"CENTRAL ASIA" No. 4 (10) 1997


y Keith Martin

Widely unnoticed by the outside world, the Ferghana Valley and Tajikistan have been pushed to the brink of a crisis that threatens to escalate into a violent conflict of major proportions -- one that could have severe reprecussions for peace and stability in Central Asia for years to come. The events leading up to, and following, the April 30, 1997 assassination attempt on Tajikistan's president, Imomali Rakhmonov, in the northern Tajik city of Khujand (formerly Leninabad) have brought into sharp focus the discontent of Tajikistan's northern region with the Dushanbe government and with the current peace process. They have also heightened concerns that Tajikistan's precarious territorial integrity might yet face its most crucial challenge after years of civil war: if the northern Leninabad region decides to secede, either to join Uzbekistan or to become independent, there would seem to be little that the Rakhmonov government could do to prevent it from leaving. Outright secession would have an immediate impact not only on Tajikistan, but also on the territorial integrity of Kyrgyzstan (with restive Uzbek elements in the Osh region, which borders the Leninabad region), and Uzbekistan.

This article, after briefly looking at the importance of the Leninabad region, addresses several crucial questions surrounding the attack on Rakhmonov and its implications. First, who was behind the assassination attempt, and what factors led to it? The attack on President Rakhmonov did not happen in a vacuum, and it is important to examine the increasing frustration preceeding the attack. Secondly, how are various political actors, both within Tajikistan and outside it, reacting to the attack, and to the prospect of possible further separatist moves in the north? Clearly, the events of the last two weeks -- including the arrest of Abduhafiz Abdullojanov, the younger brother of Tajikistan's former prime minister and chief political representative of northern Tajikistan's interests -- have illustrated that tensions have been increasing, with no end in sight. And finally, and most importantly, given the answers to the previous questions, how likely is it that a separatist agenda in the Leninabad region will gain momentum? Is the idea of a "Republic of Leninabad" an absurdity, or is it a real possibility?


Tajikistan's Leninabad region, much of which is located in and around the Ferghana Valley, only became a part of Tajikistan through an accident of history -- or, more accurately, through Stalin's very cunningly designed republican borders that put large numbers of ethnic Tajiks, and the historically Tajik cities of Samarqand and Bukhara into the Uzbek republic, while "awarding" the historically more Uzbek region of Khujand to Tajikistan. Despite the central role that the Leninabad region has played in the economics and politics of the Tajik republic, it has always remained more tied, by geography and trade, to Uzbekistan than to the rest of Tajikistan. In this regard, geography plays a pivotal and immutable role: the high mountains that separate the Leninabad region from the southern parts of Tajikistan are passable only in the summer, and even then only on one road, while Tashkent is a mere 120 kilometres from Khujand on an even, paved highway.

Despite these factors, throughout Soviet rule the North was the economic powerhouse of Tajikistan, and also the home of all republican Communist Party First Secretaries from 1943 until independence. In fact, it was not until the fall of independent Tajikistan's first president, Rakhmon Nabiev, that power shifted away from the north. Until the early 1960s, Leninabad was the republic's largest city, since Dushanbe had only been a village in the 1930s, when Stalin designated it to be the capital of the Union's newest republic. In any case, the Leninabad groups in charge of power in Dushanbe played a very careful game of balancing out the interests of various southern regional groups (Badakhshonis, Kulyabis, Vakhshis, Garmis and Hissaris, named based on their regions of origin), while closely guarding ultimate republican power for themselves. This policy, which essentially mirrored the role Russians played in all-Union politics, was very effective in maintaining Leninabadi control over power -- but also, in hindsight, was a crucial catalyst in creating and fomenting the discontent and regional rivalries that led to the Tajik civil war. While there is no room here for an analysis of the causes and effects of the war in Tajikistan, it is clear that the divide-and-rule strategy of Nabiev, and of Makhkamov, the last Tajik CP First Secretaries, was of immense importance in creating the atmosphere that led to civil war. Additionally, one of the deeper causes of the conflict -- the resentment by many Kulyabis of the Vakhshis and Garmis living in the southwestern Kurgan-Teppe region -- was the result of a large-scale resettlement policy by the Leninabadi-led Tajik government after World War II; it would seem naive to think that Tajikistan's rulers did not know at the time that such resettlement, and the awarding of prime agricultural land to "outsiders," would not result in tension and resentment.

