"CENTRAL ASIA" No. 2 (8) 1997



Senior Research Fellow
The Swedish Institute of International Affairs


In the mid 1990s the Tajik civil war had developed into one of the most serious challenges to Russian policy in the CIS region, and a dilemma to Russian policymaking. With an ambition of playing the role of a great power upholding the whole of the former Soviet Union (except the Baltic states) as its sphere of influence, Russia had taken upon itself the responsibility for peace and stability in the CIS. Its capacity to fulfill this ambition is however limited. A first aspect of the dilemma follows from, on the one hand, Russia's need for assistance from the international community in bringing an end to the Tajik war, and on the other hand, Russia's fear of losing ground and influence in the region concerned. A second aspect of this dilemma follows from the need for a political compromise between the parties in order to solve the conflict, and the Russian tradition in conflicts of fighting down the adversary with the help of an ally.

By being the strongest power in the region, and giving its support to one party of the conflict, Russia holds the key to a solution. In April 1994, Russia managed to get the Tajik parties of the conflict to the negotiating table, and in September 1994 to sign a temporary ceasefire agreement. However, Russia was not successful in finding a political solution. The situation ran into a stalemate, and Russia was stuck in support of a policy without prospects. The ongoing war became a threat not only to Tajikistan but to Russia's position and influence in the whole Central Asian region.

As claimed in research on conflict resolution, the parties of a conflict are "ripe for resolution", when they percieve a situation as intolerable, and that things "cannot go on like this". According to the American scholar, William Zartman, each of the parties must come to the conclusion that it is unable to achieve its aims, to resolve the problem, or to win the conflict by itself. He continues, that each party must begin to feel uncomfortable in the costly dead-end into which it has gotten itself "...as a hurting stalemate, a flat, unpleasant terrain stretching into the future, providing no later possibilities for decisive escalation or for graceful escape."

Russia let itself be involved in the Tajik conflict at a time of troubles immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and with only a minimum of understanding of the emerging situation in Tajikistan. Driven by two partially contradictory objectives - to secure presence and influence, and to end the armed conflict - a Russian policy developed. In the mid 1990s, Russia had come to face the threat of either being forced into strategic retreat from the region, or thrown into deep and devastating military involvement. In an effort to steer away from these "Scylla and Charybdis", Moscow tries to reformulate its policy.


Taking into consideration the two aspects of the dilemma the Tajik civil war poses to Russian policy-making, theoretically there are four options to Russian policy.

First, in its approach to the parties of the conflict, Russia can continue a policy of support for one party thereby excluding the other party (exclusive), or to revise its policy in order to include the other party in the political and negotiating process (inclusive).

Second, in its search for a framework of its peacemaking mission in Tajikistan, Russia can either allow other actors, states and international organisations, into the task of finding a political solution to the Tajik conflict (international), or maintain it a

CIS business (regional)?

Approach to the parties

Framework for peacekeeping and conflict resolution

                           exclusive inclusive

 regional                     1             3

international               2             4

The four options can be presented in the form of four main policy strategies:

Strategy 1: a policy of continued support to one party in the conflict. The mission is carried out mainly by Russian forces but with the help of other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). A change of policy along this line would only mean "more of the same", i.e. an increase of resources poured into the ongoing operations either by Russia alone or with the financial and personal support from the CIS. This might include giving one of the Central Asian states, i.e. Uzbekistan a more active role.

Strategy 2: a policy of support to one party together with an effort to involve the international community to a larger extent. Russia tries to be accepted as a neutral third-party and to acquire support by international organisations for its ongoing operations but without changing the actual substance of its policy. Moscow's support to one party of the conflict, however, limits the international involvement.

Strategy 3: Russia revises its policy of support to one party in order to include the other party of the conflict into the political and negotiating process. The peacekeeping setting is, however, maintained as mainly a regional CIS affair with Russia as the main actor.

Strategy 4: Russia not only revises its policy of support for one party of the conflict but accepts other actors to become involved in finding a solution to the conflict. This would mean a certain reduction of Russia's position and influence as other states and actors will gain influence, even if they all declare that the strategic interests of Russia have to be respected. An the extreme version of this strategy is a Russian withdrawal without conditions. To Russia, such a strategy might become the only remaining way out of a dead-locked situation.


