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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War Widens Cracks In Tajikistan's Unity

The last few days of fighting in Tajikistan have already knocked the peace process off track, but the longer term repercussions threaten the future of the country itself as a unified state, analysts said Monday.

Battles between regional warlords could split the country irreparably into different warring fiefdoms, said one foreign diplomat in the capital Dushanbe.

This would open up a horrendous dilemma for Russia, which has 20,000 troops in the country, nominally there as a peacekeeping force but effectively propping up the pro-Moscow regime based in Dushanbe.

Russia has limited ability to intervene should things get out of hand. Most of its troops are strung out along the 1,000- kilometer border with Afghanistan, and only several thousand troops are actually based in Dushanbe.

"Russia will not interfere at all. At the most troops will be used to guard strategic installations," said Andrei Susarev, an analyst at the Center for Ethnopolitical and Regional Studies in Moscow. "They could not extend more than that, there is not a big unit there," he said.

The clashes over the weekend have been between key government figures jostling for more influence, money and control in their individual regional bases.

Their aim has not been to oust the pro-Moscow Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov but to gain more clout for themselves, according to Susarev, whose think tank advises the government.

"They have had clashes before, they have always had disagreements," he said.

Nonetheless, the infighting has weakened the president, whose hold on much of the country is already tenuous. "Rakhmonov is looking weaker," the foreign diplomat said, adding he failed to appear on national television personally to read a statement calling for unity.

For once, the United Islamic Opposition, which has been fighting the government since the civil war in 1992, had no part in the fighting. Nor has it moved to take advantage of the government's present weakness, or at least not yet.

The Kremlin last month brokered a peace deal between Rakhmonov and the Islamic opposition to end the civil war. It provided for a power-sharing deal and a conciliation commission. But the peace process between the government and the opposition was one of the first victims of the gunfire.

An opposition delegation was due to visit the capital Sunday from Teheran but had to postpone the trip because of the fighting, and the chances of the power-sharing deal happening quickly, if at all, now look far from good.

"Now the best case is for September, if it's later than that then we have to ask what does the accord mean," the foreign diplomat said.

The men leading the fighting in and around Dushanbe, and in particular the maverick army commander, Makhmud Khudoberdiyev, are radicals who oppose the peace deal and specifically the power-sharing deal.

"Twice in 20 months he has raised his troops, marched out and then says let's negotiate," the diplomat said. Last time Khudoberdiyev won control of Tajikistan's main aluminum plant for his supporters, although he seems to have lost that in the latest fighting.

"But this is more serious than before," the diplomat said. "He may want to establish control of the southwest of the country ... not to secede but to gain more autonomy."

Khudoberdiyev, who is based in southwestern Tajikistan, represents one of three key regional powers in Tajikistan. Although notionally loyal to the government, he is also allied with wealthy industrial bosses in northern and western Tajikistan.

The vast provinces of eastern Tajikistan come under the sway of the Islamic opposition. That leaves a very slim portion of the country, the capital Dushanbe and southern Kulyab province, left to the president and his Kulyab clan.

The division of power in Tajikistan between regional figures could become more established as a result of the latest fracas, the foreign diplomat said.

"It would not be a unified state, we would see the institutionalizing of regional fiefdoms," he said. "It would be bad for national projects like highways, vaccination programs, even the national currency when the country becomes so federalized that the word 'federal' stops meaning anything."