Economically, the Leninabad region prospered during Soviet rule -- much more so than most of southern Tajikistan, and also more than the adjoining Uzbek and Kyrgyz parts of the Ferghana Valley. In particular, the area was the most industrialized in Tajikistan and in the Ferghana Valley. It is important to note that, even now, most Leninabadis live better than their neighbors in the Uzbek and Kyrgyz parts of the valley. This helps explain why, unless conflict becomes more widespread, refugee flows from the Leninabad region may remain small. Then, as now, much of the inputs for the region's economy, and of the market for its products, were in Uzbekistan, and especially Tashkent. This was further cemented by Soviet economic and infrastructure programmes, under which the main links from the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley to Tashkent were established along the easiest, shortest route -- through the Leninabad region.

By the end of Soviet rule, it was being more and more openly alleged within Tajikistan that the north had prospered while the south had lagged far behind, mainly because of the machinations of the so-called "Leninabad mafia"; given subsequent events, it might be better to suggest that there were several mafias, and not just one. In any case, since independence, these groups have sought to bestow upon themselves greater legitimacy by building private economic empires that are now legal. Prime among these Leninabadi leaders is Abdumalik Abdullojanov, who has risen from director of a bread factory to being one of the richest men in Tajikistan, and perhaps Central Asia. Additionally, however, Abdullojanov is the leader of the National Revival Movement (NRM), which claims to represent northern Tajikistan's political interests, as will be explored below.

While the above discussion may give the impression that the Leninabad region is a unified whole, it is important for our subsequent analysis to emphasize that there are significant differences between various parts of the region itself. This is a point that is often missed in the discussion of northern Tajikistan, and deserves some mention. First, when most analysts write about the Leninabad region or about northern interests, that really only reflects the situation in and around the city of Khujand, which has traditionally dominated its namesake region. Precisely for this reason, other areas of the Leninabad region have long been resentful of Khujandi power, and have sought to carve out greater autonomy for themselves. In particular, the second-largest city in the region, Ura-Teppe, has long tried to create its own administrative region, separate from the Leninabad region. In the west, the Pendzhikent area is closer, geographically and economically, to Samarqand than it is to Khujand. To a certain extent, President Rakhmonov has been trying to exploit these differences by encouraging demands from Ura-Teppe for greater authority and autonomy, and selectively promoting officials from that city over Khujandis.

Even within the Khujand area, however, there is not an "Abdullojanov hegemony." In fact, numerous groups, some of them centered around traditional, powerful extended families, have spent much time and energy in the past fighting each other for greater control of the Tajik pie. President Rakhmonov, however, has ironically had great success in pushing these groups together, and most of them are represented in the National Revival Movement (NRM). Through both his anti-Leninabad policies and the appointment of a relative outsider from Khujand to the post of Prime Minister, Yahye Azimov, Rakhmonov has effectively excluded all the major Khujandi elites from central decision-making. In particular, it has apparently resulted in closer cooperation between Abdullojanov and prominent, old families from Khojand and Kanibodom, such as the Arabovs, Yaqubovs, Karimovs and Asrurovs. As one analyst commented, although Rakhmonov has tried to pursue the regional balancing policy of his Khujandi predecessors, "[it] fails because it can't reach the high level of Khujandi diplomacy. The people from different regions whom they have appointed to high government positions in order to exert control over the populace of those regions not only lack authority and serious influence in their homelands, but, moreover, in most cases local people treat them with overt hatred and disdain."

Conflict Ascendant:
Northern Tajikistan from May 1996 to the Assassination Attempt

Two major events in northern Tajikistan are now generally taken to have been the triggers for the attempt on President Rakhmonov's life: the May 1996 demonstrations and riots in Khujand and Ura Teppe and the violent suppression of a prison protest in mid-April 1997. To these two direct factors, a third indirect one may be added: the July 1996 formation of the National Revival Movement, a new political force on the Tajik scene, designed to represent northern Tajikistan's interests.

In May 1996, several demonstrations and riots took place in Khujand and Ura-Teppe, which were the first significant public signs of growing public discontent with the Kulyabi-dominated Tajik government. In their wake, the government did initially acceed to some of the demonstrators' demands, including the removal of a number of unpopular local officials appointed by Rakhmonov. The Tajik security forces' ability to quell the riots shows that the central authorities may have more leverage in the north than some analysts have believed. Finally, it was the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators, including key organizers, many of whom were left in Khujand prison without trial, that eventually led to the April 1997 prison protests.

Accounts differ on the events that initially triggered the May 1996 protests. According to most accounts, after the death of a powerful "local businessman" in Ura-Teppe, demonstrators called for the ouster of unpopular local politicians and tighter control over the distribution of humanitarian aid. On May 14, the demonstrations turned violent when about 200 people in Ura-Tyube began rioting; five persons were killed. Other sources (including visitors to the region during that period) claim that the demonstrations in Khujand started after a restaurant owner was roughed up by Kulyabi Interior Ministry troops demanding protection money.

