Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 23

By Igor Rotar

On November 4 a rebellion broke out in Northern Tajikistan, with the rebels, led by Colonel Mahmud Khudoiberdiev, taking control of almost the entire Leninabad Oblast. Khudoiberdiev demanded from Dushanbe that no less than 40 percent of jobs throughout the country’s power structure should be given to natives of Northern Tajikistan. Within a few days, however, the Tajik authorities had managed to put down the rebellion, and the rebel leader went into hiding. According to provisional data from the International Red Cross, there were more than 2,000 casualties and some forty families left homeless as a result of the uprising. About 500 people with injuries of various degrees of seriousness are in the hospitals of Khodzhent, the Leninabad Oblast “capital.” November 10 has been declared a day of national mourning in Tajikistan to commemorate those citizens who died as a consequence of the fighting.

A member of the Central Committee of the Tajik Communist Party and a former lieutenant-major in the Soviet Army, Mahmud Khudoiberdiev is a legendary figure in Tajikistan. This is his third antigovernment exploit. He first came to prominence in September 1992, when he stole four tanks from the headquarters of the 201st Russian armored division stationed in Tajikistan and entered the civil war on the side of the present government. Following the war he became commander of a rapid reaction brigade of the Tajik armed forces, stationed in Kurgon-Tepe. In February 1996 Khudoiberdiev demanded the resignation of several top government officials, and, to lend weight to his argument, maneuvered his brigade towards Dushanbe. Tajikistan’s leaders–deciding not to tempt the hot-tempered communist–met all his demands. In January and August of 1997, however, Khudoiberdiev organized fresh military uprisings in the western regions of Tajikistan, mainly populated by Uzbeks. After the August uprising, Khudoiberdiev went into hiding in Uzbekistan.


Dushanbe believes that responsibility for planning the uprising lies not only with Colonel Khudoiberdiev, but also with Tajikistan’s former Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullajonov, his brother Abdugani, former Mayor Khudzhand Khudzhand and former Transport Minister Nazrullo Dustov, all of whom live in Tashkent. They all originally hail from Leninabad Oblast, which is the largest region of the republic both in terms of population (around 40 percent) and in economic potential. The northern Tajiks–from Leninabad–held power continuously for many years, and from the end of the 1930s the first secretaries of the Tajik Communist Party were from Leninabad Oblast. In May 1992 the opposition–consisting mainly of Tajiks from the mountain regions of Karategin and Pamir–tried to wrest power from the “northerners” by force. The civil war which erupted immediately after the mountain Tajiks’ uprising split the republic into two irreconcilable camps–Leninabad and Kulyab (a region in the south of Tajikistan)–leaving the oppositionists confronting a divided force.

Nonetheless, after a long and bloody struggle, which by the most conservative estimates claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, the “oppositionists” fled to Afghanistan. In Tajikistan, however, the victors were unable to share power–most of the posts in the new government going to Kulyab Tajiks, which caused resentment in the Leninabad clan. In May 1997 the Tajik government and the opposition signed an agreement which guaranteed the latter 30 percent of the jobs in the power structures.

“As a patriot, I welcome the signing of the agreement between the Tajik government and the opposition, but unfortunately it will not bring peace to the republic,” the former Tajik Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullajonov told Prism at the time. Abdullajonov’s skepticism is based on the fact that the agreement ignores the interests of northern Tajiks: “Until our interests are taken into consideration there will be no peace in Tajikistan. You can be sure that we have the strength to remove the present regime.”

Abdullajonov is one of the most authoritative leaders of the northern Tajiks. There is a firm belief in the republic that he is “the richest man in Central Asia”–something which the Leninabad leader himself, incidentally, makes no attempt to refute. “Is wealth a vice? I am a businessman and I make my money honestly,” the former prime minister said in conversation with Prism. Abdullajonov belongs to the ancient aristocratic Zayd family of descendants of the Prophet Muhammad; after the revolution his grandfather emigrated to Saudi Arabia and held a very influential post under the Saudi king. Unlike other regions of the USSR, in Central Asia the local feudal elite managed to hold on to power after the communist victory. So it is not really of any surprise that Abdullajonov was Tajik minister for bread products in Soviet times.

Abdullajonov’s political skill manifested itself after the Tajik disturbances had begun. Abdullajonov headed the coalition government created under pressure from the opposition in 1992. More interestingly, the prime minister managed to retain his post after the Tajik opposition had been routed and their opponents had taken power in the republic. Abdullajonov’s break with the current rulers in Dushanbe–representatives of the Kulyab clan–came only shortly before 1994, when Abdullajonov decided to run against current Tajik president Imomali Rakhmonov in the presidential elections. The former premier claims that he won, and that Rakhmonov only became president after having falsified the election results. The accuracy of this statement can be disputed, but even the official results showed that Abdullajonov won some 48 percent of votes in the republic and more than 93 percent in his native Leninabad Oblast.

