Sitting Peacefully on a Powder Keg

For MTRegular Tajik soldiers now control the Samarkand hills above the capital, Dushanbe. Not long ago these villages were controlled by oppositionist mujahedin.
Sitting Peacefully on a Powder Keg

By Mumin Shakirov

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan -- The civil war in Tajikistan that erupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union claimed 150,000 lives. More than 1 million people fled the country. After Moscow managed to reconcile the warring factions, Muslim opposition groups joined a coalition government. This year, while terrorist attacks and mysterious assassinations of politicians continue, the new governing elite celebrated the 10th anniversary of Tajik independence.

As the United States and Britain bomb neighboring Afghanistan, Russian troops are fortifying the Tajik-Afghan border.

And in Dushanbe, rents are on the rise.

Military operations in Afghanistan have had remarkably little affect on Tajikistan so far, although the two countries share a 700-kilometer-long border, ethnic and religious ties, the experience of a guerrilla war in the mountains, and much else besides.

It is no secret that the decision to provide military assistance to the Afghan Northern Alliance, and to use Tajik military bases for attacks on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, was made not in Dushanbe, or even in Moscow, but half a world away in Washington. This goes a long way toward explaining the reluctance of Tajik leaders to comment on Operation Enduring Freedom. Even the decision to make Tajik bases and airspace available to the U.S. Air Force was announced by none other than a Japanese diplomat who had arrived in Dushanbe for talks with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov. Meanwhile, the military buildup on the Tajik-Afghan border proceeds with little fanfare.

Life in the capital, Dushanbe, remains remarkably normal. Businesses are working; bars and restaurants are open day and night. There is no mood of panic in the streets. True, the streets empty noticeably at night. But this is more a response to the threat of local criminals than the events across the border.

Tajiks have developed nerves of steel after the curfews, hunger, cold, illness, homelessness and death of the civil war years. Today the people here are worried not by the war to the south, but by the question of how to survive in the so-called independence of post-war Tajikistan. The country's factories have been idle for years. Unemployment is soaring. The average monthly wage of government officials is just $10 per month, and corruption is rampant. Lunch in a cafe costs $1. A kilogram of meat at a market costs $1.50. A trip on the city's favored means of transportation, the fixed-route taxi, costs a dime. Many people walk to save the fare.

But unlike Russia's many economically depressed regions, Tajikistan benefits from its Central Asian climate. The farmers take in two harvests a year. Fruits and vegetables are available even to the very poor.

It seems that half of Dushanbe is involved in trade -- in the markets or right on the street. The sidewalks, bus stops and even the roads have been transformed into spontaneous bazaars. Some lay out their wares, from chewing gum to furniture, on the stoops of their apartment buildings. Others open shop in their apartments, selling to passing customers from their first-floor windows. Many of these also offer their telephones to passers-by for 10 cents a call.

The workers most in demand in Dushanbe are those who speak foreign languages -- young people, mostly. They find work with the international aid agencies and other organizations that have sprouted like mushrooms in the city. These agencies pay a comparatively princely wage of $100 a month and up.

The lucky few also include those who have managed to wangle a civilian job with the Russian army's 201st Division. They are paid in rubles, and in Tajikistan the ruble is considered a stable currency.

Most importantly, the Tajiks have survived because their traditional social structure, held together by communal and clan ties, remains intact. The old look after the young, and few die of hunger.

Dushanbe's relative calm has been somewhat disrupted of late by foreign journalists, who have arrived from all over the world to report on military operations in the region. Some 400 of them are now working in Tajikistan. The hotels are full, and the locals have hiked the rent on private apartments. Dushanbe's taxi drivers are delirious. Foreigners are ready to pay any sum to get around town, and down to the Afghan border, 200 kilometers away.

The calm in Tajikistan also owes to the presence here of the Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division. The local population perceives the border troops with skepticism, since the border outposts are manned almost exclusively by Tajiks. The officer corps is mostly Russian, but that's cold comfort. The Tajik armed forces are simply not prepared to take on the battle-hardened Taliban, and everyone knows it.

Now Tajikistan faces a new, external threat -- the Taliban. This foreign threat has begun to unite the various factions, which so recently were at each other's throats. Yet not all the old scores have been settled, and the inter-clan rivalries still flare up from time time.

