TAJIKISTAN, a small former Soviet republic that was torn apart by warring ex-Communists and Islamic forces two years ago, will hold its first presidential elections this weekend. But both human rights activists and international observers say the balloting will be anything but fair.
In most fledgling nations, elections would be a step toward democracy. But in Tajikistan, where ruling former Communists have banned all opposition parties, publications, and broadcasts since seizing power in 1992, the poll will mean nothing, independent observers say.
The government has support from Russia, which has a stake in maintaining the status quo in the only Persian-speaking former Soviet republic. By providing military support to the Tajik authorities, Moscow is trying to prevent radical Iranian-style Islamic ideas from spreading throughout Central Asia.
``The potential for fair elections is limited,'' says a Western diplomat. ``Troops are subtly `advising' residents, and there is no real system of accountability. Basically, the government is running the show.''
Tajikistan, a poverty-stricken Central Asian nation of 5.1 million, became embroiled in a civil war that claimed thousands of lives a year after the republic gained independence in 1991. The losing side - an alliance of pro-Islamic and liberal groups with Iranian support - fled into Afghanistan and has attacked Tajik and Russian targets across the country's lawless southern border ever since.
More than 840,000 Tajiks have fled the country in the past two years, and only 70 percent of the electorate lives in Tajikistan, according to an exiled opposition leader living in Moscow.
Sunday's poll, to be held at the same time as a referendum on a new constitution, pits head of state Emomali Rakhmonov against Abdumalik Abdulladzhanov, the former prime minister and current ambassador to Moscow. Both members of the ex-Communist elite, the two men share a taste for iron-handed rule, a slow transition to a market economy with limited privatization, and closer ties with Moscow.
Opposition leaders are telling their supporters not to vote for either candidate.
``We will not take part in the elections, and we will not recognize the result of the elections,'' said Otakhon Latifi, head of the opposition coordinating center in Moscow. ``They will only further complicate the situation in the republic.''
In September, opposition forces and the Tajik government agreed on a Moscow-brokered truce following months of negotiations there and in Tehran. The truce called for a temporary cease-fire that came into effect Oct. 20, and also mandated that elections, originally scheduled for Sept. 26, would be postponed to Nov. 6 to allow the rebels to return home.
But there has been no widespread return to the country, and the opposition is demanding that the elections be postponed again until the safety of its supporters can be guaranteed.
For that reason, international election observers have largely turned down government invitations to monitor the polls, saying they doubt their fairness and are disillusioned by the opposition boycott.
``A principal indicator of how Western countries feel about the elections, is that the Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe has declined to send observers,'' says another Western diplomat. ``That is a fair indication that the election procedure there is not seen as being fully fair.''
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki has also expressed doubts about the polls. In an October report, the international group urged the Tajik government to take immediate steps to ``ensure that political and civil rights'' are guaranteed in the country.
``Until there is greater freedom of the press, the ban on opposition parties is lifted permitting freedom of association, the Electoral Law is amended, and arrangements are made for voting by as many citizens - including refugees - as possible, conditions in Tajikistan will not be conducive to meaningful, democratic elections,'' the report stated.
But Mr. Abdulladzhanov's deputy says such reports are ``provocations,'' and that his government banned only parties which incited citizens to overthrow the government. ``They had democratic slogans, but their activities were not at all democratic,'' said Sirodijidin Nasretdinov, in an interview at the Tajik Embassy in Moscow.
The New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists, in a report issued last month, reports that 26 journalists have been systematically murdered in Tajikistan since 1992 as part of a ``campaign of terror'' to eliminate press coverage of opposition figures.
``The lawful government has never killed anybody,'' Mr. Nasretdinov said angrily. ``One should look at who is killing whom. Many journalists have died at the hands of the so-called opposition.''
Last week, both sides agreed during UN-mediated peace talks in Islamabad, Pakistan, to extend their cease-fire until Feb. 6. They also agreed to set up a joint commission to supervise the cease-fire in cooperation with United Nations monitors.
But the opposition has promised to abide by the cease-fire only if the polls do not take place. Rebel leaders have vowed to recommence heavy fighting the day before the elections unless they are called off.
Moscow, which sees itself as Tajikistan's traditional protector against perceived Islamic interference, has backed the government forces. It has supplied arms and deployed almost 25,000 of its troops from its 201st Motorized Rifle Division along the border as ``peacekeepers,'' alongside a small number of troops from other nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Last month, the commonwealth decided that the peacekeepers, scheduled to stay until the end of the year, would remain along the Tajik-Afghan border through 1995.