Tajikistan regions still at war
By Shavkat Kasymov
Fifteen years have passed since a peace agreement which ended a five-year long civil war in Tajikistan. Fought between regional groups and the national government of president Rahmon Nabiyev, the conflict killed between 50,000 and 100,000 and displaced more than a million.
Presidential elections scheduled for the fall offer an opportunity to reflect on the disastrous civil conflict and the need for a more inclusive political system, as well as for more balanced economic and social policies for all ethnic groups.
Understanding Tajikistan's regional groups is crucial to understanding the country's continuing internal tensions. Recent instances of violence shed light on the ongoing animosity between regional identities in Tajikistan and their struggle to increase their stakes in state institutions, maximize social influence and
improve access to scarce economic and social opportunities.
For instance, last summer, government troops launched a special operation against an armed group led by Tolib Ayembekov in a mountainous part of Gorno-Badakhshan - locally known as Pamir - the region that launched the uprising in 1992 that led to the five-year civil war.
Militants from Ayembekov's group were suspects in the murder of Major General Abdullah Nazarov, head of the regional security services committee, who was dragged out of his car and stabbed on July 21. Nazarov was a Kulyabi, the main tribal-ethnic foe of the Pamiri and Gharmi people during the civil conflict in 1992-97 and the ruling elite in government.
In an effort to somehow contain the regionalism and separatist impulses that are prevalent in Pamir, Tajik authorities have placed native Kulyabi officials in top regional security posts. Pamir natives saw last year's assault by the special security forces as act of revenge for Ayembekov's death.
The outbreak of violence in the region was merely the latest link in a chain of events that underline the fragility of the status quo in Tajikistan.
Another example that highlights the regional-tribal divide was an incursion in 1998 by Tajik dissident Makhmud Khudoyberdiev and an army of 800 men from Uzbekistan. Local residents helped Khuydoberdiev's supporters leave the area when they started a fierce firefight with the presidential guard.
Widespread sympathy for supporters of the rebel colonel came to the fore after presidential guard soldiers robbed the local population under the guise of fighting the invading gunmen. During three days of the clashes between the presidential guard and rebel forces, almost all shops in the city were looted, forcing local residents to take up improvised arms to protect their own homes. Dozens of local residents joined the group led by Khudoyberdiev before the uprising was crushed.
Faced with a growing population, and limited resources and jobs, the leadership in Tajikistan needs to either loosen its grip on power or embrace a more flexible regional strategy based on teamwork.
Though difficult to accomplish, an inclusive approach is more likely to lead to long-term stability. However, the leadership tends to prefer rallying around the interests of the Kulyabi. This risks antagonizing rival regions further even to the point of sparking another civil war.
All coercion, no compromise
The primary explanation for an absence of major violence since 1997 is that the Kulyabi political elite has been able to circumvent any significant challenges to its hegemony by other regional groups, whether Pamiris, Gharmis, Qurghon-Teppaginis or Khujandis.
The 2012 events in Pamir province clearly illustrate the reluctance of President Emomali Rahmon to look for a compromise or listen to the demands of other groups despite their abject poverty and the institutional exclusion that has prevented a full-fledged process of national reconciliation.
The regime has pursued a strategy of authoritarian rule, and dictating a vision of security and national identity based on political coercion and surveillance - to the detriment of the commitments made in the peace agreement 15 years ago.
As the present-day system of political and social relations is based largely on the dominance of one regional group over all the others, it resembles the situation during the Soviet era, when the Khujandi bureaucracy usurped the higher echelons of power for decades and neglected the needs of other regional leaders.
However, the Khujandis were able to stay at the helm of the Tajik state for nearly half a century during the Soviet era because of the political and material support they received from Moscow.
During the early 1990s, conflict between the pro-communist government and opposition groups was sparked by the Perestroika reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, which introduced fundamental changes in the process of power struggle by enabling candidates from other regions to compete for leadership positions while representing opposition movements.
The Kulyabis and Khujandis on one side and Gharmis and Pamiris on the other were involved in the conflict that erupted as the Khujandis’ monopoly on power became increasingly contested by the opposition and their leaders, the natives of Pamir and Gharm.
It is thus appropriate to view civil conflict in Tajikistan, or elsewhere, as a direct consequence of undemocratic governance and political coercion.
The future of Tajikistan will depend not on how well the leadership suppresses the impulses of regionalism or the aspirations of rival political actors, but rather on whether a consensus will be found that meets the needs of all regional identities in Tajikistan.
In light of the upcoming presidential elections, it is important that democratic institutions are strengthened and more attention is paid to a more equitable distribution of economic and administrative resources among regional groups.
Shavkat Kasymov is an independent researcher and analyst based in Moscow.