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What's Behind The Tumult In Tajikistan's Restive Gorno-Badakhshan Region?

Khorugh, the capital of the remote Tajik region of Gorno-Badakhshan
Khorugh, the capital of the remote Tajik region of Gorno-Badakhshan

The latest deadly unrest in the Tajik region of Gorno-Badakhshan came after authorities rejected a list of protesters' demands, though problems in the remote area have a long history.

Officials say eight protesters and one policeman were killed in the violence that began in the capital, Khorugh, on May 16. Clashes between police and demonstrators there spread to other areas of the sparsely populated autonomous region after an earlier protest.

Protesters were angry that officials refused their demands -- including the rejection of a probe into the police killing of local man that sparked violent protests in November, the release of several activists and others who have been detained or jailed in recent months, and the resignation of the regional governor and Khorugh mayor.

But the problems in Gorno-Badakhshan and mutual mistrust between the local population and the central government have much deeper roots.

The region -- which makes up 45 percent of Tajikistan but only 3 percent of its population -- has seen many violent protests and skirmishes, including in July 2012, the deadliest fighting in Tajikistan since the country's 1992-97 civil war.

Authorities said then that some 40 people were killed in the unrest that was sparked by the fatal stabbing of the regional head of the State Committee on National Security.

But other sources say the number of the dead was more than 200.

The government blamed the stabbing on local strongman Tolib Ayombekov and launched a military operation against an armed group led by Ayombekov. He denied the allegation.

During that military operation, the government deployed hundreds of troops to the region that still remain there despite objections by locals.

Unrest also broke out in Khorugh just two years later, killing at least four people and wounding six others.

Local Leaders

Ayombekov is among about a dozen of so-called informal leaders in Gorno-Badakhshan that -- much to Dushanbe's displeasure -- enjoy great influence among their communities.

Ayombekov was a member of a united opposition that fought against the government in the 1992-97 civil war that killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 1 million Tajiks.

He was appointed the commander of a border unit in a peace deal, a position he held for several years.

Some of the informal leaders were accused of being involved in smuggling drugs, weapons, and gemstones. Their armed supporters were linked to attacks and the killing of government officials.

Dushanbe blames the latest unrest on one of the influential local leaders, Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov, and his associates.

In February, Mahmadboqirov, 58, was formally charged with insulting and using force against a government representative, as well as inciting ethnic hatred. He denies the accusation.

In 2018, Ayombekov, Mahmadboqirov, and five other informal leaders were warned by the government against getting involved in "criminal" activity.

In recent months, Dushanbe renewed pressure on the informal leaders and other prominent figures from Gorno-Badakhshan.

In late April, influential figure Amriddin Alovatshoev was extradited from Russia in January and was sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges that include hostage taking and depriving people of their freedom. Relatives of Alovatshoev, 44, called the charges baseless.

On May 13, Chorshanbe Chorshanbiev, a popular mixed-martial-arts fighter from Gorno-Badakhshan, was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison after being convicted of calling for the overthrow of the government.

Chorshanbiev, 26, denies the allegation. He was arrested in December after being deported from Russia and is now imprisoned.

Sources told RFE/RL on May 17 that Dushanbe is seeking the extradition of several other influential figures among the Gorno-Badakhshan community in Russia.

Allegations Of Separatism

There have been allegations by Tajik officials for many years that certain elements in the linguistically distinct region are seeking Gorno-Badakhshan's independence from Tajikistan.

Although the local government did declare independence from Tajikistan when the civil war began in 1992, there have for many years not been any public calls for independence by any group or prominent figures in the province.

The majority of Gorno-Badakhshan's population of some 230,000 are followers of Ismailism, a branch of Shi'ite Islam, while most people in the rest of Tajikistan are Sunni Muslims.

While Tajik is the official language in the province, people use their own local languages -- such as Shughni, Rushani, Bartangi, and Yazgulyami -- in their daily lives.

A Tajik expert on political affairs says the reason behind the ongoing tensions in the region has more to do with the government's "wrong policies" than any striving for independence or greater autonomy.

"So far, the official demands of the protesters are limited to the problems of police lawlessness. The protest movement was more of a social nature, while all its leaders traditionally distance themselves from the political opposition," the expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL.

He warned, however, that "if the government continues to rely on heavy-handed methods, the movement will radicalize in the future."

The analyst added that the government should also address the grievances of people that complain that "all the revenues from the province's natural resources are controlled by the government, while the region only gets minimum subsidies in return."

What Can Dushanbe Do To Win Trust?

Some local residents say the government neither trusts the people of Gorno-Badakhshan nor sees them as "equals."

"The authorities treat us like step-children because our language is different," one Khorugh resident told RFE/RL. "They don't even consider us Muslims."

The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said that "many people in the province believe [Tajik] authorities want Gorno-Badakhshan's territory to be part of Tajikistan, but they don't want its people."

A resident of Khorugh says people in Gorno-Badakhshan are equally skeptical of Dushanbe. "This government doesn't represent our interests," he said. "This is not my government."

Asked if the people would trust the government if it accepted their recent demands -- such as the resignation of the local governors and the release of those arrested -- the man said "it would help."

"It President Emomali Rahmon accepts those concrete demands, the people here would see it as a goodwill gesture and it would make a difference," he told RFE/RL.

To try to win the trust of the people in Gorno-Badakhshan, the government should start by restoring the Internet -- which officials have shut down since November 2021 -- so people can connect with the outside world, Central Asia expert Edward Lemon says.

Lemon, a researcher at Texas A&M University, said the authorities must "cease using violence against peaceful protesters" and stop attacking media trying to cover the events in the region.

"The government should tolerate a local civil society based on informal leaders and support networks rather than trying the eliminate them and impose exclusive rule," he said.

But Lemon doesn't believe the government will take such measures to defuse the tension and will "instead intensify its repression of the Pamiri people."

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