Perspectives on Geopolitics, History, and Political Economy

Dictatorship and Civil War in Central Asia: Tajikistan

By Alan F. Fogelquist
Eurasia Research Center

August 11, 1998

Dictatorial politics have failed to bring peace and stability to Tajikistan and may lead some day to a major upheaval in Uzbekistan.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin smiles as he shakes hands with Tajik opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri, left, in Moscow's Kremlin, Friday, June 27, 1997. Tajikistan President Imomali Rakhmomov, right, and Nuri signed a landmark peace pact Friday designed to bring a formal end to five years of bitter civil war in the Central Asian nation. Nuri's deputy Khodzhi-Akbar Turandzhonzoda, second from left, and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov, second from right, both smile. (AP Photo/ POOL)

Russian President Boris Yeltsin smiles as he shakes hands with Tajik opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri, left, in Moscow’s Kremlin, Friday, June 27, 1997. Tajikistan President Imomali Rakhmomov, right, and Nuri signed a landmark peace pact Friday designed to bring a formal end to five years of bitter civil war in the Central Asian nation. Nuri’s deputy Khodzhi-Akbar Turandzhonzoda, second from left, and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov, second from right, both smile. (AP Photo/ POOL)

The long and bloody Tajik conflict has ended, for the time being, with a power sharing agreement between the Tajik government led by Emomali Rakhmonov and the United Tajik Opposition, UTO. The power sharing agreement is something that might have been achieved six years ago without war had the Russian and Uzbek governments backed peace efforts and had they not chosen in 1992 to support the Rakhmonov faction of former Communist hard-liners in their effort to suppress their political opponents. The result was several years of bloody war which led to thousands of people being driven from their homes and thousands of dead. The UTO, whose dominant members are Islamic oriented political groups minus the democrats and moderate democratic nationalists, has yet to establish its democratic credentials. So far the UTO has taken a public stance which is in conformity with the peace agreement that calls for mutual tolerance of political groups, power sharing, and free elections to decide the composition of the Tajik government. Only time will tell whether or not the UTO and the Tajik government will faithfully follow the commitments they made when they signed the peace accord last year. This will depend partly on the actions of the groups supporting the Rakhmonov government and the currently unrepresentative Tajik parliament. The pro Rakhmonov Tajik parliament, comprised entirely of former Communist hardliners from Rahkmonov’s faction centered in Kulob plus their allies in the civil war from Khojand, recently  violated the spirit of the peace accord by introducing a draft law outlawing religious parties. This move is so provocative and out of harmony with the spirit and the letter of the peace agreement that it has brought the attention of the United Nations leadership and has been widely criticized.

The suppression of all forms of independent thought, dissent, or peaceful opposition, as it occurred in Iran under the Shah, in Tajikistan after the establishment of the Rakhmonov dictatorship in December 1992, and in today’s Uzbekistan, has stimulated the growth of opposition groups which are conspiratorial and undemocratic. Russia and Uzbekistan in fall and winter of 1992 undermined efforts to bring about reconciliation and a negotiated solution to the political  crisis in Tajikstan and encouraged the Kulob – Khojand groups in their effort to establish a monopoly on power by military force. In the process, some of the most decent and moderate people on the Tajik political scene like Davlat Khudonazarov of the Democratic Party, the former opposition presidential candidate, and many democratically inclined intellectuals and activists were forced into exile or murdered.

It was because the moderate more democratic leadership of the original opposition movement which had placed its hopes on peace, reconciliation, and democracy, was forced out of the country and brutally suppressed that the Islamist part of the opposition emerged dominant. Prior to the capture of Dushanbe by Rakhmonov’s forces, the Islamists had been in the minority and had played a secondary role in political events. The Islamists came to dominate the movement precisely because they were willing to support armed struggle against the regime and able to provide political leadership to such a struggle. The Rakhmomov regime’s campaign of extermination and scorched earth military operations in regions that had supported opposition parties drove thousands of Tajiks into the camp of the armed opposition. Ultimately the battlefield successes of the armed opposition, which had access to weaponry from its places of refuge in Afghanistan, caused the Russian government to reconsider its disastrous policy of full support for Rakhmonov and to pressure the Tajik regime and Uzbekistan to seek a negotiated solution. That same solution, with energetic Russian support, and under much more favorable conditions, might have been achieved in fall of 1992  before the opposition was dominated by the current hard-line leadership and before so much violence and hatred had been generated from years of bloody confrontation.