The Tajik Interior Ministry sent reinforcements to Khujand and Ura-Teppe, but it took several days to restore control in the latter city, where armed demonstrators initially had occupied a local administration building. Prime Minister Yahye Azimov (himself from Khujand) visited the North and promised distribution of food supplies and humanitarian aid, as well as the replacement of discredited local officials.

While specific aspects of the two demonstrations (which apparently were not planned or linked, though this, too, is in dispute) are unclear, several underlying factors clearly fueled the unhappiness of many in the north. First and foremost, whereas the Leninabad region had enjoyed an immensely priviledged economic position vis--vis southern Tajikistan throughout Soviet rule, the area's residents have been severely impoverished by the post-independence events, and in particular by President Rakhmonov's politics of exclusion. Although most people in the north are objectively still better off than most southerners, it is perception that matters; the clear perception for most northerners is that they are much worse off today, and that the central government is largely to blame. Additionally, strained relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan at an inter-state level have led to frequent power shortages, as the Uzbekistani government insisted on payment for energy delivered to Tajikistan at world prices, and on the sporadic interruption of vital trade and supply links. As the seat of much of Tajikistan's industrial base, this struggle hits the north particularly hard.

The second factor that has led to widespread northern discontent, and is cited as one of the direct causes of the May 1996 events, is that many Kulyabis were put into prominent positions in the Leninabad region's administration. Additionally, individuals from the Tajik "power ministries," who appear to many people simply to be thugs in uniform, are entrenching themselves in the Leninabad region and trying to extract payments from enterprises and individuals, or even take over directly.

Ironically, in this regard, the May demonstrations may have achieved the opposite effect that the demonstrators desired. While the government did hastily remove some of the most unpopular Kulyabi officials in the regional administration, it apparently decided to concentrate its efforts on a lower, less visible level. Rather than decreasing the number of presidential guards, Security Ministry and Interior Ministry troops in the north, as it indicated it would do, the Rakhmonov government appears to have understood the demonstrations as a wake-up call to bolster its authority in the region. While no data is available publicly, residents of the Khujand area say that significant numbers of armed Kulyabi troops are now living and operating in the area, with many of the higher officials living in the formerly closed suburb of Chkalovsk; locals reportedly have nicknamed Chkalovsk "Kulyabinsk." This may help explain why the Presidential Guard and the Interior Ministry troops seemed well-prepared when Rakhmonov was attacked -- and perhaps also why the president even "dared" to make the visit in the first place.

Chronologically, the next event in the sequence leading to the assassination attempt was the formation, in July 1996, of the National Revival Movement. This political force, founded by Abdumalik Abdullojanov and two other former prime ministers from northern Tajikistan, sought to harness the political energy of the May demonstrations and to articulate the Leninabad region's grievances against the central government. While ostensibly a pan-Tajikistani party, it is clearly most concerned with representing the north's interests, and has been fighting for inclusion in the Tajik peace talks. It is in this connection that the NRM has been identified as the "third force" in Tajik politics, i.e. it does not belong either to the government side or to the United Tajik Opposition.

From the beginning, the NRM has used this strategy to maximize its leverage but, to date, the result has only been continued exclusion from the peace talks and peace agreement, with the tacit approval of the international mediators who did little to encourage the inclusion of the NRM in the negotiations. Interestingly, Abdullojanov himself has openly spoken of the possibility of northern secession if the Leninabad region's interests are ignored, but seemed resigned early on to the vehement opposition of the Tajik government to his movement. In retrospect, a comment he made to the journal Novoe Vremya in December 1996 seems almost prophetic: "Unfortunately, the current regime in Dushanbe has only two methods of fighting its opponents: either to bring criminal charges or to arrange a terrorist act." According to some opposition figures, the Rakhmonov attack was the perfect marriage of both of those methods.

As is often the case, politics can make for very strange bedfellows. Since its formation, the NRM has enjoyed good relations with the UTO, with Abdullojanov meeting the deputy head of the Tajik opposition, Qazi Haji Akhbar Turajonzoda, in Tashkent in August 1996, and a wider meeting of the two movements taking place in Istanbul later that year, culminating in the signing of a cooperation agreement. Ironically, many in the UTO initially went into opposition because of "northern hegemony" during the rule of Kakhar Makhkamov and Rakhmon Nabiev. The perceived "Kulyabization" of Tajikistan, it seems, has been a strong enough factor to push these groups together, at least in the public arena. It should be noted, however, that like many marriages of convenience, this one is likely to end if circumstances change. In particular, the UTO has continued peace talks, including the recent signing of a final peace agreement, without participation from northern Tajikistan. While the UTO has unilaterally agree to cede 20% of its 50% of seats in the government to "other political forces" (meaning the NRM), this obviously is not the kind of inclusion which Abdullojanov had sought.