The history of the internal conflict in Tajikistan goes well back into the Soviet past. This country has long been riven by a power struggle between its northern and southern clans. In the Soviet era, Moscow was able to find a compromise. The Kremlin divided up party posts and ministerial portfolios proportionally among Tajikistan's various clans, though it always favored candidates from the north, considered better educated and more European than their southern counterparts.

This was not merely prejudice. The northern capital, Khudzhand, has long been one of Central Asia's most developed cities. It was annexed to the Russian Empire in the 19th century, which led to industrial growth. In the Soviet era, Khudzhand became the breeding ground for Tajikistan's party elite.

The southern regions of Karategina and Kulyaba remained, historically, outside the pale. The economy in these areas only began to develop in the 1930s with the advent of Soviet rule. This relative backwardness condemned the southerners to a secondary role in party and government.

When the Tajik economy collapsed along with the Soviet Union, the country's old nomenclature proved incapable of change. It clung to its power and privileges, counting on support from Moscow. The changing of the guard at the Kremlin, when Boris Yeltsin replaced Mikhail Gorbachev, sealed their fate.

In the early 1990s, the first liberal democrats appeared in Tajikistan, along with nationalists and a free press. Religious leaders also began to make themselves heard. The first Moslem organizations arose in neighboring Uzbekistan, which had retained a strong religious tradition during the Soviet era. Uzbek security forces killed some of the leaders, and forced the rest out of the country. Many made their way to Tajikistan, including the well-known field commander Dzhuma Namangani, who went on to lead the armed Tajik opposition, and who is now fighting with the Taliban.

The center of the Moslem opposition in Tajikistan was the city of Kurgan-tyube, which produced the first powerful leaders, and among them Said Abdullo Nuri, the current head of the Moslem party Revival. Financing for these groups flowed in from abroad, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Iran. Perestroika, then, opened the door for democrats and religious extremists alike. In the power struggle that ensued, the democrats never stood a chance.

Oleg Panfilov, an independent Moscow-based expert on Tajikistan, said that people rallied to the green flag of Islam for many reasons. "The Moslem movement in Tajikistan attracted not only the true believers, but also those who believed in liberal ideas of social equality and justice. The liberals were easily manipulated by religious leaders. It also attracted many who simply hated the old communist elite, and not a few who saw in the growing opposition movement a chance to settle personal scores." The Karategina region became the core of the Moslem movement.

By 1992, power in Tajikistan was split between a weakened communist nomenclature on one side, and an unstable coalition of Moslem fundamentalists and democrats on the other. A devastating economic crisis, mass emigration of ethnic Russian professionals, inter-clan conflicts and the fight for power brought Tajikistan to the boiling point. The height of the conflict came in the fall of 1992.

At this point, the Tajik democrats missed their historic chance to take power, according to Dushanbe-based political scientist Nurali Davlatov. "When the people saw how the Moslem groups had transformed into armed units of mujahedin, how the mosques had become storehouses for weapons, and how the Kalashnikov rifle had become the principle weapon of the religious authorities, they were utterly disenchanted. They began to support the democrats, but it was too late. Dushanbe was already in the hands of the extremists."

Bloodshed soon followed. The communists armed other groups in the south, those from the poverty-stricken Kulyaba region.

Civil war had begun.

Moscow lost control of the situation in Tajikistan and reacted only when Moslem fighters forced the Tajik president, communist Rakhmon Nabiyev, out of office. At that point, it became clear that the extremists could destabilize the situation not only in Tajikistan, but across Central Asia.

In November 1992 the northern parliament in Khudzhand elected a relatively unknown 40-year-old kolkhoz chairman from Kulyaba, Emomali Rakhmonov, as speaker. This precipitated action from Moscow. The Russians sent armored vehicles into the streets of Dushanbe. The 201st Motorized Rifle Division quickly emerged as the most potent force in Tajik politics. The Moslem opposition left the capital without a fight, and dug in on the city's outskirts.

The pro-Moscow Popular Liberation Front of Tajikistan was led by a former criminal and bartender, Sangak Sararov. Supported by the fighting 201st and Uzbek air power, he forced the mujahedin from the Dushanbe suburbs and into the hills. Some of the fighters fled into Afghanistan. Their leaders, Said Abdullo Nuri and Akbar Turadzhonzoda, found a safe haven in Iran.

Soon ideological and religious passions faded, but the war raged on for five years between rival clans. In the end, none could claim victory. Despite their huge advantage in men and arms, supporters of President Rakhmonov could not vanquish the Moslem opposition. All sides suffered horrible losses, including the Russian border guards, who were killed at their posts and in the streets.