When becoming involved in the evolving Tajik conflict in 1992, Russia started its support for one side. This policy was intitiated by local Russian military in Tajikistan in support of the pro-Communist Popular Front against the Coalition government, formed in May 1992 and including representatives from the Democratic and Muslim Opposition. The 201st Motorized Rifle Division, deployed in Tajikistan since Sovjet time, was ordered to stay neutral in the evolving conflict; informally it took side and transferred weapons to the Popular Front. In lack of a policy from Moscow, the 201st division turned into an independent political force. Commentators consider that without its help, Emomali Rakhmonov would never have come to power. Gradually the Russian military presence increased. The 13 July 1993 attack on the border troop post on the Tajik-Afghan border when several Russian soldiers were killed, had decisive importance to Russia's further involvement. Within a general consensus of the basic elements of an emerging doctrine on Russia's role as a great power with strategic interests in Central Asia, stability in Tajikistan became of primary concern to Russia.

The start of the inter-Tajik talks in April 1994 and the temporary cease-fire agreement, signed in September 1994, created a new situation. The possibilities for a political solution to the conflict were around when the inter-Tajik negotiations started, and Russia was placed in a role which could be used for acting a proper third-party mediator and conciliator. Theoretically, Russia thereby had the chance to make a break-through and end the conflict by using leverage against both parties. The above mentioned Zartman comments on this kind of situations, that "..the relationships with both sides of a well-placed conciliator can provide a ready supply of carrots and sticks, making the conciliator a distant balance-holder. By shifting weight from one party to the other in the conflict, a conciliator can reinforce deadlock and enforce deadline, particularly if it is able to reduce support for a client that is on top but not firmly enough to be able to win." Inducements may include economic and military aid, arms sales, supportive policy statements, and other instruments of diplomacy. Negative iinducements take the form of contingent withdrawal of benefits, or threats, but may also be framed as warnings, or authoritative indications of unpleasant consequences outside the control of the parties. Russia has at its disposal large arsenals of means or instruments to influence the parties of the Tajik conflict when the negotiation process run into trouble.

However, Russia at this moment was not capable of fulfilling the role of a third-party mediator. Roughly, its policy toward Tajikistan was already set. A first priority remained to maintain support for the ally, the Rakhmonov regime. The inter-Tajik talks only had second priority. Therefore, Russia opted for a policy where the Rakhmonov regime was to be made legitimate in the eyes of the international community. The elections of president and parliament and the referendum on a new Tajik constitution were to become the cornerstones of such a policy.

When Rakhmonov rushed into arranging for presidential election and for a referendum, this was contrary to the agreement of the first inter-Tajik talks in Moscow in April 1994. The agreement stated that discussions on the future political system of Tajikistan would be the joint responsibility of the Tajik government and the Opposition. However, the Tajik government was in a hurry to strengthen its legal basis before March 1995, when the mandate of the parliament would end. Moscow tried to make Dushanbe not distance itself too much from the April 1994 inter-Tajik agreement, and not alienate the international community. Moscow therefore turned to political and economic pressure on Dushanbe. In late August 1994 Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and the Commmander of Russian Border troops Andrei Nikolayev went to Tashkent for tripartite talks with Tajik President Rakmonov and Uzbek President Karimov. In the presidential elections only two candidates were allowed, Rakhmonov and Abdumalik Abdulladzhanov. They represented different Tajik regions, Rakhmonov from Kulyab, and Abdulladzhanov from Leninabad. According to the Russian press at that time, it could not be taken for granted, that Rakhmonov would be Moscow's candidate.

It seems clear, that had the Russians certain leverage to put the Rakhmonov regime under pressure before the elections, this was more or less gone with the elections. By supporting one candidate, Moscow excluded alternative candidates that might have better satisfied Russia's interests in Tajikistan. In a sense, Moscow became Rakhmonov's hostage.If Moscow during the April 1994 talks had had certain ambitions of playing the role of an impartial third-party mediator, these were abandonned in the autumn of 1994. Russian policy became locked in a firm support for the Rakhmonov regime, while at the same time excluding contacts with the United Opposition (OTO).

During the inter-tajik talks in spring 1995, the Tajik government delegation avoided all discussion on future political arrangements, and Moscow did not object. The Rakhmonov regime acted with the confidence of an elected regime, and made references to the "existing constitutional framework". Not until December 1995 at the inter-Tajik talks in Ashkhabad, for the first time a discussion on future political arrangements took place. The parties=EFpositions on the future political arrangements were contrary to each other. Moscow continued its support for Dushanbe.

Toward the end of 1995 the situation in Tajikistan ran into a stalemate. The negotiations made no progress, and on the military ground the Opposition started to advance in the inner parts of Tajikistan. Moscow evidently became seriously concerned of the deepening crisis in Tajikistan, and the consequences for Russia itself. The war in Chechnya had since December 1994 taken the media's attention from the war in Tajikistan, but Chechnya was a reminder what scenario might develop also in Tajikistan. In November 1995, the first of a serie of top-level Russians came to Dushanbe to discuss the situation with Rakhmonov, the Tajik ministers, the supreme prosecutor, but also the Deputy Commander of the Russian Border Troops. The first was Dimitrii Ryurikov, aide to President Yeltsin on international affairs. The visit was considered by observers as an extraordinary event and a sign of the deep concern in Moscow over the deteriorating situation in the Tajik conflict.

