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Tajik security forces have been conducting an operation in the Romit Gorge to apprehend fugitive General Abduhalim Nazarzoda.

When gunbattles broke out on the outskirts of Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe between security forces and a deputy defense minister and his supporters there were fears the situation might quickly grow beyond control.

Tajikistan borders Afghanistan and there has been fighting in northern Afghanistan in recent months that was as close as several kilometers from the Tajik border. There was a civil war in Tajikistan itself from 1992 to 1997 and during the years since the war ended the peace has often been shaky.

There were many theories about what was causing the violence; a coup attempt or the start of an Islamic insurgency were among the most popular, and given Tajikistan's recent past, not unreasonable assumptions.

General Abduhalim Nazarzoda was, until September 4 when the fighting started, Tajikistan's deputy defense minister. For reasons that are still unclear, the general and his supporters attacked security forces, seized weapons and fled to the rugged Romit Gorge nearby.

Nazarzoda in the past had links to the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which until its recent shutdown was the second largest political party in the country and the only legally registered Islamic party in all of Central Asia. The government and state media jumped to make that connection in the hours after the attacks started and later mixed in some comments about "terrorism" or "coup attempt."

Former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda is not the first senior military officer in Tajikistan to have been accused of plotting attacks against the government. (file photo)
Former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda is not the first senior military officer in Tajikistan to have been accused of plotting attacks against the government. (file photo)

What is going on in Tajikistan? Why is this happening? How bad is the situation?

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a Majlis, or assembly, to try to answer those questions.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated a panel discussion. Participating in the talk were Parviz Mullojonov, an independent political analyst in Dushanbe, Dr. John Heathershaw, professor of Central Asia studies and Peace and Conflict studies at Exeter University in the United KIngdom, doctoral candidate Edward Lemon, also from the University of Exeter, who lived in Tajikistan and continues to keep a close watch on events there. I was there as well.

Some necessary background: Tajikistan's Justice Ministry on August 28 ordered the IRPT to shut down its political activities by September 7. The IRPT was the core group in the civil war era United Tajik Opposition that also included a secular democratic group and a Shi'a nationalist group from eastern Tajikistan.

Mullojonov said that in Tajikistan there are three versions of what happened. The Tajik government version is "a coup d'etat related to the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan," though Mullojonov noted, "there are different sub-versions proposed by various government agencies."

There is also Nazarzoda's purported side of the story, posted on Facebook page by his supporters, that "the fighting was provoked by Tajik official agencies themselves…the Tajik government was planning to arrest a group of former UTO (United Tajik Opposition) field commanders and fighters and it was planned to accuse them of attacking several police stations.

And the "third version that General Nazarzoda was supposed to be prosecuted by the Tajik government and he received information that the prosecution is going to start soon, and therefore he started the uprising."

A 'Profoundly Post-Conflict' Country

Heathershaw and Lemon agreed that the third account seemed the most likely. Heathershaw went on to say, "This is very much an intra-state conflict rather than a rebellion against the government or a coup d'etat."

Lemon pointed out that, when security forces arrived at Nazarzoda's home after the general had fled to the Romit Gorge, they found "a large arms cache and if it was a premeditated attempt at a coup d'etat then surely he would have gathered more soldiers around him and he would have obviously armed them and not left his main arms cache to be captured."

Mullojonov agreed General Nazarzoda's force seemed ill-prepared for staging a coup, and not only militarily. "I think they would be able to prepare better propaganda coverage so they would have some more clear goals and strategy, they would proclaim some clear objectives, which they don't have right now."

There have been more than a half dozen serious incidents of fighting since the end of the Tajik civil war in 1997. All were localized and most seem to have been sparked by the breaking of tacit agreements between the government and former opposition figures who had once made a vague pledge to respect the peace, in return for maintaining the small spheres of influence they carved out during the civil war.

According to Heathershaw, "What's most remarkable here first of all is how profoundly post-conflict Tajikistan remains."

