ECMI Minorities Blog. Events in Tajikistan’s Pamir – A Vicious Cycle of Unresolved Conflicts?

Aziz Berdiqulov
2022-07-26
Image courtesy: shutterstock.com

Author: Aziz Berdiqulov  |  https://doi.org/10.53779/SMQP3388

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Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (the GBAO or Pamir) of Tajikistan is home to the Pamiri minority, an ethnic group not recognised as a national minority. Although the largest region of Tajikistan (around 45% of the total territory), it is quite small in terms of its population – only around 220,000 people out of a total of 9 million lived there in 2018. In the last population census of 2010, Tajiks and Pamiris were not separately categorised and made up 94% of the total population of the GBAO. The majority of Pamiris speak one of the Pamiri languages and practice Ismailism – one of the denominations of Islam’s Shi’a branch, unlike the rest of Tajikistan’s population, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Pamiris regard the Aga Khan IV as their spiritual (and sometimes political) leader and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has been running several development projects in the region.

The GBAO is characterized by its extremely mountainous landscape and underdeveloped infrastructure, which makes it challenging to commute between Pamir and the capital city of Dushanbe or any other place in Tajikistan. The continuous and porous border with Afghanistan runs through the most part of Pamir, while the border areas with China are much better guarded. In recent years, the region has become known for armed conflicts which involved local residents and the military troops sent from the Tajik capital city of Dushanbe.

Tensions in Khorog between November 2021 and May 2022

The most recent clashes took place on 16 May 2022 in Khorog, the administrative centre of Pamir, during which one local resident died and several were injured. Earlier, on 14 May, over a hundred locals gathered in Khorog to protest and called for the resignation of the head of the GBAO and the mayor of Khorog, as well as for lifting all roadblocks in Khorog and ending the persecution of local residents. The local administration and the mayor did not negotiate with protestors and warned that “illegal activities would be considered terrorism.” The subsequent clashes resulted in arresting and charging local leaders and activists with allegations of organizing illegal meetings and supplying foreign governments with information. On 22 May, a local informal leader, Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, who was a former self-defence commander and later served in Tajik border troops, was killed. According to the official version of the local Department for Internal Affairs, Mamadbokirov was killed during internal clashes of criminal groups.

The May 2022 events did not happen out of the blue, as tensions and discontent among Pamiris had been continuously building over several months, with unresolved past conflicts contributing to the volatility of the region.  

In November 2021, Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, a resident of Tavdem village in the GBAO, was killed by security forces. The official version claimed that Ziyobekov was subjected to a criminal investigation for harassing a local prosecutor, resisted arrest and ultimately was shot after firing at policemen. However, relatives and other locals argued that Ziyobekov was arbitrarily executed. After that, family and neighbours took his body to the central square of Khorog, where over two thousand people gathered for an impromptu demonstration. The victim’s mother and others demanded that local authorities explain why he was shot and provide proof of guilt. Some of the protestors tried to approach the local administration building, resulting in two people shot dead and over 20 injured. The demonstrations carried on for four days, calling for the resignation of the head of the GBAO Alisher Mirzonabotov, who had replaced the former head of the region, the popular Yodgor Faizov.

Finally, on the fifth day of demonstrations some agreements were reached. An official representative was selected to negotiate with the demonstrators on how to investigate Ziyobekov’s death. The government established a 20-person investigation group chaired by Tajikistan’s prosecutor general, consisting of law enforcement officials and civil society representatives. Simultaneously, the so-called Group 44 was formed, comprising local lawyers and civil society actors to oversee the implementation of agreements between the protestors and the officials. Additionally, it was promised that stone-throwers will not be prosecuted and that checkpoints and roadblocks around Khorog, set up since the protests erupted, will be taken down.

The government’s heavy-handed response to the November 2021 events: internet shutdown and arrests.

However, the internet connection, which was shut down in the whole region at the beginning of the November 2021 protests (a tool frequently used by the government subsequent to protests in Pamir), was not re-established. For Pamir, the internet is an extremely important means of staying in touch with the rest of the country and relatives in Russia and abroad. Internet-based employment is a source of income for many people in the region, who suddenly found themselves unemployed once the connection was shut down. Local residents could not get necessary medication, as the process of ordering it involved using an internet connection. Others, such as university applicants and students who had previously been able to apply for international studies online, had to travel kilometres to Dushanbe to do so. Most importantly, the internet shutdown meant Pamiris were unable to exchange information. Locals could not learn about the situation inside and outside of the region, while others could only access the official information released by authorities concerning the developments in the GBAO. According to some sources, the government shut down the internet in order to prevent new conflicts in the region, allegedly provoked “by groups located in Europe.” Eventually, the internet provision was resumed in March 2022, however at the low speed of 2G which practically did not allow any online-based activities to run, only to be shut down again after the protests in May 2022.

