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Tajikistan: Civil War Challenged Russian Policy

  • Ben Partridge

London, 28 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The civil war in Tajikistan from 1992 to 1997 illustrates the problems faced by Russian policy-makers in adapting to new circumstances after the collapse of the Soviet Union and an end to any guarantee of Russian influence in Central Asia.

That is the conclusion of a recent study of the Tajik conflict written by a leading Central Asian expert, Lena Jonson. Her book, "The Tajik War: A Challenge to Russian Policy," was published recently by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

The Tajik civil war involved the government of President Imomali Rakhmonov and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), formed in 1995 as an alliance of parties and groups opposed to his regime.

This conflict is often depicted as a struggle between so-called "pro-Communists" and "Muslim fundamentalists." But Jonson argues that its roots were not religious, but rather reflected a fight for central government control by rival regional-political groupings.

Her study looks back on shifts in Russian policy leading up to the June 1997 peace accord -- later marred by new clashes -- between the Rakhmonov government and the UTO under the leadership of Said Abdullo Nuri. It says that Russian policy went through several stages -- from gradual involvement in Tajikistan, to full support for the Rakhmonov regime, and, later, to a more even-handed approach.

The first stage was characterized by a lack of official Russian interest in the evolving conflict, but growing unofficial Russian support for local pro-Communist forces backing Rakhmonov.

When the war erupted in May 1992, Russia's 201st Motorized Rifle Division, deployed in Tajikistan since Soviet times, was ordered to remain neutral. But unofficially, and acting as an independent political force, the division began to transfer weapons to local pro-Communist forces. The local support eventually became official Russian policy.

This took place even though in 1990 and 1991 Boris Yeltsin, together with other democratic forces in Russia, had provided moral support to the Tajik opposition of democratic and Muslim forces in their criticism of the Tajik communist government.

According to many analysts, Rakhmonov might never have come to power in November 1992 without the unofficial Russian help. Once in power, though, Rakhmonov was officially recognized by Moscow and the Russian military presence in Tajikistan increased. Russia's goal was clearly to support a regime that would bring stability and guarantee continued influence for Moscow in Tajikistan.

But, Jonson says, Russian policy was undermined by a contradiction: Through its support for the Rakhmonov regime, it was deeply involved in the Tajikistan conflict, while also trying to act as a third-party mediator. She adds that the confused Russian policy deepened the Tajik conflict and also had repercussions for Russian interests across Central Asia.

When Russia came out in support of one side in the Tajik civil war, the 201st Division became a target for both physical and political attacks. In one bloody attack on a border station in July 1993, 24 Russian border guards were killed and 18 were wounded.

After the attack, Russia assumed primary responsibility for Tajik military operations, and its military presence gradually turned the country into what Jonson calls a "Russian protectorate." The raid on the Russian border station -- which resulted in more deaths than in any previous attack-- became an issue in Russian internal politics.

The incident convinced many that, in Jonson's words, "military means were not enough and had to be complemented by political means."

By the mid-1990s, Russia was facing the threat of either being forced into a strategic retreat from Tajikistan, or being plunged into a deeper, and potentially devastating, military involvement. To avoid these twin evils, Moscow began to reformulate its policy toward Tajikistan, in an example of what the study calls the "learning process" in policy-making toward the "near abroad."

Showing a new pragmatism, Moscow began to revise its policy of support for only one party in order to bring the UTO to a political compromise, while also pressing the Rakhmonov regime to accept it. An important step was the December 1996 accord between the two sides for a National Reconciliation Council.

The study says Moscow was forced into a policy change mainly by Tajik local circumstances, although developments in Russia had made it ready for a change in any case. Other important factors were a growing awareness of Russia's own limited military capabilities and the prospect of further losing ground in the rest of Central Asia.

Russia's military leadership, which in 1993 to 1995 had favored a strong military presence and an active role in Tajikistan, was the first to realize the limited capacities of the armed forces. It was above all the failed 1994 invasion of Chechnya that made the military aware of the deteriorating state of Russia's armed forces.

The study says the timing of Russia's policy revision was mainly the result of a change of foreign minister. When he took over, Yevgeny Primakov managed to strengthen the authority of the foreign ministry, and initiate a serious search for a political accommodation in Tajikistan. Moreover, a switch to economic priorities in foreign policy after the re-election of Yeltsin intensified the search for a Tajikistan peace.

Jonson concludes: "Russia faced the threat of losing the war in Tajikistan and being squeezed out of the region. As in its policy towards the CIS in general, it had to set hard priorities for its policy on Tajikistan and re-focus its resources. Revising this policy can therefore be seen as part of the larger process whereby a former great power adapts to a new modified status and role."