An ongoing crackdown against organized criminal gangs in Tajikistan may have far-reaching political implications. The crackdown is essentially an extension of a bitter struggle for political power. The neutralization of crime bosses would provide a boost to President Imomali Rahmonov, who is currently striving to reassert his authority over Tajikistan's state institutions.
But a month into the anti-crime campaign, the outcome remains uncertain. Tajikistan's crime barons have considerable resources with which to resist government pressure.
Operation "Law and Order" began in Dushanbe on March 18. During the first 10 days of the operation, authorities confiscated heavy weapons, automobiles and arrested dozens of suspects. Interior Ministry officials were quick to hail the operation as a success, saying it had significantly reduced criminal activity.
But a drop in crime rates may not automatically translate into a reduction in the influence of the crime barons. Indeed, resistance to the crackdown has stiffened. It now appears that winning the war against organized crime may be more difficult than originally envisioned.
The past plays a large role in the present struggle. Many of today's reputed crime bosses were prominent commanders during Tajikistan's brief, but bitterly contested civil war in 1992. When the fighting ceased, the victorious Popular Front commanders divided Dushanbe into spheres of influence.
Over time, six pro-government commanders established themselves in Dushanbe as forces to be reckoned with. They are: Gen. Suhrob Kasymov, commander of an elite brigade of Interior Ministry troops, who controls the larger part of Dushanbe; Gen. Gaffor Mirzoyev, who command the Presidential Guard; the brothers Faizali and Bakhtiyor Langariyev, who lead a special rapid development force, and Saidsho Shamolov and Kurbon Cholov, who command special border patrol formations. All of the above-named commanders were born in various districts of Kulob region.
The signing of the General Agreement on Peace in June 1997 formerly ended the civil war and established a framework for the reintegration of society. It also created new underworld rivalries.
Under the peace agreement, former leaders of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) were integrated in official structures. They moved swiftly to stake claims to their own spheres of influence. The armed formations of current Minister of Emergencies Mirzo Ziyoyev, chairman of Committee for Oil and Gas Salamsho Muhabbatov, and head of Tajikcommunservice Mahmadruzi Iskandarov emerged as the most powerful of the new players. By late 1997, a "turf" war had resulted in the opposition winning control of the eastern part of Dushanbe from groups of Suhrob Kasymov. Among the territory lost by Kasymov's group was the Shohmansur market one of largest in Dushanbe.
Rahmonov, whose authority was ebbing, moved to curb the influence of organized crime bosses during the run-up to this February's parliamentary elections. His strategy centered on preventing the election of the crime barons, thereby denying them the immunity from prosecution that elected officials enjoy. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering provoked a violent response from organized criminal groups. The most notorious act was the February 16 car bombing of Dushanbe Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloyev, one of Rahmonov's closest political allies. The blast killed the deputy minister of state security, who was in the car. But the mayor miraculously survived.
The bombing intensified the power struggle, as Ubaidulloyev declared unconditional war against his opponents. Shortly after recovering from the bombing, the mayor authorized the anti-crime drive.
The crime baron now facing the most pressure is Kasymov. In trying to dislodge Kasymov, the government could try to entice him to accept a diplomatic position abroad, effectively offering a comfortable exile. A more likely scenario, however, is an all-out assault. According to some sources, officials have already approached UTO elements and discussed concluding an alliance against Kasymov.
Kasymov and his allies will not be easily ousted. The crime barons have expended large sums to turn their formations into well-organized fighting units. In addition, organized crime groups possess considerable financial resources. For example, Kasymov's gang reputedly controls Oriyonbank one of largest commercial banks of the country.
Most likely resolution of the power struggle will come only after the expenditure of automatic weapon ammunition.
Marat Mamadshoyev is a correspondent for Asia-Plus in Tajikistan