Conflict Resolution in Tajikistan


1. Introduction The emergence of independent Tajikistan out of the USSR is one of the most painful state building attempts of modern Central Asian history. From 1990, this country experienced rise in political activism, freedom of speech, sharp political debates, civil war, an internationally led peace process, returning of exiled opposition and their militias, and re-distribution of power. Tajik society had suffered a shock of civil warfare and ready to pay a robust price for not having another bloodshed. That price includes conflict avoidance in a form of reconcilement with low living standards, lack of civil rights and good governance, etc. The political process so far did not result in noticeable accomplishments in promoting pluralism and democracy. In general, this country remains vulnerable to a rapid escalation of internal or external tensions and still needs to enhance effective conflict mediation mechanisms. Yet Tajik civil war presents a paradox: amidst the devastation is the chance to make fundamental changes that will better meet the needs of the constituent members of the society.  Alternative political choices exist to make a compromise a permanent feature of Tajik politics vis-à-vis clash and confrontation.  The society is surprisingly open; people are receptive to liberal ideas. Prospects for Turkmen-type totalitarianism, or ruthless authoritarianism of a Uzbek president Karimov-style authoritarianism are unfavorable in this country. Serious threats to stability notwithstanding, Tajikistan is continuing its gradual shift from a fragile post-war recovery towards less dangerous, more stable, conventional and transparent political order. A resumption of war and rapid radicalization of political Islam are less likely than ever since 1991. As of 2004, there is no terrorist organizations acting in, or passing through Tajikistan.
2. Background
The vast trans-river region of the Central Asian region of Movarounnahr (‘beyond the river’ in Arabic) is the historical residence of the Turkmens, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and some other smaller groups.  The Ancient Greeks called the two rivers the Oxus and Jaxartes.  The Persians named them the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. The territory to the south of Amu Darya, adjacent to Movarounnahr, was called Khorasan by the Arabs.  It encompassed the main part of today’s Turkmenistan, north-eastern Iran, and the northern provinces of Afghanistan.  Khorasan and Movarounnahr were principal centers of a global civilization connecting the East and West.  They functioned for many centuries as a hub of overland trade.  However by the sixteenth century the region had lost its importance as a pivot of the world’s politics, culture and economy.  This decline is usually attributed to the discovery of maritime trade routes that connected the cold and warm seas and displaced the long established caravan routes.  Little by little the old ‘Silk Roads’ fell into a state of desolation and formerly powerful empires of the trans-riverine Central Asia devolved into small and relatively weak khanates.  This period of decline coincided with the rise of powerful European states that launched offensives to the East seeking political and economic control over distant regions in Asia. In contrast to the Britons who came to Central Asia through their interest in Afghanistan as a buffer zone to protect India, the Russians arrived in Central Asia directly by invasion.  After defeating the Kazakhs and incorporating the steppe, Russia moved south and occupied the right bank of the Amu Darya and the Emir of Bukhara became a Russian vassal in 1869.  The other Central Asian states of Khiva and Kokand (Khuqand) were also conquered by Russia and constituted a part of Turkistan General-Gubernatorial with the capital at Tashkent.  London tried to restrain the Russian promotion, in an effort to keep her from approaching Britain’s Indian frontiers. The ‘Afghan buffer,’ and its northern edge, that is the Amu Darya’s. stream from Vakhan in the east up to Kerky in the west (more then 2,000 kilometres) served, Russian-British treaties, as a natural line of defence between the empires. It was a crucial moment, one, which defined the destiny of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen, who now had involuntary joined Russian Empire.
Tajiks were first to Islamize in Central Asia in 7-8 AD. Most of them follow Sunni Islam, Hanafi School of law. Yet religion (Sunnism) and language (Farsi) have not been the markers for this ethnic group. In the mountain areas of Badakhshan were populations numbering several tens of thousands who were adherents of the Aga Khan’s branch of Shia Islam, also known Ismailis and spoke Shughni, Rushoni and other East Iranian languages, yet used Tajik (West Iranian language) as their literary language.  What made Tajiks different from their neighbors were Iranianism (that is speaking in one of Iranian–Western or Eastern—languages, having Farsi as a lingua franca), and sedentarianism (absence of tribal structures and egalitarian political institutions). In contrast to nomad (Uzbek, Kazakh, Pushtun) tribesmen, Tajik loyalty developed around village (neighborhood) and family. Iranianism attached Tajiks to the great written tradition of Iranian culture rooted in pre-Islamic times, sedentarism –to economy of urban centers and rural settlements of the region. These ‘primordial’ characteristics were embedded in history, in shared sense of belonging to the oldest, pre-Turkic civilization. These ‘givens’ were crucial as a starting point of Stalin nation construction in the 1920s and later. Tajikistan’s unique culture, history as well as location made this country the most ‘Easternized’, in terms of geographical and cultural closeness to Southern Asia and Middle East, part of former USSR.
