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Tajikistan: Pain and Resentment of the Highlanders

According to the experts, Dushanbe has to eliminate the causes rather than to fight with the consequences of unresolved problems in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region.

GBAO on the map of Tajikistan. Source: Wikipedia commons License
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“It was quiet and calm here, was it necessary to deploy additional troops?” asks a resident of Khorog, where the campaign against ‘lawlessness’ and weapons seizure began after President Rahmon’s visit in mid-September.

“We were promised that these forces would be withdrawn within a month. But they remained here, it makes people nervous and leads to all sorts of provocations,” continues anonymous 40-year-old source.

No one here wants to reveal his or her name when sharing personal honest opinion. Two months after the landmark visit of the President of the Republic to the administrative center of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, the situation in Khorog has truly changed. Yet, it is not clear what will follow.

“We were accused of high crime rate in our city. But there is no need to blame everyone in this and frighten the entire population only because of a few people the authorities named,” said another city resident concerned for the safety of her children.

“Our people have not yet recovered from the stress of 2012,” she says referring to a military operation held to capture the suspects in the murder of the local State Committee for National Security Head in ​​2012. This military operation was accompanied by another, which led to the death of 48 people. “Everyone is afraid. Even the kindergarten children say that the war is about to start.”

More on special operation in Khorog in 2012 in IWPR material: Another Blow to Fragile Stability in Tajik East

Abakhon Sultonnazarov’s comment on Khorog 2012 events: How Will Badakhshan Recover from Violence?

Emomali Rahmon’s reception in Khorog. Photo by the Presidential Press Service
The President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon criticized the regional authorities for crime outrage and insufficient work in the fight against crime. He replaced the regional leadership and the security forces chiefs, ordered to correct the mistakes and withdraw weapons from the population.

The subsequent large-scale law enforcement campaign in Khorog was accompanied by various incidents and misunderstandings between the authorities and the local population. One of the headline incidents involved a law enforcement officer shooting a group of young people with a traumatic gun, after which people took to the square demanding a fair trial and the withdrawal of additional security forces from the autonomous region.

At the same time, some of Khorog residents say they are tired of a disruptive behavior of the certain part of the local youth, and they welcome authorities scaling up their work in ensuring legal compliance of the population.

“The city residents have witnessed them shooting and stabbing in the city center and their group fights many times. Even the police officers were afraid to engage in their fights,” – the informant says. “When the problems are solved by force, young people think this is the only way to act. This is not the right example for these young people.”

“It is better now; many people have handed over their weapons. In the beginning, everyone feared a military operation would start, but we are glad that problems are solved peacefully,” notes Rukia Davronsho, editor-in-chief of the regional weekly newspaper “Oinai Zindagi”.

“Special” Region

Khorog residents. Photo: pinterest.com
The current situation in GBAO and the rough relations between Dushanbe authorities and the residents of the autonomous region are the result of several complex reasons, experts explain.

Pamiri Tajiks live in GBAO; their cultural and religious identity, languages ​​are slightly different from those of other Tajiks inhabiting the republic. They adhere to Shia Ismailism, while other Tajiks are Sunni. They speak the East Iranian language group poorly understood by the Tajiks.

These factors are partly due to the nature of environment in which the Pamiris live, experts say.

“The strong solidarity and mutual support are inherent to the Pamiris” says GBAO-born analyst Abakhon Sultonnazarov.

According to him, the insufficient attention Dushanbe central authorities pay to the Pamiris created the conditions for the informal leaders’ emergence and consolidation of their influence on these lands. However, he adds, the informal leaders as an institute existed in Pamir during the Soviet rule as well.

The Tajik media renders “informal leaders” of Khorog as the leaders of the local organized crime groups. Referring to the official information, the media write they are involved in goods and drugs trafficking from Afghanistan.

In particular, several years ago, the Drug Control Agency accused one of these leaders, Tolib Ayombekov, of “criminal relations” and “illegal trafficking of tobacco products, precious gems (mainly emeralds and ruby), weapons, alcoholic beverages and drugs”.

However, at the end of this October, the Tajik media reported that Ayombekov visited local Prosecutor’s Office and demanded an explanation regarding the charges of illegal activities against him. The prosecutor’s office informed him there were no criminal cases against him.

“I was told that apart from an overdue bank credit, there are no complaints; I promised to pay back the bank loan in the nearest future,” the Asia Plus news agency cites Ayombekov.

“From 2006 and up to date, there have been at least four attempts to solve the problem of informal leaders’ presence using the most radical methods. The central authorities made wrong decisions each time due to the lack of knowledge of the region’s peculiarities,” says analyst Alim Sherzamonov, a native of Khorog now living in Poland.

