On 27 June 2017, Tajikistan celebrates 20th anniversary of the Peace Agreement, which ended bloody civil war. How and why the most destroying conflict in the former Soviet Union happened in Tajikistan, its horrific consequences, and how irreconcilable sides shook each other hand and promised to keep the peace – CAAN has asked these questions to Dr. Tim Epkenhans, the author of “The Origins of the Civil War in Tajikistan”. Dr. Epkenhans, University of Freiburg’s professor, teaches political Islam and served as Director of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek from 2005 to 2009.
People bring up many versions on why civil war broke out. Some say, it started because of giving apartments to Armenians affected from earthquake in Armenia; others say, the case of Armenians was just used by Islamists to seize the power; and the third group believes that foreign countries were behind the war. What happened back in the first independence days of Tajikistan and why one of smallest and poorest Soviet republics did fall into a deep hell?
There is not one single reason for the outbreak of the civil war in Tajikistan but many reasons. Conflicting narratives provide complex and often opaque and contractory interpretations of the events that triggered the civil war in Tajikistan. For instance, the rumors about Armenian refugees were important for the mobilization of protestors during the February Riots in 1990 – known in Tajikistan as Bahmanmohi khunin (Bloody February). However, the grievances and divides in the Tajik society were much deeper: Certainly, one has to look at the economic decline in the final years of the Soviet Union. Since the early 1980s, economic statistics indicated a severe economic downturn and scarcity (and quality) of housing – in particular in the republican capital Dushanbe this was an important issue people were concerned about. Furthermore, with Perestroika and Glasnost the state’s capacity of coercion and interference receded and criminal networks – often in complicity with political elites, the KGB or MVD – stepped in and replaced the state’s authority. The group of Rauf Saliev in Dushanbe is a good example for this development.
Opportunistic individuals exploited the state’s weakness at a certain moment and privatized violence. There are prevalent rumors that individual politicians were plotting against each other, for instance Rahmon Nabiev (with the support of Safarali Kenjaev) against Qahhor Mahkamov and so forth. Likewise, foreign influence from Iran, Russia, the USA, Uzbekistan, or Saudi Arabia were implicated in various Tajik memoirs by Asliddin Sohibnazar, Safarali Kenjaev, Shodmon Yusuf, Hikmatullo Nasriddinov, Buri Karim and others. However, we need to be careful with all the conspiracy theories around the Bahmanmohi khunin.
As I pointed out in my book on “The Origins of the Civil War in Tajikistan”, there were many reasons: Economic decline and the disintegration of the state’s coercive powers (KGB and MVD) led to a situation in which opportunistic individuals – mostly among the political elite – exploited the situation (either for political power or economic opportunity). Perestorika and Glasnost had disappointed large parts of the society and in particular Mahkamov was associated with the economic and social crisis. Conflicts within the political and intellectual elite aggravated the situation and often, these conflicts were not based on regionalism. Soviet administrative practice had additionally fostered regional and professional identity, in particular in the agro-industrial complex and cotton kolkhoz, where informal networks were extremely important for economic or social advance. Politicians and criminals could capitalize on these identities in order to mobilize support, and that is what happened between 1990 and 1992. And there is a certain contingency with the election of Rahmon Nabiev. A Brezhnevite cadre with various personal shortcomings (most of the above mentioned memoirs describe Nabiev as an alcoholic who “disappeared” in times of crisis – and there were many during those years) was perhaps the least qualified politician facing the challenges of independence in 1991.
So, who fought whom? Was it a war between regions, or elites, or ideologies? If all together, how sides identified enemies?
Regionalism – mahalgeroi – is often cited as one of the main reason for the divides in Tajikistan. Again, I would be careful to overemphazise on the regionalist argument. Certainly, regionalism was important for the mobilization and the Soviet administration fostered regional identities. However, very often we see that main rivalries materialized within one regional group. For instance, Rahmon Nabiev and Qahhor Mahkamov both come from Leninobod, but internal elite conflicts were more important than regionalist solidarity. The same is valid for Sangak Safarov, who first fought against political rivals within his southern Kulobi constituency (for instance, when he personally executed Jiyonkhon Rizoev). Thus, very often regionalism is a complex we used to rationalize the conflict.
