Tajikistan: Then and Now
From war and terrorism, to economics and trade, Central Asian states have remained largely absent from discussions in world politics. Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, are somewhat neglected topics of intrigue when exploring such issues. While both media reports and foreign policies have focused on the Middle East and surrounding Asia, little attention is paid to these former Soviet satellites. As a consequence, Central Asia is immersed in mystery and obscurity. I aim here to shed light on Tajikistan specifically. Not only is it both visually beguiling in landscape and culture, it is also a fascinating topic politically and historically. Furthermore, while Tajikistan has received little attention on the world stage, its stabilisation is of central importance to regional and international peace and security. An issue which is under threat on a regular basis.
Tajikistans recent history is enmeshed in hostility. Amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union, faraway Tajikistan declared its independence in September 1991. In opposition to the ruling former Soviet elite, emerging Muslim-Democratic movements sparked increasing political unrest. Following Gorbachev’s initiative of perestroika and glasnost, the rise of both the Democratic Party and the Party of Tajikistan Muslim Resurrection mutated Tajiki opposition from the political towards ethnic and clan-based struggles. Similar to neighbouring Afghanistan, Tajikistan is notoriously demanding to govern, fostering a diversity of ethnicities and communities disjoined by onerous terrain. Tajik clans are divided between the north, south, and eastern Pamiris by the Gissar and Zarafshan mountain ranges. As a result, animosity manifests within society, persisting to this day.
Following the election of 1991, sectarian tensions rose as President Rahman Nabiyev and the Communist Party tightened their hold on Tajikistan. Both the south and eastern Pamiris were incensed with the continuation of a primarily northern-based government deriving from the Leninabadi and Kulobi regions. In response, Nabiyev armed a plethora of pro-government militias to combat growing resistance. Meanwhile, opposition forces turned to rebels in Afghanistan.
Conflict sparked in May 1992 between government forces and loosely organised militias comprising of democratic reformists and Islamists. In a late 1992, after a number of skirmishes, pro-communist forces were obliged to form a coalition government. However, many die-hard opponents were dissatisfied with this compromise. On September 7th 1992, President Nabiyev was captured by rebel forces who vehemently demanded he resign his Presidency. As Nabiyev stepped down, vicious infighting over the future of Tajikistan crippled the opposition.
While factions of the opposition were squabbling over who would govern, the government seized an opportunity. Supported by the Russian military and Uzbekistan, the pro-government Leninbadi-Kulobi Popular Front routed fragmenting rebel militias in late 1992. Regaining authority, the Supreme Soviet elected Kulobi native Emomali Rahmon as President in December 1992.
While rebel forces were shattered and disorganised, pro-Rahmon Kulobi militias rampaged the country, perpetrating horrifying onslaughts between 1992 and 1993. Rebel forces were on their knees, yet pro-government militias executed scorched earth against Parmiri and Garmi ethnic groups. So much so that burning villages and mass killings were common. Thousands were killed or fled to neighbouring Afghanistan. Primarily, violence was concentrated in the Qurghonteppa region, home to many Garmis and the rebel Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRP).
What’s transparent here is that during the latter stages of the war, Islamism was on the rise. Indeed, this surge in Islamic militancy still permeates the political landscape of Tajikistan to this day. Towards the conflicts denouement, rebel forces regrouped in Afghanistan under the support of the Afghan Islamic party, Jamie-i-Islamic, renaming themselves the umbrella of United Tajik Opposition. To highlight fundamentalist arteries running within this organisation, elements of UTO later formed the Islamic Movement of Uzebekistan, an ally of Al-Qaeda. In the years that followed, violence spread from the south to the capital, Dushanbe.
In 1997, the UN, US, Russia, and Kazakhstan among others brought violence to an end by meditating a peace agreement eliminating the Leninabad region from power and holding Presidential elections in 1999. After a number of prisoner exchanges, civil conflict ceased with Rahmon remaining in power.
Tajikistans civil war devastated the country. Casualties numbered as high as 60,000, while its infrastructure and economy were traumatised leaving 1.2 million refugees searching for salvation, both inside and outside the country.
While Tajikistan is no longer shackled to the tragedies of war, threats to its peace and security still cast a dark shadow over the countries future. Discontent towards soviet totalitarianism still persists as President Rahmon remains in power, holding a firm grip over Tajiki governance and its freedom of press. Human Rights Watch label his administration a dictatorship.
Despite Rahmon’s iron grip over Tajiki politics, his administration has doubly crippled the economy. Tajikistan is central Asia’s poorest state - Russian remittances account for almost 40% of GDP, while in 2015, 300,000-400,000 returning migrants face little chance of employment under a collapsing job market. Bleak prospects parallel rampant corruption with Rahmon’s government. Which, in turn, strangles local business. Simultaneously, income now relies heavily on increased drug trafficking. 90% of the worlds heroin is sourced from opium farmed in neighbouring Afghanistan. The mountainous border dividing the two countries serves as the aorta for the worlds drug trade. This, in turn, threatens the countries security.
Rahmons hegemony further endangers Tajikistans security by encouraging Islamic militancy, particularly in recent years. In 2015, the IRP was declared a terrorist organisation, until which it was the only legal Islamist party in Central Asia. However, this has not quelled the rise of Islamic militancy in the country. In that same year, General Gulmurod Khalimov, head of the Special Assignment Police Unit defected from his government position to join ISIS in Syria. This reflects wider schisms within Tajikistans security elite which fuels the growing appeal of Islamic militancy. This, coupled with Tajikstans capricious border with Afghanistan means the threat of Islamic militancy is a very real and present danger.
Alas, Tajikistans prospect of stable governance looks bleak. March 2020 saw the re-election of Rahmon and his corrupt hold over the jewel of Central Asia. Tajikistan is a fascinating melting pot of religion and culture, from Zoroastrianism to Buddhism, from remnants of the Sassanian Empire to the Mongols, Tajikistan is rich in history which seems to have slipped from the world.
By Daniel Mountain