The situation worsened in 1996, when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. Both sides in the Tajik conflict, faced with an external threat, finally sat down together at the negotiating table. Iran, which had long supported the Tajik opposition and exerted strong influence on its leaders, pushed them to reach a peace agreement. Iran's peacemaking efforts were also the result of its warming relations with Russia. Iran had begun to buy Russian arms, and Russian experts were building a nuclear power plant at Busher.

The political clock in Tajikistan was reset on Sept. 12, 1997. After five years of civil war, and 150,000 lives lost, the leader of the united Moslem opposition Said Abdullo Nuri returned to Dushanbe with his armed mujahedin. In June of that year an agreement was signed in Moscow that called for the mujahedin to be reintegrated into the country's armed forces.

Field commanders and spiritual leaders were to receive ministerial portfolios, and hundreds of thousands of refugees were to return home. And so it happened.

Two years later the Moslem Revival party was granted legal status and three seats in parliament. But the key posts in the security services and defense ministry remained in the hands of Emomali Rakhmonov and his supporters from Kulyaba. They remain the true masters of Tajikistan to this day.

The Samarkand hills lie just east of Dushanbe. "Tepai Samarkandi," as the locals call their region, is made up of dusty roads and slapdash shops. Brick buildings are a rarity here. Most people lived in daubed wood houses, often surrounded by dry brushwood fences. And most are desperately poor. The landscape is brightened only by unharvested corn and sunflowers.

The villages have no running water. People wash themselves and their clothes on the streets, using water from the irrigation canals that also supply their drinking water. The only real signs of modern life are the men toting machine guns at their crossroads posts, the old pick-ups struggling along the hilly roads, and the few goods for sale in the shops: chewing gum, candy and soda pop.

A couple months ago this area was considered a Moslem enclave under the control of field commander Rakhmon Sanginov, known by his nickname, Hitler. The nickname was acquired in childhood, when Sanginov imitated the Nazi leader for a school production on Victory Day. The mujahedin roamed freely here, enforcing their own form of law and order, and frequently making raids into the nearby sections of Dushanbe.

The people of the Samarkand hills have long supported the Moslem opposition. This region is part of the Karategina zone, whose population backed the religious extremists and the Revival party from the start. Municipal authorities made numerous diplomatic attempts to quell Rakhmon-Hitler's rebellion, but feared entering into an armed conflict with him that might shatter the fragile peace reached in 1997.

Unlike many field commanders, who received profitable and powerful government posts after the peace deal, Rakhmon Sanginov was left out in the cold. The order to attack him came only after he was abandoned by his former allies in the Moslem opposition, Said Abdullo Nuri and Akbar Turadzhonzoda. Interior Ministry troops destroyed the bulk of Sanginov's forces, and killed Sanginov himself, within a week. Those mujahedin who survived disappeared in the mountains, and no longer present a real threat. This operation might go down in Tajik history as the last battle with the mujahedin.

President Rakhmonov has already announced that no armed resistance exists in Tajikistan, meaning that no single group can now challenge the powers that be. Residents of the mountain villages are also breathing more easily now after years of war and theft. Now they must survive another test, the absolute poverty and staggering unemployment in the area. Soviet-era collective farms shut down 10 years ago, leaving the rural poor to plow their own patch with no outside support.

Pensions in Tajikistan are $2 per month. A kilogram of meat costs $1.50. Villagers are kept alive by humanitarian aid, and by their kitchen-gardens. A cow is now a sign of wealth. A man with a car is a businessman. Young people try to make a living in the cities, and the most desperate travel to Russia, where the chance of finding work is much greater. Most every home in the Samarkand hills is fed in part by an emigre relative.

Recent Tajik history has given rise to new heroes. A new elite has taken shape over the last 10 years. Former field commanders are now in charge of the government.

Gafur Mirzoyev, chief of the presidential guard, is known throughout Tajikistan as Gafur the Gray. He is a feared man. In the past he worked as a driver, then a gym teacher. Now he is a lieutenant general, and, many think, a major wheeler-dealer. Mirzoyev denies any link to the business world, however. According to him, the businessman in the family is his brother, Rasul. Garuf Mirzoyev just provides protection. "My name alone is enough that no one touches him," Mirzoyev said. And it's true. All doors are open to him.

