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Trouble in Tajik Mountain Province E-mail
Badakhshan

Remote region seething with discontent, which some fear could translate into political instability if the underlying causes are left unaddressed.

Institute for War & Peace Reporting
By Lola Olimova in Dushanbe (RCA No. 547, 27-Jun-08)

A standoff between locals in the remote province of Badakhshan and the Tajik government has been resolved for now at least, but it highlights growing levels of social discontent in this underdeveloped part of the country. Analysts say local concerns need to be urgently addressed by central government to prevent them growing into a political confrontation.

Three days of demonstrations began when around 300 people gathered on June 18 in the regional centre Khorog. The numbers swelled as the rally continued over the next two days.

The immediate cause of the protests was the arrival of a contingent of 1,200 troops sent into the region by the government in Dushanbe. Officials said soldiers and armoured personnel carriers had been deployed to beef up the porous border with Afghanistan and curb the trafficking of drugs brought in from that country.

“We need to strengthen the border, which remains effectively out of control,” Defence Minister Sherali Khairulloyev told the Asia-Plus news agency in an interview published on June 20. “The rising crime rate in Badakhshan is forcing the government to take radical measures to stabilise the situation. In the first three months of this year, drug trafficking in the country [Tajikistan as a whole] showed a 40 per cent increase on the same period last year.”

However, speakers at the rally raised concerns that central government had sent in the forces to eliminate powerful local figures and crush public expressions of dissent in Badakhshan.

Alim Sherzamonov, the head of the local branch of Tajikistan’s Social Democratic Party, and a prominent figure at the rally, said people were alarmed at the move.

“The [stated] objective of these troops looks very suspicious,” he said. In a reference to two cases earlier this year where armed units were brought in to eliminate local powerbrokers in other parts of Tajikistan, he said, “After Garm and Kulob, we’re afraid of our own [country’s] armed forces… We don’t have any issue with them, but if they aren’t withdrawn, we’ll block their way without using weapons, as they did in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Let them crush us!”

Other, longer-standing concerns voiced at the meeting included the feeling that the regional administration was ineffective, and that Badakhshan should be granted a greater degree of autonomy.

Despite some tough talk on both sides, the mounting tension in Khorog was dispelled in a deal between the government and influential local figures.

Some of these were former guerrilla commanders with the opposition during the 1992-97 civil war, and still retain a lot of influence locally. The official statements about lawlessness in Badakhshan may have been allusion to their presence, and some suspected the extra military force was really a threat to these individuals and their followers.

Last month, security forces deployed in force in the southern town of Kulob where they besieged and eventually captured a group with paramilitary links – in this case to a pro-government militia – and now alleged to be heavily involved in drug-running. In February, a police unit from Dushanbe tried unsuccessfully to capture a former guerrilla-turned-policeman. A police officer was killed in a firefight between local police and the incomers. (See Cops and Robbers in Tajikistan, RCA No. 546, 06-Jun-08 on the Kulob siege; and Murder Invokes Ghosts of Tajikistan’s Past, RCA No. 533, 20-Feb-08 on the clash in Garm.)

Also in February, a former opposition commander in Badakhshan, Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, was involved in an incident in which Khorog’s police station came under fire. No one was hurt, and Mamadbokirov and his men turned in their weapons after police delivered an ultimatum.

Suspicions that the Badakhshan troop deployment was another attempt to assert central authority by force were only strengthened when Defence Minister Sherali Khayrulloev told the Asia-Plus news agency that one of the organisers of the Khorog rally, Imomnazar Imomnazarov, was a suspected drug trafficker who would be “neutralised” by the military if he and his supporters did not hand over their weapons.

Some of these figures were prominent in the protests, and it is mark of their importance that leading ex-guerrilla commanders were invited to a meeting with a mission from Dushanbe headed by Interior Minister Mahmadnazar Salihov. After two days of negotiations, the commanders agreed to hand over about 300 weapons – 60 were surrendered immediately – in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Under the deal, the extra troops will remain in the region, but an immediate aid package will be made available for 5,000 low income families, consisting of rice, flour, sugar and cooking oil. The authorities also promised to send a consignment of wheelchairs and computers, both in short supply in Badakhshan.

ECONOMIC ROOTS OF DISCONTENT

Badakhshan is enormous, covering 45 per cent of Tajikistan’s territory, but the harsh environment of mountains, ravines and high-altitude plateau means that only 200,000 people live here, occupying only three per cent of the land.

The Pamiris – really a group of related ethnic groups – differ from the Tajiks in language and in their faith, as Ismaili Muslims who follow the Aga Khan, rather than the Sunni Islam practiced in the rest of the country.