In first days of the war Dushanbe was ruled mostly by opposition forces for a short period. But comparatively without resistance the capital was taken by pro-government groups. Can you please shed a light into this page of history?
The Government of National Reconciliation (GNR), which ruled Dushanbe and some parts of Tajikistan between May and September 1992, is indeed an interesting episode in the convoluted history of those years. In general, the GNR failed because after its set up, Leninobod province and Kulob openly declared that they considered the GNR as anti-constitutional (which – from a legal point of view – was not completely wrong). The GNR had no official armed forces, but only a few remaining forces from the MVD and KGB. Military power had been privatized and shifted over to militias around charismatic field commanders, such as Langari Langariev, Sangak Safarov, Fayzali Saidov, Mullo Abdughaffor and others. In particular, the participation of the IRPT – Davlat Usmon became Deputy Prime Minister – was a contentious decision and many neighboring governments – including Uzbekistan and Russia did not accept the GNR as the legal government in Tajikistan and instead supported the militias of Kenjaev and from Kulob. Finally, many politicians in Dushanbe did not really participate in the GNR – even among the Democratic Party, such as Shodmon Yusuf, which undermined the GNR’s authority.
The general perception of the role of foreign countries in the Tajik civil war is as following: Russia and Uzbekistan supported the National Front, and Iran supported the Unite Opposition. Did Uzbekistan really bomb the opposition forces in the territory of Tajikistan? Did Russia arm the National Front? What type of support from foreign countries the opposition received?
In early months of the conflict, no foreign interference was necessary. Later, Russia and Uzbekistan became more active, mostly by supporting the National Front. We have several memoirs by Speznaz and GRU officers fighting with the militias around Shar-Shar and other places. Russian and Uzbek KGB officers provided security during the 16th session of the Supreme Soviet in Khujand and after Rahmon was elected as Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Russian and Uzbek military actively supported his government in Dushanbe. On the other side, the UTO was supported by different militias in Afghanistan and later Iran.
Was there any research about the impact of the war to life of ordinary people in territories with no direct military clashes, such as Dushanbe and Leninobod? How it affected the life of people in these territories? How it affected the work of government structures (like police), or social services (pensions, salaries, water, gas, etc.), business, education (schools, universities), etc.?
The economic and social downturn was also tangible in regions without direct fighting, as for instance in the north (except for the short incursion in 1998). The collapse of the government and integrated economy was severe and economic data clearly shows this. Until now, the economy has not recovered to the 1989 level and the state`s capacity – when it comes to health care and education – is still insufficient.
And in territories, where clashes were going on: Khatlon, Rasht?
There the situation was even worse due to the large scale destructions and the fighting.
Do we have any figures about victims of the war, how many were killed, injured, left without breadwinners, became orphans, and a very sensitive topic never discussed in Tajikistan – were raped?
There are no official figures. Early estimates – in August/September 1992 – spoke about 50,000 dead and 800,000 refugees. In academic publications, the number of dead is usually estimated between 40,000 to 120,000. I assume only rigorous research and a truth commission could establish more reliable figures. But this is unlikely considering the political climate at present. Indeed, the civil war was fought with utmost brutality and sexual violence was apparently used systematically. There are many reports, but no reliable data.
If not the peace, what would be the outcome of the war? Who was in what strategic position?
The Civil War had more than two parties and for many years Rahmon was more seriously challenged by field commanders from his own faction than by field commanders from the opposition. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan changed the parameters for the conflict and urged Russia and Iran to exert their influence on the UTO and the government in Dushanbe. This was one important factor. At the same time, the UTO and the Rahmon government were ready to negotiate peace.
Some groups and individuals considered the benefits from the peace agreement as insufficient and therefore did not agree with the terms of the General Accord. One should also not underestimate the influence of criminal networks, for them peace is not really desirable.
How would you evaluate the peace agreement? Who mostly benefitted from it?
The political elites around Rahmon certainly benefitted most from the Accord. The peace dividend for the former UTO was limited. The agreement ended the immediate violence and initiated a transition. The international community, the UN and OSCE, assisted initially in the transitional process but were not committed enough – in particular since 2001 –and perhaps set the wrong parameters and incentives for “peace-building” as such.