3. The Tajik peace and war
Tajikistan, following other USSR republics’ example adopted declaration of state independence in September 1991. The presidential election of November1991 led to the struggle of the opposition coalition comprised of Islamic groups coupled with newborn secular democratic movements opposed to old pro-governmental Soviet elites. Debates turned into open armed confrontation in 1992. Political antagonism pro and contra communism was gradually overpowered by the regional group discord. The Tajik war was not a primitive war of ethnic and regional groups. Rather, this was a war of regional political entrepreneurs and newborn ‘field commanders’ (or warlords) who succeeded to various degrees in securing popular support in respective areas.
In November 1992, a government led by Emomali Rakhmonov from Kulab region had regained control, backed by Russia and Uzbekistan. In November 1994, Emomali Rakhmonov (by this time a chairman of parliament) was elected president of Tajikistan. According to the 1994 Constitution, Tajikistan is a sovereign, democratic, law-governed, secular, and unitary state with separated executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The supreme legislative body, a parliament, is Majlisi Oli (Supreme Council) of the Republic of Tajikistan. In November 1999 presidential elections, Emomali Rakhmonov won 96,91 per cent of votes, while his opponent from the Islamic Renaissance Party got only 2,1 per cent. The referendum held in June 2003 will enable President Rahmonov to serve for an additional two, seven-year terms. The biggest upcoming test of Tajikistan’s post-war power-sharing mechanisms are the planned 2005 and 2006 parliamentary and presidential elections.
The Tajik war was followed by relatively quick and successful reconciliation. Now the Tajikistan peace process took its place in the general literature on conflicts around the world. The assessments of the Tajik peace vary. For UN this is a matter of proud, one the successful peace processes they have ever sponsored. Official Dushanbe and many Tajiks would agree with this judgment. For them the peace process is a fact of historical importance that rescued the nation and solidified its consolidation. Yet many in the West and Tajikistan itself consider the Tajik peace is a bargaining, a deal between two regional forces presented by pro-Communist Kulabis and Gharmi-dominated Islamists for governmental portfolios and economic assets. Indeed, the Tajik peace process was one of the best-coordinated peace processes in recent history. UN and regional governments (mostly Russia and Iran) became sponsors of the Tajik reconciliation. Fortunately for the Tajiks, international situation favored the Tajik peace process. The rise of Taliban in Afghanistan had frightened all regional governments. The fear of “Talibanization” of Central Asia had brought together interests of main sponsors of the warring parties.  Russian government rushed to put its pressure on the government, while Iran pushed Tajik Islamists to the table of negotiations. Yet this fact makes Tajik politics is very vulnerable to outside influences; a change of the international situation may instigate new violence.
The UN opted for a relatively narrow but realistic peace making formula that focused on ending warfare. The Tajik peace process revealed a common trait of many peace processes all over the world, more exactly a collision between a ‘security first’ approach versus more wide, comprehensive, representative, transparent peacemaking. A security first approach that was employed in Tajikistan was of great success in stopping the war while has not been yet as successful in the establishment of more democratic governance.  Parties and movements that did not resort to the use of weapons also did not have a place at the table or a seat in the transitional government.  Because of this approach, the interests of some political forces were not represented in the negotiations.
An internationally facilitated series of talks between the government of President Rakhmonov and the United Tajik Opposition lasted from 1994 to 1997. As a result of the brutal civil war, up to 50,000 people lost their lives and more than 650,000 people – one tenth of the population – were displaced. Among them up to 60 000 fled to Afghanistan. More than 35,000 homes were destroyed. The total war damage is estimated to be $7 billion. The1997 General Peace Agreement was designed around five main sets of issues, particularly:
1.       Political issues, including constitutional and government reform, elections, rules pertaining to parties and movements, and the mass media;
2.       Military issues, focused on disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration;
3.       Refugee issues;
4.       Amnesty arrangements;
Arrangements for implementing these agreements through a UN sponsored Commission for National Reconciliation (CNR) with equal representation from the Government and the United Tajik Opposition. The idea that guided the 1997 General Agreement was the principle of power sharing for a transitional period and then full integration under a unified state. The ultimate goal was to turn opponents into partners in the difficult task of governing. The 30% quota granted to UTO provided the opposition a place in government. The quota was imposed under the outside pressure. It did not lead to the formation of the coalition government. Most of UTO members joined the party of power. A significant conflict trigger would be the breakdown of this consensus. Vis-à-vis the government, Tajik opposition arguably still holds a powerful tool – a social mobilization mechanism capable of harnessing the support of dissatisfied rural youth. The government on the other hand controls the levers of state-controlled violence and repression.  Should one or both sides decide to employ these mechanisms, violent conflict would be inevitable. Today’s challenge is to promote both a strong country and enable political pluralism. In many ways, to date this issue is addressed mostly through political compromise rather than through the formal structure of government.