Two other points are important with respect to the NRM and its leader. First, Abdullojanov and Rakhmonov have had an acrimonious relationship since the two faced off in presidential elections, which Abdullojanov, and many others, believe he should have won. To make matters even more personal, corruption charges were brought against the former prime minister and ambassador to Russia, who claims that there is a price on his head in Dushanbe; the charges, which had been dropped for a while, were reinstated after Abdullojanov founded the NRM. In this context, it is unlikely that Abdullojanov will be willing to participate in the Tajik peace process as anything less than a third force equal to the two others. President Rakhmonov, for his part, has no signs of compromise; on the contrary, the harsh response to the prison protests and the arrest of Abdullojanov's brother are further testimony to his intention to neutralize Abdullojanov's power base.

A second, fundamental point is that the NRM is widely seen to have the backing of the Uzbekistani government. Abdullojanov himself is permanently based in Tashkent now, and it is no coincidence that his meeting last year with Qazi Turajonzoda took place in Tashkent. This Uzbekistani connection, which will be further explored below, is one element in the larger struggle between Uzbekistan and Russia for influence over events in Tajikistan. Given the geographic proximity of Khujand to Tashkent, and the economic dependence of the north on Uzbekistan, it is quite natural that Abdullojanov has emerged as Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov's "Tajik card." Yet, in a game where the stakes are very high for all sides, Karimov has been very circumspect in how he has sought to play this card. Regardless, various groups within the Tajik government have made the most of this connection, accusing the NRM of being nothing more than a proxy attempt by President Karimov to force his way into the governance of Tajikistan.

The event that apparently most directly precipitated the attack on President Rakhmonov was the bloody suppression of a protest in the Khujand prison, involving many of the jailed leaders of the May 1996 demonstrations. In mid-April, the prisoners protested against their planned transfer to prisons in the south, where prison conditions are much worse, and where the political leaders of the May 1996 events faced persecution and possible death. According to various reports, the 800 prisoners (in a prison designed to hold 300) rioted, and rebel inmates took several guards hostage. Their demands included trials for those serving without any sentencing; hospitalization for ill inmates; and a halt to the planned transfer of prisoners to the south. After unsuccessful negotiations with the prisoners, armed units attacked the prison. According to some reports, these units were part of the presidential guard, many of whom formerly belonged to Sangak Safarov's Popular Front, long a symbol of thuggery in the south. Other reports, however, said the troops were "special anti-terrorist police units."

Initial reports indicated that between twenty and forty inmates were killed, while the government maintained that no violence had occurred. On 5 May 1997, in an article on the assassination attempt, Nezavisimaya gazeta, citing sources in Khujand, gave a much higher casualty figure: according to its source, more than 150 inmates had died, and over 200 were injured. It further wrote that the government, in order to avoid widespread protests and confrontations, had been releasing the bodies to relatives very slowly, only two or three at a time.

One of those killed was Ikrom Ashurov, who had been one of the leaders of the May demonstrations and was associated with the Democratic Party of Tajikistan's Leninabad wing. The Voice of Free Tajikistan commented that "if riots take place, the security forces try to wipe out their political opponents first of all" and that by killing Ashurov, the security forces had gotten "rid of a powerful political opponent who caused a lot of headaches in prison." Many of those killed had apparently been supporters of either the Democratic Party (part of the UTO) or of the newly-founded NRM. In both cases, the high death toll and the fact that the leaders of the May 1996 demonstrations seemed to have been singled out during the assault on the prison suggest that the troops had specific instructions to liquidate members of the opposition.

Both Abdullojanov and the United Tajik Opposition condemned the attack on the prison, and the NRM said "the Tajik leadership must be held responsible for the death of scores of convicts." Despite the widespread reporting of these events, there have been no public reactions from Western human rights organizations, nor from the Russian or other governments. It is telling that the Tajik government itself has not, in any form, apologized for the significant loss of life or suggested that there might have been an excessive use of force, and it has not launched any type of investigation into the events. In this context, then, it is not surprising that several of those arrested in the days after the assassination attempt on President Rakhmonov were relatives and friends of people killed in the prison assault.

The Assassination Attempt:
How Many Would-Be Assassins Were There?

