Today’s Ethno-Regional Clans in Tajikistan Are Products of Soviet Nationality Policy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 136

Tajik SSR, 1967 (Source:

Tajikistan’s ethno-regional clans have played a key role in the political life of this Central Asian republic since 1991. These clans have their roots not so much in ancient and archaic forms of social organization but in the way in which Moscow’s nationality policies intentionally and unintentionally promoted such divisions. In particular, the former Soviet central government created institutions that intensified or even created divisions that had been little in evidence earlier, according to Rakhimbek Bobokhonov, a specialist on Tajikistan at the Center for Civilizational and Regional Research of the Institute of Africa of the Russian Academy of Sciences (, July 14).

The fine points of Bobokhonov’s heavily footnoted and extremely detailed 4,500-word article add immensely to what is known about politics in Tajikistan in Soviet times. In his piece, Bobokhonov shows that the ethno-regional clans, which have fought for power in Tajikistan since 1991, and whose divisions are being exploited by the Taliban and others, were created during the Soviet period. At that time, he says, Soviet officials understood only imperfectly the consequences that their decisions about borders, language policies, and the training and development of elites would have on Tajiks and—as Bobokhonov adds in passing—for the other peoples of Central Asia as well.

According to the Tajik historian, the formation of Soviet republics in Central Asia in the 1920s and 1930s was not driven by an accurate understanding of the objective conditions on the ground, including the way in which people speaking more than one language identified or their economic links with one another. Rather, Soviet decision were guided by “subjective” factors, such as the Bolshevik effort to impose control over the region, freeze out pan-Turkist and pan-Islamic groups, and export the Communist revolution “to the former colonies of the Russian Empire.”

In fact, he says, the Bolsheviks, in most cases, did not take into consideration “the main ethno-political, ethno-cultural and ethno-geographic factors, despite the fact that the region was quite well studied by Russian scholars following the occupation of Central Asia in the 1860s. One result of this, Bobokhonov says, is that “the historical centers of Tajik culture for a millennium—Samarkand and Bukhara—and the hundreds of thousands of Tajiks living there, which could have become the nucleus for an all-Tajik integration, became part of Uzbekistan.”

The small Khodzhent oblast (area of modern-day northwest Tajikistan, in the Ferghana Valley) left within the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), Bobokhonov argues, could not, despite Soviet intentions, play an integrative role. Throughout the Soviet period, he writes, the region “was not able to integrate around itself the remaining three groups of the Tajik people”—the Kulyab Tajiks in Kulyab oblast (southwestern part of modern-day Tajikistan), the Harm Tajiks in Karategin valley (also called Rasht Valley, located in the west-central Tajikistan), and the Pamir Tajiks in Gorno-Badakhshan oblast (eastern half of the country). These groups were separated physically by the limited interconnections of existing road networks, isolated economic activities, and especially by the varying availability of educational institutions and economic and criminal possibilities. And because of these differences, they were treated differently by both Moscow and Dushanbe: Some areas were subsidized more heavily than others, and some were subjected to greater forced migration. All Tajiks knew about these differences, and many resented them, Bobokhonov asserts.

The Khodzhent Tajiks had the advantage of educational institutions and support from Moscow, which allowed them to have nominal power throughout the republic. But the Kulyab Tajiks, because of the amount of crime there, took over the police; while the Pamir Tajiks were dominated by Muslim intellectuals, even in Soviet times. “This divided quality, the precursors of which were laid by the Bolsheviks during the course of national-territorial delimitation, became the chief cause of the appearance of ethno-regional clans in Tajikistan,” and not some disintegrative processes caused by the end of the Soviet system.

Nevertheless, the Khodzhent Tajiks never became as successful as either they or Moscow hoped they would. According to Bobokhonov, this was due to the fact that for most of Soviet times, the main Tajik educational institutions were not located in the Tajik SSR but in the Uzbek SSR. The Kulyab clan, on the other hand, ensured that its people went to these Uzbek SSR institutions and then dispatched graduates to other parts of the Tajik SSR as a way of spreading their own power and promoting a Kulyab-centric kind of nation building. But the failure of the system to take into account the interests and aspirations of the other groups meant that they chose alternative ways to build power. They did so, especially in the last 30 years of Soviet power, and thus were ready to compete with the Khodzhent ethno-territorial clan when state independence came.

Today, the Kulyab ethno-regional clan, which came to power as a result of the civil war in the 1990s, continues to dominate Tajikistani politics. And this clan’s victory, Bobokhonov suggests, reflected both the desire among all other groups to push aside the Khodzhent Tajiks and ensure a more balanced and thus integrated Tajikistan. The Kulyab Tajiks are “building a power vertical,” which up to this point appears to be far more successful than the one the Khodzhent clan created during the Soviet period. But many of the factors—economic, political, intellectual and infrastructural—that had energized all four clans during Soviet times, remain in place. And consequently, the struggle for a single Tajik nation continues.