February 15, 2020
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Peace With A Pause

A Moscow-friendly regime and an Islamic-oriented opposition make for a fragile balance

Peace With A Pause

WHEN the government and the United Tajik opposition signed a pact on June 27 in faraway Moscow, ending the civil war, the people were only too aware how fragile the peace was. They went about their business at a seemingly unhurried pace, but there was a sense of foreboding. The peace broke on August 8 as two commanders, both owing allegiance to the government of President E. Rakhmonov, took their battle to the streets.

Last fortnight, when a relative of Col. Kasimov, commander of the interior ministry’s special brigade, was killed, he suspected that the act was the handiwork of a rival commander and a former interior minister Yakubjan Salimov. Kasimov’s men ringed Salimov’s house soon after the funeral, attacked it, and invited the people of the neighbourhood to loot the place. During the mayhem, the government seemed to look the other way. Kasimov’s gambit neutralised Salimov, Dushanbe’s strongman, who fled the city to join the forces of Col. M. Khudaberdiyev, commander of the government’s Rapid Reaction Force. Thereby hangs a tale. Khudaberdiyev, a major regional commander who controls large parts of the country, was unhappy with the peace accord and was looking for just such a chance to move into the city. But he was confronted by the Presidential Guard, which forced him to hold talks with President Rakhmonov. Though the cease-fire was in place by August 12, Khudaberdiyev has refused to give up his arms.

The recent fighting is symptomatic of the problems faced by the Moscow peace accord. Says Gerd Merrem, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Tajikis-tan: "I would have liked to see the north and the field commanders included in the peace accord". Agrees the head of mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe Dimitry Manjavidze: "The two parties (the government and the opposition) are serious. But in Tajikistan, there are more than two parties. The peace process is totally dependent on the way the various groups share power." Manjavidze divides military commanders into three groups—those with the government, the Islamic opposition, and independent warlords. Within the government commanders, too, there are divisions: some support the government but are opposed to the integration of opposition fighters in its forces, as envisaged by the peace deal. "This is the most complicated issue," he admits.

Khudaberdiyev had threatened in early 1996 to walk into Dushanbe with his forces. But was the recent fighting essentially a turf war? "It was more than that," says a diplomat based in Dushanbe, who does not want to be named. "Khudaberdiyev is opposed to the peace agreement. He wanted to emerge as the third force. He has said in the past that he will not allow even one opposition soldier to be reintegrated into government forces, though he has always pledged his loyalty to President Rakhmonov." In this bout of fighting, Rakhmonov has gained the upper hand. Khudaberdiyev’s force was considered powerful, but his capitulation before the Presidential Guard strengthened Rakhmonov. Besides, the opposition not only stayed out of the fight, but also backed his government.

Another delicate issue is the sticky relations with Uzbekistan. Khudaberdiyev is an Uzbek and many allege that his recent defiance is due to a nudge from Uzbekistan. Within days of the battle in Dushanbe, the government closed the Tajik-Uzbek border. Uzbekistan, which declined to sign as one of the guarantors of the peace agreement, has its own insecurities vis-a-vis Tajikistan. There is a huge ethnic Tajik population in Uzbekistan which has been residing there since the 1920s when Stalin redrew the map of Central Asia. The Uzbeks are wary of Tajik nationalism, which if it ever becomes a force, can extend from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan.

THIS is not the only snag. Russian ambassador Yevgeni Belov should know. Russia, along with Iran, were  the key players in the peace accord and without Russian help, President Rakhmonov could not have lasted this long. A couple of weeks before the Dushanbe flare-up, Belov had said: "Peace has not come. We only have some agreements. We have to realise all these agreements and the next six months will tell us what happens. Peace can come when all armed groups are disbanded, refugees return from Afghanistan and elections are held." He is clear that the Russian political presence in Tajikistan will continue for a long time—"maybe forever".

Russia has a big military presence in Tajikistan. Nearly 30,000 men guard the Tajik-Afghan border to check infiltration from Afghanistan, an unstable region from where the Islamic opposition has received considerable support. Russian troops also keep vigil inside Tajikistan. Soon after the outbreak of the recent hostilities, Russian forces took up positions to protect the presidential house and other key installations, besides guarding the city’s entry points. To the Russians, Tajikistan is a strategic partner for two reasons. One, because they don’t want the Afghan crisis from spilling over, and two, because they want to prevent the Islamic opposition from taking over.

The agreement, signed in various stages, spells out that the opposition will get 30 per cent posts in the administration, 25 per cent in the central electoral commission and 50 per cent in the National Commission on Reconciliation (NCR). The NCR, an alternative power structure, will be headed by A. Nuri, leader of the United Tajik Opposition. Analysts feel it is going to be difficult to divide the 30 per cent quota. The opposition, too, is not one, monolithic group: dominated by the Islamic Renaissance Party, there are several varied groups.

The NCR was scheduled to meet in Dushanbe at the end of July. It did not. Work on the refugee issue was slated to start by the middle of July, but it is still hanging fire. Once there were fears that Tajikistan may go the Afghanistan way. But Iran, Russia and an active United Nations brought the two main groups together. The peace deal ended the civil war that began in 1992, when Islamic groups, supported by outside powers, overthrew the communists. Islam is a powerful force in Tajikistan and with the help of Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations, mosques have mushroomed.

It is in the people’s interest that the peace pact works, disparate groups notwithstanding. Tired of the fighting, many are yet to recover from the trauma of the Soviet breakup. Intermittent gun battles and bomb blasts only make it worse.

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