Even the facts of the attack on President Rakhmonov are shrouded in some controversy. It is clear that on April 30, 1997, a grenade was thrown at the president as he was going to the Khujand Theater to deliver a speech, commemorating the 60th anniversary of Khujand University. Two people died and 73 were injured, including the president, the head and deputy head of the Leninabad region, and the head of the Security Ministry's regional department. While most reports have implied that the grenade caused all of the casualties, others state that many of the injuries were actually caused by the president's bodyguards, who began firing into the crowd indiscriminately immediately after the attack. Rakhmonov, who was slightly injured in the leg, immediately carried on with his schedule before returning to Dushanbe later that day. Meanwhile, the assumed assailant, Firdaus Dustboboyev, and one accomplice were arrested at the scene.

In the first days following the attack, a limited number of other arrests were made. Ten people were arrested in the Khujand area on May 3 in connection with the assassination attempt, of whom several were said to be relatives of prisoners who died in the mid-April assault on Khujand Prison. In the most violent incident, five "gang members" were killed in a confrontation with Tajik Security and Interior ministry troops in the village of Kostakoz, near Khujand, on May 4. Three members were reportedly killed by the troops after refusing to surrender. The other two, including the"gang" leader, committed suicide. Ten other people, including three security officers, were injured. In a startling piece, an extensive report on Russia's NTV on 21 May claimed that the "main terrorist" killed (Khurshed Abdushukurov, aka Tayson) was distraught over the death of his brother in the suppression of the prison riots; according to the report, Abdushukurov was armed by "people from Dushanbe," and it suggested that the attack was instigated by Kulyabis in order to legitimize a crackdown on northern opposition. The correspondent further states: "In order for the mutiny in the zone to bear greater resemblance to an armed uprising, the persons from Dushanbe handed over weapons to the prisoners too." Finally, the reporter claims that an acquaintance from the southern Khatlon region told him that he had come to the north "to butcher Leninabad sheep." If true, these are exactly the kinds of remarks that can spark a raging fire of civil conflict in the north, as it did in the south.

The events of the subsequent weeks have left little doubt about the intentions of the Rakhmonov regime and its security forces in Khujand. Many arrests have taken place, and many of those arrested have been taken to Dushanbe, beaten, and some have disappeared. Most residents now reportedly fear the reach of the regime's forces, and are not speaking out; one witness reports that the armed troops "enetered the houses, put bags on people's heads and took them off to Dushanbe. They were all put under pressure and confessions were beaten out of them by any means." In the most spectacular case to date, Abduhafiz Abdullojanov, the younger brother of the NRM leader, was arrested on May 23 while visiting his mother; the younger Abdullojanov, who is reportedly in the last stages of terminal cancer, was charged with drugs possession and taken to Dushanbe where he, too, was reportedly beaten to extract a confession. Nothing is known about his current whereabouts. It should also be noted that, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, local authorities were warned of the impending attack by Khujand residents, but ignored those warnings.

More provocative, perhaps, has been the speculation from all political quarters about who was behind the attack. While the UTO and NRM both condemned the attempt, and denied any responsibility, some members of the government and its friends have been eager to target Abdullojanov, in particular, as a key backer of the attack. The speculation, which President Rakhmonov has officially sought to dampen, has run the gamut, from criminal gangs, to the NRM, and to the government of Uzbekistan. Not surprisingly, the president has a lot of enemies in northern Tajikistan who would have been relieved to see his tenure end prematurely. On the other hand, as the NTV report and other sources suggest, it is not impossible to believe that certain Kulyabi elements, and in particular groups close to Dushanbe mayor Ubaidullaev, might have been behind some part of the attack.

The most frequently mentioned connection among analysts is to the organizers of rallies which took place in Khujand (and Ura-Teppe) in May 1996, with the support of the (Leninabad branch) of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, and to related prison riots in Khujand which were violently suppressed by the Tajik government in mid-April (1997). On April 30, President Rakhmonov's spokesman Zafar Saidov claimed that Dustboboyev (the would-be assassin) was "directly linked to the instigators of the rally in Khujand last May... Therefore, it is possible to affirm that the act of terrorism is not only criminal but also political." Interestingly, in the days after Saidov's statement, no other Tajik official has reaffirmed Saidov's claim, and Rakhmonov himself has argued against speculating about the perpetrators' motives and background. For his part, Abdullojanov did not rule out a relationship to the riots.

