationalism] no longer tops the agenda,” Sartpaev said in a December 9 blog posting. Ata-Jurt will be none too pleased at being ejected from government. So far, its statements have been measured. Speaking to journalists on December 16, its leader Kamchybek Tashiev said that the party planned to unify opposition groups to prevent power being concentrated in Atambaev’s hands. Ata-Jurt suffered another setback on December 14 with the resignation of parliamentary speaker Ahmatbek Keldibekov, a politician from the party who was assigned the post as part of the coalition share-out. His resignation came after he was subjected to a parliamentary investigation and a threat from Ata-Meken to call a vote of no confidence in him. Analysts say Keldibekov was seen as building up his own position at the expense of other institutions. “He was replaced because the speaker and parliament were trying to place themselves on the same level as the government and president,” Dyatlenko said. Tashiev was fairly cautious on the loss of the speaker’s post, as he himself has had public differences with Keldibekov. “It isn’t necessary to keep Keldibekov in the job to ensure the legislature is independent. That would be wrong thinking,” Tashiev told IWPR. “It’s just the usual political struggle between someone who held power and others who wanted that power.” NEW GOVERNMENT TAKES SHAPE As it sidelines Ata-Jurt, the Social Democratic Party will have to reward those who have joined it in government. These include the long-established Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys, which stayed outside the last coalition, and the newer Respublika, which was part of it but is no doubt hoping for a bigger share this time round. After announcing the coalition on December 16, the partners agreed that Respublika leader Omurbek Babanov was to be Kyrgyzstan’s new prime minister. The post of speaker went to Asylbek Jeenbekov of the Social Democrats, who was previously deputy speaker. Somewhat surprisingly, a seven-member faction within Ata-Jurt signed a separate agreement with the coalition on December 16. They include well-known politicians like former Bishkek mayor Nuriman Tyuleev and Marat Sultanov, a former speaker and finance minister. But this development had already been predicted by Sheradyl Baktygulov, an expert on state governance, who argued that Ata-Jurt was not a homogenous force, so some members were likely to align themselves with the winning side while others went into opposition. According to Baktygulov, all this merely show how little Kyrgyzstan’s politics have changed – it is individuals, not policy or ideological differences, that count. “The only real thing that can force coalitions to break up are the personal interests of the leaders, the politicians who are in coalition, and those [groups] whose interests are represented by members of parliament,” he said. “It’s all about which of our friends and relatives is to get a government post. The basic thing is to ensure that more of our friends and relatives get them, as opposed to the friends or relatives of others.” Timur Toktonaliev is IWPR editor in Kyrgyzstan CENTRAL ASIA 20 YEARS ON CENTRAL ASIANS FRUSTRATED BY BORDER CHECKS Political tensions, trade rules and simple corruption make travel between Central Asian states a complex and unpleasant business. By Almaz Rysaliev, Askar Aktalov, Inga Sikorskaya, Dina Tokbaeva, Timur Toktonaliev, Lola Olimova Twenty years after the newly-independent states of Central Asia began marking off their borders, residents say they avoid travel to neighbouring countries whenever they can, as the experience is so stressful and unpleasant. IWPR asked people in various countries to describe what the journeys they make involve. Across the region, common themes emerged – massive bureaucracy, obstructive behaviour, extortion and harassment by frontier officials. The atmosphere at crossing-points is tense at the best of times, and whenever two governments fall out, innocent travellers suffer the consequences. Apart from feeding a sense of injustice and powerlessness, the hostile treatment of travellers tends to reinforce negative stereotypes about neighbouring nations. In practical terms, obstructive practices and corruption have had a dampening effect on the movement of people and goods, and thus on economic prosperity in the region. Many traders either buy off customs officers or turn to smuggling. This willingness to turn a blind eye and wave people and goods through unchecked in return for a bribe is also bad for security – the very reason that Central Asian governments give for imposing ever more rigorous controls. Despite the many obstacles, Central Asians continue to put up with the difficult business of crossing borders to engage in trade, to travel in transit to other states, or just to visit relatives on the other side. EXTORTION RACKET AT CUSTOMS Akbar Matislamov from Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan travelled to the Uzbek capital Tashkent at the end of October, after his elder sister fell seriously ill there. He was relieved to be able to cross into Uzbekistan at all, since the country had only recently reopened border crossings with Kyrgyzstan, after a clampdown imposed after ethnic violence in and around Osh and Jalalabad in June 2010. However, he did not have an easy trip. Flying would have cost him 600 US dollars return, so he went overland to the Dustlik checkpoint, not far from Osh. While queuing for passport control, a young man in civilian clothing came up to him and told him he would have to pay 100 soms, about two US dollars, just to go through the check. “I thought he must be some kind of fraudster. But he was right. The Kyrgyz border guard standing by the passport control window wouldn’t let me go up to it. I recalled what the other guy had told me and discreetly slipped him 100 soms. He refused to accept it and looked at the guy without a uniform who was standing nearby, so I approached him and gave him the 100 soms. Then I was allowed into the passport control area,” Matislamov said. “At passport control, I spotted another guy, also not in uniform, who was collecting passports with 100 som notes stuck inside them. He put the money in his pocket and handed the passport to the Kyrgyz border guards, who allowed people through. I gave him 100 soms, too.” Once Matislamov reached Uzbek controls, staff there asked for 5,000 Uzbek soms, about three dollars. “It goes without saying that the money went into their own pockets,” he added. On returning to Osh at the end of his trips, Matislamov found he had been lucky to get into Uzbekistan at all. Friends and relatives said they had been turned back when they tried to visit relatives in the country. “They said the Uzbek [authorities] allowed only 200 or 250 out of 600 or 700 people to cross,” he said. “Neither Uzbek or Kyrgyz border guards would explain the reason for these restrictions.” SMALL-TIME TRADERS HARASSED Shirmanay Sharipova lives in Andijan, on the Uzbek side of the border, and often comes to Kyrgyzstan for the giant wholesale market at Karasuu. She too is grateful that the border is no longer sealed off, but said even when it was, traders were still sneaking across by bribing border officials. The only real difference was that traders had to pay more to cross. Occasionally the central authorities in Tashkent would dispatch a team to check that border officials were enforcing the closure. When that happened, she said, “ the border guards wouldnt allow anyone near the border. Anyone who risked it was shot at, beaten up and had their goods seized”. Further north, Kyrgyzstan also has a border with Kazakstan, and customs controls there have also been tightened up – in this case because of changes to bilateral trade regulations. In July this year, Kazakstan changed the customs rules for trade with Kyrgyzstan, imposing levies on goods weighing more than 50 kilograms. The changes stem from Kazakstan’s accession to a customs union with Russia and Belarus, of which Kyrgyzstan is not a member. Kyrgyz traders who earn a living by shifting cheap Chinese consumer goods into Kazakstan suddenly found trading a whole lot more expensive. At the main crossing-point, called Ak Jol, IWPR editor Timur Toktonaliev watched as Kyrgyz traders tried to get across. “On my way to the bridge [that forms the crossing], I passed a group of around 30 women sitting on their goods. There were several dozen people crowded around the first checkpoint in the middle of the bridge. I saw a woman putting on several dresses [to conceal them],” he said. “I witnessed border guards meting out rough treatment, pushing back women and young people with big backpacks, kicking their bundles and throwing them away.” Toktonaliev saw how people were getting round the customs limits. Traders divide up their goods and pay ordinary travellers to take smaller amounts across for them. Jyrgal, a woman from a village outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, comes to the border especially to fill this new role. She waits for traders to arrive in cars loaded with goods, and then ferries their items across on foot, piece by piece. On this occasion, she paid the relatively small bribe demanded by Kyrgyz border officials and the larger one the Kazaks asked for, and got two packs weighing about ten kilograms each into Kazakstan safely. The trader paid her 1,500 Kazak tenge – 11 dollars – for carrying the consignment, of which she earned seven dollars net, after bribes. “The controls were tightened [again] in September, but the situation hasnt really changed,” she said. “Sometimes you can cross with big packs or cartons weighing several dozen kilograms, or divide them into smaller bundles and go across several times. Whether or not you get through depends on