Despite the November 2021 agreements, the situation in the region remained tense. The Group 44 members tried to address high-ranking officials, get involved in investigation processes, and speak on local public TV-channel, but to no avail. Over 60 residents of the GBAO were prohibited from leaving the country, and the lists with their names were communicated to all border checkpoints. Grievances among locals grew as no information was made available concerning the developments in the investigation of Ziyobekov’s and other two men’s deaths.

Finally, on 14 May, Chorshanbe Chorshanbiev, a Pamiri MMA fighter, was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for his alleged calls to “violently change the constitutional order” in Tajikistan. Chorshanbiev mainly worked in Russia, where he was detained for violating traffic rules and sent to Tajikistan to be arrested upon arrival. He had recorded a video message in November 2021 mentioning the death of protestors during the November events in Khorog, which, according to the Tajik authorities, incited people to protest against the government. Sentencing Chorshanbiev for what some sources call a fabricated case only added to the already tense situation in the GBAO, which resulted in the protests in May 2022 discussed above.

Re-emergence of conflict in May 2022: new wave of violence and international reactions.

Once the protests started, the government reacted swiftly. An anti-terrorist operation  was announced to tackle the activities undertaken by “organized crime groups which aimed at destabilising the public and political situation by blocking the roads.” According to the Ministry of Interior, local criminals were supported by international terrorist groups, received weapons, and were joined by foreign fighters to conduct terrorist acts and disrupt the constitutional order. Some sources informed that 21 persons were killed during the “anti-terrorist operation”, while several were injured.

Shortly after the beginning of protests in May in Khorog, the “Asia-Plus” newspaper, one of the biggest and most popular media outlets in Tajikistan, published a statement saying it would not cover the events in Pamir due to government pressure. In June, seven out of thirteen members of Group 44 were sent to Dushanbe to be detained at the headquarters of the State Committee for National Security. The Group 44 was accused of receiving money from foreign sources to organize protests in Khorog. In June 2022, two members of the Group 44 were sentenced to 18 years in prison for organising an unsanctioned demonstration and the Pamiri poet Muyassar Sadonshoev was sentenced for 11 years for cooperating and publishing the videos of sessions of the Group 44 online.

The 2022 events in Khorog have drawn some international attention. The Delegation of the EU to Tajikistan, embassies of France, Germany, the UK, and the US published a joint statement calling for an end to the conflict and for respect for human rights and freedoms. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed concern about the developments in the GBAO and appealed for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Finally, the Aga Khan IV in his address to Pamiris called to refrain from violence and use peaceful dialogue for resolving any issues. The Tajik government did not respond to any of these statements. At the same time, Pamiri diasporas in Tajikistan and elsewhere launched several awareness-raising campaigns calling for support from international organizations, as well as providing own narratives of the events taking place in their native land.

Although currently the situation in the GBAO might seem relatively stable, local residents shared they feel psychological pressure and fear that the armed clashes might break out again. Many of them are still looking for their family members who might have been taken for interrogation or sent to Dushanbe. Recent developments include also the destruction of the Ismaili Imamat symbol by military troops, which was created in 2007 on one of the hills in Khorog to celebrate the jubilee of the Aga Khan.

Unaddressed past conflicts tend to re-emerge

Some scholars argue that conflicts are likely to emerge if they already took place in the past, with such previous situations functioning as catalysts for political mobilization of national minorities. For example, Gherghina and Jiglau analysed post-Soviet countries in order to assess why and how ethnic communities politically mobilize and get involved in conflicts. They argue that territorial concentration of ethnic groups often contributes to enhanced political mobilization. Moreover, this is likely to take place if there were past conflicts between the dominant group and a given ethnic minority, in combination with the latter facing continuous discrimination. In other words, the fact that there were past conflicts increases the probability of their re-emergence.

Among other factors contributing to ethnic conflicts are the exclusion of minorities from decision-making mechanisms, lack of legitimate political institutions, poor economic conditions, and antagonistic elites.