Other political actors on the Tajik scene, however, have been pointing the finger of blame directly at Abdumalik Abdullojanov himself. The mayor of Dushanbe, Makhmadsaid Ubaidullayev, for example, has openly accused the NRM leader of plotting Rakhmonov's assassination. He insisted that Abdullojanov be detained, "brought into Tajikistan," and tried. While members of Rakhmonov's government have not openly supported this hypothesis, "unnamed officials" have also suggested an Abdullojanov connection. In particular, Interior Minister Khumiddin Sharipov and others have blamed "the third force, which is not interested in social and political stability" for the attack. In the past, the term "third force" has been widely used to describe the NRM and its attempts to be a "third party" to the Tajik peace talks (separate from the both the government and the United Tajik Opposition). The May 23 arrest of Abdullojanov's brother, and of numerous NRM leaders, is another indication of the Rakhmonov regime's attempts to pin blame on the NRM leader and his family.

The general official line at this time is that "criminals" or a "criminal gang" were behind the attempt -- not "the population of northern Tajikistan." President Rakhmonov has urged restraint, suggesting that investigators and the courts would ultimately decide who was behind the attack. At the same time, he himself said he believes that a criminal gang was targetting him (yet he has done nothing to dispel rumors that Abdullojanov or the Uzbekistani government might be responsible). Also cited by various sources is the possibility that "contract killers" were hired to kill the president. All of these explanation, however, beg the question: To what end (or for whom) would criminals or "contract killers" want to assassinate Rakhmonov? One possible answer, again, lies in the complex reality of the Leninabad region's economy, and in the fact that particular groups who see Kulyabi elements trying to take over their economic space (or force them to pay protection money) may have believed that Rakhmonov's death would end such interference once and for all.

For his part, Abdullojanov, while blaming "criminals," told Interfax on April 30 that he thought the incident might have been caused by "an extremely complicated social and economic situation in the republic." This is an oblique reference to the claims by many Northerners, and articulated politically by Abdullojanov's NRM, that the central government has been excluding the North from the current peace negotiations and from the economic decision-making in the country. Furthermore, given recent events, Abdullojanov is also trying to impress upon outside observers the fact that the Kulyabi-led government's policies are pushing the north ever further in the direction of a secessionist option.

The last, and potentially most explosive, theory about who was responsible for the attempt on Rakhmonov's life has so far only been spread by insinuation and rumor. According to these speculations, it is "outside forces" that were behind the attack -- and everyone clearly understands this to mean Uzbekistan. While there is no evidence of such involvement, this argument goes hand in hand with the accusations against both the May 1996 demonstrators and Abdullojanov; the Tajik government has already accused the Uzbek government of involvement in the May 1996 demonstrations, and of supporting Abdullojanov and his NRM. While it might be safely stated that direct Uzbek involvement is highly improbable (for one thing, the attack was not carried out in a particularly well-planned fashion), the perception that Uzbekistan might have been involved was enough for the chief Uzbek government spokesman to warn the Dushanbe government on May 1 that "it can expect a serious response to President Rakhmonov if he points to us as being involved" in the assassination attempt. The spokesman reproachfully recalled that Rakhmonov had "repeatedly accused" Tashkent of being behind the May 1996 protests. Those serious consequences could include, among other things, more open support for northern secessionists or greater economic pressure on southern Tajikistan. Given the stakes, it is not surprising, then, that the Tajik government has not made any official statements suspecting the Uzbek government of involvement.


As we have seen, the Tajik government has been swift to react, and to use the attack on the president as an excuse for a widespread crackdown on opposition in the Leninabad region. Despite the numerous arrests, or perhaps precisely because of them, it seems very likely that further violence, colored by vengeance, will occur. This, in turn, may encourage the government to try to send even more troops to the north; the vicious cycle will only be stopped if the Dushanbe regime finds the price of repression too high.

For its part, the United Tajik Opposition, at the same time that it was celebrating the Rakhmonov regime for its "wise" choice in embracing the peace agreement, also issued a strongly-worded warning to the government that the persecution of political opposition in the north threatens to reignite civil conflict in Tajikistan. In particular, the 25 May statement by the UTO leader, Said Abdullo Nuri, deplored the ongoing arrests of members of the UTO and the NRM in the Leninabad region, and called the actions "the latest crude error" made by the Rakhmonov regime. Saying that "such activities by the authorities can jeopardize the settlement process and the fragile peace and trigger a new round of political and military confrontation," the UTO leadership appears to realize how precarious and volatile the situation is. Finally, in signalling its ongoing cooperation with the NRM, the UTO statement said that "we do not want our truce with the government aand our participation in the structures of authorities to be directed against other political groups."

