By David Trilling
Tajikistan’s President Imomali Rahmon has promised he will soon visit Gorno-Badakhshan, the mountainous eastern region where government security forces carried out a secretive military operation this summer. If the trip goes off as planned, Rahmon will confront one the most stubborn political challenges of his tenure, trying to win over regional residents who have long relied on local strongmen more than on Dushanbe.
Officially, the deployment of thousands of heavily armed government troops to the regional capital, Khorog, came in response to the July 21 stabbing death of a local security official, Abdullo Nazarov. Officials asserted the killing was organized by an officer in the Tajik border guards, Tolib Ayombekov. He denied the charges and reportedly fought a government attempt to capture him together with three other influential local leaders, all former commanders during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war, and all suspected of involvement in narcotics trafficking. A battle between the military and local armed groups on July 24 left about 50 combatants and one civilian dead, officials say. At the time, critics assailed what they described as the disproportionate use of force in what should have been a standard police investigation.
In part, this year’s clash has roots in the country’s devastating civil war, which was fought largely along regional lines. During the Soviet era, Gorno-Badakhshan (known by its Russian acronym, GBAO) was an autonomous province receiving subsidies directly from Moscow rather than Dushanbe. Inhabitants of the region, who speak a group of languages distinct from Tajik, are generally known as Pamiris. Most are Ismaili Muslims and maintain strong networks of mutual social support. Towards the end of the war, local commanders accepted peace in exchange for government positions and relative autonomy. In the years following, Rahmon managed to consolidate power elsewhere in the country, but GBAO seemed to remain out of his reach.
Drawing clear distinctions between good and bad guys can be difficult in post-civil-war Tajikistan. Men characterized by the state as criminals sometimes hold government posts, while officials in good standing, such as Nazarov, have been suspected – by local residents, Western diplomats, and researchers – of involvement in illicit activity, especially the drug trade, which is estimated to account for 30 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP.
Ayombekov, the main suspect in the Nazarov killing, has been accused by the government of attacking a police station in 2006 and a prosecutor’s office in 2008; nonetheless, at the time of Nazarov’s death in July, he was serving as deputy head of a border post on the Afghan frontier. He and the other three – Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, Imomnazar Imomnazarov, and Yodgor Mamadaslamov – are also accused of forming illegal militias.
This vast gray area in Tajik politics has led informed observers to wonder what officials in Dushanbe and the putative warlords are fighting over in Gorno-Badakhshan—an end to lawlessness, or access to lucrative smuggling routes?
Meanwhile, ordinary residents in Khorog seem weary of a lack of law and order. One native, whose parents still live in the town of roughly 20,000, called the situation prior to the summer’s violence “out of control,” with rumors of human trafficking, attacks against local officials, and drug-related crime.
Another Khorog native, whose noncombatant relative was wounded in the fighting, also said the situation in GBAO had grown “unstable,” citing the local power brokers’ attempts to fight off what they saw as government interference in their business. “This is not about the government versus the Pamiris,” she said. “If there is a law, it should be for everyone. In the Pamirs, you can see they [the warlords’ groups] are not obeying the laws.”
Like most of the local sources interviewed for this story, the woman agreed to speak only on the strictest terms of anonymity; some fear a renewal of fighting, others worry their families might suffer reprisals from the government or the local strongmen.
Government forces appear to have curbed the influence of local militia groups at present. Dushanbe’s main challenge now is finding a way to alter the dynamics that have enabled strongmen to thrive in the region.
Local warlords, such as Ayombekov and Mamadbokirov, have been empowered by a lack of reliable government services, widespread poverty, and corruption – problems that have fueled locals’ anger at the capital, observers say.
“These leaders often served as informal arbiters and ‘defenders’ of local residents in disputes with the regional administrators, judges, prosecutors, and police officials,” analyst Alexander Sodiqov wrote this month. “Many Pamiris acquiesced with the special extra-legal role played by Ayombekov and other strongmen because they were seen as ‘local’ and ‘more just’ in contrast with the ‘outsider’ and ‘corrupt’ officials.”
“If the government took care of the people, they wouldn’t support these guys,” the woman whose relative was wounded added.
But Pamiris’ position regarding the strongmen is hardly monolithic. Sometimes the four compete for local support with their largesse—paying for a wedding, medical bills, or a local prayer hall. While several residents argued that Mamadbokirov, for example, is dangerous and deeply involved in drugs, another, who lives in his neighborhood, insists he has no drug connections and helps ordinary people. “Sometimes he is rude toward government officials and has even beaten them, but I support him because he beats them only when they are violating basic human rights,” she said.
Officials in Dushanbe claim that over the past six years their attempts to dislodge Gorno-Badakhshan’s big four strongmen have been rebuffed by force. In July 2006, according to a rap sheet distributed by the Foreign Ministry, two of them attacked a police station and disarmed police who were trying to detain them. In 2008, several led an attack on prosecutors who were investigating Ayombekov for tax evasion. That summer, hundreds of Khorog residents protested the deployment of government forces in the region; locals have said the protests were stirred up by the warlords. And in 2011, demonstrators trashed a courthouse, beating up several employees.
What will happen now remains unclear.
In August, a fragile calm seemed to settle over the town. Ayombekov had surrendered and was under house arrest, though he had been spotted moving about town freely. Imomnazarov, a wheelchair-bound diabetic known for his religious charity and recent piety, was living at home. Mamadbokirov – who, witnesses say, has round-the-clock protection from his private army – had been railing against the government, and Mamadaslamov was rumored to have escaped to Afghanistan, though no one seemed to know for sure.
But the quiet was shattered on August 22, when, several hours before sunrise, Imomnazarov died in what his supporters said was a state-orchestrated attack on his home. Government officials denied involvement.
A resident who witnessed the ensuing street demonstrations that day told EurasiaNet.org that Mamadbokirov’s militia came to her neighborhood and threatened residents with reprisals if they did not attend the rally. Several Khorog residents say they suspect Mamadbokirov was either involved in Imomnazarov’s death, or capitalized on it by using two days of protest to force government troops to withdraw from the town.
The lack of reliable information, both in GBAO and in Tajikistan overall, remains a big concern. The continued blocking of independent web sites, ranging from YouTube to the Asia-Plus news agency, raises suspicion that the government is up to something. A month-long cell phone blackout in Gorno-Badakhshan, which fuelled tension in July and August, has been lifted, but Dushanbe still forbids foreigners, including diplomats, from visiting.
Some believe the attempts to enforce silence could backfire.
“Those who fought against the government are like heroes to the local kids. These kids want to become like them,” said a Khorog native who spent August in town, helping the family of a friend who died fighting in the conflict. “It’s easy to brainwash the youth [into joining the armed gangs]. The problem is the kids don’t have enough information.”
David Trilling is EurasiaNet’s Central Asia editor.