Report / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Tajikistan: An Uncertain Peace

Tajikistan remains the most vulnerable of the Central Asian nations. In the decade since it became independent, it has been wracked by civil war and seen its economy all but collapse.

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Executive Summary

Tajikistan remains the most vulnerable of the Central Asian nations. In the decade since it became independent, it has been wracked by civil war and seen its economy all but collapse. Drugs, refugees and continuing conflict in Afghanistan are ever present concerns while the political system remains fragile and prone to violence. Corruption, regionalism and external threats have all undercut implementation of the 1997 peace agreement that ended five years of civil war.

That war pitted secular and pro-Communist government forces against an alliance of democrats and Islamists. It also set region against region, as government forces had their stronghold in the North and South, whereas the opposition was most powerful in the centre of the country and the remote Pamir area. The war was devastating: between 60,000 and 100,000 people were killed, some 600,000 – a tenth of the population – were internally displaced and another 80,000 fled the country. The cost of the war is estimated at U.S.$7 billion.

Weary of conflict, the Tajiks put high hopes in the peace agreement. Their optimism has gradually faded, however. Although fear of renewed hostilities and the presence of Russian troops to some extent are stabilising elements, several factors, domestic and external, have potential to seriously destabilise Tajikistan again. It is unlikely, however, that any single one would do so in isolation. It would more likely act as a domino on the others, unleashing a chain effect of instability.

Tajikistan faces four major challenges: constructing a viable political system and functioning state; combating criminal groups, militant gangs and drugs-trafficking; reversing economic decline; and establishing good relations with fractious neighbours and regional powers.

Establishing a political system that represents a broad range of interests will not be easy. The inclusion of Islamist opposition parties in the government in 1997 was a huge step forward, but the authoritarian urges of President Imomali Rakhmonov threaten to undermine this historic compromise. He has strengthened executive powers and recruited most government officials from his own area, Kulyab, at the expense of often better-qualified people from other regions. He also controls the parliament – some 90 per cent of the deputies belong to his camp. The judiciary is increasingly used against the opposition. Most of the media remains under the government’s thumb.

Fraudulent presidential and parliamentary elections have left Rakhmonov formally unchallenged, but the elite power struggle between rival groups and regions still threatens to destabilise the political system.

The compromise by the Islamist opposition with the government ended the war but also seriously undermined the opposition with many of its supporters. Some have turned to more radical groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, which seeks an Islamist Caliphate throughout Central Asia.

The government has also failed to engage field commanders who did not accept the 1997 peace agreement. Gharm and the Karategin Valley in central Tajikistan remain largely outside government control. Armed bands terrorize communities by looting, stealing, and hostage taking. Government clampdowns have removed some of the worst gang leaders but the excessive violence used may prove counter-productive.

Opposition fighters were integrated into national armed forces but lack of funds has left many effectively unemployed. It has proven difficult to provide them alternative employment, and some have turned to crime and banditry.

Years of civil war have destroyed much infrastructure. Russia’s 1998 economic crisis and four years of severe drought have caused further economic damage. Corruption and cronyism is widespread, and an estimated 30 to 50 per cent of the economy is linked to the drugs trade. Some 30 per cent of the work force is unemployed, and 80 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Emigration to Russia and other parts of the CIS has been a stabilising factor, though recent events indicate that these countries are adopting a more hard-line approach towards the immigrants.

Afghanistan also poses a serious threat to Tajik stability. Most of the 1,300 km border runs through terrain that is difficult to patrol, and Tajik authorities have repeatedly voiced concern about the drugs, illegal weapons and people that cross. Some 150,000 refugees on the Afghan side have been denied access to Tajikistan on grounds that the country lacks financial resources. There are also fears they would facilitate a resurgence of Islamic militancy and drugs smuggling.

In 1999 and 2000, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) launched armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan from Tajik territory. The IMU fought with the opposition during the Tajik civil war and received refuge in opposition-controlled areas until it moved to Afghanistan early in 2001 to fight beside the Taliban. Many of the estimated 3,000 IMU fighters in Afghanistan may have been killed by U.S. and Northern Alliance forces but some may have returned to Tajikistan. Any IMU remnants pose a threat to Tajik security and relations with Uzbekistan, which has threatened hosts to the IMU with military action.

Tajikistan is at a crossroads. Its leadership has to choose: either embark on a path of economic reform and democratisation or risk bringing the country to the brink of economic and subsequent political collapse. Although Afghanistan poses a  danger to domestic stability, recent events have provided Tajikistan with a window of opportunity, as international humanitarian and other aid to is likely to increase. If spent wisely, such aid could have a stabilizing effect.

On the other hand, poor political leadership, continued nepotism and widespread corruption could significantly reduce the impact of aid.  In the worst case, increased aid could simply widen the gulf between the small, wealthy ruling elite and the rest of the population and so contribute to the instability it was meant to prevent.

Osh/Brussels, 24 December 2001

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