Government Actions Put National Unity in Jeopardy
Crisis in Khorog, Tajikistan
On July 24th the government of Tajikistan sent troops into Khorog, the regional capital of the semi-autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan (formally Mountainous Badakhshan Autonomous Province and referred to here as MBAP, but also known by the acronym GBAO), in the eastern part of the country. The incursion was ordered ostensibly to punish the killers of Major-General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of the regional branch of the State Committee on National Security (formerly the KGB) who was apparently stabbed to death on July 22nd. For two days the government troops battled with the supporters of Tolib Ayombekov, who is accused of being the main perpetrator in Nazarov’s death. He is also being sought for criminal activities including charges of drug trafficking across the porous Tajik-Afghan border in this part of the country. That the story is much more complicated than the version offered by the government is not in doubt, as even the most basic facts are in dispute. For example, Ayombekov has denied having any role in the killing, declaring that what happened to Nazarov was an accident. And the government has not provided any evidence to back its assertions.
Having now declared a ceasefire, the government is in the process of negotiating the handover of those it deems responsible, holding the city of Khorog effectively hostage until these demands are met. In this situation it is the government’s actions that have led to the escalation of the crisis in Khorog. They have opened a Pandora’s Box and the government in Dushanbe must now realize that the exit strategy may be much more difficult than the entry. What is happening now in Khorog exposes the much deeper contradictions of governance and the sense of uncertainty that pervades public life in Tajikistan today.
Framing of the On-going Events
Some media outlets have used a completely erroneous framework with which to view the conflict. Taking a page straight from the government book, they suggest that the troops are fighting Islamists and the remnants of the civil war that plagued the country in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. But others have focused on a more nuanced portrait, suggesting that this is really about is control of the lucrative drug traffic in the region. Before he became the most wanted suspect in Tajikistan, Ayombekov was on government payroll as the commander of a border guard unit responsible for policing the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. People have pointed out that he has been engaged now for a number of years in drug trafficking, as well as other smuggling operations, of which he has only now been accused by the government. However, it is highly unlikely that the officials in Dushanbe were unaware of what was taking place for some time. As the International Crisis Group laid out in 2009 in its report Tajikistan: On the Road to Failure, there has been a strong belief amongst many observers in Central Asia that officials at the highest levels in the government are complicit in the drug trade. The influx of wealth and the display of material goods in this impoverished country attest to this in the minds of Tajiks. Even in Khorog it is not unusual to see expensive cars owned by those with no visible source of livelihood or income, and it is not unusual to hear comments about it either.
As someone who has lived and worked in the region, my primary concern is the voices of the Pamiri people themselves. Their voices give a sense of deep uncertainty, which stems from a long history of geographical, social, and political marginalization. What is happening now is also the legacy of the civil war, in which the Pamiris (the minority ethnic group that inhabits much of the Gorno-Badakhshan region) were on the losing side. In that conflict Pamiris who had resettled in other areas of Tajikistan during the Soviet period were subjected to repeated bouts of ethnic cleansing. Many were made refugees from their homes in southern Tajikistan and forced to migrate to MBAP, which they saw as a safe haven.
While the news media sources have largely moved beyond the narrative of “Islamists” or “former opposition” fighting government forces, many in MBAP realize the complexity of the situation and the lack of easy frames within which to place this event. There are no “Islamists” in Khorog, and many former opposition commanders in MBAP have been co-opted into the regime and have sought to use the resources of the State to further their own aims. During my research in rural areas of Badakhshan, it was clear that even the district officials saw themselves as part of the Tajik state and sought to utilize the State to increase their own prestige and access to resources, and to strengthen and expand their social networks through this association.
Contextualizing the Pamiri Reactions
What has happened in the past few years, according to both those allied to the government of President Rahmon and those in the opposition, is the gradual sidelining of anyone deemed a potential rival, shrinking the political space to the point where very few people find themselves part of the trusted inner circle. The lack of a broad coalition has not necessarily reduced the possibility of dissent, as the information control in and out of the country is nearly not as controlled as it is in Uzbekistan. But it has reduced the possibility of being heard, which makes life very uncertain and subject to the whims of those in power. What happened in Khorog seems to have taken many by surprise–even though there have been indications that the government had planned to deal with the local drug traffickers at some point–because it sets up a direct confrontation between the center and MBAP as a whole, something none of them would have wished. Although reliable figures are unavailable, it is widely reported that gun battles in the city have brought a number of civilian casualties. Furthermore, the total communication blackout imposed on MBAP has effectively made hostages out of the people of Khorog, as well as their friends and family outside the region who are unable to contact them.
One of the leaders of the Pamiri community, Mahmadsho Ilolov, who has been participating in on-going negotiations with the government on behalf of the citizens of Khorog, expressed his frustration in a recent news interview. While he does not wish to support those accused of drug trafficking, he also points out how the government’s actions have greatly complicated the situation. The government has refused to withdraw its troops until it captures its targets, while Ayombekov and his supporters have indicated that they will not surrender until the government leaves Khorog. (Ilolov’s full interview in Tajik can be found here)
Some news reports have emphasized the differences between the Pamiris, the largest ethnic group of the area, and the rest of the country. The Pamiris are an ethnic minority who belong to the Shia Ismaili branch of Islam, while the people in the rest of the country are Sunni Muslims. There are differences of language and traditions within the Pamiris, but on the whole they have come to see themselves as set apart from other Tajiks. To some this fact of difference has the greatest bearing on the crisis unfolding now. A sense of a united Pamiri identity against any outside intrusions has found a footing amongst those whose sense of helplessness grows as the siege of Khorog continues. While it has roots in a long history, the increasing vigor of the Pamiri identity was forged by the traumas of the civil war, in which Pamiris were targeted not just as members of the opposition, but for merely being Pamiri.
There are warnings that this crisis might indeed become much bigger if people in Khorog began to coalesce around the issue of ethnic autonomy and defense of their homeland against aggression (see for example Tajikistan: Badakhshan Clashes Risk Sparking Insurgency, Analysts Fear). However, the one thing that unites most Tajiks is that they never want to return to the period of the civil war and its tragedies. Many have spoken about the steady erosion of the political space and connected the present events with other recent displays of military force intended to deal with “rogue” commanders in other parts of Tajikistan such as the Rasht Valley (see the ICG report for details). This erosion makes it even more difficult to move past the civil war. And for some this act has in fact reopened those old wounds.
President Rahmon has always emphasized a unified Tajik identity, an inclusive vision for the Tajik State in which there is a sense of shared rights and responsibilities. Much of that has seemed like a cheap rhetorical ploy. The attempts by the government to create symbols of national unity, such as the largest flagpole in the world, have rendered such efforts absurd at times. However, I would argue it has been effective to the extent that it has hid well the deep fissures exposed by the civil war. It seems that such a fiction, however flimsy, has once again proved untenable. It has in fact undermined and stands contradictory to President Rahmon’s own attempts at statecraft and his efforts to create a national identity. He has built a narrative of himself as the great force of stability and security, the lynchpin of the Tajik State. But such arbitrary actions by the state against its own people shatter these illusions. The question for the long run is whether the Tajiks can forge a national identity without him.