Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Tajikistan, a Tangle of Diverse Identities

A democratic-Islamic front lost the 1992 struggle for power, but the opposition vows to continue to fight the `communist government'

BY day, this Central Asian capital is a picture of beauty and calm. Women in traditional colorful gowns walk tree-lined streets, men lounge at bus stops, and snow-capped mountains fill the horizon.

But by dusk the streets are almost empty. Fearful residents huddle behind closed doors as darkness falls, listening to a nightly chorus of automatic rifle shots. With daybreak come reports of assassinations of public figures or of men disappearing from sight. Asked who is responsible for the nightly shootings, residents shrug their shoulders as if to say, it is better not to ask or even to know.

About these ads

War's last embers

This is the twilight state of Tajikistan's civil war. The open war that killed more than 20,000 and drove more than a 10th of Tajikistan's 5.7 million people from their homes is largely over. A certain stability has been achieved, thanks largely to the presence of about 25,000 Russian troops. Armed struggle has been mostly confined to the border, where small groups of opposition guerrillas, now based in Afghanistan, attempt to cross for raids.

But beneath the surface calm enforced by Russian guns, the powerful conflicts that fueled the civil war remain largely unresolved. The inability to come to grips with those problems may doom a fragile effort sponsored by Russia and the United Nations to bring the combatants to the negotiating table.

Tajikistan's civil war is an extraordinarily complex affair, a mixture of ideology, religion, ethnicity, and class that defies easy description. The former Soviet republic was somewhat artificially carved by the Bolshevik authorities in the 1930s out of Soviet Turkestan, separating the Persian-speaking Tajiks from their Turkic neighbors.

Tajiks are divided into four distinct regionally based groups. Under Soviet rule, the residents of Leninabad were the favored group, separated by mountains from the rest of the country and geographically and culturally linked to Uzbekistan's rich Fergana valley. The next most-powerful group was from Kulyab, a southern desert irrigated for growing cotton in the Soviet era.

In the east are the two relative ``have nots'' regions of the Communist era - Garm and Badakhshan. The Garmis are known for the strength of Islamic religious belief, while the mountain dwellers favor the more mystical beliefs of the Ismaili Muslims.

A Tajik saying captures the role of these groups: ``Leninabad rules, Kulyab works, Garm prays, and Badakhshan dances.''

About these ads

Added to this Tajik mix are Uzbeks, who make up a quarter of the country's population, largely concentrated in the western region and in Kurgan-Tyube, a southern cotton-growing area where many Garmis also live.

The collapse of Soviet rule in December 1991 brought these ethnic differences to the surface. The Communist-era rulers, mostly Leninabadis supported by Kulyabis and Uzbeks, were challenged by a coalition of democratic and Islamic political forces, whose supporters mostly hailed from Garm and Badakhshan. From the spring of 1992, when the Communist regime was ousted from power, until the end of the year, when they returned, a bloody civil war was waged across the country.

The Islam factor

The current ruling alliance of Leninabad and Kulyab proclaims it is in a struggle against ``Islamic fundamentalists,'' aided by radicals in Afghanistan.

``Why are we called fundamentalists? I don't know,'' retorts Akbar Turjonzoda, the bearded Islamic religious leader, or Kazi, who heads the Islamic Revival Party. In an interview during the first round of talks last month in Moscow between the Dushanbe regime and its foes, he proclaims their fealty to constructing a secular, democratic government.

Is it not really an ethnic war? ``There is a certain truth to that, but it is not 100 percent true,'' replies the eloquent Kazi, who sits in exile in Pakistan. ``It is impossible to call it a purely regional or religious war. It is a struggle between new thinking and the old Communist mentality.''

The April talks are to lead to more talks, tentatively set for early June in Iran or Pakistan. But there is little else to show for the peacemaking effort.

The Dushanbe government mainly seeks to arrange the return of some 30,000 refugees who remain in Afghanistan and form a base for the opposition forces. While the talks are supposed ultimately to tackle political issues, the government is moving ahead with passage of a new constitution and elections, which would effectively exclude the opposition, all of whose parties and leaders are banned and sought for arrest.

The opposition offers its own plan for political settlement, which includes mutual disarmament of all forces and creation of a neutral caretaker government to conduct new elections. But rebel field commanders vow to carry on a holy war against the ``communist government.''

The more sophisticated leadership represented by the Kazi aims its maneuvers at the Russians, dismissing the regime in Dushanbe as ``puppets.'' The Islamic leader believes the Russians are split between those who favor a political solution and the Army, which sees a military resolution.

Recognizing that the opposition lacks the military strength to win a war, the Kazi softly warns that they could make Moscow pay a high price for unyielding support of the current regime.

Another Afghanistan?

``We don't want Tajikistan to turn into a second Afghanistan,'' he says, referring to Moscow's 10-year-long ignominious war next door. ``We recognize Russia would have a special role in the region. If they want less loss, less blood, if they want to strengthen their presence, its one thing.... If the interests of the military industrial complex, of the Ministry of Defense, have the upper hand, we will have difficulties, but so will the Russians.''

Adding to the complexity of the situation is the role of the government of neighboring Uzbekistan, led by former Communist boss Islam Karimov. The Uzbeks, who with almost 22 million people are by far the largest of the former Soviet Central Asian states, have aspirations of hegemony in the region, Western diplomatic sources say.

``Islam Karimov is playing his own game down there, at times in cooperation with the Russians and at times in competition with them,'' says a Western diplomat in Moscow. Uzbeks played a key role in defeating the opposition, and Uzbekistan is an important source of economic assistance. The Uzbek government has used its influence to force the ouster of Tajik officials it considers ``anti-Uzbek,'' says a diplomat based in Dushanbe.

The Dushanbe regime itself is badly fractured. The Kulyabis, represented at the top by Supreme Soviet Chairman Emomali Rakhmonov, are openly at odds with the Uzbek-backed Leninabadis, led by Premier Abdujalil Samadov. And there are growing ethnic tensions now between Uzbeks and Tajiks.

``As Russia becomes more and more economically and fiscally responsible here, as it has security responsibility, it is inevitable it will be drawn in as a champion of Tajikistan in these Tajik-Uzbek problems,'' the diplomat predicts.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.