The case of Pamiris fits rather well in this theoretical framework. First, Pamiris reside compactly in a remote region, which most likely alienated the community from the rest of the country and simultaneously contributed to the community’s ability to mobilize swiftly by reinforcing internal links. Second, indeed, the region of Pamir saw several conflicts: starting from the Tajik civil war (1992-1997), the Khorog Events in 2012 and 2014, and recently in 2021-2022. The root causes of these conflicts were never properly studied or addressed by the authorities, which only increased the likelihood of new tensions.

During the civil war, the GBAO hosted numerous Pamiri opposition leaders, and the region saw armed clashes between the local warlords and military forces from Dushanbe and other competing sides. Once the peace accord marked the end of the civil war in 1997, some of the former Pamiri warlords received high-ranking governmental positions and gradually became local community leaders, who enjoyed a high level of trust and popularity among Pamiris. Some experts believe that it is precisely the local Pamiri leaders that the central Tajik government targets by not recognizing their status and labelling them as criminals.

The Khorog events of 2012 might look quite similar to the events that took place in 2021-2022. The military troops were deployed in the city once a Dushanbe-appointed law enforcement official was killed in the suburbs of Khorog. Allegedly, the suspects included persons from the former field commander Tolib Ayombekov’s circle, who was accused of harbouring criminals. Protests took place, and many locals resisted military troops trying to get access to suspects. A local informal leader, Imomnazar Imomnazarov, was killed, with the government and Pamiris providing two competing explanations of his death. Internet shutdown, arrests, as well as setting up of the mediation Group-20 with the goal of reaching a ceasefire were other aspects of the 2012 crisis. According to official sources, 23 military personnel and 21 civilians were killed; however, no proper investigation was carried out.

Later, in 2014, in a shootout between locals suspected of drug-trafficking and the police, two persons died and six people were injured. As a response, the offices of the Department for Internal Affairs, regional court and prosecutor were burned down. Similar to the events in 2012, several demonstrations took place demanding a fair trial and release of detainees arrested after the shootout. A joint commission for investigation was set up and yet again it did not publish any results.

Any lessons learned?

Recent conflicts in Pamir share several similarities. In all cases, the mobilization of residents followed military intervention and mainly took the form of protests. Confrontation between Pamiris and military forces led to internet shutdowns and setting up of roadblocks, which only exacerbated the isolation of the region. Local leaders, who enjoyed the support of Pamiris, were either killed or arrested with contradictory explanations of their deaths emerging. Joint commissions were set up to participate in subsequent investigations, however, without bringing any results. Finally, decision-makers neither analysed nor addressed the reasons that caused these conflicts in the first place, nor did they develop solutions to prevent future ones. 

The list of potential reasons that might have made Pamir such a restive region is extensive. The GBAO is the poorest region in Tajikistan, and the unemployment can reach up to 80%, according to some sources. Many Pamiris leave to find jobs elsewhere, and around 70% households in the region have at least one labour migrant. Due to its continuous border with Afghanistan, the territory of Pamir is often used for drug-trafficking, which not only generates illegal income, but adds to tensions between local warlords and central government. The region is known for deposits of gemstones and minerals; however, due to the lack of infrastructure the mining industry is virtually non-existent. International organizations, including the AKDN, are gradually diminishing their support to the region, thus exacerbating its dire socio-economic situation.  

Another challenge Pamiris face is the lack of proper representation and political participation. Despite the region’s status, the autonomy is an empty shell, since residents do not elect the head of the region, who is appointed by the President. Judges and heads of law enforcement agencies are appointed from Dushanbe as well and usually are not of Pamiri origins, which contributes to the feeling of lack of ownership among Pamiris. When it comes to recognition, officially Pamiris are not recognized as a minority but labelled as Tajiks. 

Yet again, the government of Tajikistan prefers using military force to reinforce its control and power over the region when faced with protests or calls for dialogue from Pamir. Instead of neutralising local informal leaders, the officials could have used them to facilitate a constructive dialogue with Pamiris and rely on their genuine popularity in the region. The region has an untapped potential for becoming an attractive tourist destination not only internationally, but internally too. International investors can be attracted to develop infrastructure in Pamir and connect the region to the rest of Tajikistan and open it to the world. However, in order to do this, first the demilitarization of the GBAO should be achieved and transparent investigations of problematic situations conducted. Sadly, history shows that authorities have not been interested in addressing the problems of the region so far, and one can only hope that it will be different in the near future. 

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