Given the climate and lack of usable land, the Pamiris have always been worse-off than the rest of this generally poor nation, and many of them are forced to move to lowland towns or further afield to Russia to earn a living.

Consumer goods have to be transported up the one road from Dushanbe, which is vulnerable to closure by avalanches in winter. Recent years have seen a new door to the east open up with the construction of a road leading to China, and there has been an upsurge in trade with that country.

The past year has been a bad one for Tajikistan, with an exceptionally harsh winter and rising prices of fuel and food prices driven by the situation on world markets.

As Sherzamonov pointed out, the recent rally had in fact been scheduled to take place prior to the military deployment. In April, the Social Democrats wanted to stage a demonstration over issues like corruption among regional officials and a decision to cede some border territories to China, but were refused permission to do so by the authorities.

SEPARATIST TALK NOT SERIOUS

One theme that was carried over to the June rally was the degree of autonomy granted to Badakhshan. Sherzamonov said the local government currently has its hands tied because it cannot make decisions without Dushanbe’s say-so.

Technically an “autonomous region”, a Soviet-era distinction granted in recognition of the separate identity of the Pamiri people, Badakhshan effectively treated like just another province of Tajikistan – and is arguably worse off, because of its tenuous connections with the rest of the country.

“We had demands about Badakhshan’s autonomy, which exists as a concept but not in practice,” said Sherzamonov. “We don’t want to separate from the republic, although that would be one of the ways of developing democracy in the republic as a whole. If we manage to achieve even a modest amount of autonomy for our local authorities, that could serve as an example for other regions.”

Most observers do not think secession is seriously on the agenda.

“At the moment there is no political separatism in Badakhshan,” said political analyst Parviz Mullojanov. “But if the scenario begins to involve the use of force, that might create the grounds for separatist sentiment to emerge.”

Another analyst, Rashid Abdullo, noted that distant echoes were beign held from Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February, given that the Pamiris could claim a separate ethnic and religious identity from the Tajik majority.

“All across the former Soviet Union, the Kosovo effect is making itself felt anywhere there’s an autonomous territory,” he said. “The precedent set by Kosovo has become ingrained in the consciousness in various ways both in central authority and in autonomous areas, and it’s unlikely to dissipate rapidly.”

At a more practical level, analysts say another element in this complex political mix is that many Pamiris dislike the current Badakhshan regional government, partly because provincial governor Qodir Qosim, appointed in late 2006, is viewed as an outsider, a Sunni Tajik.

“One gets the impression that whatever the new regional chief does, his good deeds will only underline that fact the he’s a Tajik from Vanch,” said one political commentator, who did not want to be named.

CIVIL WAR LEGACY LIVES ON IN LOCAL POLITICS

Perhaps the most delicate issue of all is the presence of prominent former paramilitaries who constitute a potential alternative power base – and specifically, what Dushanbe plans to do about them.

“As the problems mount up, particularly social and economic ones, and are not addressed in timely fashion, the capital needs to pay more attention to them from a political point of view. These problems may be politicised by those who see themselves as opponents of the current government,” said Abdullo.

While the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, guerrillas who made up the core of the opposition in the civil war put up a tough and determined fight, their Pamiri allies were less active and instead worked out an unspoken truce with Dushanbe. When the war ended in 1997, opposition leaders were granted a share of power while the rank-and-file combatants went through a disarmament and reintegration process.

In remote mountain areas, the reach of central government remained tenuous and some armed groups simply returned to civilian life without surrendering their weapons.

Mullojanov believes that some of the former “field commanders” are growing restive. In recent years, the Tajik leadership has quietly sacked opposition figures granted official positions under the power-sharing peace deal. And the recent operations in Garm and Kulob make the commanders suspect the government is now hunting them down in their lairs.

In Mullojanov’s view, these suspicions might in fact be accurate – the deployment of forces in Badakhshan could be the precursor to a bigger plan to take out all the remaining ex-opposition guerrillas in the Garm region, stronghold of the IRP. Holding the Pamiris down with a heavy troop presence would stop them coming to the aid of their IRP allies in the event of such an operation.

For Mullojanov, the combination of disgruntled ex-guerrillas and genuine economic distress in rural areas makes for a heady and dangerous mix, and he argues that the authorities should not go lightly into a confrontation.

“That’s the real complexity of the situation – were a military operation to be launched [by the government], the field commanders could easily use the discontent felt by the population to their advantage,” he said.

“A military solution shouldn’t be undertaken without due consideration of the political and social and economic realities that now pertain in this country. A failure to do this might only make the situation worse.”

Lola Olimova is IWPR editor in Tajikistan.

 
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