DUSHANBE: A standoff between locals in the remote province of Badakhshan and the Tajik government has been resolved for now at least, but it highlights growing levels of social discontent in this underdeveloped part of the country. Analysts say local concerns need to be urgently addressed by central government to prevent them growing into a political confrontation. Three days of demonstrations began when around 300 people gathered on June 18 in the regional centre Khorog. The numbers swelled as the rally continued over the next two days.
The immediate cause of the protests was the arrival of a contingent of 1,200 troops sent into the region by the government in Dushanbe. Officials said soldiers and armoured personnel carriers had been deployed to beef up the porous border with Afghanistan and curb the trafficking of drugs brought in from that country.
“We need to strengthen the border, which remains effectively out of control,” Defence Minister Sherali Khairulloyev told the Asia-Plus news agency in an interview published on June 20. “The rising crime rate in Badakhshan is forcing the government to take radical measures to stabilise the situation. In the first three months of this year, drug trafficking in the country [Tajikistan as a whole] showed a 40 per cent increase on the same period last year.”
However, speakers at the rally raised concerns that central government had sent in the forces to eliminate powerful local figures and crush public expressions of dissent in Badakhshan. Alim Sherzamonov, the head of the local branch of Tajikistan’s Social Democratic Party, and a prominent figure at the rally, said people were alarmed at the move. “The [stated] objective of these troops looks very suspicious,” he said. In a reference to two cases earlier this year where armed units were brought in to eliminate local powerbrokers in other parts of Tajikistan, he said, “After Garm and Kulob, we’re afraid of our own [country’s] armed forces… We don’t have any issue with them, but if they aren’t withdrawn, we’ll block their way without using weapons, as they did in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Let them crush us!”
Other, longer-standing concerns voiced at the meeting included the feeling that the regional administration was ineffective, and that Badakhshan should be granted a greater degree of autonomy. Despite some tough talk on both sides, the mounting tension in Khorog was dispelled in a deal between the government and influential local figures.
Some of these were former guerrilla commanders with the opposition during the 1992-97 civil war, and still retain a lot of influence locally. The official statements about lawlessness in Badakhshan may have been allusion to their presence, and some suspected the extra military force was really a threat to these individuals and their followers.
Last month, security forces deployed in force in the southern town of Kulob where they besieged and eventually captured a group with paramilitary links – in this case to a pro-government militia – and now alleged to be heavily involved in drug-running. In February, a police unit from Dushanbe tried unsuccessfully to capture a former guerrilla-turned-policeman. A police officer was killed in a firefight between local police and the incomers. (See Cops and Robbers in Tajikistan, RCA No. 546, 06-Jun-08 on the Kulob siege; and Murder Invokes Ghosts of Tajikistan’s Past, RCA No. 533, 20-Feb-08 on the clash in Garm.)
Also in February, a former opposition commander in Badakhshan, Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, was involved in an incident in which Khorog’s police station came under fire. No one was hurt, and Mamadbokirov and his men turned in their weapons after police delivered an ultimatum.
Suspicions that the Badakhshan troop deployment was another attempt to assert central authority by force were only strengthened when Defence Minister Sherali Khayrulloev told the Asia-Plus news agency that one of the organisers of the Khorog rally, Imomnazar Imomnazarov, was a suspected drug trafficker who would be “neutralised” by the military if he and his supporters did not hand over their weapons.
Some of these figures were prominent in the protests, and it is mark of their importance that leading ex-guerrilla commanders were invited to a meeting with a mission from Dushanbe headed by Interior Minister Mahmadnazar Salihov. After two days of negotiations, the commanders agreed to hand over about 300 weapons – 60 were surrendered immediately – in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
Under the deal, the extra troops will remain in the region, but an immediate aid package will be made available for 5,000 low income families, consisting of rice, flour, sugar and cooking oil. The authorities also promised to send a consignment of wheelchairs and computers, both in short supply in Badakhshan.-SANA