Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 13

Tajikistan: Nostalgia for a Lost Past


By Igor Rotar

The Most Communist Republic

Perhaps nowhere on the territory of the former USSR do so manypeople sympathize with the Communists as in Tajikistan. Eyes oftenfill with tears when people recall how it used to be, before perestroika.

The Tajik Communist party numbers some 70,000 members and some10,000 young people in the republic are members of the Komsomol.In terms of percentages this is the highest figure in the formerUSSR space.

This nostalgia is quite understandable. In the Soviet era some60 percent of the republican budget came in the form of subsidiesfrom the center. Suddenly, the republic lost this free economicassistance provided by the "parent state." This losswas not the only one suffered by the republic: A civil war brokeout and is still going on. The standard of living has fallen dramatically.The average income of people in Russia (which is very modest byEuropean standards) is regarded as fabulous here. For example,the average wage paid to an industrial worker in Tajikistan issome $8 per month and an employee in the service or "non-production"segment of the economy is paid less than $5 per month. A kilogramof meat costs some $1.5, natural gas costs a person an additional$1 per month and a loaf of bread costs some $0.4. It is a mysteryhow people manage to get along. Central heating is practicallyabsent in the cities while electrical power, natural gas and waterare supplied irregularly.

Before the beginning of the civil war, some 300,000 Slavs livedin Tajikistan. As of today, only 60,000 of them are left, mainlythe elderly. "Those with at least some money left long ago.Those who remained behind are the very poor who are not neededby anyone," according to local Slavs. At present, a one-roomflat in Dushanbe can be sold for some $2,000. If one decides tomove to Russia the lion’s share of this sum will be consumed bythe expense of relocation. The best a Slavic family can counton (arriving in Russia from Tajikistan) is a room in a hostel.

It is therefore not surprising that ethnic Slavs in Tajikistanare not less nostalgic about the time of the Communist rule thannative Tajiks are. Moreover, ethnic Slavs find the changes evenmore painful than do the Tajiks. "Yeltsin has betrayed us,"Tajik Slavs say. "When we were sent to work here there wasa single country. One day we found ourselves foreigners and nowwe must pay 75,000 rubles (which is a colossal sum of money forus) to acquire Russian citizenship. We are alien Russians forRussia."

The majority of ethnic Russians (who have received Russian citizenship)living in Tajikistan backed Gennady Zyuganov in the first roundof the recent presidential election. There are only some 1,000such people and hence their votes had only a negligible effecton the overall result. However, it would be shortsighted to completelydisregard the opinion of the Tajik Slavs — almost all of themhave relatives in Russia, hence the plight of ethnic Russiansin Tajikistan may well have affected votes outside the republic.

The President and the Army

The military, i.e. the Russian peacekeepers, of whom the 201stmechanized infantry division and border guards constitute thecore, account for the majority of Russian voters in Tajikistan.Of all the contenders only Boris Yeltsin showed an interest inthe Russian military in Tajikistan. In May 1996 Yuri Luzhkov visitedTajikistan to campaign on Yeltsin’s behalf. Besides, each servicemanreceived a parcel of products from the president. This producedan effect. The majority of the Russian military in Tajikistanvoted for Boris Yeltsin in the first round of the election. Nevertheless,the Russian military in Tajikistan did demonstrate a variety ofchoices. Thus, in the 201st mechanized infantry division 41.7percent backed Boris Yeltsin, 20.7 percent voted for Gennady Zyuganov,16.6 percent for Vladimir Zhirinovsky and 13.4 percent for AleksandrLebed. Among the border guards the results of the first roundof the election were radically different: Boris Yeltsin (32.8percent), Aleksandr Lebed (19.7 percent) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky(17.1 percent). Here it is necessary to note that citizens ofTajikistan constitute some 80 percent of the Russian border-guardunits in that republic (nearly all privates are Tajiks while officersare mainly Russians). Therefore, the above cited election resultsserve mainly to characterize the moods of the Russian officerswho are assigned to serve in Tajikistan. As far as the 201st mechanizedinfantry division is concerned, the situation is completely different:85 percent of the division are those enlisted on contract, i.e.not conscripts. In fact, this division can be viewed as the productof the first attempt to establish a professional military unitin the Russian army. It must be noted that this first attempthas not been a clear success. The servicemen are paid badly, abit more than 1 million rubles (approximately $200) per monthwhich is not enough to attract a person who is more-or-less welloff to serve in this distant, poor and dangerous country. Therefore,the contingent of the division includes many who are seeking adventures,have failed to find a place for themselves in normal society orwho have a criminal past.

Therefore, it would be naive, to say the least, to speak aboutthe political convictions of such an electorate. People of thissort, yielding to psychological treatment, can easily be madeto vote in a certain "desired" way.

Fighting for Spheres of Influence

In early May units of the Tajik armed opposition led by fieldcommander Mirzo Ziev managed to make the government troops retreat30-40 kilometers to the west of the winter-spring front line andseized a number of large cities and towns, including the districtcenter of Tavil-Dara. The government troops sustained their mostimportant defeat in the last 12 months. At present, the demarcationline passes near the highway connecting republic’s mountainousareas and the plains areas of which Dushanbe is the center.

In fact, the situation in Tajikistan is in many respects reminiscentof that in Chechnya. The population of the mountainous areas ofthe republic mainly supports the opposition and the governmentunits stationed in these areas behave like real occupiers. Interestingly,the federal troops in Chechnya behave much more decently thanthe Tajik government troops do. Tajik government troops are notso much fighting as indulging in the looting and robbery of thelocal population.