In December 1995 at the inter-Tajik negotiations, the Opposition requested, that the CIS Heads of State at their upcoming summit in January would evaluate the events in Tajikistan. It also demanded that the CIS peacekeeping troops confirm their neutrality, and that the Dushanbe regime confess that there "is no alternative to political regulation". The first Russian reaction to this statement was presented by Deputy Foreign Minister Chernyshev, who declared that the opposition had suggested "unacceptable conditions to the government".

However, at the CIS Summit in January 1996, the Russian reaction was different. Criticism was raised against Rakhmonov regime not only from other Central Asian leaders but also from President Yeltsin. At the press-conference after the CIS Summit, Yeltsin stated "We can not endlessly carry Tajikistan, when our own people is dying". The lack of progress in solving the conflict had raised the criticism of both Kazakh leader Nazarbayev and the Uzbek President Karimov. Russia's unconditional support for the Rakhmonov regime also had become a main reason for the deteriorating relations between Russia and Uzbekistan. At the summit Russia and all Central Asian states (except Turkmenia) declared that they hoped "a real formula for national reconciliation" to be found, and that the Tajik government takes "necessary measures to attain stability and peace on Tajik soil".

In January 1996, Yevgenii Primakov replaced Andrei Kozyrev as foreign minister. To Primakov stabilization of conflicts within the CIS had first priority, and his first trip abroad as a foreign minister went to Tajikistan. He left for Dushanbe with a top-level Russian delegation including the heads of the Russian Border Troops, Andrei Nikolayev, the external intelligence (SVR), Vyacheslav Trubnikov, the Minister on CIS Affairs Valeri Serov and the deputy foreign ministers Boris Pastukhov and Aleksei Chernychev, and Defence Minister Grachev. In Dushanbe, Primakov not only stated relations with the Opposition as a precondition for a stabilization but also "between regions within the country, and economic problems". Primakov's comment referred to the raising problem of a shrinking regional base for Rakhmonov. Rakhmonov, who initially had had the support not only of the Kulyab but also the Leninabad region and then lost the latter by its "kulyabization" of Tajik society, was in 1996 openly challenged by mass demonstrations in Leninabad and by armed mutinies within the Tajik government troops. Rakhmonov's vulnerability turned into Russia's vulnerability since Moscow's policy was based exclusively on Rakhmonov and his Kulyab supporters.

Expectations grew that the Russian leadership would be ready for a change in its policy toward Tajikistan, and that Primakov would be the one to implement such a change. At the inter-Tajik talks in Ashkhabad in June 1996, Primakov met with the heads of the delegations, but had also separate meeting with the leaders of the opposition. This was regarded as an important change of attitude. Toward the end of 1996 Russian policy was activated. As a result of Russian pressure on Rakhmonov, in December 1996 an agreement was signed between Rakhmonov and Nuri on the creation of a Committee on National Reconciliation, where the Tajik government and the Opposition would be represented until new elections of President and Parliament had taken place. No further agreement was signed in the inter-Tajik talks in Teheran in January 1997 regarding the distribution of seats in the Committee, or of its power. The negotiations got stuck.

Russia seemed to have become seriously aware, that a military solution was not in prospect; the Tajik government troops were incapable, and a direct Russian military participation in fighting, would be to risk another Chechnya, which would be even more disastrous to Russia than had the Chechnya war. There was no choice to a political solution, and Russia was left with the alternative to revise its policy into taking into consideration also the interests of the Opposition. How this could be done without harm to Rakhmonov and first of all to Russian interests was however a problem. Moscow was yet not prepared to give up its support for Rakhmonov; to force Rakhmonov into a political compromise with the Opposition, would mean to risk Russia's most loyal ally in Tajikistan. Russia seemed to be on the verge of revising its policy, but did not yet dare to follow such a policy.


Shortly after the July 1993 attack on the Russian border post, General Shaposhnikov, at that time secretary of the Russian Security Council, reflected in public on the options available to Russia. He rejected a withdrawal of the Russian forces; a retaliatory strike on Afghan territory; and a reinforcement of the border only by Russian troops. He instead opted for strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border jointly with other CIS states, to be followed by negotiations with all states adjacent to Tajikistan in an attempt to resolve the issue politically.

