Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 5

Tajikistan: Central Asian Powderkeg

Tajikistan: Inter-Clan Fighting Again Threatens to Split the Republic

By Igor Rotar

More than three years have passed since the open civil war in Tajikistan ended. But there is no peace and tranquillity here yet. The threat of a final breakup of Tajikistan into several semi-feudal dwarf states, with their own regional leaders and armies, remains as real as before.

In January, the head of the Leninabad oblast military registration and enlistment office, Maj. General Mumin Mamadzhanov, together with his armed supporters, attempted to seize the Leninabad oblast executive committee building. The mutiny was suppressed and Mamadzhanov was arrested.

But in late January and early February, uprisings flared in the republic’s southern and southwestern regions. In Tajikistan’s third-largest city, Kurgan-Tyube, the most battle-worthy part of the Tajik army, the 1st Motorized Infantry Brigade, mutinied. The rebels seized police headquarters and the headquarters of the city’s executive committee. The chairman of the executive committee, Salimov, fled to Dushanbe. The uprising was led by former Soviet army major and present Tajik army colonel Makhmud Kudoberdyev, a three-year veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

Simultaneously, an uprising broke out in the Tursun-Zade region, located in the southwestern part of the republic, near the border with Uzbekistan. Here, the uprising was led by the former chairman of the Tursun-Zade oblast executive committee, Ibod Baimatov.

This time, the Tajik authorities have succeeded in preventing a new civil war in the republic, by satisfying virtually all of the rebels’ demands. First Vice Premier Mamadsaid Ubaidulaev has resigned voluntarily. By decree of the president, Khatlon oblast leader Salimov and presidential chief of staff Izotullo Khaeev were removed from their positions. (All of the removed officials originally came from the Tajikistan’s Kulyab area.) A special commission has been created to examine the question of dividing the Khatlon oblast into a Kurgan-Tyube oblast and a Kulyab oblast.

But it can hardly be said that a durable peace has been established in the republic. In all likelihood, the opposing sides have only decided to enjoy a respite. And after a short time, the conflict could break out again with new force.

Clans Instead of Parties

The confrontation in Tajikistan does not fit into the usual political science classification models. In essence, this is a fight between various ethnic groups of Tajiks.

For many years, the northern (Leninabad) Tajiks held power; since the end of the 1930s, the first secretaries of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Tajikistan have come from that area. In May 1992, the opposition, predominantly made up of mountain Tajiks from Karategin and Pamir, tried to take power from the "northerners." The opposition used Islamic and democratic slogans, so the people labeled them "Islamists." The civil war which came on the heels of the mountain Tajik uprising split the republic into two irreconcilable camps: the supporters of the "Islamic-democratic" opposition, predominantly mountain Tajiks and people from Pamir, and their opponents, predominantly from the Leninabad region, Kulyab (in the south of the republic), and local Uzbeks.

After a long and bloody war, which, according to the most modest estimates, has claimed tens of thousands of lives, the "Islamists" fled to Afghanistan. There, the opposition created a Tajik government-in-exile, and organized their own military camps. From the territory of that neighboring state, armed detachments regularly make partisan raids into Tajikistan.

But even in Tajikistan itself, the victors were not able to share power among themselves equitably–people from Kulyab occupied most of the posts in the new government. The dissatisfaction of those "passed over" continued to grow. A new combination unexpectedly appeared in Tajikistan’s odd game of political solitaire: an alliance of Leninabad Tajiks and ethnic Uzbeks against the natives of Kulyab.

We must also note that the alliance of Leninabad Tajiks and ethnic Uzbeks is a rather traditional one. As a result of its economic and geographical situation, the Leninabad oblast is more closely linked with neighboring Uzbekistan than with the rest of Tajikistan, from which it is separated by a mountain barrier. Long years of life with the Uzbeks have even left a stamp on the external appearance of the Leninabad Tajiks; the Mongol trace is much sharper in them than in the southerners. The novelty of the new Leninabad-Uzbek alliance is that this time, it is directed against the victorious Kulyab clan.

Fighters Against "Kulyabization"

People like to tell the following story about the Tursun-Zade region on the border with Uzbekistan: when a newcomer arrives in the district, locals sociably ask him: "How are things going there in Tajikistan?"

Before the civil war, ethnic Uzbeks made up about 60 percent of the region’s population. There is no contemporary statistical information on this, but in the eyes of a visitor, the district looks to be purely Uzbek. The few ethnic Tajiks this correspondent was able to meet here confirmed this. In their opinion, the majority of Tajiks there had moved away to "Tajikistan." Before 1992, Ibod Baimatov, half-Uzbek and half-Tajik, was an ordinary bus driver, and could hardly have imagined a political career on the national level. But his customary, tranquil life was radically changed by the coming of the civil war. The opposition was vehemently hated by the predominantly Uzbek population of the Turzun-Zade region. The strapping, strong-willed bus driver turned out to be a marvelous organizer and was able to put together a well-armed and disciplined detachment for the fight against the hated "Islamists."

Perhaps it was no secret to anyone that the Tursun-Zade fighters received support from neighboring Uzbekistan. At that time, Uzbek leader Islam Karimov was seriously concerned that the "Islamic revolution" would spread to the territory of his republic as well.

It was Ibod Baimatov’s detachments which turned out to be the anti-Islamists’ "crack force." It was the fighters of Tursun-Zade, and not those of Kulyab, who were the first to break into opposition-held Dushanbe. And it is quite natural that Ibod Baimatov counted on receiving a dignified position in the new government. But life turned out differently: Baimatov was offered the modest post of the head of the Tursun-Zade region. The new leader of the Tursun-Zade region began to show his dissatisfaction with his allies almost immediately. He refused to disarm his detachments, and a year and a half ago, he told me that he intended "to go to Dushanbe to set things straight. It’s about time somebody teaches these Kulyab people a lesson!"

But at the same time, the mayor of Tursun-Zade did not neglect to enrich himself personally. One of the largest aluminum plants in the former Soviet Union is located in his region–and Baimatov became its "informal owner." The former bus driver acquired a new Nissan, and transformed himself into a prosperous businessman.

But in the fall of 1994, Russian troops took the plant under their control. Baimatov "unexpectedly" got sick of his office, and went away to Uzbekistan for a year and a half.

When he reappeared in Tursun-Zade in the middle of January, Baimatov immediately showed who was the boss. Although formally he is no longer the region’s leader, all the region’s agencies obey him unconditionally. In my presence, the informal leader of Tursun-Zade gave orders concerning the use of ambulances. Perhaps Ibod’s only failure is that he has not managed to get his aluminum plant back.

This correspondent interviewed Baimatov several hours before the republic’s leadership decided to comply with his demands.

Prism: What made you take up arms?

Baimatov: We didn’t want to fight, but we were sick and tired of this rampant "Kulyabization." Out of 17 ministries, eight, including all of the "force ministries," are run by people from Kulyab. We must create a coalition government, where all ethnic groups and all political forces will be represented–including the opposition. If the government does not comply with our demands, we will move on Dushanbe.

Prism: Did you coordinate your activities with the rebels in Kurgan-Tyube?

Baimatov: No. Each of us acted absolutely independently. Only just now have we begun to try to work together, but so far, we are only talking on the telephone.

Prism: Where did you get so many weapons?

Baimatov: Before I went off to Uzbekistan, I hid them. I knew that sooner or later, something would happen.

Prism: What? Even the tanks? (Baimatov has two tanks and two armored personnel carriers at his disposal.– I.R.)

Baimatov: Do you think it’s hard to hide a tank? (laughs–I.R.)

The capital of the Khatlon oblast, Kurgan-Tyube, is located approximately 100 kilometers from Tursun-Zade. During the civil war, the Vakhsh valley (where Kurgan-Tyube is located) was where most of the pitched battles were fought.

There is a rather simple explanation for this. Massive development of this southern region began in the 1920s. Then people from other parts of the republic (Garm, Kulyab, Leninabad), and also Uzbeks, were resettled here. The region was given the name of the "Kurgan-Tyube oblast." During the civil war, representatives of the various regional groups began to settle scores with each other. After the end of the civil war, the Kurgan-Tyube oblast was merged with the Kulyab oblast to form the Khatlon oblast. The local Uzbeks and Leninabad Tajiks saw this administrative-territorial change as an attempt to consolidate the supremacy of the Kulyab clan in the region. And it is obviously no accident that one of the rebels’ main demands is the division of the Khatlon oblast into a Kurgan-Tyube oblast and a Kulyab oblast.

It is worth noting that the leader of the Kurgan-Tyube rebels, Makhmud Khudoberdyev, explained his motives to this correspondent in the very same words as Baimatov: "We’re sick of this rampant Kulyabization! In our oblast executive committee, everyone–right up to the cleaning ladies–is from Kulyab."

The External Factor

The present conflict in Tajikistan directly affects the interest of at least two other states: Russia and Uzbekistan.

The Tajik Uzbeks are directly involved in the present conflict. There are more than a million of these people in Tajikistan (that is, about 25 percent of the republic’s whole population). At the same time, about a million Tajiks live in neighboring Uzbekistan.

