The Civil War in Tajikistan

One need see only the surface of events to know that Tajikistan is a country in turmoil. Rather than look at the outlines of the civil war in Tajikistan, this article will analyze the background to the conflict and will try to explain the rise of localism and ethnonationalism and the nature of their impact on the prospects for resolution of the conflict.


One hundred years ago, as a result of the Anglo-Russian rivalry known as “The Great Game,” a gigantic strategic barrier was established from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea, that is, from Manchuria to Mongolia to Xinjiang to Afghanistan to Russian Central Asia. This region includes both dependent and independent countries, multiethnic nation-states, and empires, and mixture of  beliefs (Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, shamanism) and peoples (Iranians, Turks, Hans, Mongols, and others). The diversity is such that the region came to be known as a new center of gravity in the world, a whirlpool in which met political currents flowing from China, Russia, India, and the Middle East (Lattimore 1950:3). In the western reaches of this center of gravity, in the southeastern part of Central Asia, lies Tajikistan.

When in the second half of the 19th century Central Asia was drawn into political and economic dependence on Russia, the victor in the competition for the region began elaborating a Eurocentric approach to international affairs in that part of the world. The southern frontier of Central Asia-the current Tajik-Afghan border-was treated as the boundary between the capitalist empire and its semifeudal counterpart. Eurocentrism thus emerged as the justification for European (Russian) sovereignty over the region.

From the other side of the frontier, however, some Muslim circles viewed Tajikistan as the front line in the battle against the “infidels.” It was not surprising, therefore, when, after the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the removal of communist control, Tajikistan, as a state on the confluence of the Muslim and post-Soviet worlds, once more became a region of chronic political instability challenging human security in that part of the world.

In 1992 conditions deteriorated into a brutal civil war. Up to 50,000 people have lost their lives, and more than 650,000 people-one-tenth of population-have fled in terror. In addition, more than 35,000 homes were destroyed (Richter 1994). It has been one of the bloodiest and costliest wars in the former U.S.S.R.


Today Tajikistan is a country with an ailing political regime, a weak national identity, and a fragile economy. The fundamental challenge facing Tajikistan is localism (mahalgara’i in Tajik). All attempts to develop the economy and culture in my country are undermined by parochial war between rival gangs, clans, and warlords for political and military dominance. From 1992 to 1995 factions from Kulob, Khujand, and Hisar were on one side (which is currently in power), while the groups from Qarategin and Badakhshan opposed them. Officially both the current Tajik establishment and the opposition condemn mahagara’i and have pledged to eliminate this phenomenon. Regrettably, this particular struggle has yet to succeed. This raises the following questions: How do the building of a nation-state and the rise of ethnic consciousness correlate with the growth of localism in the context of the current situation in Tajikistan? What forms of  governance will help Tajiks integrate and avoid violent local cleavage?

Ethnicity vis-а-vis Regionalism

The rejection of totalitarian communism engendered a return to the roots of national identity everywhere in the former Soviet world. The paradigm of class consciousness was replaced by one of ethnicity, and ethnic nationalism emerged as the dominant ideology in all of the post-Soviet countries. Replacing the proletariat and his ally the peasant, the “ethnic person” is gradually becoming a central and dynamic figure in events throughout the former U.S.S.R.

Ethnicity may be said to represent an inheritable group solidarity based on common origin, culture, and historic destiny. In other words, ethnicity emerges as a social instinct of a collective way of life. A positive feature of ethnicity is that it is an important means of group adaptation to the surrounding world, helping it to survive under difficult political and economic conditions. Hence, the instinct of group identity appears as an instinct for national self-preservation. As the Central Asians throughout their long history survived wars, occupations, conquests, forced migrations, revolutions and other violent events, many microethnic solidarity groups, originally defined by geographical origin, incorporated themselves into larger groups.

Today there is a sharp crisis in Tajik identity. Growing localism and the lack of a national consolidation have brought the society and the state to the verge of collapse.

In their search for the cause of Tajikistan’s underdevelopment and misfortunes, some Tajik writers have looked to the “northern Tajiks,” calling them “the fifth column” of an unnamed neighbor (Uzbekistan). These accusations are meant to incite ill will  among the “ethnically pure southern Tajiks” toward the “marginal northern Tajiks” (Masov 1995). Thus, discussions about ethnicity and the challenges to harmonious national development are used to achieve political goals. But harmonious national development cannot proceed in an atmosphere of confrontation, during a struggle against “marginals” for “purity of nation,” with the search for enemies within the ethnicity. Creating the conditions for human security and development is an urgent aim of the Tajik state and society. Instead of cultivating ill will among ethnicities, we should be cultivating the collective instinct for self-protection, which could lead the people away from destruction and toward the creation of a common will to build a unified Tajik state. Promoting a national orientation in social development will temper localism and prevent the increasing fragmentation of the country and the society.

Risky Choices

Because ethnicism rejects the value of human individuality, it interferes with basic human rights. The “ethnic” person replaces the “social” one.