how much of a bribe you offer.” >From their position of strength, Kazak officials are meaner, she said. “You get insulted and sworn at, and they demand bigger bribes of five to 12 dollars. If the ‘porters’ refuse to pay, they don’t get allowed through and their goods get confiscated,” she continued. “A couple of times, I saw conflicts when a group of women whose goods had been seized wouldn’t let the minibus containing their things move off.” POLITICAL TENSIONS TRANSLATE INTO AGGRAVATION The Kazak-Kyrgyz border trouble is a result of trade arrangements, made worse by petty corruption. In other cases, though, the issues are really about politics. The Tajik and Uzbek governments have long had a fraught relationship, with tensions over water, energy and other points of difference. This plays out on the way travellers are treated. Rustam works for a computer company in Tajikistan, but as a Russian passport holder, he does not need a visa to enter Uzbekistan. Tajikistan nationals have a tougher time of it. “I’ve saw how people with Tajik passports have lots of problems crossing the border. There is a buffer zone there.... Those 200 metres take two hours to get through,” he said. Like hundreds of thousands of Tajiks, Iftikhor Sherov spends much of the year working in Russia. The only practicable overland route is through Uzbekistan, and that leg of the train journey is always eventful. “Everywhere else, there are the normal border checks – they verify your ID check and that’s it. As soon as we cross into Uzbekistan, the trouble starts,” he said. “They check everything. I brought a lot of magazines and newspapers [from Moscow] and they confiscated them. Maybe they are just bored and killing time. But crossing the Uzbek border takes a long time.” COMMON-OR-GARDEN EXTORTION Often, officials just exploit all the formal powers at their disposal to give travellers a hard time and extract illicit payments. Aset Narimanov, from Almaty in southeast Kazakstan, described his “nightmare trip” to Uzbekistan. Perhaps unwisely, he ignored the advice of friends that flying, at first sight the costlier option, would work out cheaper than going overland in the end. As with many travellers, he found it easier to get out of his own country than to enter another. Arriving at the crossing 100 kilometres south of the Kazak city of Shymkent, Narimanov found himself in the midst of chaotic scenes. “As soon as I got off the minibus, I was surrounded by crowds of people offering various kinds of services – to exchange my money, sell me fruit, drive me to Tashkent, get me to the front of the passport queue or help me take banned items over the border. But my documents were in order so I refused,” he said. “I passed through the Kazak side relatively quickly, because they let their own people through with virtually no fuss – as long as you don’t give them a reason, that is. [At the Uzbek crossing] the first thing you face is medical controls, where you have to undergo health checks. With no hint of embarrassment, the doctor would openly pass anyone who offered a bribe. “Last was the customs controls. I filled in a customs declaration, putting down the amount of money I had on me while entering Uzbekistan. The customs official opened my wallet and counted the cash. ‘What’s this?’ he asked as he put several coins on the table. ‘By the law, these are smuggled items as you haven’t declared them. You will have to stay here.’” Such tactics are designed to “scare people and force them to pay a bribe”, Narimanov added. “My Uzbek friends later told me that if you annoyed customs officials in Uzbekistan, they might plant drugs on you... They told me that as Kazaks are seen as citizens of a wealthier country, they are subjected to particular rigorous checks so as to find an excuse to squeeze out more money out of them,” he added. Narimanov pointed out that while it was officials in Uzbekistan who mistreated him, he could see the same thing happening to Uzbek nationals entering Kazakstan. “I saw [Kazak] border guards obstructing an Uzbek man, saying he hadn’t obtained registration upon arrival. He protested that he didn’t need to, as he had a migration card. They took him away somewhere.” IWPR’s director for Central Asia, Abakhon Sultanazarov, described his own experience of travelling between Kyrgyzstan and eastern Tajikistan, where the difficult mountain drive is made even harder by the bureaucratic hurdles along the way. “This is the stretch of border that refrigerated vehicles and KAMAZ trucks use to take goods from Bishkek to the Pamirs [eastern Tajikistan]. I’ve seen how the drivers are required to pay bribes. It can be a substantial amount of money, depending on how much their freight weighs and whether the supporting documents are in order,” he said. “Various offices need bribes – the border guards, the customs officials, the environmental unit ... If you don’t pay, you’ll find