A Microcosm of Tajikistan's Underlying Security Issues
A Eurasianet partner post from Stratfor
An unauthorized rally in Tajikistan drew 250 to 500 people to the town of Khorugh near the Afghan border June 15, a region that played an important role in Tajikistan’s civil war in the 1990s. Though the protest reportedly was peaceful and the regional leader listened to the protesters’ concerns, demonstrations like this are ￼not common in Tajikistan . There is little concern right now of an immediate return to civil war, but small protests like this — combined with simmering discontent in Tajikistan’s neighborhood — could lead to heightened tensions in the region.
A quarrel between two local groups led to the protest. Khorugh is a town of about 30,000 people in a valley of the Pamir Mountains in eastern Tajikistan’s lightly-populated Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. The town’s mountainous geography splits Khorugh into various neighborhoods within which close-knit social groups form. Three young men, reportedly street thugs, damaged a car belonging to a man from another group. This man, Kayon Rahimkhudoyev, confronted the men and demanded compensation. In the ensuing brawl, one of the accused vandals died. Rahimkhudoyev reported the incident to local authorities but was prosecuted and convicted of murder at his trial, despite his claim of self-defense. The judge and prosecutor were accused of corruption and bribery, and Rahimkhudoyev’s supporters began to protest outside the town’s courthouse. The courthouse was vandalized, as were offices belonging to the judge and prosecutor.
Though the incident was local and the protests reportedly were addressed through dialogue rather than a security crackdown, the protests illuminate a wider underlying issue in Gorno-Badakhshan and Tajikistan in general: the perceived corruption of government and local officials, particularly in law enforcement and the courts. The perception that these officials take bribes and use clan loyalties rather than legal imperatives to make their decisions has led to polarization and skepticism by many Tajik citizens. The sense of mistrust and resentment of the government applies to officials at every level, from local functionaries to the head of the Tajik government, President Emomali Rakhmon.
Despite this widespread sentiment, protests are rare in Tajikistan, as Rakhmon has used the country’s security apparatus to clamp down on social dissent. This makes the Khorugh protest notable. The location of the protest is also noteworthy: Gorno-Badakhshan played an important part in the country’s civil war from 1992 to 1997. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan descended into chaos as competing clans and factions vied to fill the resulting power vacuum. During the civil war, groups from Gorno-Badakhshan (and the Garm region, which includes the troublesome Rasht Valley ) rose up against groups dominated by factions from the Leninabad and Kulyab regions in the country’s west. Eventually Rakhmon, leader of the Kulyab clan, emerged victorious and gained the presidency, but his power was based on a shaky agreement between opposition groups ranging from liberal democrats to Islamists that became components of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO).
Tajikistan has seen an increase in security incidents since a high-profile jailbreak in Dushanbe in August 2010 led to the escape of what the Tajik government refers to as Islamist militants, but are more likely irreconcilable members of the UTO. Many of these escapees fled to the Rasht Valley , an opposition stronghold. The valley has been subject to intense security sweeps from Tajik special operations forces for the past year. Several attacks since this jailbreak, including a suicide bombing in Dushanbe and ambushes against security forces in Rasht , have given rise to concerns that a new civil war could be coming.
However, the Rakhmon government has three distinct advantages that mitigate the chances for civil war. The first is Russia, which has maintained military bases in Tajikistan since the Soviet era. Moscow has increased its military presence in Tajikistan and given Rakhmon’s regime political backing. Russia has shared intelligence and provided financial and logistical support to aid Tajikistan in its security sweeps in the Rasht Valley, which have led to the deaths of many of the prison escapees and even reportedly eliminated Mullah Abdullah , one of Tajikistan’s most-wanted men. Second, the appetite for civil war is not as large as it was in the 1990s. Memories of the destruction and displacement caused by the last civil war are fresh, and many Tajiks would not like to see such events repeated. Finally, given Tajikistan’s poor economy and prospects for finding work — it is the poorest country in the former Soviet Union — many Tajik males leave the country to seek work in Russia or elsewhere in Central Asia. This has left the country without the demographic that would most be involved in a civil war (some estimates indicate that 70 percent of working-age Tajik men are abroad).
This does not mean that Rakhmon has nothing to worry about. Though the security sweeps have limited militant attacks, the Tajik government is clearly concerned about the potential for a renewed uprising in Tajikistan, as shown by the countrywide crackdowns on religious elements . This also comes as security tensions are ripe in neighboring Uzbekistan and especially Kyrgyzstan , which saw a localized conflict turn into mass ethnic riots in Osh and Jalal-Abad near the Tajik border (Tajik militants also allegedly hide in Kyrgyzstan and use it to launch attacks into Tajikistan). Finally, Tajikistan shares a long and porous border with Afghanistan, which likely will become more restive as the United States begins to withdraw from that country . Tajikistan is therefore vulnerable to many factors that could raise tensions to a critical level. A small protest in a remote region of eastern Tajikistan, though not in itself a serious threat to the Rakhmon regime or the stability of the country, serves as a reminder of the many factors that are.