While Abdumalik Abdullojanov and the other leaders of the NRM have generally responded with mild rhetoric against their continued repression, it seems only a question of time, especially in light of the arrest of Abdullojanov's brother, before the stakes are raised. Beyond this, it is unclear to what extent the various opposition groups operating in the north are cooperating with each other, and how far they can go in resisting Dushanbe-imposed authorities. More worrying yet, no-one has firm information on the size or degree of organization of more militant groups, particularly those associated with the relatives of prison riot victims. The very absence of firm information, and the harassment and threats of lethal violence against Russian reporters who have tried to gather such information, do not bode well for any relaxation of the current crisis.

Finally, the reaction of outsiders -- the wider international community -- can be described as a perplexing mix of ignorance and indifference. While much attention is being focused on a possible Taliban "threat" to Central Asia, on the potential for a lasting peace in (southern) Tajikistan, and even on Chinese repression in Xinjiang, no-one, with the exception of a few Russian reporters, seems to appreciate the fact that the events in Khujand represent a much more immediate, urgent threat to peace in the region than these other issues. Both Western and Russian sources, this author included, lack basic information on just how strong the Kulyabi armed presence is in northern Tajikistan, and to what extent secessionists are beginning to arm themselves -- and whether either side is getting direct help from outsiders (Russians or Uzbeks). Beyond this, however, most analysts do not seem to see the connection to wider security issues for Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and are making no apparent attempt to gain deeper insight into northern Tajikistan's grievances. This is especially peculiar in the case of the U.N., which has a special representative to Tajikistan; there has been no leadership on the part of international actors to use the Rakhmonov attack as a warning sign against excluding the north. This indifference is tantamount to writing a blank cheque to the Rakhmonov regime, and pressure (especially from Russia) could very easily have already avoided a further escalation. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


While the secession of Tajikistan's Leninabad region from the rest of the country remains a somewhat remote possibility, that eventuality has become much more real over the last twelve months than it has ever been -- and the current actions of the Tajik government are rapidly increasing northern hostility and resentment. International actors, in particular Uzbekistan and Russia, against the backdrop of Taliban successes in Afghanistan, continue to oppose a secessionist option and are putting pressure on the National Revival Movement not to fan the embers of the dying Tajik civil war. Unfortunately, however, they do not appear to be making strong efforts to get the Tajik government to mollify its own policies regarding the north. Additionally, the wider international community, including the UN and OSCE, which have a strong presence in the region, seem unaware of the risks associated with the current crisis.

In such a climate, it is distinctly possible that a few more "shocks" to the political climate in the Leninabad region could result in a spiral of events over which no-one, including the Uzbek government, the NRM or the Tajik government, would be able to exercise effective control. As it is, the atmosphere is charged with calls for retribution from the families of those killed in prison riots and of those arrested after the Rakhmonov assassination attempt. Any popular insurrection could quickly turn violent, and there is very little that organized political forces could do to stop it (though some of them would probably also try to profit from it). While no observer desires this course of events, it must be clear to all the parties in Tajikistan, especially given the bloodshed of 1992 and 1993, what the stakes are, and how easily the sparks of civil conflict can incite widespread violence.

In a much more direct way than was the case in the (southern) Tajik civil war, conflict in the Leninabad region will have an immediate and severe impact on bordering countries. First, any prolonged amounts of fighting are likely to cause enormous refugee flows into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with no natural land barriers to slow the exodus. Secondly, the Uzbekistani government will no doubt be forced to react, either by calls from secessionist forces seeking to join Uzbekistan, or simply in the interest of restoring order in the region, of preventing the instability from spilling over into the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley and Tashkent, and of halting the influx of refugees. While the Uzbekistani government has significant military assets at its disposal, it is likely to try to avoid military intervention, at least at first, so as to avoid any escalation that might lead to confrontations with Russian units stationed in Tajikistan. Instead, it is likely to put political and economic pressure on all parties in the north to settle for greater autonomy within Tajikistan -- all of this supposing that the Tajik government and Russia are not, themselves, going to intervene more directly, militarily, in events in the north. It is noteworthy, however, that Russia has recently begun redeploying its 5000 border troops stationed in northern Kyrgyzstan to the Kyrgyz-Tajik borders. While this is ostensibly to shield Kyrgyzstan against a possible Taliban invasion (who would have to travel through hundreds of kilometres of unhospitable Tajik terrain first), it may also serve as a warning to Uzbekistan and to northern Tajik secessionists that Russia will not allow the north to break away from the rest of Tajikistan.

