Tajikistan: Regional Visit Highlights Challenges To Regime

3 MINS READSep 19, 2012 | 10:30 GMT
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon arrived Sept. 18 in Khorug, the capital of Tajikistan's eastern Gorno-Badakhshan province, for a two-day visit to the region. While the official purpose of the trip is to inaugurate schools and businesses, the visit is more likely motivated by persistent security and political issues in the province. Just a month has passed since the end of military operations in Gorno-Badakhshan, and the restive province is capable of destabilizing the rest of the country.

Still, simmering tensions in Gorno-Badakhshan are only the most immediate of many issues challenging Rakhmon's regime ahead of Tajikistan's 2013 presidential election. Though currently experiencing fragile peace, the divided country remains vulnerable to rapid escalations of seemingly small and localized crises. Rakhmon's grip on power could also be complicated by external pressures from countries, such as Uzbekistan, and the re-emergence of previously marginalized political factions.

Conflict broke out in Gorno-Badakhshan province when the government launched military operations in the remote and mountainous region July 24 against regional warlord Tolib Ayombekov's forces, who were accused of killing regional head of the State Committee on National Security Maj. Gen. Abdullo Nazarov on July 21. Ayombekov was a prominent opposition leader during Tajikistan's 1992-1997 civil war, after which he was given control of a key border crossing as part of Rakhmon's reconciliation program.

The post allowed Ayombekov to amass significant wealth and political clout due to his control of smuggling activities across the Afghan border, making him a threat to the central government in Dushanbe. Ayombekov reportedly escaped across the Afghan border, and no major violent incidents have been reported since the major military offensive subsided in August.


120724 Tajikistan map

Still, the government's targeting of Ayombekov has created concerns of renewed hostilities between security forces and the warlord's supporters in eastern Tajikistan. Despite multiple state media reports that security forces had departed Gorno-Badakhshan, the military has remained in the area, sparking protests by the local population. A residual security force similar to what remained after security sweeps in the Rasht Valley in 2010 will likely stay in Gorno-Badakhshan province long after Rakhmon's visit.

Tenuous Calm

The situation on the ground remains unclear because the government has cut communication lines to eastern Tajikistan and imposed periodic blackouts of nongovernment media outlets. But the situation in Gorno-Badakhshan appears to have calmed somewhat, at least temporarily. Indeed, there have been several reports of local residents voluntarily surrendering their weapons. Moreover, the onset of winter in the upcoming weeks will hinder any significant movements of militants in the Afghan-Tajik border region until spring.

However, relatively small and localized incidents in Central Asia have a history of quickly escalating into larger crises. The country remains internally split, since clans and opposition groups concentrated in the east never fully reconciled with the Rakhmon government or his support base in the west. This split will become particularly evident in the months leading up to the country's 2013 presidential election, which will pose the most credible threat to Rakhmon's hold on power since he took office. Rakhmon will face opposition not only from former militants in eastern Tajikistan but also from resurgent political groups and parties such as the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the only legally registered Islamist party in Central Asia, that resent Rakhmon's crackdown on religious elements in the country. 

Rakhmon also faces external challenges, particularly from Uzbekistan, with which tensions over security and economic issues have periodically led to border skirmishes, rail line closures and resource cutoffs. There have also been calls, albeit likely futile ones, by Tajik opposition groups based in Russia for the Kremlin — Tajikistan's primary security and political backer — to cut ties with the Rakhmon government.

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