So, what outcome can we expect from the rise of ethnic consciousness in Tajikistan? The saying, “Let us be friends. Against whom?” has widespread currency in the present climate. Attempts to unite a Tajiki nation could incite a Tajiki-Uzbeki war, provoked by any of the partisan groups under their mendacious slogans of “national reconciliation.” Most likely this war would begin with the persecution of northern Tajiks as Uzbek collaborators. The first dangerous signs of that conflict are already evident in the work by Masov cited above (which has warm supporters both in opposition and government) and in the killings of several intellectuals (Professors Iskhaki, Asimi, and Gulomov) from northern Tajikistan in 1996. This path is unlikely, because historically there is not enough discord between the Tajiks and Uzbeks to support the claims of a few Tajik nationalists.

It is clear that ethnic determinism and the rise of ethnic consciousness contain within them the seeds of destruction: chauvinism, nationalism, and localism as well as internal and international war. Because ethnicism rejects the value of human individuality, it interferes with basic human rights. The “ethnic” person replaces the “social” one.

Paths Toward Peace

Regrettably, both sides in the conflict and their external supporters contribute to the current “clash of civilizations” in Tajikistan. The muscovite generals and Uzbekistani establishment raise the dreaded specter of Muslim unrest to justify their deep involvement in the Tajik conflict. Similarly, coreligionists from the Muslim countries support the Tajik fighters (mujahedin) in their struggle against the present pro-Moscow government in Tajikistan.

What then in today’s world are the optimum principles for ethnic peace and development in Tajikistan?

1. 1 believe that unity with diversity is the only path to peace in Tajikistan. Tajiks must be united; therefore the integrating tendencies of national development should be supported and strengthened. It is also clear that to construct a democratic civil society it is necessary to underscore not group rights but individual civil rights, the subject of which is the “social person.” The advocates of ethnonationalism should remember that appeals for national purity and the search for enemies will lead only to confrontation, to the final degradation and disappearance of the ethnicity.

2. A human being must be free to determine his ethnic identity, language, culture, and behavioral model. Neither the state, nor any ethnic or ethnoregional group, nor any political party has the right to force a person to follow a particular ethnocultural tradition. Nor do they have the right to prosecute a person or discriminate against him or her for refusing to follow this tradition. All people have this right of choice, so-called marginals as well as those of “pure blood.”

3. The most powerful tool to temper ethnonationalist and secessionist movements is an active and broad-based peace dialogue aimed at bringing about national reconciliation. Participants from both sides in the current official inter-Tajik peace talks were drawn only from among the elite rather than from the peoples of the regions of Tajikistan; hence, they have made little progress toward reaching a real accord.

4. The dichotomy Muslim­non-Muslim and Tajik­non-Tajik should be excluded from Tajik politics. Fortunately, cultural pluralism is not new to Tajiks, who historically have faced a variety of cultural influences and have avoided these dichotomies.

I have no doubt that the key to resolving the Tajik conflict lies in improving relations among Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other ethnic groups living in Tajikistan-in moving from hostility and distrust to tolerance and then to cooperation. Tajikistan will survive by developing its identity as a nation based on the principle of free individual ethnocultural self-determination-this is how I picture the social-political development of Tajikistan. It is to be hoped that Tajiks have not exhausted their potential for survival! This is the only way ethnonationalism can lead to cooperative security in that part of the world.


Dupree, L. 1980. Afghanistan. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Lattimore, O. 1950. Pivot of Asia: Sinkiang and the Inner Asian Frontiers of China and Russia. Boston: Little, Brown.

Masov, R. 1995. Taj iki: istoria s griforn ‘sovershenno sekretno’ (The Tajiks: Top Secret History). Dushanbe.

Richter, A. H. 1994. Testimony presented to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Subcommittee on Europe and Middle East. September 22.

Roy, O. 1993. The Civil War in Tajikstan: Causes and  Implications. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace.


“The Civil War in Tajikistan”, Peace and Policy. Journal of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research Vol.3, l.1 (Spring 1998), 17-19

by Kamoloudin Abdoullaev Professor of History, Tajikistan State University

3 thoughts on “The Civil War in Tajikistan

  1. Hi,
    I am from Tajikistan and I am writing an extended essay on the causes of the Tajik Civil War. I separated the essay into long term and short term causes.
    Long term causes: Regionalism + Religion
    Short term:: Economy, Incompetent Government
    Although I have a clear stucture, I am struggling with deciding what factor is the most important. After having done some research, I realised that the roots of regionalism are much deeper and have come to a conclusion that a potential cause of the war could be Soviet policies. For further research I am planning to interview people in Dushanbe. If possible, I would really like some guidance on which supporting evidence to use to back up my arguments.
    Thank you

  2. Hi Madina Bonu,
    I would probably support the idea of centrality of regional factionalism in the war, yet it was not a regional war.
    As for people to talk with in Dushanbe…. they are known -Turajonzoda, Olimova Sadoat and Muzaffar, Kabiri, Anbdunabi Sattorov, Rahmatullo Zoirov.

  3. Hi,
    I am writing an essay about effects of civil war in Tajikitan. I want to methion three point: social and economical and political effects. I had searched papers, but mostly they are about causes of civil war. I havent decided yet about writing plitical effects. what do you think? also I could find any newspaper in Tajik language explainig civil war. waiting for your reply.
    Thank you.

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