Roots of the Conflict


In order to fully understand the rationale behind Russia's and Uzbekistan's decisions to become involved in the Tajik civil conflict, and their reasons for backing the pro-Communist faction, it is necessary to examine the system of alliances which had been established between the regions represented by the members of Tajikistan's ruling elite. The way in which the Russian and Uzbek governments' links to this ruling elite influenced Tajikistan's growing political and societal fragmentation must also be considered, since it was this fragmentation that acted as the catalyst for the development of the opposition parties in 1990-1991.

Since the 1970s, Tajikistan had been ruled by a coalition of two regional factions. One faction was from Khujand (formerly known as Leninabad, located north of the Turkestan Ridge, near the Uzbek-Tajik border; 31.3% of its population is Uzbek) and the second, somewhat weaker group came from Kulab (southeast of Dushanbe, 12.7% of its population is Uzbek). The Khujandis were strongly affiliated both with Tajikistan's ethnic Uzbek population (23.5% of Tajikistan's total population at the time of the 1989 census), and with the Russian-speaking population (ethnic Russians made up 7.4% of the population, but the total percentage of Russian-speakers was closer to 10% in 1989, including Ukrainians, Tatars, and other groups). The Khujandis dominated the Communist Party leadership and occupied the most important government posts. Their links to the Russian-speaking population helped them develop firm ties to the government in Moscow. They exploited this relationship with the central Soviet government in order to direct federal funds to their home regions in Tajikistan. This increased their own influence among their supporters, but it also aroused a great deal of resentment on the part of those who were excluded from the ranks of the ruling elite. The Kulabis became clients of the Khujandis in the 1970s, and together the two factions formed the coalition that ruled the republic without any real opposition until 1990. The Pamiri Ismaili population also supported this coalition. Many of their representatives, especially those from the Gorno-Badakhshon region, were awarded high-level posts in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and in the KGB.

There was no serious challenge to the Khujand-Kulab faction's grip on power until 1990, when police fired on a peaceful demonstration outside the Communist Party Central Committee Building in Dushanbe. This event gave rise to the formation of organized political opposition groups in Tajikistan, whose leaders were very vocal in their demands for reform. Genuine political pluralism started to emerge in Tajikistan, as the opposition parties staged dozens of peaceful demonstrations in Dushanbe over the next two years, and forced the government to make occasional concessions. The four main opposition groups which began to lobby for changes in Tajikistan's political system were the Rastokhez (Rebirth) movement, the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), and the Lali Badakhshon (Ruby of Badakhshon). Today these groups comprise the backbone of the UTO.

Both Russia and Uzbekistan have justified their intervention in Tajikistan by claiming that these opposition parties presented a clear danger to the stability of the entire region. Furthermore, the Russian and Uzbek press have portrayed the leaders of the Tajik opposition parties as a collection of nationalists, religious fundamentalists, and criminals who had little or no popular support. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the opposition parties' platforms and their support bases, in order to determine whether or not they threatened regional stability and how they were linked to Tajik society.

Rastokhez began as a movement which promoted the revival of the Tajik culture and language during the Soviet period. Its leaders were Tajik intellectuals, and until 1990 it offered the only public forum for criticism of the Communist Party. Both the Tajik government and some scholars in the West have portrayed Rastokhez as a nationalist organization, whose primary raison d'ĂȘtre was to preserve and defend the Tajik identity from the influences of Uzbek/Turkic culture. However, many of the group's supporters publicly refuted this charge, and there is little evidence that this accusation holds true. In fact, the movement's political program advocated civil liberties and peaceful relations between Tajikistan's various nationalities. The leader of Rastokhez, Tohir Abdujabbor, even favored the preservation of a reformed Soviet Union.

The Democratic Party of Tajikistan was established on 10 August 1990 at the Constituent Conference of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan in Dushanbe, which was attended by 108 delegates. Its founders were a group of political reformers whose main objective was to contest the (pro-Communist) Khujand-Kulab faction's stranglehold on power. Many of the Democratic Party's leaders had originally been members of Rastokhez and they incorporated much of this organization's agenda into their own platform, as well as calling for the creation of a market economy and for work within legal political institutions. The Democratic Party's leaders maintained contact with the heads of similar parties throughout the Soviet Union. A few of the party's most prominent personalities were members of Tajikistan's Supreme Soviet , and one of its leaders, Davlat Khudonazarov (Chairman of the USSR Union of Cinematographers) had been elected to the Congress of People's Deputies in 1988. He also became one of the most active members of the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies.

The Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan was initially organized as a branch of the All-Union Islamic Renaissance Party. Officially it came into being in October 1990, when its supporters applied to register as a political party. The Presidium of the Tajik Supreme Soviet denied their application, but the group's leaders decided to hold an organizational conference anyway. Since December 1991, the IRP has been acting independently of the union-wide organization. As of 1992, its membership was estimated at 20,000, including a wide support base among the rural population. Many of its adherents were village mullahs and their congregations who felt oppressed by the Communist regime. Its appeal to both urban and rural populations made the IRP much more of a grass roots organization than either Rastokhez or the Democratic Party. It was able to mobilize not just the educated strata of Tajik society, but the population at large. The IRP which was largely responsible for transporting and accommodating thousands of the protesters who attended the September 1991 demonstrations. It was also due to the IRP leaders' efforts that discipline was maintained among the protesters and the demonstrations remained peaceful.

The IRP has been represented almost exclusively as a Muslim fundamentalist movement by Western and Russian press agencies, and many Western scholars of Central Asia echo this view. It has also been accused of receiving substantial assistance from Iran. The IRP's platform is actually very moderate and does not call for the immediate creation of an Islamic state. Its principal demands are for the establishment of religious freedom and democracy, as well as for the official recognition of Islamic holidays (including the substitution of Friday for Sunday as the weekly day of rest). The platform does mention the eventual transformation of Tajikistan into an Islamic republic based on the canons of the Shari'a, but only in the far future (at least 50 years from now), and only by the free choice of Tajikistan's citizens. Haji Ali Akbar Turajonzoda (the former spiritual head or Qazikalon of Tajikistan and a member of Tajikistan's Supreme Soviet in 1990), one of the IRP's most well-known authorities , has repeatedly emphasized his desire for democracy and pluralism in Tajikistan.

Moreover, there has been little or no evidence of Iranian support for the IRP. In fact, it would have been very much against Iran's interests to back the IRP and risk jeopardizing its relationship with Russia. Russia has been selling considerable amounts of military supplies to Iran and has invested $1 billion in the construction of an Iranian nuclear power plant. Russia and Iran have also formed an alliance over the issue of the Caspian Sea resources. The only way in which Iranian authorities have been willing to involve themselves in Tajikistan's conflict is by giving refuge to opposition leaders and by offering to act as a mediator between the two sides. From the outset, Iran has been a strong advocate of resolving the conflict via diplomatic means and in the last few years has often provided a forum for peace negotiations between the Tajik government and the UTO.

The fourth group that comprises the UTO, Lali Badakhshon, is a party from the Gorno-Badakhshon region of the Pamir Mts. This party did not come into being until 1991, and initially its main aim was not to oust the Khujand-Kulab faction from the government, but simply to procure a greater degree of autonomy for the Gorno-Badakhshon region with a view toward total independence in the future. After all, in the past, the Khujand-Kulab alliance had been willing to share a small portion of its power with the Gorno-Badakhshonis. It wasn't until the spring of 1992, when the Badakhshoni Minister of Internal Affairs, Mamadaez Navjuvanov, was removed from his post, that Lali Badakhshon joined the opposition.

In fact, 2 May 1992 is often considered to be a pivotal date in the development of the conflict between the Tajik government and the opposition parties because it marked the beginning of a period of violent confrontation which finally ended in January 1997. It was on this date that President Nabiev distributed arms to a number of his followers who had been brought to Dushanbe from Kulab to stage a demonstration in his support. These demonstrators were organized into a Presidential Guard which was used to break up and disperse the opposition's protesters by force just three days later. This was the government's first violent crackdown on the opposition parties since the demonstrations had begun in February 1990.

Nabiev soon gave in to the opposition's demands and invited them to help form a coalition government which would grant them control over eight out of twenty-four ministries. However, this coalition was very short-lived. The regional governments in Khujand and Kulab refused to cooperate with a national government that included members of the opposition parties, on the grounds that it was illegitimate. By mid-May, Kulab's resistance to the government had turned violent. Most of the members of Nabiev's newly-established Presidential Guard had returned home, taking their weapons with them. These men formed the core of a Kulabi militia, led by Sangak Safarov, a convicted murderer. This militia came to be known as the Popular Front and was largely responsible for overthrowing the coalition government in late October 1992.

The Popular Front's first actions were to attack and destroy villages which were suspected of supporting the coalition government. They also executed thousands of civilians, based on their regional accents or on their identification papers. Anyone who was not originally from Kulab or Khujand was considered to a possible opposition sympathizer and risked being shot. The opposition parties began employing the same tactics, killing people suspected of having ties to Kulab, which branded them as supporters of the Popular Front.

