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Tajikistan: Five Years Of Official Peace Reigns

  • Bruce Pannier

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the official end of Tajikistan's five-year civil war. Despite the cessation of hostilities, however, the country remains poor and the peace fragile. RFE/RL looks back at the start of war, the unique power-sharing plan that ended it, and the Tajik people's prospects for the future.

Prague, 27 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Five years ago today, the Tajik Peace Accord was signed in Moscow by President Imomali Rakhmonov and the leader of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), Said Abdullo Nuri.

The agreement ended a five-year civil war in which at least 50,000 Tajiks were killed. At any given time between 1992 and 1997, 500,000 Tajik citizens were either living as internally displaced people or as refugees in neighboring countries, including war-torn Afghanistan.

The peace agreement began an unprecedented experiment in governing as the Tajik government, composed mainly of former Communist Party members, agreed to hand over 30 percent of the government to the mainly Islamic opposition.

It has been a rocky five years since, and although the situation is improving, there are serious problems still confronting Tajikistan.

Tajikistan's civil war began in early 1992 and further devastated a country that was already one of the poorest of the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union. The country endured five different leaders in the first six months of the war.

The fighting started for a number of reasons -- political, religious, ethnic, and clan hostilities and the settling of vendettas that had simmered during the Soviet years.

Encouraged by independence and with the recent liberal Soviet reforms of the Mikhail Gorbachev era fresh in their minds, people turned out in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, in early 1992 to demand more rights for political groups. These groups ranged from democrats to those who favored maintaining parts of the familiar communist past.

Muslims demanded more freedom to practice their religion and construct houses of worship, but these demands soon deteriorated as Sunni and Shiite groups began armed hostilities.

The civil war also brought the phenomenon of "Mahallism" to the fore. Mahalla means something like "neighborhood," and the term was used to explain the fighting that broke out between peoples of different regions, many of whom had been forcibly relocated during the Soviet era to areas outside their traditional clan regions.

Eventually, two groups emerged in Tajikistan as principle rivals.

Imomali Rakhmonov, the former speaker of parliament, was selected to lead the country by a group of warlords and former Soviet government officials at an emergency meeting in November 1992. Rakhmonov was supported by Russia, which had more than 20,000 soldiers stationed in Tajikistan, and by neighboring Uzbekistan.

The UTO was supported by Iran and also likely by Tajik factions within Afghanistan, among whom the UTO found sanctuary during the war.

After years of fighting, however, neither side could claim significant advances.

Ramiro Piriz Ballon was the United Nations special envoy for Tajikistan from 1994 to 1996. He attended the first Tajik peace talks in Moscow in 1994 and several subsequent negotiating sessions.

In an interview last year, he spoke to RFE/RL's Tajik Service about the UN's role in mediating the Tajik peace: "I think that the UN participation in the peace process was absolutely essential to start and develop the negotiations between the Tajiks, but had there not been a will from both sides to come to terms, to reach a political solution, the efforts of the UN would not have been fruitful. I believe that both factors count very much. The UN presence was decisive. It also inspired confidence in both sides that they were under an impartial arbiter."

John Schoeberlein is the director of the program for Central Asia and the Caucasus at Harvard University in the U.S. He said the peace agreement has given Tajikistan a distinct place among its Central Asian neighbors: "On the political front, the signing of the peace accord, in a sense, created the first legal, real opposition in Central Asia, where one of the elements of the opposition was the Islamist group [Islamic Renaissance Party]. And it created a coalition government in which all the opposition groups were represented."

But while Tajikistan may seem liberal politically in comparison with the other former Soviet republics of Central Asia, Schoeberlein also noted that in elections that have taken place since the agreement, most of the legally registered parties have been marginalized. He said Rakhmonov has consolidated his power "rather effectively."

Alex Vatanka, the editor of "Russia-CIS Security Assessment Binder," part of Jane's Sentinel, agrees with Schoeberlein's assessment. "If you have a quick look at what is going on in Tajikistan today, as opposed to five years ago, you wouldn't see any radical changes. The central government still doesn't have control of the whole country. There are divisions, particularly along the lines of clans within the country. And the divisions remain, despite the five years that have passed since the cease-fire agreement was signed."

Ivo Petrov is the UN secretary-general's special envoy at the UN Office of Peace-building in Tajikistan. In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this week, he admitted there are still glaring problems in the country, especially poverty, and spoke of the ironic impetus that pushed the two sides toward peace. "Poverty, and in some cases I would say extreme poverty, is the greatest threat to stability in Tajikistan at this time. The economy...I said that what has been done in the last few years is not enough. It's no secret that the law on elections requires re-examination and some additions and changes and, perhaps, there should be new laws. The single positive element that the Taliban brought after they took over [most of] Afghanistan was that it stimulated the peace process."

When the Taliban took Kabul in September 1996, the UTO was afraid it might lose its sanctuaries in Afghanistan. The Taliban were relative newcomers to the Afghan political scene, and the UTO did not trust the mainly ethnic Pashtun movement as much as their Tajik cousins in northeastern Afghanistan.

Moscow was also tiring of supporting the Tajik government. Russian troops did not officially fight alongside Tajik government forces, but Russia did supply Dushanbe with weapons and money. Russian troops also guarded Tajikistan's borders and vital facilities within the country.

Russian troops still guard Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, but today the United States and some of its coalition partners in the war on terrorism are also using bases inside Tajikistan for the campaign in Afghanistan. Tajikistan is the only country in the world where Russian and American combat troops are stationed simultaneously.

Tajikistan's willingness to cooperate with the antiterrorism coalition has resulted in increased international aid to Tajikistan. Before the campaign in Afghanistan, the country had endured two successive years of drought, and early last fall there were calls from aid organizations that half the country's 6 million people faced the prospect of famine. That did not happen, due in large part to Tajikistan being used as a staging area for convoys of food and other aid to Afghanistan, some of which was allotted for Tajikistan.

As for former UTO leader Nuri, he still lives in Dushanbe, but the factions that once formed the coalition have splintered, and the Islamic Renaissance Party that Nuri still heads has only limited influence.

Tajikistan remains poor and possesses limited resources. Its long-term prospects are uncertain. But as Tajikistan approaches its 11th anniversary of independence in September, the country can remember that half of its short history has been spent in peacetime.

As Schoeberlein said: "There's no open hostilities. There's an improving economy. And the general feeling among the population is that things are much better."

(Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)