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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War in the Heart of Asia

Tajikistan is sometimes called the heart of Asia. The rivers that originate in the high mountain glaciers of this small country quench the arid lands of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. But in this small country, most of whose territory is traversed by mountains, irreconcilable geopolitical and national interests collide. Since May 1992, a bloody civil war has raged here, taking the lives of more than 200,000 people and creating nearly 1 million refugees.

For whom and why is war being waged in Tajikistan? Once called the Roof of the World during the Soviet period, Tajikistan is now deciding what path it -- and perhaps other former Soviet Central Asian republics -- will take in its further development. Will it choose independent development, or will the region be assigned the role of raw materials supplier, obedient to the political, military and economic dictates of Moscow?

Russian politicians and the military justify their active role in Tajikistan because of Russia's geopolitical and strategic national interests. The 201st division and border guards have been stationed along the Tajik-Afghan border since the Soviet period. The nearly 40,000 Russian bayonets comprise the largest, most well-armed contingent among the belligerents in this conflict. Were it not for this force and its interference in the course of Tajik political and military affairs since 1992, the republic would be dealing only with an inter-regional, inter-Tajik struggle for power.

A complicated patchwork of clans and ethnic groups is involved in this struggle: On the one side, the Khudzhand and Kulyab clans and the Tadjik-based Uzbeks are supported by Moscow; they face opponents from the Gorny Badakhshan and Garm areas who espouse Islamic or democratic ideals.

The Khudzhand are taking part in the conflict because they ruled the country during the Soviet period. After 1991, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, the communists and bureaucrats of the more industrially developed and heavily populated northern quarter of the country did not want to cede power.

The influence of neighboring Uzbekistan is particularly strong in the Leninabad region, with its center in Khudzhand. The region shares a long border and convenient rail links with Uzbekistan. Nearly half of the population of Leninabad are Uzbeks or products of mixed marriages. In Tajikistan as a whole, there are nearly 1 million Uzbeks. Thus, Tashkent steps in whenever it feels that it needs to defend its national interests in Tajikistan.

In November 1992, detachments of local Uzbeks that had received weapons and tanks from Uzbekistan joined the 201st Russian division in helping the pro-communist "People's Front" rout detachments of the anti-communist opposition in the Kurgan-Tyube region -- which borders Afghanistan -- and seize power in Dushanbe.

The Tajiks from the country's most backward region of Kulyab -- set up against Afghanistan like a dead-end street -- comprise the foundation of the pro-communist "People's Front." After the fall of the Soviet Union, the elite from other eastern and southern regions -- Gorny Badakhshan and the Garm areas -- entertained ideas of coming to power. The Kulyab clan considered itself vulnerable and supported the communist elite from Khudzhand. Its calculations proved correct: In 1992, The Russian 201st division under Colonel Yevgeny Merkulov provided Kulyab detachments with tanks, with which they took Kurgan-Tyube, the base of the Islamic-democratic opposition.

By December 1992, the Garm and Badakhshan had been driven from the Kurgan-Tyube region toward the river Pyandzh. During ethnic cleansing at the Pyandzh regional center stadium alone, 8,000 Garm and Badakhshan were shot on suspicion of supporting the Islamic-democratic opposition. Approximately 100,000 people were then forced to flee over the Pyandzh to Afghanistan. Today, these groups form the backbone of the Islamic opposition's detachments, now struggling to return home and clashing with government forces 200 kilometers east of Dushanbe.

And the Kulyab? After the 1992 victory over the opposition, the Kulyab demanded power from the Khudzhand, which could offer no resistance: The strength of firepower proved to be a weightier argument. For the first time, Tajikistan was headed by a Kulyab: first secretary of the Dangarin regional party committee Emomali Rakhmonov. He based government policy over the next four years on anti-Islamic rhetoric, thus maintaining the specter of the Islamic threat in Russia and the West. Rakhmonov has received from Russia more than 600 billion rubles, which have been swallowed by the war.

But now Tajik and Uzbek Moslems are being oppressed not over Islam, but by poverty and chaos. An average monthly salary is $5, and even this is often withheld by the authorities for two to three months. The Kulyabs now face a crisis as the dissatisfaction of the non-Kulyab population spills over into clashes in Kurgan-Tyube and Khudzhand.

It appears Moscow has found a solution, having blessed the return to politics of a former supporter of Rakhmonov, ex-prime minister Abdumalik Abdullodzhanov, a Khudzhand. His loyalty to Moscow is unquestioned, and even the opposition, supported by the Afghan mujaheddin and Moslem countries, supports his proposal on creating a coalition government of professionals, with equal consideration given to regional and political interests.

The fact that members of the opposition are not requiring Rakhmonov's resignation may please Moscow and the Kulyab, as might the fact that no political group is requiring the removal of Russian forces -- though their removal would in fact please many. But it seems that a balance of power will not be achieved without the interference of the 201st division -- if only to remind all the belligerents whose hand grips the heart of Asia.

Temur Klychev is a Tajik journalist living in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.