General Nazarzoda's "insurrection" is already losing what little momentum it had in the first hours after the attack. The violence has not affected Tajikistan seriously; in fact the country hosted a World Cup qualifying match between the national team and Australia in Dushanbe on September 8.

Undesirable Civil War Remnants

However, Heathershaw's point that Tajikistan has not made a transition from a post-conflict state to a stable state moving away from the days of civil war is the key to the country's instability.

Nazarzoda was only directly involved in the civil war during the first few months. He spent the remainder of the war in Kazakhstan and only returned after the peace deal. He was given command of a unit comprised of former opposition fighters who were merged into Tajikistan's armed forces as part of the peace agreement.

Other opposition politicians and field commanders were similarly brought into the government and armed forces, as were some unsavory government allies from the civil war, such as former field commanders from Popular Front paramilitary groups that sided with the government.

Among them are people whose loyalty to the government, or to the peace arrangement, has never been strong. The government appears to have moved against Nazarzoda, as they have others in the past, as part of a slow process of removing undesirable civil war remnants.

But the violence won't stop until all these individuals are removed and that raises questions about whether some of these people might decide to strike first.

Lemon summed it up nicely. "It's common for outside observers and the government itself to always say that dangers proceed from the outside, so the main destabilizing factors in Tajikistan will in fact be external, they will come from spillovers from Afghanistan, they will come from the Islamic State. But no, what do we see? Political violence in Tajikistan [is] all about local politics, these are all about the kind of political economy of the post-conflict state."

The discussion delved deeper into these topics and addressed other issues.

You can listen to an audio recording of the panel discussion here:

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Saparmamed Nepeskuliev

There are things that happen in life that you know in advance are going to happen, and when they do, knowing in advance does not lessen the shock, the outrage, or the disappointment.

Our correspondent in Turkmenistan, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, was detained on dubious narcotics charges in early July, held incommunicado for two months, and apparently was recently sentenced to three years in prison.

Nepeskuliev worked in southwestern Turkmenistan's Balkan Province and had reported about issues such as shortages of water and electricity and the lack of medical services in the province, as well as the luxurious homes some local officials built for themselves along Turkmenistan's Caspian Sea coast.

Reporting on such topics is risky in many countries, but in Turkmenistan it is guaranteed to bring trouble. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkmenistan near the bottom of its World Press Freedom Index, 178th out of 180 countries, followed by North Korea and Eritrea.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, spoke by telephone with Nepeskuliev's distraught mother, Raysina. Speaking from her home in the western city of Balkanbat, Raysina said that her daughter -- Nepeskuliev's sister -- had learned of his trial and conviction.

She continues to deny her son had any involvement with narcotics and says authorities have been entirely uncooperative in helping learn about her son's situation.

Reporters Without Borders issued a statement about Nepeskuliev on September 8 that asked: "Where exactly is Nepeskuliev now? Has he had a lawyer?"

In the statement, Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said, "The continuing silence from the authorities about Saparmamed Nepeskuliev's fate is completely illegal."

Bihr said, "The silence is a nightmare for his family and increases our concern about his safety," and added, "We yet again call on the authorities, as a matter of urgency, to provide full details about his current status and his possible conviction, and to free him without delay."

In August, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal told Azatlyk that U.S. officials had raised the issue of Nepeskuliev's detention with Turkmen officials. Apparently that had no effect on the outcome of Nepeskuliev's case.

It's not surprising. It's the way in Turkmenistan (and in Uzbekistan, too). There are people the Turkmen government perceives as enemies, troublemakers -- and authorities move against them quickly and decisively. In their system, being detained for a crime means being guilty. The trial is a formality, lip service to a judicial process that in fact does not exist.

There was only way Nepeskuliev's case was going to end -- exactly the way it did.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir and Toymyrat Bugayev of the Azatlyk contributed to this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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