It is difficult to doubt the accuracy of the Tajik authorities’ claim that Khudoiberdiev planned the current rebellion with the help of the former Tajik premier. It simply would have been essential for Khudoiberdiev to rely on Abdullajonov’s authority and connections in Northern Tajikistan–and also on his financial clout. It is no coincidence that one of the rebel leader’s demands was that Dushanbe provide Abdullajonov with air time. It is also significant that Prism’s correspondent was taken to Khudoiberdiev’s guerrilla positions by the ex-premier’s closest associates. However, Abdullajonov did not take the risk of openly supporting Khudoiberdiev. During the uprising, Abdullajonov went out of his way to avoid contact with journalists and made no statements about what was happening in Leninabad Oblast. Khudoiberdiev’s guerrillas complained to Prism that Abdullajonov had not kept his promise to come to their aid. To all appearances, the wily and cautious former presidential candidate decided to bide his time and only support Khudoiberdiev openly if his military operation was clearly successful.


The uprising in Northern Tajikistan came as a complete surprise to the Russian Embassy in Tashkent. One Russian diplomat accredited in Tashkent told Prism during the uprising: “This Khudoiberdiev popped up again like a jack-in-the-box. Who could have guessed that his routed forces would again manage to take control of a large part of Leninabad Oblast? Against this background it is only natural that stories of an Uzbek connection have come up. However, not only did Islam Karimov openly support Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, but, according to Khudoiberdiev, he also agreed to the deployment of Tajik government troops through Uzbek territory to put down the antigovernment rebellion. In any case, Khudoiberdiev’s subsequent military failures cast doubt on the theory that Tashkent is really behind the rebel colonel. Significantly, Khudoiberdiev’s representatives visited the Russian Embassy in Tashkent, where they tried unsuccessfully to get us on their side.”

Versions referring to a Tashkent connection can hardly be described as coincidental. Mahmud Khudoiberdiev is half Uzbek, and Prism’s correspondent–who was in Northern Tajikistan during the military operations–is satisfied that Khudoiberdiev has the unconditional support of the Uzbek community, which makes up one-third of the population of Leninabad Oblast. As mentioned above, Khudoiberdiev insisted that no fewer than 40 percent of posts throughout the power structure should go to representatives of Northern Tajikistan. This is also in Tashkent’s interests: The Uzbek and Leninabad political and economic elites have a long history of close ties. There is a very simple explanation for this: Leninabad Oblast is cut off from the rest of the republic by mountain ridges, making it geographically and economically closer to neighboring Uzbekistan than to the southern and central parts of its own country. Theoretically, it would have been acceptable to Tashkent if Khudoiberdiev had managed to maintain control only of Northern Tajikistan. If this had happened, Uzbekistan would have had a sort of buffer zone, controlled by people friendly towards Tashkent, separating it from its turbulent southern neighbor. It should not be forgotten that Tashkent supported the Afghan general Dostum, an Uzbek by nationality, who created his unrecognized state on the borders of Uzbekistan.

However, neither of these scenarios suit the Kremlin at all. “If this were the case, Uzbekistan’s influence in Central Asia would increase dramatically. We simply cannot allow this,” the Russian Embassy in Tashkent told Prism. Khudoiberdiev, married to a Russian and a confirmed supporter of the revival of the USSR, is genuinely sympathetic towards Russia, but despite this he will not be able to depend on Moscow’s support.

Although Khudoiberdiev’s rebellion has been quashed, its repercussions will fundamentally change the political situation in the whole of Tajikistan. This was the first time since the beginning of the Tajik conflict that there was fighting in Northern Tajikistan. It is likely that at least some of Khudoiberdiev’s supporters will continue to wage a guerrilla war in the arduous mountain regions of Leninabad Oblast. In other words, the situation here will be reminiscent of that in the Karategin mountains (the stronghold of the Tajik opposition) before the oppositionists managed to achieve the formation of a coalition government.

This rebellion has illustrated once again the plain truth that essentially the Tajiks have failed to unite into a single nation, and that the political struggle here is practically indivisible from the regional one. The current coalition government does indeed fail to take into account the interests of the Leninabad clans. However, even if the northern Tajiks’ demands were met and they were given 40 percent of official posts, it would be unlikely to bring peace, because the Karategin and Kulyab clans would then feel hard done by. It appears that a consensus between the contending regional elites is impossible to achieve in principal: Each clan wants its own representatives to run the republic.

Khudoiberdiev’s unsuccessful uprising has placed Tashkent in a rather awkward position. In conversations with Prism, many Leninabad Uzbeks expressed the fear that the defeat of Khudoiberdiev’s brigades may lead to repressive measures against them. Even now, Leninabad Uzbeks are trying to leave for Uzbekistan. However, whereas in 1992 Karimov managed to bar entry to most of the refugees from Tajikistan, it will be more difficult to do so this time, because almost all Leninabad Uzbeks have relatives on the other side of the border. Another dangerous factor for Islam Karimov is that the new “hot spot” in Tajikistan is just 100 kilometers (sixty-two miles) from the Uzbek capital.


Igor Rotar is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.