"The esprit de corps of the Tajik government army is extremelylow. The opposition units are much more combat ready and disciplined,"chief of staff of the 201st division Viktor Kryukov noted.

"Russia provides political and military support to this regime.If it were not for Moscow’s assistance the government would notlast even for one month," an influential figure in the Tajikopposition and former head of the Tajik Muslims, Akbar Turadzhonzoda,told me by telephone (he called from Tehran). In private (off-the-record)conversations both Russian politicians and representatives ofthe Tajik official administration tend to agree with this thesis.The Tajik-Afghan border (from where Tajik opposition forces usuallyemerge to make their raids) is guarded by Russian forces. It isthe collective peacekeeping force (the core of which is the 201stmechanized infantry division) that delivers artillery strikeson the "Islamists" who cross the border. For example,the latest opposition offensive faltered only because Russianborder guards prevented opposition forces from receiving reinforcements(in manpower and ammunition) from Afghanistan.

The Tajik conflict cannot be explained by traditional politicalscience schemes. In fact, Tajiks have not yet united to form aconsolidated nation. The fighting which is taking place todayis a struggle for power between different ethnic groups of Tajiks.

The present Tajik leadership is composed mainly of those who originatefrom the Kulyab region while the armed opposition enjoys the supportof the mountain Tajiks. Besides, the northern Tajiks (Leninabadregion) and Uzbeks living in Tajikistan show signs of becomingincreasingly disaffected from the authorities. However, this discontenthas not yet reached the point where armed resistance is the result.

Each of the Tajik ethnic groups enjoys the support of certaincountries. Russian diplomats (in private conversations) maintainthat the major sponsors of the Tajik armed opposition are SaudiArabia, Sudan and Iran. The Leninabad region people who have traditionallybeen closely connected (economically, geographically and culturally)with the Uzbeks, enjoy the support of Tashkent and to a certainextent of those Western countries which back Uzbekistan, in thefirst place, the U.S. "Formally, the U.S. embassy in Tajikistanemploys only 4 diplomats, however, if one counts the number oflocals employed by the embassy (many of whom do not limit themselvesto just technical work) it turns out that embassy’s factual staffis some 60 people. Only we have that many people working for us,"Russia’s ambassador to Tajikistan Mechislav Senkevich remarked.The Russian leadership, however, is still putting its stake onthe Kulyab clan.

"We would not deny that the problem of ‘Kulyabization’ actuallyexists. Therefore, we take certain measures to convince the Tajikleadership to do something about the situation. Just look howmany representative Russian delegations have visited Dushanberecently," Mechislav Senkevich told me. In fact, a numberof influential Russians have visited Dushanbe this year: Russianpresidential aide Yuri Baturin, defense minister (now former)Pavel Grachev, Foreign Intelligence Service head Vyacheslav Trubnikov,Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Vice Premier Aleksandr Bolshakov.

However, in all likelihood the aim is just to organize some cosmeticchanges in the Tajik leadership: It is simply unprofitable forRussia to have a different clan brought to power in Tajikistan.In fact, if the "northerners" come to power Moscow willhave to share its influence in Tajikistan with Tashkent and ifthe Tajik opposition gains the upper hand Russia will have toshare her influence in Tajikistan with the Islamic world. Therefore,the Kremlin rulers, seeking to preserve Russia’s dominant positionin Tajikistan, simply have no alternative to supporting EmomaliRakhmonov who is the most pro-Russian politician in the country.

Meanwhile, the foreign adversaries of the Kulyab clan tend increasinglyto demonstrate their discontent with the current situation inTajikistan. Uzbek president Islam Karimov no longer limits himselfto criticizing Dushanbe for its unwillingness to form a coalitiongovernment (adequately representing all the regions) but triesto exert (indirectly) pressure on Russia by refusing to allowtwo of Russia’s trains, which were loaded with military equipment,to pass via the territory of Uzbekistan.

The Islamic countries which support the Tajik Islamic RevivalMovement have also increased their activity recently. Thus, accordingto Russian intelligence, a camp has been established in Pakistanto train 150 pilots for the Tajik opposition.

"During the past four years the situation at certain segmentsof the Tajik-Afghan border has not only not stabilized but haseven gotten worse. For example, the amount of ammunition beingexpended at the segment of the border which is guarded by a Moscowborder guard unit has increased nearly two-fold," 201st divisioncommander Viktor Kryukov told me.


Paradoxical as it may seem, Moscow’s policy towards Tajikistanwould not change even if the Communists came to power in Russia.It would be naive to believe that the Communists would seek toraise the standard of living at the outskirts of the collapsedempire to Russia’s average level. This would require colossalinvestments and so would result in a dramatic decline in the standardof living of the average Russian. The Communists are not so naiveas to deliberately set their own electorate against themselves.

Illusory are the hopes on the part of ethnic Russians living inTajikistan that a change of power in Russia would result in theirlife changing for the better. It is pointless for them to hopethat they would be granted free passage to their "historicalmotherland" and an apartment to live in there. Even if themoney was found the Communists would never decide to spend itlike that. Their aim is to revive the USSR, not to continue thepolicy of dividing people into national units.

Finally, the current attempts of Moscow to hold Tajikistan inits sphere of influence are quite well in line with the goalsof the Communists.

The Communists, like Yeltsin, believe that Tajikistan must remainRussia’s satellite. The current Tajik regime is good for the presentRussian leadership as well as for the Communists because it isfully oriented to the former parent state and is willing to serveMoscow’s geopolitical interests.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky