Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Local Heroes vs Central Government in Tajik East
A vehicle destroyed in street battles in Khorog in July. (Photo: IWPR)
The killing of an influential local leader in Tajikistan’s southeastern Badakhshan region has shaken the community and compounded the impact of the street battles that preceded it.
Thousands of people joined a protest in the provincial centre Khorog after Imomnazar Imomnazarov was killed in an attack on his home on August 22.
Imomnazarov was an influential figure in Badakhshan who still enjoyed respect as a rebel commander from the days of the 1992-97 civil war. His death came as the region was still tense after gunbattles between government troops and supporters of Talib Ayombekov, a renegade border guards commander who had refused to hand over suspects in the killing of a top regional security official.
The fighting, which left 48 people dead, was ended by a ceasefire negotiated by a mediating team that included representatives of the Aga Khan and the Ismaili branch of Islam that he heads and is practiced in Badakhshan.
IWPR Central Asia Regional Director Abakhon Sultonnazarov explains why there was such a public outflow of anger at the death of Imomnazarov.
Abakhon Sultonnazarov: The scale of the public anger wasn't surprising. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people from in and around the main provincial town Khorog took part.
For one thing, they were outraged by the murder of a community leader who had been instrumental in making the ceasefire happen. After the Aga Khan called for calm, Imomnazarov’s supporters were the first to lay down their weapons. I’ve heard from contacts in Badakhshan that the process of disarmament got under way only after Imomnazarov addressed community members, who heeded his appeal and turned in their weapons.
More importantly, though, people were furious because they saw his murder as a broader attack on the community, which is held together by informal leaders like Imomnazarov. They also felt betrayed since they had done their best to observe the truce and didn’t expect something like this to happen.
There’s deep-seated mistrust of provincial government officials, as well as of the central authorities. The two are viewed as pretty much the same thing, since the governor and regional departmental heads of ministries are appointed in the capital, and are generally selected for their loyalty to the centre rather than because they’ll represent the interests of people in Badakhshan.
IWPR: The authorities have launched an investigation into Imomnazarov’s death. Has any new information about possible culprits come out?
Sultonnazarov: While local residents maintain that government special forces carried out the attack, officials have denied this. Instead, we are hearing conspiracy theories about some “third force”, presumably abroad, with an interest in destabilising Tajikistan. But even if that were true, people are asking how such an outside force could have staged such an attack just at a time when Khorog was crawling with army and police, and checkpoints were set up on all the approaches to the town.
It’s questionable whether the investigation will really get to the truth.
IWPR: When government troops were sent into the region in July, they encountered stiff armed resistance. How can that be explained?
What I’ve heard from people there is that the bulk of the firearms used by locals in the fighting were in fact seized from inexperienced army soldiers deployed there. Apparently they even got hold of an armoured vehicle.
IWPR: Why do informal leaders like Imomnazarov play such a big role in Badakhshan?
Sultonnazarov: In terms of being able to mobilise people, the ultimate authority lies with these leaders, who wield a lot of influence. It’s partly because this is a close-knit mountainous community in a remote part of the country. Unity and self-reliance have been key to survival, and ensuring this has been the job local leaders have done down the ages.
These leaders emerge from among influential members of the community. This might not be an ideal situation for central government, since it is competing for influence, but it’s a reality that needs to be taken into account when dealing with Badakhshan.
IWPR: Are they like community figures elsewhere, for example the village elders and Muslim clerics of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan?
Sultonnazarov: No, it is different in Badakhshan, where these leaders tend to be men in their fifties rather than elderly. They were originally civil war-era rebel commanders, and acquired their reputations fighting against government forces.
After the conflict was over, they retained their influence, not because people feared them but because they regarded them as integral to the community. They continued to look up to them as informal leaders.
IWPR: What do they do to win such loyalty?
Sultonnazarov: They play a key role as arbitrators defusing conflict within the community. The police here are seen as ineffective and the judiciary as corrupt.
In addition, they often deliver welfare and financial support to people, filling a gap let by inadequate state social services. It is not uncommon to hear stories of people going to the likes of Imomnazarov for help with paying off a bank loan or mortgage when they run into difficulties.
