By Kirgizbek Kanunov (06/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 21, 2014, a shooting incident occurred in Khorog, the capital of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), involving local residents and law enforcement personnel. As a result of the shooting, three people were killed, including a law enforcement officer, and several were wounded.
According to witnesses, the incident began when three residents of Khorog were shot at in their vehicle, presumably by officers of the Special Police Force (OMON). However, the official statement of the Tajik Interior Ministry claims that the police officers wanted to detain suspected criminals whom they believed were in the vehicle, and that the police officers had to use force because the driver and passengers resisted arrest. Concurrently, it was reported on May 20 that Taliban insurgents took over the county of Yamgan in the Afghan province of northern Badakhshan across the river from Khorog.
The developments in Khorog beg the question of whether they were the result of a localized confrontation between law enforcement and the public or part of a larger destabilization of GBAO, and perhaps of Tajikistan more broadly. It is important to note that even before the details of the incident were confirmed, the Russian media, including one influential Internet source presumably associated with the Kremlin, hinted of Western involvement in the Khorog unrest.
Prior to the incident in Khorog, a message from an anonymous source, claiming to be a resident of Khorog by the name Shakarmamadov, was disseminated in social networks and media collaborating with the Tajik special services. The message mentioned a meeting between Muhammadbokir Muhammadbokirov, a local leader and former opposition warlord, and representatives of the Delegation of the EU, accusing them of destabilizing the situation in GBAO, in a fashion similar to what recently took place in the Ukraine. Simultaneously, the influential MP and former State Advisor of the President of Tajikistan Amirkul Azimov openly accused the EU and NATO of attempting to destabilize the situation in Khorog.
Yet despite open accusations of the EU and the U.S. being involved in the Khorog unrest, Tajik authorities officially demonstrate support for their policies in the region. For example, on June 3, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and daughter of Tajikistan’s President, Emomali Rahmon Ozoda, who leads the annual review of political consultations between the Tajikistan and the U.S., emphasized the U.S.’s role in the international coalition against terrorism in Afghanistan and its impact on security in Central Asia as a whole. She also praised the work of USAID in Tajikistan. It is notable that USAID, along with the Soros Foundation, is a frequent subject of criticism in Tajikistan’s state media.
According to observers, individuals directly connected with the secret services created social media accounts, particularly on Facebook, prior to the incident in Khorog and initiated discussions aiming to discredit Tajik opposition leaders and former warlords in GBAO.
A full-scale military operation involving all Tajikistan’s law enforcement agencies took place in Khorog on July 24, 2012, which resulted in numerous victims among the civilian population. Until now, according to Tajik human rights activists and local residents, the authorities have failed to carry out an objective investigation into the 2012 incident. Locals believe that the officials responsible for the deaths of civilians have not been punished. On the contrary, many civil society activists taking part in peaceful demonstrations during the 2012 incident have since faced continuous harassment and prosecution in spite of an agreement between security forces and civil society representatives in 2012 promising all protestors amnesty.
Observers argue that no major social issues have been resolved in GBAO in the last two decades. Since independence, the state has not created a single company in the region and the small number of industries established there during Soviet times have declined. In the context of the general unemployment rate, young people are forced to leave GBAO to work in Russia, where they face arbitrary law enforcement and violence from nationalist groups such as skinheads.
In light of this bleak socio-economic situation in the region, the potential for public protest is growing. The same sentiment exists in other regions of Tajikistan and analysts claim that some radical forces in Tajikistan are even considering the possibility of cooperating with the Taliban.
Some analysts are pessimistic about the prospect for dialogue between the government and protesters in Khorog. According to Tajik journalist Marat Mamadshoev, Tajik authorities are not ready for dialogue with civil society as they consider any concessions as a sign of weakness. “Other regions of Tajikistan face similar problems. Tajik authorities are unwilling to set a precedent, by agreeing to the wishes of residents of Khorog, in fear of the so-called domino effect” says Mamadshoev.
Nevertheless, following talks between the government and protesters a joint commission was set up, including government and civil society representatives, to investigate the recent events, and an agreement between the government and protesters in Khorog was signed on May 31. The authorities recognized 7 out of 9 of the protesters’ demands. However, the key points demanding the resignation of security officials and an amnesty for rioters still hovers in the air, and the possibility of a new escalation cannot be ruled out.
The decision of the Tajik authorities to make partial concessions to the protesters could either mean that they are seriously concerned over stability in the country, or as another tactical maneuver in order to gain time and gradually neutralize the protest and opposition sentiment in the area.
The most recent incident in Khorog took place shortly ahead of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan and Tajikistan’s 2015 parliamentary elections, both of which heighten the risk of destabilization in Tajikistan.