Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Is Gorno-Badakhshan Stirring Again?

Outsiders are still trying to sort out what happened on May 21st in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (G.B.A.O.), the sealed-off eastern half of the Republic of Tajikistan.

According to the Russian news agency ITAR–TASS, three people were killed and seven wounded in Khorog, the Badakhshani capital, in the wake of a drug raid in which police killed two local residents.  Other suspects escaped in a car and shot and wounded four police officers in the ensuing chase.

Khorog, Gorno-Badakhshan’s capital
In response to these deaths at police hands, mass protests were held, cars were overturned, and public buildings were subjected to grenade attacks and set on fire, including a court, a police station, and the public prosecutor’s office.  One policeman was killed in street confrontations associated with the protest violence.  This was followed by demonstrations in the days following, with the public demanding an investigation.

Though the situation seems to have calmed down since then, it may have had an ethnic and sectarian dimension.  Gorno-Badakhshan—along with the adjacent part of Afghanistan, the eastern “panhandle” province of Badakhshan—is home to the Pamiri minority.  Pamiris, who like Tajiks speak a language related to Persian (see map below), follow Shi’a Islam—and in particular are Ismailis, i.e. followers of the Aga Khan—unlike the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other Sunni Muslims who make up the other 97% of Tajikistan’s population.  An estimated 100,000 Pamiris and members of a related ethnic group, the Gharmis, were slaughtered in the civil war that lasted from 1992 to 1997 after Tajikistan’s separation from the Soviet Union.

A scene from the violence in Gorno-Badakhshan in 2012
Since then, Gorno-Badakhshan, which covers nearly half of Tajikistan’s territory, has largely run its own affairs, without molestation by the central government.  The conflict was revived in 2012, when the government moved in to reoccupy the region for a while following the murder of a central-government security-chief, which Tajikistan blamed on Tolib Ayombekov, a Pamiri warlord from the 1990s who became a major drugs and weapons trafficking boss.

It is hard to know what goes on in Gorno-Badakhshan.  The area is sealed off from much of the world. But its fate has wider strategic implications.  The Russian government acted aggressively to snuff out the civil war in the late 1990s out of fears that the ascendant Taliban government in Afghanistan could take advantage of ethnic affinities across the Afghan–Tajik border to gain a foothold there.  Both Pamiris and Afghanistan’s ethnic mainstream, after all, had long-standing resentment of Soviet and Russian influence.  It is not as though the Taliban has particularly much influence in the Pamiri areas of Afghanistan; but the appearance or threat of it could be enough for authorities on either side to take overly precipitous action.  The area also borders the People’s Republic of China, in particular the vast and predominantly-Muslim Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the Beijing government is using separatist violence by the oppressed Uyghur people (some of which might even be staged, in “false flag” operations, as many Uyghur exiles believe) as the excuse for a crackdown—and for building cross-border alliances with Tajikistan, Pakistan, Russia, and other states to crack down on “separatist” and “terrorist” networks.

This map of Central Asian languages, seems to classify Pamiri (controversially) as Tajik.
It also shows, in pink, the presence of Kyrgyz people in eastern Gorno-Badakhshan.
One Central Asia expert, Omar Ashour, believes that the currently ongoing winding-down of the United States and NATO war in Afghanistan may be leading to instability (which of course is different from suggesting that those forces should stay). Some groups—the Taliban among them—are betting that the drawdown will leave power vacuums that they can fill. “I think what the NATO departure will do,” Ashour says, “is just make all the major players in Tajikistan think that they can expand their influence without having some big brother in the neighborhood intervene to empower one side or the other.”

Tajik soldiers display weapons captured in Gorno-Badakhshan raids, in 2010.
Surely, in a larger sense, China and especially Russia feel that way too. In particular, the new aggressive “Monroe Doctrine” approach to the former Soviet lands which President Vladimir Putin made public earlier this year with his annexation of Crimea lends extra significance to any unrest in Soviet successor states. The possibility, or even the fear, that events are the work of Kremlin-directed agents provocateurs creating a pretext for Russian intervention or annexation, will help determine the progress of any conflict.  We already see this happening with the ongoing coup d’état situation in the unrecognized Russian puppet state of Abkhazia, on Georgia’s territory.  Tajik instability also serves Russian interests by making Tajiks feel they would be safer inside the new “Eurasian Union” trade bloc of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus inaugurated last week as a counterbalance to the European Union.  Putin has already baldly exploited territorial anxieties to arm-twist Armenia (a prospective Eurasian Union member) and Kazakhstan to pull closer to Russia.

Tajik-Americans angered by the lack of information coming out of the violence-torn
areas in their homeland demonstrate in front of the Tajik embassy in Washington, D.C.
Ashour added, “Tajikistan is really on the brink at the moment and I think without some kind of international pressure to start some serious reforms in the security sector, in the military sector, and the political system, I think this country may see another cycle of heavy violence.”

[You can read more about Gorno-Badakhshan and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

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