Zohra Ismail-Beben’s Registan post analyzing the causes of the recent clashes between government and local militias in Gorno-Badakhshan, an autonomous province occupying most of the eastern half of Tajikistan, is a depressingly plausible analysis. Briefly, the government is using the rhetoric of fighting Islamists to deal with issues of power-sharing in such a way as to (inadvertantly?) encourage the consolidation of a local ethnic identity at odds at the Tajikistani state. Great news for the poorest successor state of the Soviet Union, and one of the poorest in the world, I’m sure.
Taking a page straight from the government book, they suggest that the troops are fighting Islamists and the remnants of the civil war that plagued the country in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. But others have focused on a more nuanced portrait, suggesting that this is really about is control of the lucrative drug traffic in the region. Before he became the most wanted suspect in Tajikistan, Ayombekov was on government payroll as the commander of a border guard unit responsible for policing the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. People have pointed out that he has been engaged now for a number of years in drug trafficking, as well as other smuggling operations, of which he has only now been accused by the government. However, it is highly unlikely that the officials in Dushanbe were unaware of what was taking place for some time. As the International Crisis Group laid out in 2009 in its report Tajikistan: On the Road to Failure, there has been a strong belief amongst many observers in Central Asia that officials at the highest levels in the government are complicit in the drug trade. The influx of wealth and the display of material goods in this impoverished country attest to this in the minds of Tajiks. Even in Khorog it is not unusual to see expensive cars owned by those with no visible source of livelihood or income, and it is not unusual to hear comments about it either.
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What has happened in the past few years, according to both those allied to the government of President Rahmon and those in the opposition, is the gradual sidelining of anyone deemed a potential rival, shrinking the political space to the point where very few people find themselves part of the trusted inner circle. The lack of a broad coalition has not necessarily reduced the possibility of dissent, as the information control in and out of the country is nearly not as controlled as it is in Uzbekistan. But it has reduced the possibility of being heard, which makes life very uncertain and subject to the whims of those in power. What happened in Khorog seems to have taken many by surprise–even though there have been indications that the government had planned to deal with the local drug traffickers at some point–because it sets up a direct confrontation between the center and MBAP as a whole, something none of them would have wished. Although reliable figures are unavailable, it is widely reported that gun battles in the city have brought a number of civilian casualties. Furthermore, the total communication blackout imposed on MBAP has effectively made hostages out of the people of Khorog, as well as their friends and family outside the region who are unable to contact them.
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Some news reports have emphasized the differences between the Pamiris, the largest ethnic group of the area, and the rest of the country. The Pamiris are an ethnic minority who belong to the Shia Ismaili branch of Islam, while the people in the rest of the country are Sunni Muslims. There are differences of language and traditions within the Pamiris, but on the whole they have come to see themselves as set apart from other Tajiks. To some this fact of difference has the greatest bearing on the crisis unfolding now. A sense of a united Pamiri identity against any outside intrusions has found a footing amongst those whose sense of helplessness grows as the siege of Khorog continues. While it has roots in a long history, the increasing vigor of the Pamiri identity was forged by the traumas of the civil war, in which Pamiris were targeted not just as members of the opposition, but for merely being Pamiri.