They have the means to do this because of their business interests. Right after the civil war, former rebel commanders were given funding to set up commercial enterprises as part of the process of reconciliation and reintegration. Over time, these companies made money.
IWPR: Imomnazarov may have enjoyed respect in Badakhshan, but the central authorities have accused him and three others including Ayombekov and Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov of running crime operations engaged in drug and tobacco smuggling.
Sultonnazarov: Relations between the government and these former rebel commanders have never been easy, with each side constantly testing its strength. Things tend to get out of hand when one feels that the other has not held up its part of the deal.
These individuals were given government jobs – Ayombekov was commander of the border post at Ishkashim, and Mamadbokirov used to be in charge of a frontier post in Murgab. When the government sensed they presented a challenge, it put them under pressure. In 2008, Mamadbokirov, was involved in an incident in which shots were fired at Khorog’s police station. No one was hurt, and Mamadbokirov and his men turned in their weapons.
Such confrontations used to be resolved when Tajikistan’s president Imomali Rahmon intervened, declaring an amnesty for anyone prepared to return to the fold. Some of the accusations now levelled against these individuals relate to past incidents of this kind.
As for drug trafficking, it has become less of an issue over the last decade or so. Badakhshan, neighbouring on Afghanistan, used to be one of the main trafficking routes, but since the demise of the Soviet Union, the road, which runs via Kyrgyzstan to Russia, has fallen into disuse. In its place, Badakhshan has developed better road communications and for trade with China.
IWPR: Badakhshan used to be regarded as stable. Has this changed?
Sultonnazarov: It’s certainly true that Badakhshan has been stable over the years, unlike other parts of eastern Tajikistan where Sunni Islamic militants were seen as a threat. But there are political, economic and security factors that might have made the authorities think they needed to assert control over the region. The immediate challenge posed by the murder of the regional security chief required a response, but the way that was delivered, with a massive show of force, suggests it offered a convenient pretext for sorting things out.
It is clear that over time, local strongmen were increasingly seen as a threat by central government. In other parts of Tajikistan, the government had already taken action to root them out, but they remained in Badakhshan.
Also, people in Badakhshan are known for their independent spirit. They’re prepared to criticise the government openly, and public protests are not unusual here, in contrast to other parts of the country. And when there is confrontation, the community will side with local informal leaders rather than the states authorities. So if there were ever to be mass protests in Tajikistan, they might well start in Badakhshan.
What is more, Badakhshan’s growing economic role because of China means that these days, it is much more than a troublesome backwater. There is competition to control the lucrative cross-border trade.
It isn’t a straight confrontation of local interest groups vying with powerful figures in Dushanbe who want a slice of the business. It’s more complex than that – local groupings are in competition with others who have connections in the provincial administration, plus outsiders with links to central government. There are competing interests and different agendas.
It would be hugely simplistic to suggest that the recent trouble boils down to a battle for economic control with China. But the interplay of political and business interests, and the struggle to control this lucrative trade is an important factor for understanding what’s been going on behind the scenes.
IWPR: What do these developments mean for the rest of Tajikistan?
Sultonnazarov: Although people in Badakhshan distrust the central authorities, and the murder of Imomnazarov only made things worse, that does not colour their attitude towards the rest of the country. This was also reciprocated, as civil society and media in other parts of Tajikistan expressed indignation at the government’s behaviour in misjudging the situation so that instead of a swift surgical strike there was fierce fighting, resulting in many deaths, and in failing to maintain security in the aftermath.
An article by a Tajik journalist captured this mood, describing her sympathy for those who lost loved ones – both civilians and soldiers. The article’s title was, “We are all Pamiri now”.
Sadly, Tajik state television failed to provide objective coverage of what was going on in Badakhshan. Instead, it carried concerts and news reports on agricultural successes. So anyone wanting to find out what was really happening turned to the internet, in particular social networking sites. This was also where Tajiks expressed their reaction, regardless of their own region of origin. One campaign called for a minute of silence for the victims; another called for a boycott of mobile phone companies which cut connections to Badakhshan, under pressure from the authorities.
In a country that’s often been divided along regional lines, such public expressions of solidarity with the people of Badakhshan are encouraging.
Interview conducted by Saule Mukhametrakhimova, IWPR Central Asia Editor.
If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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