your ecological certificate is held up for no reason.” NEGATIVE STEREOTYPES Many of those interviewed for this report were able differentiate between their bad experiences on the border and attitudes in neighbouring countries generally, but others are less generous – particularly younger people, who never knew the Soviet period when everyone was living in the same country. “We’re all neighbours living in the same region. But once you cross the border, you feel as though you’re entering enemy territory,” Zebo from Tajikistan said. “Of course, once you’re in the country – for example in Uzbekistan – you feel comfortable enough. You understand that your relatives live here, and you understand the language. People are the same as back home. So why create difficulties? I just don’t understand it.” Karim Khushvakht, also from Tajikistan. admitted that the difficulties he faced travelling in transit through Uzbekistan had coloured his view of the country. “I was never a chauvinist nationalist but to be honest, ever since then, I’ve hated the Uzbeks,” he said. Narimanov enjoyed his stay with friends in Uzbekistan, he had a nice time there enjoying sightseeing. “Although I don’t believe Uzbek border guards and customs officials are chauvinists, their unchecked behaviour and the cheek with which they force ‘rich’ Kazak citizens to pay them big bribes make my blood boil,” he said. Lola Olimova, Almaz Rysaliev, Inga Sikorskaya, Timur Toktonaliev are IWPR editors in Tajikistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan respectively. Askar Aktalov is a reporter for the K-News agency in Bishkek. INTERVIEW NEW KYRGYZ POLITICAL SYSTEM "STABLER THAN NEIGHBOURS" Authoritarian systems increasingly unsustainable, Moscow analyst says. By Timur Toktonaliev Political systems based on monopoly rule by one party and one leader with power concentrated in his hands are proving less and less suited to current realities, a Central Asia expert in Moscow says Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia department at the Institute for Countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, spoke to IWPR on a visit to Bishkek. In the December 4 election to the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the United Russia party of former president and current prime-minister Vladimir Putin performed unexpectedly poorly, getting just under 50 per cent of the vote, compared with its 64 per cent share in the 2007 polls. Although United Russia beat its challengers hands down, the loss of its two-thirds majority means it can no longer push through constitution changes unchallenged. The vote ended in mass demonstrations in Moscow and smaller protests in other cities across the country. Participants complained of widespread ballot-rigging and demanded a rerun. As it stands, the election result is going to force Russia’s leaders to give a greater say to the other parties represented in the Duma, and United Russia may have to seek working coalitions with others. Yet it was precisely this kind of coalition-building that Russian president Dmitry Medvedev warned Kyrgyzstan about last year, when the country held a referendum introducing greater parliamentary democracy and a stronger role for political parties. Medvedev said parliamentary rule in Kyrgyzstan could lead to power being handed to extremist political forces. IWPR asked Grozin whether Russia was now being forced to follow the same path towards pluralism. Andrei Grozin: In form and substance, the next Russian Duma is going to look more like the current parliament of the Kyrgyz Republic than the previous one, in which United Russia took decisions unilaterally – including constitutional amendments – and paid heed to its opponents’ views only very rarely and very reluctantly. Recent statements made by both the current Russian president and the prime minister, who is tipped to become the country’s next president, on the need to forge a broad coalition in the State Duma, suggest this is what is likely to happen. Now that United Russia has a simple but not a constitutional majority, it is clear it will they will have to negotiate with the Communists, create a closer alliance with Just Russia, and try to reach an accommodation with the Liberal Democratic Party. This ongoing search for consensus will probably be as much of a feature of Duma politics as it is in Kyrgyzstan. I say that without passing judgement, without saying it’s a good or a bad thing. Russia will have to emulate a lot of the things that are going on in the Jogorku Kenesh [Kyrgyz parliament], with of course some differences because of the specifics of its own system. United Russia, as the governing party, continues to occupy a dominant position, so it will negotiate with other parties from a position of power. There aren’t dominant parties of that kind in the Jogorku Kenesh. We can see roughly five equal centres of power that have emerged