By the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was on the edge of a total collapse. Political and social turmoil loomed over Central Asia, clearing the path for civil unrest and massive protests. The civil war in Tajikistan that erupted in 1992, led the country to total chaos with different factions fighting over control of the country. In a span of five years, thousands of people lost their lives, while millions were forced to relocate to escape the bloodbath. The peace process in Tajikistan was far from perfect, however, the process can serve as a lesson for the ongoing eruptions of violence in Central Asia. Diplomacy and exterior civic communication were key factors in the stabilization of the country. An in-depth analysis of the civil war and the history of the country might be the key to the normalization of Central Asia.
Tajikistan and Islam Under Soviet Rule
During the late 19th century, Imperial Russia conquered Central Asia managing to gain control of Tajikistan. By 1929, Tajikistan officially became part of the Soviet Union under the name of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. The same year, up until the late 1930s, Joseph Stalin conducted a bloody campaign against the predominant religion of the area, which was Islam. It was part of his union-wide campaign to eradicate religion from all the Soviet Union Republics. However, Tajik people who were predominantly Muslims, managed to resist the purges of their religion up until the start of World War II. At that point, Stalin reversed most of his policies against Islam in order to recruit more soldiers for his resistance fight against Nazi Germany. Thus, restrictions against religion were relaxed, and a governing body for Islamic activities was created, named the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (SADUM). This governing body was going to be the link between the government and Muslims in the country, to conduct the reform of religious affairs and to deal with the unnecessary superstructures of Islam and the incorrect interpretations of it. After the death of Stalin in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev resumed some of the anti-Islamic propaganda to further control and combat Islam. However, the people of Tajikistan resisted once again against any form of religious oppression. Their resistance and affiliation with Islam would play a huge role in the coming decades when Tajikistan officially declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Tajik Civil War
In 1990 in the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, Islamic activists, and nationalists began anti-government riots demanding radical political changes and economic reforms. By 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, Tajikistan declared its independence and proceeded to conduct elections the same year. The leader of the Communist Party, Rahmon Nabiyev won the elections against his political rival Davlat Khudonazarov. However, the results were disputed with many people calling for election fraud in favor of the communist leader. By 1992, there was an electrified atmosphere throughout the country. Soon enough, protests turned into violent riots. In the northern part of the country at the city of Khujant, rioters even managed to capture the newly elected president, forcing him to resign from his position. In the meantime, a strongly organized Tajik opposition was formed in the south and east regions of the country, primarily in Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan (Pamirs) area. The opposition was led primarily by activists and liberal democrats, who were connected via a strong sense of nationalism and religious affiliation with Islam. They founded the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) and led the war against the government forces that were now led by Emomali Rahmon and aided significantly by Russia and Uzbekistan. With the external support of the two countries mentioned before, the Tajik government managed to gain little by little massive ground especially in the northern and central parts of Tajikistan, at the Leninabadi (Khujat) and Kulob region. As a result, rebels from the UTO had to flee to neighboring Afghanistan where they had a chance to reorganize to strike back.
The controversial involvement of Afghanistan
Although Afghanistan had declared its neutral stance since the beginning of the conflict in Tajikistan, special reports proved the exact opposite. Many UTO rebels were eventually aided by Taliban extremists and Al-Qaeda members in their fight against the Tajik government forces. It was clear that because of the unsettled nature of the country and its close geographical proximity with Afghanistan, this controversial support from the Taliban could escalate to an extremist Islamic takeover of Tajikistan, alarmingly resembling the Islamic caliphate that we witness today in Afghanistan. One of the key figures that aided the extremist rebels was Shah Massoud, a war veteran that fought against the Soviets in the 1980s. He was also the leader of Jamiat-e Islami, a political party in Afghanistan that was in favor of ousting any communist influence from Tajikistan and destabilizing the Russian Federation. By 1996, it was clear that the civil war had escalated dramatically. With the aid of radical extremists from Afghanistan, the Russian forces that were aiding the government realized that they could not waste time and with the advantage of their superior forces managed to capture Dushanbe and crush any potential revolt against them and the Tajik government. The following year, the war ended after a United Nations armistice sponsored by Russia.
Post-Conflict Peace Process
In 1997, the Inter-Tajik Dialogue which was a Track II Diplomacy initiative managed to settle an armistice from both sides. A power-sharing agreement was signed, officially ending the war. President Emomali Rahmon, the leader of the UTO rebels, Sayid Abdulloh Nuri, and the President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, all met in the Kremlin on June 26, 1997, to finalize the peace treaty. Elections were held in 1999, where Emomali Rahmon, leader of the People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan won 97% of the vote. The peace process combined both official and civic channels of communication between the government, the rebels, and the Russian Federation which was considered the de facto negotiator for the end of the civil war. The dialogue between all three parties provided a new understanding of the Tajik conflict. While it was far from perfect, the negotiations allowed the representation of different views and perspectives that allowed each party to understand the goals and interests of the other side.
Emomali Rahmon has been the de facto leader of Tajikistan for almost 30 years now. Some experts are arguing that this long-standing grip on power has turned the country into a family-owned business, with many of Rahmon’s relatives occupying key government and administration positions throughout the country. Despite its economic growth, Tajikistan is considered to be one of the poorest countries in Central Asia. The economy is still concentrated on the agricultural sector, while their biggest asset is their labour power. One in four families has at least one family member working abroad. According to the International Labor Organization, the total labour migration out of the country encompasses between 800.000.000 to 1.000.000 people, which represents about 10% of the total population of 10.000.000.
In terms of a model for future conflict resolutions in Central Asia, the case of Tajikistan offers some insights as to how to deal with such threats. Emomali Rahmon quickly understood that the containment of Islamic extremism was a key factor in not allowing bursts of violence throughout his country. He began a secular campaign that focuses on preserving the inner religion of the country and not allowing external factors, such as foreign Islamic educators to have access to the religious education of the Tajik people. The goal of this objective can be influential for other countries in Central Asia in order to stabilize any potential outbreak of violence or dispute. In addition, external actors can pursue a similar goal of launching a peaceful dialogue with Islamic activists and educators to separate the moderate part of the religion from the radical one. In the end, a Track II Diplomacy path and containment of religious extremism can create a significant space for dialogue and compromise between different factions. Although the situation in Tajikistan might be seen as an example, for this model to work for other countries in the region, any process of dialogue must compromise with the different socio-political developments that might occur.