An International Crisis Group briefing on Tajikistan is sounding the alarm on the government’s weak control over its eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region, warning that violence could erupt in the strategically sensitive area if central authorities fail to properly negotiate relations with local powerbrokers.
The ICG report also cites Gorno-Badakhshan officials and residents as saying that China has established a military presence in the region and placed a security installation in a remote area near the Afghan border.
Calls for increased autonomy from community leaders in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, or GBAO, a high-altitude region thinly populated by the Pamiri people, who are adherents of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, began to be heard in the early 1990s. During the civil war of the 1990s, militias from GBAO aligned themselves with the eventual defeated party in the conflict, the United Tajik Opposition, or UTO.
Tensions between central authorities and GBAO powerbrokers have simmered since the 1997 peace deal that brought fighting to a close and have on occasion spilled over into outright violence. The most notable episode was in 2012, when government forces clashed with local armed groups said to be linked to smuggling gangs. An end to unrest was in that instance brokered by the Ismaili spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, who is revered among the Pamiri population.
ICG suggests the current uneasy peace could be severely tested by political uncertainty.
“At some point soon, perhaps as early as 2020, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon is expected to hand over power to a younger family member. A rocky transition could lead Gorno-Badakhshan powerbrokers to seek a more influential role in the new dispensation. Their track record suggests they may be willing to use force to achieve their ends,” the group said in its briefing.
GBAO’s location at the remote intersection where China meets Afghanistan lends the region’s fate a geopolitical flavor.
ICG said its has received confirmation that Beijing is maintaining a security presence in the area.
“There are quite a lot of Chinese soldiers here,” said one unnamed official cited by ICG, who added that the troops seek to maintain a low profile.
Another official stated that the Chinese had a “security installation” in Shaimak, an almost entirely deserted location in the very furthest southeastern pocket of GBAO.
“He described the installation as ‘a joint counter-terrorism centre’ housing Tajik forces as well,” ICG noted, citing the same official.
It is unclear if this alleged facility is related to a military base that media outlets have reported is being built by China on the Afghan portion of the Badakhshan region. Chinese Defense Ministry representatives in January formally repudiated those reports, despite assertions to the contrary by multiple Afghan officials.
The ICG identified a group of GBAO powerbrokers it said are known locally as the Authorities as the commanders of the region’s irregular formations.
“These men participated in the civil war on the side of the UTO and, pursuant to the 1997 peace agreement, received senior posts in the police, border guards and security services. They style themselves as defenders of Pamiri traditions and culture and, given the suppression of political opposition, are virtually the only actors who can claim to be protecting Gorno-Badakhshan’s separate regional identity,” the report stated.
The self-anointed informal authorities act independently of the central government and are often seen as more reliable providers than ruling officials in the capital, Dushanbe.
“We are aware they are violent criminals, and we do not like this. But when they protect our region from Dushanbe, they are at that moment performing a service to our people,” one unnamed resident told ICG.
The crunch moment may arrive when Rahmon, who is now 65 years old, either steps down as president to make way for a successor or relinquishes power in some other way. A recently adopted constitutional amendment permits Rahmon to stand for president for an unlimited number of times and the next election is scheduled to take place in 2020. But some analysts have speculated that Rahmon may be priming his son, Rustam Emomali, 30, for the job.
“Should Rahmon stumble when handing over the presidency, politicians from excluded regions could make a violent play for a greater share of central power or at least more local autonomy. If that transpires in GBAO, the regime’s security forces will be stretched thin,” the ICG argued. “For now, little suggests that the government could curb the influence of the Authorities in Gorno-Badakhshan without risking another bout of violence.”