there. IWPR: Are you saying that whether they want to or not, former Soviet republics including Kyrgyzstan’s Central Asia neighbours are going to have to realise that the old ways of ruling are becoming obsolete? Grozin:I think one can conclude that this is the case – not least because the Central Asian states face an increasing number of challenges related to security, economics and many other complex matters. Global geopolitical transformations are affecting all countries. It looks as though the super-presidential mode of government which exists in four of the five Central Asia countries is not as effective as it was previously, during the transition from the Soviet political system to independence. Maybe there were good reasons for building states with strong presidents at that time. But a lot of challenges and problems have emerged since then, and it’s likely there will be even more in future. Vertical hierarchies in which there’s one person at the top taking all the decisions and ruling on all foreign and domestic policy matters are no longer effective. In many ways, the “Arab Spring” is a good example of this. IWPR: What about the future of Kyrgyz-Russia relations under President Almazbek Atambaev, who called Russia a strategic partner during his inauguration ceremony on December 1? Grozin: I don’t think Almazbek Atambaev should be described as pro-Russian, as some observers put it. It seems to me that he’s pretty flexible, and I’ve been watching him over a long period. His remarks about the strategic partnership with Russia being a priority should be noted. But it’s apparent that given Kyrgyzstan’s domestic politics, developments within the elite, the president will defend the national interest, and only after that will he consider the views of partner states. There will be more of an emphasis on Russia’s interests, as it’s obvious the president sees Moscow as Kyrgyzstan’s principal donor and sponsor in various sectors including security. But the interests of other traditional partners will also be considered, above all China and the United States. IWPR: You have said Kyrgyzstan will not be affected by instability. Do you think, then, that Kyrgyzstan has exhausted its potential for conflict? Grozin: In the short term, there probably isn’t going to be any source of conflict. I can’t guarantee 100 per cent that next spring there won’t be a fresh bout of turbulence. It’s commonly believed in Russia that something always happens in Kyrgyzstan in the springtime. I was really talking about something else. Looking at the current situation in Kyrgyzstan, it appears to me that the present pluralist system of decision-making and consensus-seeking that takes various interests into account is more durable and conducive of stability than a vertical hierarchy is. Some people may be troubled by all the backroom deals, hidden power struggles, and distribution of government seats and resources. These things can be seen as negative aspects. But when one analyses it politically, this kind of system is more cohesive in the face of destructive pressures than a system where one person is responsible for everything. In consequence, I believe that Kyrgyzstan has a greater chance of stability than neighbouring states that appear to be stronger, better developed and more powerful than it. Timur Toktonaliev is IWPR editor in Kyrgyzstan. CENTRAL ASIA 20 YEARS ON MULTIPLE MARRIAGES IN TAJIKISTAN Polygamy now so commonplace that some say legalising it might be best option. By Haramgul Qodir The rise of polygamous marriages since Tajikistan became independent two decades ago has left “second wives” with few legal and economic rights. The tradition of polygamy experienced a resurgence after 1991 – before that, the Soviet authorities cracked down hard on what they regarded as an ugly vestige of the past. A survey conducted last year by the Centre for Strategic Studies in Tajikistan indicated that one in ten men had more than one wife. Tajikistan’s secular legislation bans polygamy, so second and third marriages are contracted outside civil law, using only the Muslim wedding rite used as “nikoh” which for many people is far more meaningful. Attempts by the authorities to force clerics to demand a civil wedding certificate before blessing a marriage have so far failed. When marriages – often including monogamous ones – are not registered with the civil authorities, wives enjoy no legal protections or rights to a share of property if they separate. Ruzigul, a 29-year-old Dushanbe resident, has found herself in a difficult situation as the third wife of a man who is gradually distancing himself from her and their children. “These days, he comes only once a week. Sometimes he doesn’t bring any money for months at a time,” she said. “But what can I do?”