Sherzamonov believes the President of the Republic of Tajikistan was misled by his entourage regarding the criminals’ alleged loss of former power in GBAO and the prospect to strengthen Dushanbe-managed law enforcement agencies’ position. However, later it turned out that the local population does not like the “new” old measures central authorities take.

“The reason for such a discontent lies not as much in local “leaders” opposing the authorities, as in the unresolved social problems,” Alim Sherzamonov notes.

“I would not argue that this nation opposes the center and presents authorities with a real threat,” he adds.

Periodic Table Set

The city of Khorog. Photo: Mikhail Romanyuk
The industrial and economic activity of Tajikistan is mainly concentrated in the north of the country and in the Districts of Republican Subordination. The mountains occupy most of GBAO territory. Although the region is rich in minerals, it does not feature any industrial activity providing jobs for the population.

About 80% of GBAO budget is subsidized from the republican budget. The remaining 20% is tax revenues from small and medium businesses.

The local residents say that if the authorities had focused on improving the socio-economic situation of GBAO population, the trust between the center and autonomy would be built.

“These criminals solve the problems of the young people,” says Avvalmo Khubonshoeva, a member of the Regional Parliament in Khorog. She adds that the situation would have changed for the better if the authorities had focused on the problem of local youth employment instead of fighting criminals.

The 217-thousand GBAO population, just like the whole Tajikistan, owns its survival mainly to the remittances from labor migrants.

“The government of the republic is trying to tackle the employment problem. For example, a quota has been allocated for one hundred young people, Khorog residents, to work on the Roghun hydropower station construction. The Ministry of Internal Affairs also invited youth to work,” the spokesman for GBAO administration Golib Niyatbekov says. He adds that the authorities understand this is clearly not enough to solve the problem.

At the same time, many former workers involved in a construction of Roghun hydropower plant complained they were fired from the facility and did not receive the promised wages; the payment was limited to the minimum consumer basket price.

“It is impossible to solve all these problems in a short time. These are the problems requiring more than one day to solve,” anonymous political analyst from Dushanbe said. “These problems need to be solved step by step: develop a strategic plan for the development of the region; create jobs, provide young people with an opportunity to realize their potential. Under no circumstances should these problems be solved by force.”

The Deputy Director of the Strategic Research Center under the President of Tajikistan Saifullo Safarov believes “the situation in Khorog will significantly improve in the nearest future”.

“First, the population of Pamir is very interested in defusing the situation. All measures are being taken there, and the population seeks to defuse the situation. Newly appointed executives are eager to do this. Yodgor Fayzov is the newly appointed head of the region, a new face in politics. By the way he behaves now, it is clear that everything will be fine there. Both government agencies and the population are now interested in preventing the escalation of the tensions. No one should be afraid that something bad might happen to the people. The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region is an indivisible part of Tajikistan, and gradually everything will get better there,” Saifullo Safarov, Deputy Director of the Strategic Research Center under the President of Tajikistan, said.

Abakhon Sultonnazarov. Personal photo
The analyst Abakhon Sultonnazarov underscores that the underdevelopment of GBAO is also related to the fact that the regional administration head has limited powers, as all key officials are appointed in Dushanbe. However, Sultonnazarov hopes that the new head of the region will be given more opportunities to prove himself as a leader and contribute to the region development.

“As the former Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan head, Yodgor Fayzov knows the main problems in GBAO firsthand and has a proven managerial experience. If he is to have a direct access to key officials in Dushanbe, he may be more effective in addressing the problems,” Sultonnazarov believes.

Sultonazarov says that employees from other districts and regions of Tajikistan are often sent to Khorog. They do not know the local specifics, and demand money to solve various issues.

“When the locals had these positions, there were no such corruption cases,” he says.

Azhdar Kurtov. Photo: Radio France Internationale
Hard-to-reach quality of GBAO geography is the main cause of the emerged social, legal and economic problems, and it is unlikely that Dushanbe will be able to influence the situation in the coming decades, Azhdar Kurtov, an expert on Central Asia says.

Therefore, he believes that the current configuration – the influence of criminals, drug trafficking, smuggling – will be functioning in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region for a long time down the road.

“It is possible that the entire periodic table (of minerals) is hidden in GBAO, but mining costs a lot of money and delivery of this very periodic table to the solvent part of the Earth population costs huge money as well. Therefore, this region was not particularly developed neither during the Soviet times nor now,” the expert says.

“If there were opportunities, it would have already been done. It is not the fault of Dushanbe or miscalculations; it is just a very difficult job to do. These are the peculiarities of the region, one cannot argue with geography,” he concludes.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.  

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