One may entertain doubts about the democratic credentials and intent of some elements in the UTO, but so far Nuri and Turajonzoda, the movement’s principal leaders, appear to have made a real effort to comply with the terms of the peace agreement. They probably do not control all of the field commanders under their nominal authority, some of whom have engaged in armed confrontation with government forces. The  government also lacks control over all of the military and police elements under its nominal authority.

Behind political slogans and ideology in Tajikistan, there are also struggles over the division of power and resources. For the rank and file followers of Tajikistan’s various political parties and movements loyalty has often been primarily on a regional, ethnic, or client-patron basis. This is usually a part of politics everywhere and also exists in countries that are widely recognized as developed democracies. I do not know whether the current leaders of the UTO will prove as ruthless and cruel as Rakhmonov and his henchmen from the National Front, but I do know that between Rakhmonov or his deceased field commander Sangak Safarov, a former common criminal, and people like film maker Davlat Khudonazarov, poet Bozor Sobir and murdered writer and photographer Mohiedin Alempour, there is a world of difference.  It is precisely because the Tajik Democratic Party and the moderate nationalist party Rostokhiz were destroyed and repressed in December of 1992 and the first months of 1993 that the Tajik opposition movement came to be dominated by its current leaders, whose primary political inspiration is professedly Islamic and revivalist.

There is a big difference between a political situation, such as that which exists in today’s Uzbekistan and in the areas of Tajikistan controlled by Rakhmonov, where any dissenter or critic of the government risks being murdered or harassed and a situation where there is a modicum of mutual tolerance and an opportunity to participate, free of fear, in intellectual or political endeavors that are non-violent. Let us hope for the sake of all Tajiks that the peace agreement can be implemented in letter and spirit and that futile efforts by any side to impose its will through force of arms and the extermination of its opponents are a thing of the past. There are dark forces which will benefit from the failure of the peace accords. These are the drug and arms trafickers and the warlords who may no longer have a place in a peaceful society. Uzbekistan’s Karimov may fear the success of the Tajik peace agreement, because it would set an example for the emergence of pluralism and power sharing as a basis for Central Asian politics. Let’s hope that Rakhmonov abides by his word and that a free press can emerge in Tajikistan.

So far, as manifested in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Sudan, Iran, and Algeria, Islamism or political Islam in practice has given ideological and religious clothing to leaders who have often been cruel, fanatical, and power hungry and who have sometimes committed gross crimes against humanity. Not all leaders or groups and factions claiming Islam as part of their political inspiration are equally ruthless and there may in some places emerge humane and democratic political organizations inspired by Islam just as there are Christian Democratic movements in some western countries. One also has to distinguish between non-political religious revival and religious activism and various forms of political Islam which are being used by ruthless power hungry individuals whose intentions are clearly undemocratic and whose rule is likely to be inhumane.

In Uzbekistan, closing the door to independent criticism of public policy, peaceful political opposition within the framework of the constitution, and peaceful non-political religious activity outside the control of the state, plus corruption and administrative incompetence may provide a fertile breading ground for the eventual emergence of a violent Islamist opposition. Rakhmonov’s effort to stamp out all dissent and political opposition in Tajikistan only led to a bloody civil war which Rakhmonov and the groups and regions supporting him were unable to win. In the long, run a political order based on mutual tolerance, freedom of thought and public political discourse is the only one which will produce a qualitative difference in the people’s life. Also needed are workable programs of economic development that will improve their living standards. Efforts to achieve this through dictatorship and repression have failed.

Alan Fogelquist

(c) Copyright Eurasia Research 1998