The evolution of the political struggle into an armed confrontation during the summer of 1992 had the effect of polarizing the population's sentiments either for or against the Khujand-Kulab faction. Those who did not side with either group ran the risk of being considered traitors and victimized by both sides. The opposition lost a great deal of support during this period. Most of the Uzbek population aligned itself with the Khujand-Kulab faction, as did many Russian-speakers and urban Tajiks. Although the opposition continued to repudiate accusations that its main goal was to establish Islamic law in Tajikistan, attacks by some of its supporters on women wearing European-style clothing or short hair led many people to doubt these assertions, especially when the coalition government did not publicly condemn these acts. Mirbaba Mirrahim, the opposition representative who headed the ministry which regulated radio and television, restricted Russian-language programs and began to carry more programs oriented toward Iran. This also served to alienate the urban and Russian-speaking populations and may be what started the rumors that Tajikistan's opposition groups were linked to Iran's Islamic Revolution. When one of the Democratic Party's leaders, Shodmon Yusuf, suggested that Dushanbe's Russian residents could become hostages if the fighting spread to the capital, it set off a wave of panic in the city. Finally, even though the opposition controlled only 1/3 of the coalition government, its inability to stop the violence was interpreted as sign of a weakness which would prevent it from being able to restore peace and govern the country effectively.

In late October 1992, the Popular Front moved into Dushanbe, and by early December had regained complete control over the city and had formed a new government , headed by Imomali Rahmonov, a member of the Kulabi Communist Party elite. President Nabiev had been forced to resign in September, by a group of young opposition supporters. Rahmonov was elected chairman of the Tajik Supreme Soviet on 19 November 1992 at a special session of the parliament, held in Khujand Province (Oblast'). During this session resolutions were passed which accused the opposition parties of instigating the civil war, of trying to create an Islamic state, and of violating the constitution. The presidency was also abolished at this session, leaving the chairmanship of the Supreme Soviet as the highest office. Rahmonov's rise to this position is attributed to his close relationship with Sangak Safarov, the late leader of the Popular Front militia. After assuming power, Rahmonov appointed a number of his fellow Kulabis to influential government positions, including the posts of deputy Supreme Soviet chairman and Minister of the Interior.

Rahmonov's appointment and his attempts to fill high-level government jobs with representatives of the Kulabi elite disturbed the traditional power balance in Tajikistan and caused a fair amount of friction between his administration and the Khujandi faction. The Khujandi faction was not able to exert much pressure on Rahmonov, however, due to the fact that the Popular Front troops had gained control not only of Dushanbe, but of large parts of southern Tajikistan. In fact, in late 1992, the Kulabi faction managed to consolidate its control over the southwestern part of the country by forcing a resolution through the Supreme Soviet to merge the provinces of Kulab and Qurghanteppa (Kurgan-Tiube in Russian) to form a new province, called Khatlon. The Kulabi faction was also in command of the armed services. Rahmonov could not shut the Khujandi faction entirely out of the government, however, because of his fear that Khujand Province might secede in retaliation, either to join Uzbekistan or to become independent. In either case, Tajikistan would be deprived of at least 1/4 of its territory.

Rahmonov's efforts to consolidate his power were accompanied by another wave of violence, as he tried to eradicate all remaining traces of the opposition. Government forces engaged in a "mop-up" operation which included air and artillery assaults on villages suspected of aiding the opposition, and house-to-house searches for opposition sympathizers, similar to those conducted by the Popular Front militia the previous summer. There were already thousands of Tajik refugees living in Afghanistan, and by February of 1993 their number had increased to approximately 90,000. Among these refugees were many opposition leaders, including Haji Ali Akbar Turajonzoda. Most of the refugees fled to areas in Afghanistan that were controlled either by General Abdul Rashid Dostum (an ethnic Uzbek) or General Ahmed Shah Mas'ud (an ethnic Tajik). Dostum provided shelter to the refugees, but refused to allow the Tajik opposition forces to launch any attacks on Tajik government forces from his territory. Mas'ud, on the other hand, permitted the opposition forces to set up military bases near the Tajik border and reportedly supplied them with weapons and even helped train their troops. The UTO's headquarters are located in the town of Taluqan, which is also the location of Mas'ud's base of operations. Within a few months, the opposition fighters were engaging in frequent raids on Tajik and Russian border posts.