The peacekeeping arrangement that followed consisted of two parts: strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border, and reorganising the 201st division into so called peacekeeping troops. This arrangement was formally constructed as a joint CIS affair, however, the initial decisions on intervening had been Russian. In September 1993 decisions were taken by Russia and the Central Asian CIS members. A proper political CIS mandate for CIS Collective Peacekeeping Troops was however not decided on until April 1994. The troops remained mainly Russian.

The Russian peacekeeping arrangement in Tajikistan has its specifics. The Russian understanding of "mirotvochestvo" and "operatsii po podderzhaniyu mira" is different from what is prescribed according to UN concepts of traditional peacekeeping and so called second-generation of peacekeeping. The Russian peacekeeping in Tajikistan was initiated while active fighting was going on, and no political agreement was in sight. Russian "mirotvorchestvo" generally comes close to enforcing peace, and Russian operations in Tajikistan have been described as similar to counter-insurgency types of operations.

The so called peacekeeping troops in Tajikistan are not allowed to participate in combat operations, and are declared to be impartial and neutral. The task of the Border Troops is to defend the Tajik-Afghan border, and they are not allowed to intervene in the internal Tajik conflict. However, these troops can hardly be neutral since they are part of a Russian policy of full support for the Rakhmonov regime, including military aid, delivery of weaponry, military education of officers and training of troops. The Border troops not only get involved in fighting along the border but also carry out strikes against Tajik villages and even Afghan villages. There is enough evidence to say that the 201st division and especially the Border Troops have participated in an active way in the civil war. The sceptical to the influence of international organisations. Since Tajikistan is located within the Russian sphere of "strategic interests", Russia does not want "outsiders" (from outside the CIS) to get a foothold in the area, or any desicive voice in conflict resolution. Moscow has opted for a regional solution; formally, the decisions are made by the CIS, but policy is decided in Moscow, and Russia sets the priorities.

On the other hand, both the UN and the OSCE have missions in Tajikistan. The UN envoy to Tajikistan plays an important role in the inter-Tajik negotiations since 1994, and UN military observers monitor the ceasefire. The participation of these organisations is important for Russia to legitimize its Russian presence and policy. They also play an important role in the negotiating process, which also is recognized by Russia. The role of individual states has become more important: Iran's role in the negotiations has grown, especially since Iran proved to be more understanding toward Russian interests in the region. Thus, there is a slight tendency in Russian policy toward an internationalisation of the peacekeeping arrangement, even if it still mainly is a regional arrangement.

Yet, the role of international organisations and "outsiders" in the conflict resolution and in the peacekeeping arrangement must be larger. A larger international involvement in Tajikistan would help Russia to get rid of the partiality of its mission. This question is important both for finding a political solution to the conflict but might be even more relevant when it comes to guaranteeing a future peace agreement. However, to accept a further internationalisation Russia would have to revise its view of the threat that "outsiders" pose to Russia in the region.


Russian policy-making on Tajikistan has taken place in the context of a general confusion after the breakup of the Soviet Union and a lack of policy-making authority within the foreign policy field. As a consequence of this, the Foreign Ministry was only one actor in this decision-making; and military circles got a remarkable high influence.

Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev, who initially did not pay much attention to the Tajik conflict, later used this conflict in his effort to create an image of himself as a tough defender of Russian interests, and earned in 1993 and 1994 a reputation for being in support of the military's perspective. Kozyrev greatly played on the "threat from the Muslim fundamentalism". He was not only an exponent of a historically rooted fear of Islamic encirclement. In addition, he took a more ideological and cultural view of the Islamic factor, advocating a thorough and sustained containment policy. To him, Central Asia was a cornerstone of a vision of the Islamic post-Cold War threat to regional security, and Moscow had to be ready to play its part in a containment on behalf of the "civilized world".

This explains Moscow's attitude toward the Opposition, but not its stubborn support for Rakhmonov. The support for Rakhmonov can partly be explained by the influence of those people working in the field, and they were outright harsh towards the Opposition: Russian Ambassador to Tajikistan since 1992 Mecheslav Senkevich, and the Head of the Russian delegation to the inter-Tajik talks and Deputy Foreign Minister, Albert Chernychev. Ambassador Senkevich even had direct links with the Russian military being a member of the Military Council of the Russian Border Troops in Tajikistan.