4. Islam and state
Important characteristic of the Tajik negotiations was that they were conducted by the representatives of two parties that were actually involved in fighting the war. One of them was represented by United Tajik Opposition, in the core on which was Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). In result, a very effective formula of dealing with religion-based political activism came out of the Tajik peace process. Proclaimed Islamist ideals notwithstanding, Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) from its inception has been closely attached to ethnic nationalism, and to the Tajik state building project. Since the first days of independence, it created a coalition, which included official clergy, newborn nationalist-minded democrats, and non-Sunni (Shi’a Ismaili) minority against Communist party candidate in presidential election in 1991. Since independence in 1991, through civil war in 1992-1996, peace process in 1994-1997 and the integration into government in 1999-2000, Tajik Islamists and nationalist-democratic movement were in a unified political front based on common Tajik nationalism, which appeared to be unexpectedly strong. During the UN-sponsored peace process, in 1999 under the pressure of international guarantors of the Tajik peace process, changes in Constitution were made, and IRPT, which constituted a core of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) has been legalized. Today Tajikistan is the only state in the region where Islamic movement after ten years of open confrontation, opted to participate in the political process legally, within quasi-democratic structures.
The fortune of Tajik Islamists sharply differs from one of their Uzbek co-religionists.  Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has started as a relatively peaceful Islamic movement, but soon, in 1992-1993 it had taken steps in forcible introducing Islamic state in Ferghana. Being persecuted by the Uzbek regime, most of its activists left Uzbekistan for Tajikistan where they fought alongside with the Tajik Islamists against secular Tajik government in 1992-1996. The year 1996, however, ruined this Islamist alliance of the Tajiks and Uzbeks in favor of ethnic nationalism. Firstly, the rise of the Pushtun dominated Taliban in Afghanistan heralded the end of the Tajik civil war.  The reluctance to support the Taliban led the Tajik opposition and the government to the table of the UN-sponsored negotiations in 1994. That time Afghanistan’s President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, was one of peace brokers for the Tajik reconciliation, and Tajik Islamists of both banks of the Amu River have regarded late Ahmad Shah Mas’ud as a national hero. The Taliban’s capture of Kabul in September 1996 provided further incentive for the Tajik peace process. In result of it this, a religious coalition of Uzbek and Tajik Islamists had split. IRPT rejected pro-Taliban course in favor of  Tajik nationalism, while IMU, being deprived from political participation in Uzbekistan and finding no place in reconciled Tajikistan, joined regional geo-politics and terrorist network, that is the Taliban and bin Laden group. In spring 2001 IMU changed its name, becoming Islamic Movement of Turkistan (that is imagined “Land of Turks”), in an attempt to follow Tajik example of “Islamo-nationalism”, but the bid came too late; after September 11 IMU was placed on the list of the USA top targets in the war on terrorism.
The case of Tajikistan, however, hardly represents a successful solution of the issue. The argument between secular-oriented post-Communist elites and Islamic opposition has started here with cruel open civil warfare, that taken thousands of lives. The problem of relations of the secular state with Islamism here was not discussed at all. Instead, the issue was solved calmly, in the context of power share dispute during the UN-sponsored implementation of the General Peace Accord in 1997-2000. The Islamic Renaissance Party was legalized, while secularism remained central to Tajikistan’s constitution. It means that in the long-term, the important dilemma of secularism versus Islamism remains unresolved in Tajik politics. The Tajikistani formula of dealing with political Islam can hardly serve as an ideal example worth to follow for other Central Asian countries not only because the inclusion was induced, forced from outside and the very peace process was not open and transparent for the wide Tajik public. Despite relative success of the Tajik peace process, there is no open political debate in Tajik politics; legal Islamic opposition is non-transparent and often unnamed; apparently radical, and hostile in the eyes of outside observers and most of Tajikistanis.
