МОСКВА, 14 декабря 2021, Институт РУССТРАТ.

The situation in Tajikistan, or rather in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) of the republic, has remained tense for more than a month. Elena Panina, director of the RUSSTRAT Institute for International Political and Economic Strategy, explains what became the trigger and what is at stake.

In mid-November, a protest action of many thousands stirred up the 30,000 Khorog, the administrative centre of the region. Its participants demanded to punish those responsible for the death of a local resident — 29-year-old Gulbiddin Ziyobekov. The rallies provoked a harsh reaction from the authorities of the republic. In the course of the quelling of the protests, two more young citizens were killed. Over ten people were injured of varying severity.

The events in Khorog caused a wide public outcry far beyond the borders of Tajikistan. In the capitals and large cities of Russia, Germany, Austria, USA, Great Britain, Canada, Poland, people went to rallies to support the protesters in distant Badakhshan and draw attention to them (it must be said, they succeeded). Under pressure from international public opinion, the Tajik authorities were forced to create a special commission authorised to investigate the incident. From the side of the protesters, it included 44 people representing civil society.

Criminal or Defender?

What is happening in this high-mountainous and sparsely populated (most of the population earns abroad) region of the Tajik Pamir? To understand, it is necessary to return to the starting point, which became the «trigger» of all subsequent events.

Gulbiddin Ziyobekov was killed on November 25 during a military operation. He was accused of a number of crimes, including the beating of the assistant prosecutor of the Roshtqal’a region of GBAO Abdusalom Abirzoda, who harassed his sister. According to local residents, the young man and several of his comrades forced Abirzoda to publicly apologise to the girl and her family. A criminal case was initiated against Ziyobekov under two articles of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Tatarstan: «Hostage-taking by an organised group», «Incitement of national, racial, parochial or religious hatred».

The case did not gather speed. The head of the autonomy, Yodgor Fayzov, given the ambiguity of the situation, ordered to suspend the official investigation. However, soon a change of government took place in GBAO. The former mayor of the city of Khorog, Alisher Mirzonabotov, was appointed head of the district. With his consent, law enforcement agencies organised a military operation, during which Gulbiddin Ziyobekov was killed.

It should be borne in mind that the general’s predecessor as head of the regional executive power was highly respected by the inhabitants of Badakhshan, inhabited mainly by Ismailis (followers of radical Shiism). It was he who, as a representative of the Aga Khan Foundation (the humanitarian organisation of Shah Karim Aga Khan IV, the imam and spiritual leader of the Ismailis living in London), provided the residents of the region with great humanitarian assistance. Residents even called Yodger Fayzov «the people’s chairman», and his dismissal by Dushanbe, practically without explanation, added fuel to the flaring up conflict.

Tasty morsel

However, according to a number of experts, the death of Gulbiddin Ziyobekov was only a pretext for speeches. The true reasons for the conflict with the authorities are deeper and are of a socio-economic nature. Mass unemployment, the dominance of paramilitary structures in the Pamirs, which, without trial or investigation, are reprising the local population, turned GBAO into a permanent hotbed of tension.

In addition, the mountainous region has become a point of intersection of the conflicting interests of a number of influential clan criminal groups, whose interests go far beyond the borders of Tajikistan.

The opposition finds support in the forces that do not want the unity and cohesion of the peoples of Badakhshan with the rest of the Tajiks of the country. Religious and ethnic conflict took place here also during the Soviet era, clashes between people from Badakhshan and Kulob, especially among young people, were not uncommon. It should be added to this that Gorny Badakhshan has its own history, which differs from the history of Tajikistan; here it has its own ethnic and cultural characteristics, which led to isolation. As a result, after the collapse of the USSR, the region gradually turned into the poorest region of Tajikistan.

At the same time, Badakhshan is a strategically important region — the “gateway to the East”. This highland is a real «crossroads of borders»: with China, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. A highway connecting Tajikistan with China also passes through GBAO. Moreover, Beijing has long-standing and far from disinterested territorial interests in the region. Undeveloped mineral deposits (gold, precious stones, hydrocarbons) plus a strategic location are a “tasty morsel” for China, which is in dire need of new resources. And the protest movement in the region can become a potential reason for interference in the internal affairs of Tajikistan. That, in turn, in the future may provide an opportunity for the deployment of their military bases on its territory.

Finally, it is impossible not to take into account the fact that destabilisation in GBAO plays into the hands of local and transnational criminal groups. If law enforcement agencies are busy ensuring law and order, criminals can get operational scope for the transfer of drugs coming from neighbouring Afghanistan.

It’s not over

Washington and even Brussels also have views of the region. The West needs a stable transit Badakhshan. This is one of the most convenient bridgeheads for the supply of humanitarian aid, fuel, and, if necessary, weapons to Afghanistan. It is clear that, despite the completion of the American operation in Afghanistan, the White House does not abandon the idea of domination in Central Asia. Besides, transit is money. And money loves silence, even «dirty» money.

The religious factor cannot be discounted either. The events in Badakhshan justifiably cause concern to Shah Karim Hussein Aga Khan IV, the imam and spiritual leader of the Ismailis, the traditional sponsor of the region and, by and large, the grey cardinal of this territory. He also needs a calm Badakhshan. It is no coincidence that with the financial assistance of the Aga Khan Foundation, many social facilities have been created in the region, and the Central Asian University has been built.

Under the pressure of the world community, Dushanbe is now forced to look for peaceful ways to resolve the conflict. But experts in the region consider the compromise shaky: we are talking about the division of spheres of influence, and the position of Gorny Badakhshan under the «people’s chairman» Yedgor Fayzov have sharply strengthened. It is impossible to weaken it by force, the confrontation drags on.

A temporary compromise was a joint statement signed by government representatives and protesters, which stipulates that the participants of the rally on November 25-28, 2021 will not be brought to criminal responsibility. However, information has already appeared on social networks that individual participants of the rally are summoned by law enforcement agencies for interviews and testimonies. Accordingly, there is reason to fear that although the rally has been completed and the reconciliation document has been signed, it is too early to put an end to this confrontation.

And in general — will it ever be possible to do this if there are so many players and interests in a strategic region?

Elena Panina, Director of the RUSSTRAT Institute

Институт международных политических и экономических стратегий Русстрат


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