Finally, and most seriously, it is clear to everyone in the region that any efforts to redraw international borders would open a Pandora's box which could lead to immense upheaval throughout the region, much of which could be along ethnic lines. Whether it would be Tajiks reclaiming Samarqand and Bukhara, Uzbeks attempting to regain Osh and Jalal-abad, or any of the many other potential irredentist claims, the results would be disastrous for all involved, and that is why the political leaders in the region have been very circumspect, whatever their other goals may be, not to encourage secessionist movements. At the same time, one must also be aware that there are those, particularly in important positions in the Russian government establishment, who see discord (and maybe even strife) in Central Asia as advantageous to Russia's interests, and who would be more than happy to see a proliferation of Abkhazias in the region.

So, is there any hope for a peaceful resolution of the current crisis in the Leninabad region? Two possibilities seem reasonable, but both rely on a certain level of political will that now seems lacking, especially on the part of the Tajik government. The first is that the present crisis will simply die down, and that an uneasy, but peaceful, return to the status quo ante will take place. Under such a scenario, representatives of the NRM (but not Abdullojanov) would take the 20% of seats the UTO is willing to give them, and that all sides would cooperate to bring about a rapprochement between Abdullojanov and Rakhmonov. Again, in the current acrimonious state of affairs, with even Abdullojanov's family members being arrested, this does not seem imminent; at best, it could happen if NRM representatives are included in the National Reconciliation Commission and the government. A second possibility is that, as a result of either a peaceful process or of an armed insurrection in the north, the Leninabad region achieves a sort of de facto autonomy similar to that enjoyed by the Gorno-Badakhshon region (though it should be noted that Badakhshon's autonomy, dating back to Soviet days, has also been de jure). Under such a scenario, the Leninabadi authorities would maintain wide-ranging authority over policy-making, with the possible exception of foreign affairs, while staying within the framework of the Tajik state.

This latter scenario, which would probably enjoy widespread support in the north (where most people seem more interested in maintaining peace and economic activity than in outright secession), would also be in the interests of the governments of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, who greatly fear the impact that outright secession could have. The Tajik government, for its part, would initially oppose such a deal, and might even call on Russian support to maintain its control over the Leninabad region. Given the domestic politics of Russia, and the considerable presence of Russian troops in the south, as well as the proximity of the Khojand area to Tashkent, it seems unlikely (but certainly not impossible) that the Russians would be willing to deploy troops to the north, and may themselves agree that autonomy for northern Tajikistan is least messy option.

The long-range consequences of the "autonomy option," however, are potentially destabilizing, too. Despite its geographic isolation from the rest of the country, northern Tajikistan is no Gorno-Badakhshon. Before the civil war, economic production in the Leninabad region accounted for 65% of Tajikistan's GDP, and that percentage is likely to have increased during and after the conflict (until the recent decline). In other words, economically, the Leninabad region is not Tajikistan's periphery, but rather its heartland. Separation, even in the shape of autonomy, would have potentially disastrous consequences for the Tajik government, and is certain to be one of the main reasons why the government will bitterly oppose any real concessions to the north. To cite but one example, without the Leninabad tax base, the Tajikistani coffers would be completely empty, save humanitarian contributions from the West. In this sense, an autonomy arrangement must also take into account ways to ensure the long-term viability of the Tajik state, and it remains doubtful if the various factions now staking out ever more polarized positions are willing to look that far into the future, particularly if it runs counter to their short-term interests, or to those of their constituents.

In the final analysis, realistically speaking, there is no clear or easy way of defusing the current crisis in the Leninabad region. While the assassination attempt on President Imomali Rakhmonov should have been a wake-up call to all parties to set aside their differences and work toward reducing tensions in northern Tajikistan, the Tajik government in particular seems to have read the attack as a summons to crack down on the north. The people of the Leninabad region, who have already been suffering through a precipitous economic decline, are primarily interested in peaceful conditions that will allow foreign investment and trade toflourish. Yet, the current spiral of violence, pushed along by the war-hardened troops and greedy officials of an unstable regime, is making that goal unattainable. For the time being, Uzbekistan, which has been pursuing its own interests in backing the NRM, has an interest in maintaining at least the shell of the Tajik state, and hence can try to mollify some northern Tajik opposition; the o. Sadly, outside forces, especially in Russia and the West, do not seem to have heard this warning shot and are still not very concerned by developments in the region. This seems particularly ironic, given the current situation in Afghanistan and the recent signing of the Tajik peace agreement. Without a concerted effort, led by the international community, especially by Russia and the other guarantors of the Tajik peace process, to reduce tensions in the north and to fully incorporate it in the peace process, current actions seem set to only increase the potential for conflict. When such conflict occurs, it may well happen in a shape that will be very difficult to control and that would have severe reprecussions for neighboring states.

June 1997

SCImago Journal & Country Rank
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