Despite of its numerous shortcomings, the Tajik model of inclusion seemed more preferable and promising form of dealing with Muslim policies in Central Asia comparing to ‘combat/control’ proposed by Tashkent. The severe repression of opposition instead of weakening the Islamist militancy has strengthened and radicalized the Islamist groups in this country. The Tajik case has been a bright example of successful bargaining of the government and Muslim militants. It showed that Muslim politics is not inevitably and hopelessly radical and anti-systemic. So far, the inclusion of Islamic policies did not led to clericalization and clash with secularism in Tajikistan. It is unlikely that the dialogue and inclusion could help Islamists to come to power in Tajikistan as well as in any other Central Asian states. It depends mostly on efficiency of secular regimes and their ability to intercept the initiative from Islamists in open and democratic environment.  To avoid a slide back to militancy, there is a need, in addition to the supporting national economic development, to provide advocacy to all political movements committed to act legally. For international centers of powers, it means change attitude to repressive Uzbekistan politics and growing attention to the Tajik model of inclusion.
Main threat to the Central Asian security however is not in radicalization of Muslim policies and terrorism but in general failure of political and economic transformation, and widespread corruption. Lack of cooperation between Central Asian governments and rapid militarization of the region further deteriorates the situation. Local regimes and their close non-Muslim neighbors – China and Russia – identify radical Islamist mobilization as a threat to national security interests. A consequence of this is a rapid, burdensome, and dangerous militarization of the region. Governments have chosen repression as the only respond to any kind of dissent. This concentration of fear, violence, mistrust, and mismanagement is the most alarming problem of the region. Uzbekistan has a sad reputation of a forerunner of the militarization of Central Asia. The Tashkent regime strives to become a regional ‘superpower’, a strongest among the weak. Some regard this country the US closest regional ally in war on terrorism. Uzbekistan has got a region’s strongest and largest army, trained to resist Islamic terrorists in any part of the region. Uzbekistan is unilaterally fixing national boundaries, harming national interests of all its neighbors. On the pretext of defense from Islamists, Tashkent mines pre-frontier territory of Tajikistan, and this has taken about 60 lives of innocent Tajik citizens. Another source of instability is Tajikistan. The military elite of this country comprised of former adversaries, hardened militias from pro-Communist Popular Front and United Tajik Opposition. Most of gunmen are independent from the state and keeping loyalty to regional political entrepreneurs and field commanders. The latter keep control on remote regions, “protect” Tajik-Afghan border and heavily involved in illegal trafficking. On the pretext of fighting Islamic terrorists, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have also rashly strengthened their defense and security bodies.  Not capable to resolve problems arising from Islamist mobilization and driven by Soviet-time authoritarian impulses Central Asian governments call for external support receiving millions of dollars from the US to suppress Islamic dissent. Sadly, in the aftermath of September 11, Central Asian governments have begun to apply the rhetoric of the “war on terror” to justify their pressure on opposition. The Tajik government is hardening its position vis-à-vis Islamists and seeking to strengthen its control over the clergy. It has begun to apply the rhetoric of the “war on terror” to justify its repression of members of the IRP and religious leaders. Yet a further de-legitimization of the IRP and political Islam is a trigger which can fuel tensions. In reaction to governmental moves against real and imagined Islamic militants, youth in particular risk hardening their positions, and turning to extreme forms of dissent associated with Hizb-ut-Tahrir and IMU. This is particularly a possibility among hundreds of thousands of Tajik and Uzbek youth-illegal migrants, returning from Russia where they may have been the victims of anti-Muslim racism.

5. Civil society and conflict resolution
The basic unit of traditionally sedentary Tajik society and dominant institution of power was avlod – an ascent patriarchal extended family that sometimes can be developed into a clan based on partilineage. Further, upwards, avlod would give its loyalty to region-based groupings, then to local ruler and/or monarch. For generations, this avlod system provided survival, autonomy, and adaptability to its members, serving traditionalism and sustainability of the society. Yet avlod loyalties had sometimes questioned monarch’s power and authority, the representative government and the concept of popular sovereignty, had weak presence in Tajik political culture. In the Soviet era (1918-91), the avlod system was considerably eroded, yet existed as a parallel – to a quasi-national government – system of power. During the Soviet period in Tajikistan, traditional forms of community organization such as the mahalla and jamoat, were the main forms of civil society organization. They have never had experience in monitoring state activities, lobbying and advocacy. Exactly this traditional community-oriented identity and clan network determined political loyalty during the civil war in 1992-1993 and later. This happened because a genuine civil society has always been disconnected from politics in Central Asia, allowing political elites to use and corrupt traditional family/clan social structures and safety network.