The most important actors however were the Russian commanders in Tajikistan. The Commander of the 201st division, subordinated to the Russian Ministry of Defence, and the Commander of the Russian Border Troops, subordinated to the separate Board of the Border Troops, set the tune of policy. The Commander of the CIS Collective Peacekeeping Troops can be added to this list. He is formally appointed by the CIS Council of Heads of State but in reality by the Russian Ministry of Defence. The relations between the heads of these three authorities have been characterized by departmental rivalry. Former Defence Minister Grachev tried to subordinate the Border Troops but failed. Instead, the influence of the Russian Border Troops grew since August 1993, when the border troops became a separate service led by General Andrei Nikolayev directly under the Russian president. Between Grachev and the Commander of the CIS Peacekeeping Troops there also have been contradictions from time to time. However, they had in common a military perspective, and their analysis of the situation in Tajikistan and on what had to be done dominated Russian policy-making.

This situation changed when Yevgenii Primakov became the foreign minister. As a former head of the Russian intelligence, Primakov had earned a reputation for being firm and consistent in claiming Russian national interests. As an expert on the Middle East and Islam, he also had a knowledge of Central Asia. Primakov started to get a grip on the ministry, and to strengthen its position in policy-making. In 1996, the people responsible for Tajikistan at the Ministry were replaced: for example in February 1996, Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov became the Russian envoy to Tajikistan, and in July 1996 Yevgenii Mikhailov was appointed the new special representative of President Yeltsin to Tajikistan.

As Moscow became more aware that there is no military solution to the conflict, the military's role in decision-making seems to have decreased. The problems of financing the Russian troops in Tajikistan also became more and more of a burden to Russia. As stated in August 1996 by Lieutenant General Zavarzin, Commander of the CIS Collective Peacekeeping in Tajikistan, less than half of the planned budget for the troops was covered and this mainly by Russian means. Similar problems characterize the Border Troops. To avoid sending an increasing number of Russian soldiers to Tajikistan, Russia to an increasing extent relies on local recruits to both the 201st division and to the Border Troops.

Russian policy and the Russian military presence in Tajikistan has been questioned in the Russian press by experts on the region. Only lately, it started to become a political issue for the broader public in Russia. In the Duma the question of a Russian troops withdrawal was discussed in one of the Committees in summer 1996, and a proposal is being worked out to be introduced in the Duma. As reported by Moskovskii Komsomolets on 25 January 1997, the Russian public opinion is still split on this issue: as many as 50 percent want the troops to withdraw; twenty percent want them to remain; and another twelve percent want the troops to be strengthened.


With its twofold objective in Tajikistan of stabilizing the situation and securing Russian interests, Moscow opted for a policy that can be characterized as an exclusive approach to the parties of the conflict, i.e. support for the Tajik government, and a regional CIS framework for the peacekeeping mission (strategy 1). All efforts to get the Central Asian states take on a larger burden were without success. Russia itself was not willing to drastically increase the stakes in order to have a military solution. Over the years, Russia tried to shift from a regional framework to an international one asking for a UN mandate for its mission (strategy 2). A mandate was never provided by the UN, and a main factor explaining that was Moscow's support for one party.

In the end of 1995, it was evident that the Russian policy was without success: the negotiations were stuck, the Opposition advanced in the military field, and discontent with Rakhmonov within Tajikistan grew. Instability in Afghanistan and the take-over of Kabul by the Talibans pointed to the threat to the whole of Central Asia if the Tajik conflict remained unsettled. The first reaction of some Russian politicans to the take-over by the Talibans had been in favour of a Russian troops reinforcement. To the Foreign Ministry, however, the Afghan turmoil instead added to the percieved need of finding a political solution.

Russia' policy toward Tajikistan seems to be in a process of change as also is Russia's policy toward the CIS states in general. In its policy toward the CIS, Russia is now forced to make hard priorities - with whom to cooperate and support, and what kind of cooperation. Russia has to adapt its ambitions to its capability. The necessity to make hard priorities seems to force Moscow into revising its policy also with regard to conflicts on CIS territory: in Tajikistan to include the Opposition and its demands in finding a political compromise; and to allow international organisations a larger say in an arrangement for ending the conflict (strategy 4). A regional framework (according to strategy 3) would not be enough if Russia is to be trusted as an impartial third-party guarantor. Moscow seems to have come close to such a revision, but fears it still.

To fulfill such a policy revision, the Russian discussion must continue on what is Russia's long-term national and strategic interest in the region, and how it is best secured. Grand schemes and analyses of Russia's geo-strategic interests being threatened by outsiders, now in fashion in the Russian debate, will be of no help to adapt to this new situation.

Russia is running out of time. The threat of being forced into a withdrawal from Tajikistan can not be neglected. Russia has paid an enormous price for upholding an unsuccessful policy with regard to Tajikistan. The consequences of continuing such a policy could be disastrous to Russia. The current Russian leaders, who seem to be pragmatic politicians, have to be quick and decisive in revising Russian policy toward Tajikistan.

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