. Ruzigul has two children with her present husband, and two from an earlier marriage. When she agreed to a religious marriage, she was aware that her husband already had a legal wife, but not that he also had a second one. At the time, she was struggling to make ends meet, and her job as a waitress did not pay enough to pay cover the rent and look after her children. Her first husband, whom she married at 15, went off to Russian as a labour migrant and never came back. She also had a second husband, who left her after a year. Ruzigul is not keen to go through the Islamic divorce rite, as she would find it hard to remarry, and at least this way she still has the social status of a married woman. One of the main factors behind the rise in polygamous marriages is the consistent gender imbalance that has been a feature of Tajikistan since independence in 1991. First there was the 1992-97 civil war in which many men were killed or displaced. Then came the mass exodus of labour to Russia and other countries in search of work. While many husbands send money home to support their households, others settle down and marry again. For women like Ruzigul, entering into a polygamous marriage can be an economic necessity. “It is understandable that despite the shortage of men, women still want to get married and have children. That is why they agree to become second or third wives,” sociology expert Rustam Samiev said. Karomat, 24, believes she made the right decision when she became second wife to a government official with a well-paid job. She says his family knows about the arrangement. “I did work, but my small salary wasn’t enough to live on,” she said. “Now he’s bought me a flat. I don’t work but I live well.” Oinikhol Bobonazarova, head of the Perspektiva Plus NGO, said polygamy was now widely accepted, given the country’s Islamic inheritance and the lack of any effective legal sanctions. “In the Soviet Union, people were afraid and kept it secret. Now almost every government official has two or three wives,” she said. “Even fathers agree to them [daughters] becoming second or third wives.” A government official who has two wives himself told IWPR that since the people in charge were Muslim like the bulk of Tajikistan’s population, they saw nothing really wrong with the practice. According to Bobonazarova, families’ expectations of their daughters are commonly low. “Traditionally, every family here will have two or three girls. They don’t study, and they aren’t brought up to fend for themselves. The only thing they are taught is to how to become a housewife,” she said. Social affairs commentator Bobojon Qayumzod points out that while Islam allows a man to marry up to four wives, it also requires him to treat them and provide for them in an even-handed manner. “That isn’t what happens here,” he added. Bobonazarova said that when couples bound only by Islamic marriage separated, “the women and children have no economic protection”. Husbands are required to provide for their children in the event of a separation, but this is harder to enforce when there is no wedding certificate. First wives often have little choice but to accept their husbands’ decision to marry again. Shahlo, 41, said her husband took a second wife despite her objections. “No first wife … will agree to her husband having several wives,” she said, adding that she was jealous but realised there was nothing she could do about it. “If he can find a good, pure woman, then let him marry her,” she said. “But I don’t think she will be able to compete with me.” The fact that polygamy is now so commonplace has led even some advocates of women’s rights to suggest that legalising it might be the answer. At least that would provide wives with legal protections, and impose rules on their husbands. Bobonazarova said that the financial obligations stemming from legalised polygamy in Iran meant that there were “very few cases” of it in that country. Haramgul Qodir is a freelance journalist in Tajikistan. **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a unique insiders' perspective on the region. Using our network of local journalists, the service publishes news and analysis from across Central Asia on a weekly basis. The service forms part of IWPR's Central Asia Project based in Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent and London, which supports media development and encourages better local and international understanding of the region. IWPR's Reporting Central Asia is supported by the UK Community Fund. The service is published online in English and Russian. The opinions expressed in Reporting Central Asia are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the publication or of IWPR. REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA: Editor-in-Chief: Anthony Borden; Senior Editor and Acting Managing Editor: John MacLeod; Central Asia Programme Director: Abakhon Sultonnazarov; Central Asia Editor: Saule Mukhametrakhimova. 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