By the summer of 1993, the Tajik government was not only being harassed by frequent opposition attacks from the UTO's Afghan bases, but was also trying to contend with various marauding armed gangs, which had refused Rahmonov's order to turn in their arms. Many of these gangs were splinter groups of the original Popular Front militia, and were terrorizing the inhabitants of Dushanbe and Khatlon Province, often regardless of their political sympathies. Rahmonov managed to reassert his control over most of these groups by incorporating their members into the forces of the Internal Affairs Ministry and into a newly created Tajik national army, which the Russian and Uzbek governments helped him to establish. Aleksandr Shishliannikov, an ethnic Russian from Tashkent and the former commander of a corps in Samarqand, was appointed to be Tajikistan's Minister of Defense on 19 January 1993. It is rumored that President Karimov procured this appointment for him, with the endorsement of Marshal Evgenii Shaposhnikov, the former commander of the CIS Forces. In fact, many of those serving in the Tajik military forces are Uzbek and Russian volunteers from the Turkestan Military District in Tashkent. Officers from this unit were offered three years' credit toward their pensions for every year that they were willing to serve in the Tajik army. The Tajik security services also received outside aid from the Uzbek KNB (formerly the KGB) and MVD. The Uzbek MVD even started patrolling Khujand.


1 Barnett Rubin, "The Fragmentation of Tajikistan," Survival, 35.4 (1994) The Tajikistan Update (www.angelfire.com) pts. 13-15.

2 Iver B. Neumann and Sergey Solodovnik. "Russian and CIS Peace Enforcement in Tajikistan." In Russian and CIS Peacekeeping. Clive Archer and Lena Jonson, eds. Boulder (CO): Westview Press, 1995 The Tajikistan Update (www.angelfire.com) Centre of Russian Studies, No. 1, 1995, pp. 3-4.

3 Rubin, "Fragmentation," pts. 15-16.

4 The Pamiris consider themselves to be ethnically distinct from the Tajiks and speak various Iranian languages which are not mutually intelligible with Tajik; their population is estimated to be at 200,000 (Neumann and Solodovnik, "Russian and CIS," p. 4).

5 Neumann and Solodovnik, "Russian and CIS," p. 4.

6 John Schoeberlein-Engel, "Conflict In Tajikistan And Central Asia: The Myth Of Ethnic Animosity," Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review, 1.2 (1994), p. 22.

7 Muriel Atkin. "The Politics of Polarization in Tajikistan." In Central Asia: Its Strategic Importance and Future Prospects. Hafeez Malik, ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994. pp. 214-215.

8 Schoeberlein-Engel, "Conflict In Tajikistan," p. 22.

9 Ibid., p. 6.

10 Atkin, "Politics of Polarization," pp. 214-215.

11 Mavlon Makhamov, "Islam and the Political Development of Tajikistan After 1985." In Central Asia: Its Strategic Importance and Future Prospects. Hafeez Malik, ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, p. 198.

12 Schoeberlein-Engel, "Conflict in Tajikistan," p. 34.

13 Atkin, "Politics of Polarization," p. 214.

14 Schoeberlein-Engel, "Conflict in Tajikistan," p. 26.

15 Gregory Freidin, "Profile: Davlat Khudonazarov," Central Asia Monitor, No. 1 (1992), p. 17.

16 Bess A. Brown, "Whither Tajikistan?," RFE/RL Research Report, 1.24 (1992), p.1.

17 Aziz Niyazi. "Tajikistan." In Central Asia and the Caucasus after the Soviet Union: Domestic and International Dynamics. Mohiaddin Mesbahi, ed. Gainesville (FL): University Press of Florida, 1994, p. 183.

18 Schoeberlein-Engel, "Conflict in Tajikistan," p. 34.

19 Martin, "Tajikistan: Civil War", p. 19-21.

20 Ibid., p.19.

21 Lowell Bezanis, "Exploiting the Fear of Militant Islam," Transition, 1.24 (1995), p. 10.

22 Ibid.

23 Makhamov, "Islam and the Political", p. 199.

24 Brown, "Whither Tajikistan?," p. 2.

25 Schoeberlein-Engel, "Conflict in Tajikistan," p. 38.

26 Ibid.

27 "Civil War In Tajikistan: Diary of Events," Central Asia Monitor, No. 5, 1992, p. 4.

28 Schoeberlein-Engel, "Conflict in Tajikistan," p. 39.

29 Ibid., pp. 39-40.

30 Ibid.

31 Martin, "Tajikistan: Civil War," p. 23.

32 Safarov died in March 1993, in a shoot-out with a rival Popular Front member; after his death, the militia split into several smaller groups (Martin, "Tajikistan: Civil War," p. 23.).

33 Martin, "Tajikistan: Civil War," pp. 20-21.

34 Ibid., pp. 23-24.

35 Schoeberlein-Engel, "Conflict in Tajikistan," p. 42.

36 Rubin, "Fragmentation," pt. 25.

37 Ibid., pts. 25-27.

38 Martin, "Tajikistan: Civil War," p. 26.

39 Ibid., pp. 23-24.

40 Ibid., p. 23.

41 Rubin, "Fragmentation, " pt. 23.

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