Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajik Opposition Threat

The Tajik army's demobilisation of thousands of opposition supporters is threatening to provide a welter of new recruits for illegal armed groups.
By Vladimir Davlatov

Dushanbe is pushing ahead with plans to demobilise over 4,000 former supporters of the United Tajik Opposition, UTO. President, Emomali Rakhmonov, cited "economic difficulties and budget deficits"for the move, implemented a month ago.

All employment contracts for those concerned are to end by August 1. The fact that the majority losing their jobs are former fighters for the UTO has led to speculation that the move is politically motivated.

The former UTO fighters had been integrated into the Tajik armed forces as part of the 1997 peace settlement which ended the country's five-year civil war. The government has always been concerned, however, with having soldiers within the army's ranks who still support UTO. The added financial costs are genuine but the principal worry has always been that they would switch side in the event of renewed conflict.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs has claimed some are exploiting their posts in the army as "cover" for banditry and other criminal activity. UTO soldiers have been implicated in several armed incidents this year. On April 10, for example, former opposition supporters now serving in the Tajik army fought a pitched gun-battle with police on the outskirts of Dushanbe. One woman bystander was killed and several police officers wounded.

Another concern for the government has been the alleged involvement of these soldiers in armed groups led by Juma Namangani - one the leaders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan - who fought alongside UTO militants during the Tajik civil war. Although the Tajik authorities have not officially acknowledged these links, the governments of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have.

Russian border guards along the Afghan-Tajik frontier have also claimed former UTO fighters now serving as officers in the Tajik customs service have been assisting drugs smugglers operating out of Afghanistan.

Although the demobilisation may offer the Tajik government an opportunity to resolve several problems in one fell swoop, some critics fear the scheme could backfire.

Experts argue the majority of the former UTO fighters are unlikely to adjust successfully to civilian life. As one analyst put it, "Growing potatoes is not going to appeal." The demobilisation scheme's critics fear dismissed soldiers may simply reorganise into illegal armed bands, further destabilising the country. The authorities have said they "will try to prevent" former opposition supporters joining criminal groups.

Defence Ministry spokesman, Zerobiddin Sirodjev, said sacked troops would be offered references and retraining in a variety of professions. Such a programme was employed at the end of the civil war when 2,000 opposition fighters refused to join the army.

One organisation involved in rehabilitating some of them was the charity Avesto. Its spokesman, Firuza Abdullaeva, said the scheme offered the ex-soldiers, the majority of whom had fought for the UTO, courses in English language, computing, electrical appliance repairs, tailoring and accounting. Seventy people passed through the scheme and of those 70 per cent are still working within their new specialities, Abdullaeva said.

Given the government's current plans will put at least 4,000 soldiers out of work, the number rehabilitated so far is not very encouraging. What's more the soldiers themselves seem unimpressed with the job opportunities on civvy street.

"I can take some courses, get a normal trade, but it's hardly likely to give me enough money to support my family," said one former UTO fighter.

Vladimir Davlatov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Tajikistan.