Mirzoyev drives around town in a Mercedes 600-series sedan accompanied by a cortege of bodyguards. His services to President Rakhmonov are well known. He is one of those who prevented the Moslem opposition from seizing power in Tajikistan. He defends the president and the current political order. His children study in the United Arab Emirates. But he does not consider himself a hero of the civil war. Instead, he says he feels responsible for allowing the bloodshed to start in the first place.

Another general, Salamsho Mukhbatov, used to be a judo player, then became a field commander in the Moslem opposition. He fought for years in the mountains against government forces. Now he heads the state-owned gas and oil company. He never leaves home without an armed guard. He no longer supports the opposition, which he no longer needs. He considers himself a patriot, and like Mirzoyev, accepts his share of blame for the bloodshed.

"I fought for the ideas of Islam, for my compatriots from Karategin," he said.

Most former field commanders are now well placed. Some run the country's precious metals business, some are in cotton, aluminum, and the customs service. And some guard the border with Afghanistan, across which tons of narcotics move freely.

The division of power between Moslem leaders and his own supporters has brought substantial dividends to President Rakhmonov. But he has suffered losses as well. He was forced to break with his one-time allies, Colonel Makhmud Khudoiberdiyev and Interior Minister Yakub Salimov. Both commanders had done much for Rakhmonov's regime, but fell from favor and were removed from positions of influence. They even had to be removed from the country in order to make way for other field commanders.

This decision produced to several important results. It defused the political ambitions of the former mujahedin, thereby strengthening the president and his entourage. There's no longer any alternative to Rakhmonov. He is the unquestioned leader of Tajikistan, although he remains unpopular with many.

Rakhmonov also gained the crucial support Moscow. And finally, he managed to divide and destroy the opposition by buying off its leaders with access, power and wealth. One opposition leader, Akbar Turadzhonzoda, left the Revival party altogether.

On Sept. 9 Dushanbe celebrated the 10th anniversary of Tajik independence with a military parade. The parade began, fittingly, with the famous Russian march, "Proshchaniye slavyanki" (The Slavic Girl's Farewell). The Tajik border forces, paratroopers, police and presidential guard showed off their synchronized marching step, skills in hand-to-hand combat, and their shiny Russian hardware. On the viewing platform stood Tajikistan's political elite and a special guest, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, whose presence underscored the importance of Russian support to the Rakhmonov regime.

After an hour, the military parade gave way to a civilian parade. Just as they had during the Soviet era, workers' collectives filed past the assembled dignitaries.

In the evening a huge theatrical production was held in the city's central Mikhail Frunze Stadium -- a lavishly expensive affair involving 15,000 actors and athletes. The 20,000-seat stadium was filled to overflowing. Tajikistan hadn't seen this sort of pomp and circumstance since the Soviet era. Tajikistan's leaders spared no expense, despite the country's chronic poverty and unemployment. Russia weighed in with financial backing for the event.

But however the authorities tried to create an illusion of calm, they could not prevent surprises entirely. One day before the festival, the culture minister, Abdurakhim Rakhimov, was shot to death outside his apartment. The authorities buried him quietly in his native village, hoping to avoid publicity. Rakhimov was the third top official assassinated this year.

On the night of the big show another tragedy occurred. An unknown suicide bomber got close to the packed stadium and blew himself up. The noise of the explosion resounded through the stadium. Guard detail was doubled for the VIP guests, but the concert went on, ending with a display of fireworks.

Later it was revealed that no one but the bomber had been hurt, but no details were ever made public about the bombing or the assassination the day before. Rumors spread of an assassination attempt on Rakhmonov himself.

The Russian ambassador in Tajikistan, Maxim Peshkov, did offer some explanation. He said that an unidentified man, with a kilogram of dynamite strapped to his body, attempted to enter the stadium. All the approaches were blocked off by triple cordons of police, however, preventing him from getting inside. The bomb went off outside the stadium. But the question of who was behind the attack remains open. Some experts believe that members of the Osama bin Laden organization are testing the waters in Tajikistan, once home to a powerful Moslem opposition.

As it happened, the independence day celebrations were a success. People filled the streets and squares of towns across Tajikistan for three days of parades and other activities. To many it seemed that civil war was forever behind them.

The threat of attack from Afghanistan has only strengthened Russia's influence in Tajikistan. The people here have no desire to see the Taliban on their land.

The creation of a major military base for the 201st demonstrates how Russia continues to strengthen its position in Central Asia, and that it will be Russian soldiers who will bear the brunt of any future fighting on the Tajik-Afghan border if the Taliban decides to make a push to the north.