Although in the present situation, Tashkent is not intervening directly in the Tajik conflict (today, this is simply impossible, since the border with Uzbekistan has been sealed by the Tajik army) and has even announced, at the beginning of the recent crisis in February, its support for the Tajik president, there can be no doubt that the Uzbek authorities are not satisfied with the present balance of regional and clan forces in the neighboring republic. In helping the forces resisting the Tajik opposition in the 1992 civil war, the Uzbek president expected to bring the traditionally Tashkent-oriented Leninabad elite back to power. But this was not fated to take place.

The Uzbek president does not conceal his concern over the fact that for three years, the new Tajik authorities have not succeeded in coming to terms with the opposition and that as a result, the situation in the republic remains explosive. Fearing that the "Tajik disease" may spill over into the territory of his own republic, the pragmatic Islam Karimov has even decided on establishing direct contacts with the Tajik opposition.

But Uzbekistan could get drawn into the conflict regardless of the desires of its leadership. We recall that at the beginning of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz conflict in Osh, a crowd of Uzbeks in Uzbekistan tried to break through to Kyrgyzstan to help their co-ethnics there. "The Tajiks and the Uzbeks are the largest peoples of the region. A conflict between them could cause the whole of Central Asia to explode," says one of the influential leaders of the Tajik opposition, well-known film director Davlat Khudonzarov.

Moscow’s interests in the present troubles in Tajikistan are directly opposite to those of Uzbekistan. If the Leninabad political elite comes to power, Moscow would have to share its influence in Tajikistan with Tashkent, and therefore, the Kremlin continues to put its stake on Imomali Rahmonov, an openly pro-Russian politician.

It is probably no coincidence that right after the Tajik uprisings, Russian presidential aide Yuri Baturin, who played the role of mediator in the negotiations with the rebels, defense minister Pavel Grachev, and Federal Intelligence Service director Vyacheslav Trubnikov visited Dushanbe. It is significant that after that, they all visited Tashkent.

It can hardly be doubted that it is these diplomatic efforts of Moscow’s which made it possible to reach a compromise with the rebels, and thus, to ward off a civil war at this stage.

But the military pressure from the Tajik opposition cannot be discounted either. The present uprising in Tajikistan mysteriously coincided with a large scale offensive by opposition military groups in the Trans-Pamir area of Tajikistan, near the town of Tavildara.

The leader of the Tursun-Zade rebels, Ibod Baimatov, told Prism that he supports the Tajik opposition’s proposal, rejected by Dushanbe, to create a coalition government, where representatives of all the republic’s regions and parties would have share power equally. He even declared that he would be ready to form an alliance with the opposition. During the uprising, Colonel Makhmud Khudoberdyev was conducting negotiations by telephone with one of the most influential leaders of the Tajik opposition, Akbar Turajonzoda. It is true that now, after achieving an agreement with the government, Khudoberdyev is already denying the possibility of alliance with the opposition, and has even sent his military units to help the government troops in Tavildara. But it is quite probable that if a new conflict with official Dushanbe arises, a union of the opposition with the rebels could become a reality.

Poverty–The Rebels’ Ally

Tajikistan is now experiencing an economic catastrophe. The average monthly salary in the republic is less than $5, the average monthly pension is around $2. A kilo of meat costs $1, th same price as a month’s worth of gas. A loaf of bread costs 50 cents. It’s a mystery how anyone can live on this money. Cities are virtually unheated, and there are often interruptions in gas and electricity. Such an economic situation serves as an excellent catalyst for new uprisings.

What Lies Ahead?

Obviously, the February rebellion gave the Tajik authorities a good scare. After meeting the demands of the rebels for the resignations of three influential government officials of the Kulyab clan, official Dushanbe continued its personnel reshuffling in the republic’s leadership. Prime Minister Dzhamshed Karimov and chairman of the Leninabad oblast executive committee Abudzhalil Khamidov were forced to resign. But in this case, the personnel reshuffling has not changed the regional balance of force in the republic. Both officials, Leninabad natives, were replaced by people from the same region. But the newly-appointed officials were little-known among the Leninabad political elite, and, consequently, after this reshuffling, the Leninabad clan’s position in the organs of government has not become more solid.

Cosmetic reshuffling in Tajikistan’s leadership is not solving the problem of disproportionate representation of specific regions and ethnic groups in the organs of government. Neither will the present personnel changes lead Tajikistan out of its economic problems. And that means that the probability of new uprisings remains real.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky and Mark Eckert

Igor Rotar is a correspondent for Izvestiya