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Tajikistan: Analysis From Washington--When Words Get In The Way

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 20 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Recent coverage of the complex situation in Tajikistan highlights the extent to which words used to describe events can conceal and distort even more than they reveal and define.

During the past week, several wire services, Western as well as Russian, have reported that the "secular, neo-communist" Tajik government had claimed victory over the "Islamic" and "regional" oppositon. And they said the "mutineers" had fled into Uzbekistan.

What is most striking about such reports is that the words employed in these stories derive from the experiences of other countries. But they are used here to make sense of a chaotic situation and thus imply far more order and structure than in fact exist within the borders of Tajikistan.

Among the most egregious examples of such terms in the Tajikistan case are the following:

First, most reports from there routinely speak of the Tajik government and the Tajik opposition.

Each of these terms refers to something that does not really exist in Tajikistan -- there is no real "government" and there is no real "opposition" in the usual sense.

The Tajik "government" more often appears to be a collection of power-seeking individuals backed by the power of the Russian army than an integral body functioning in a more or less regularized way.

And the "opposition" in Tajikistan is both less and more than the term implies. Because of the absence of any institutionalized political authority, it is not a formal "opposition" in the usual sense.

At the same time, it encompasses all those who are against the small core group of leaders backed by the Russian military contingent there.

Consequently, when one talks about the conflict there, it is less a civil war between two or three well-organized groups than a struggle of virtually all against all.

Second, the regime is often described as "secular" and "neo-communist" while its opponents are classified as "Islamist" or "regional." None of these terms describes the situation at hand.

Members of the Dushanbe leadership routinely claim that they are secular and fighting Islamic fundamentalism. And many of those fighting against these leaders denounce them as neo-communist and hence illegitimate.

In fact, the situation is both different and more complicated than this war of words suggests. Some Dushanbe leaders may claim to be secular, but like everyone else in Tajikistan, they are profoundly affected by Islamic traditions.

And the charge by opponents of the regime that it is neo-communist, also mistates the situation. Most of the leaders in Dushanbe are driven by a will to power rather than a commitment to any ideology.

And the Dushanbe regime lacks the the organizational structures of the old communist nomenklatura.

In both cases, each of the sides is invoking terms designed to win support from outside groups rather than seeking to describe what is actually going on. That may be smart politics, but it hardly justifies the uncritical acceptance of these labels.

And third, there is the problem of the so-called "borders" of Tajikistan. These exist as lines on the map but they do not have the same meaning as borders elsewhere.

Imposed by the Soviet Union, these borders are neither psychologically nor politically meaningful. Instead, they are frontiers across which people move without much thought as to what they are passing.

This list of terms useful when applied elsewhere but troublesome when applied to Tajikistan could be extended at length. But all the terms have other things in common, in addition to their general inappropriateness.

Each implicitly suggests that the situation in Tajikistan is somehow similar to situations in other countries.

Each implies that one group can make peace more quickly and acceptably than the other.

And each serves one or another political interest.

None of this is unique to Tajikistan, but it does represent an extreme case of where words get in the way not only of understanding but also of making peace.