On June 18, residents of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) staged protests in Khorog, the oblast’s administrative center. Some 300 people demanded that the government withdraw troops that were dispatched to the oblast a few days ago to capture field commanders from the 1992 to 1997 civil war who are allegedly hiding in the area (CA-News, June 18). Although the protest ended the same day, it is by far the largest gathering of people to put forward their demands to the government since the war’s end. The protest is an apparent sign of growing discontent among the Tajik population with President Emomali Rakhmon’s regime.
Rakhmon won a landslide victory in the 2006 presidential elections as he clearly enjoyed the support of the majority of the population. However, following this year’s protracted cold winter, when the energy sector was on the brink of collapse and the population suffered from a lack of heating, electricity and water, Rakhmon’s support decreased significantly. To make things worse, inflation for food products forced most Tajiks into despair and distrust of the government. During and after the winter crisis small sporadic gatherings against the regime were held across Tajikistan, even in Kulyab, Rakhmon’s birthplace.
Most experts agree that since the end of the civil war, Rakhmon has managed to build a strong central government with reliable security forces and good access to all corners of the country. This showed the president’s ability to consolidate the state after the war and prevent violence by former field commanders. In 2007 Rakhmon announced that the peace-building process had been completed and it was time to begin economic development. Ironically, however, the devastating winter of 2007-2008 revealed that his government was unable to manage the energy sector properly and was not able to foresee, let alone prevent, the crisis.
Anti-government feelings are more frequently felt across Tajikistan. The mysterious disappearance of Rakhmon’s brother-in-law Khasan Sadulloyev last month raised rumors that he had been viciously killed by the president’s brother. It was odd how “most people were curious about the incident and treated it as a joke, without sympathy,” one Western expert commented. The potential removal of Rakhmon might stem from the grassroots, not his political competitors, the expert concluded.
The June 18 protests also indicate that pockets of armed field commanders might still be scattered across Tajikistan. The killing of Colonel Oleg Zakharchenko this February in Gharm by the Ministry of Interior (MoI) troops showed that Rakhmon’s latent opposition could be mobilizing its forces. The killing of Zakharchenko was part of the campaign against a former field commander Mirzohudja Akhmadov. According to the MoI, special forces were dispatched to Khorog to capture illegal field commanders (CA-News, June 18). The MoI troops are the most numerous in Tajikistan, with some 40,000 people, according to local experts’ estimates. Most high-level commanders of Tajik security forces are from Kulyab.
Located in the Pamiri Mountains and occupying over 40% of Tajikistan’s territory, GBAO residents have always had their own peculiar identity that is often in contrast to other oblasts. During the civil war, GBAO announced its independence, which was soon revoked. For a few years after the war’s end, GBAO remained a refuge place for opposition leaders and forces. Most natives of GBAO work at international organizations rather than government institutions.
The protestors in Khorog ended their campaign with an ultimatum, promising to gather again three days later unless the government fulfilled their demands (Asia-Plus, June 18). This time the government refrained from using force against the protestors but is unlikely to tolerate further gatherings of this kind. Rakhmon is now faced with the dilemma of curbing these sporadic protests to prevent larger ones, while returning to his rhetoric of the danger of another civil war and continuing to suppress opposition.
Leaders of the Social Democratic Party, a rather loyal opposition to the president, participated in the Khorog protests, in line with the popular mood there. Most experts predict that should there be another cold winter this year without electricity and water, the Tajik population, regardless of their political or regional identities, will likely revolt against the regime. Any political force that will be ready to consolidate public discontent might gather greater support among the people.
Rakhmon, who is surrounded by loyal public officials and is becoming more distant from society, might not realize the extent of public discontent. Former President Askar Akayev was ousted in March 2005 partly because he was genuinely unaware of his low approval rating among the grassroots population.