The most significant wartime and post-war development within civil society has been the appearance and rapid growth of the Tajik non-governmental organizations (NGO) sector. The International Centre for Not-for-profit Law estimated that a total of 1,241 NGOs were registered in 2002, compared with 33 groups in 1993.[2] NGO are usually service-providing rather then advocacy orientated. They are entirely dependent on international donors and funding.
Another important phenomenon is the continual existence and influence of traditional rural forms of social organization in Tajikistan’s civil society. These include local community based organizations bringing together rural households, farmers, women and respected “wise-men” (“rish safeds” or aksakals). Traditionally these groups helped guarantee social cohesion, and served as a forum where local values, rules of behavior, and common needs were defined. During the war years, traditional groups such as mahallas helped people survive, by facilitating the distribution of humanitarian aid, but they were also used as a means to mobilize combatants. In the post war years, though many community based groups were weak, they became the partner of choice of international organizations engaged in rural development seeking effective ways to increase community participation in the determination of local needs, project implementation, and capacity building.
Societal changes brought polygamy to Tajikistan – it was estimated in 2002 that 60% of all marriages were not registered with state authorities. A large percentage of these were polygamous alliances concluded in ‘nikoh’ religious ceremonies.[3] Though precise figures were not available, women’s rights activists in Tajikistan also pointed to a sharp increase in female self-immolation. Women’s abilities to take full advantage of the economic opportunities available to them were constrained by their extremely limited knowledge of their rights.  Tajik women paid a robust price for bringing peace. It is worth to mention that defeated Gharmi communities gave up their women to Kulabi victors in the end of 1990s to stop warfare. Later on, the Kulabis having occupied high positions in capital city and in northern Sugd province used to take women from Dushanbe and Sughd as second wives. One may call this hostage taking, while others may see in it an important conflict-mitigation means and creating bounds between conflicting communities.

6. Informal conflict resolution and mediation at the local level
The war and peace in Tajikistan revealed some peculiarities of what may be called “local”, “informal”, or “non-state.” These phenomena have emerged in the absence and/or collapse of formal, state institutions and forms responsible for justice and order. Communal operational framework of self-defense, self-help, and self-regulation that has been coded as urfu odat (traditional law), has replaced “normal” means of conflict regulations and management.  The peace process was called musoliha (reconciliation). The Tajik society identified the main cause of the war as mahalgaroi, that is a conflict between sub-national (regional) entities. The aim was to unite conflicting regional communities into a wider identity – millat. This was rather realistic agenda, as conflicting groups belonged to one Tajik nation. Wahdati milli (national unity), which was chosen as an official, nationwide program was secured through emotional appeals, based on negation of conflict. Avfi umum (total amnesty) was declared nationwide to avoid feuds and confirm forgiveness. Oshi oshti (reconciliation dinner) to fasten peace was conducted in November 1992.

7. Prospects for future
In recent years Tajikistan has begun a reform of institutions of local governance, and is in the process of preparing legislation to more effectively regulate the work of mahallas, jamoats, and district bodies. To strengthen Tajikistan’s conflict mediation mechanisms it is necessary to improve people’s opportunities to participate in local decision-making and policy formulation through reform of local self-governance bodies and the development of more effective community development institutions. People should learn how to protect their interests both formally and informally through independent and neutral judicial bodies and traditional conflict resolution mechanisms.  Working through community-based organizations has largely been recognized in Tajikistan as the most effective way to insure improvements in remote rural areas, and regions that experienced instability and violence during the war.
It is necessary to deepen a study of informal conflict mediation mechanisms. Among Tajik urban-based experts and decision-makers, and international experts, there is insufficient understanding of the functioning of traditional Tajik conflict resolution mechanisms. With its unique traditional heritage that has for centuries helped resolve community problems and strengthen social cohesion, Central Asia is of exceptional importance in this regard.

*         Professor of history, director  of  Central Asia Research and Development Center, Dushanbe, Tajikistan .
[2]        ICNL Press Release, Reduction of Registration Fees Leads to Dramatic Increase in the Number of Registered NGOs in Tajikistan, March 2002.
[3]        Marguarita Khegai, Research on the Phenomena of Polygamy in Tajikistan. Dushanbe, 2002

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