Obituary: Otakhon Latifi

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The Independent Culture
OTAKHON LATIFI, who was gunned down outside his flat in the centre of the Tajik capital Dushanbe, is the latest victim in the unrest that has troubled this Central Asian country since it gained independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Latifi's career, from young Komsomol official to Pravda journalist to politician to exile to politician again to assassination victim, mirrored the psychological and physical upheavals of many Tajiks as they came to cope with the dramatic political changes that saw the Soviet system dissolve into a bitter five-year civil war.

Although a supporter of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO, an uneasy mixture of Islamists and democrats) against the neo-Communist rulers, Latifi was a moderate who tried to reconcile the two sides. His death will make more difficult the precarious process of national reconciliation, which has had a rocky ride since the peace accord signed by the two sides in Moscow in June 1997.

Since his return to Tajikistan from exile in Iran last year in the wake of the accord, Latifi had chaired the panel for legal issues under the National Reconciliation Commission, a joint government- opposition body which worked to stabilise the republic and to reintegrate the opposition into the mainstream. In the months before his death, unknown attackers beat Latifi twice on the street. Despite these incidents he often went without his government-provided bodyguards.

Latifi was born in the Leninabad region of north-western Tajikistan into the family of a government official. After graduating from the journalism faculty of Leningrad University, he worked in a publishing house before joining Tajikistan's Komsomol newspaper for the Young Communist League. In 1966 he became an official of the Tajik Komsomol Central Committee.

The following year he returned to journalism, becoming a special correspondent in neighbouring Uzbekistan for Komsomolskaya Pravda, the national Komsomol paper. His satisfactory work led to promotion in 1971, when he began reporting from across Soviet Central Asia. In 1973 he became the Tajikistan correspondent for the Soviet daily Pravda, for which he worked for the next 16 years.

With the massive changes unleashed in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev, Latifi turned to politics. In 1989 he became deputy chairman of the Tajik Council of Ministers, with responsibility for science, culture, education and sport. He resigned in 1991 and once again fell back on journalism, becoming Izvestiya's Tajikistan correspondent and later a correspondent for the weekly paper Soyuz.

However, Latifi remained politically active, chairing a pro-business party, the Popular Unity Front. He was a deputy prime minister in Tajikistan's short-lived national reconciliation government, set up in May 1992, which soon fell apart as the country collapsed into warring fiefdoms. Civil war had begun.

Latifi went into exile, living in neighbouring Afghanistan and Iran until 1997, with brief periods in Russia. It was in Moscow that he set up the Co-ordinating Centre for Democratic Forces, a group supported financially by an international journalists' union. In 1993 he chaired the first two rounds of inter-Tajik peace talks held abroad.

He served on the UTO council and became a close aide to the deputy opposition leader Akbar Turajonzoda, the Tajik Muslim leader who turned against the Communists and had to flee with the collapse of the Islamist/democratic government. Turajonzoda was appointed first deputy prime minister in Tajikistan's coalition government earlier this year.

Despite Tajikistan's self-inflicted disaster of civil war and political upheaval, Latifi remained an optimist, believing Tajiks could themselves rebuild the country they had done so much to destroy. In 1991 he had started a private company called Sindbad, designed to bring Western tourists, particularly mountaineers, to Tajikistan to discover its incredible natural beauty. The civil war destroyed that business, but not Otakhon Latifi's faith in his country.

Otakhon Latifi, journalist and politician: born Pendjikent, Tajikistan, Soviet Union 17 March 1936; married (two sons); died Dushanbe 22 September 1998.