Tajikistan’s current crisis began on August 22, when a group of 25 prisoners escaped from a top-security prison in the capital city of Dushanbe, killing five guards in the process. The escapees included several high-profile opposition figures, including some with Islamist sympathies. And, while a handful were apprehended, most of them disappeared.
Since then, there have been a number of dramatically violent incidents across the country. On September 3, a pair of suicide bombers drove an explosive-laden car into a police station in Khujand, the second city of Tajikistan, killing four people and injuring dozens more. On September 19, 26 government troops – mainly young, poorly trained conscripts – were killed in an ambush in the Rasht Valley, a narrow stretch of Tajikistan between the Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan borders. On October 6, at least 27 government troops were killed in a military helicopter crash in the Rasht Valley; residents say that the helicopter was shot down. And earlier this month, police said a woman in the far northern Isfara region blew herself up when they tried to arrest her.
All this has been an unwelcome reminder of the civil war of 1992-1997, where different government factions, backed by rival clan groups, fought and killed as many as 100,000 people. The war ended in a power-sharing agreement, with the winning faction, led by President Emomali Rahmon, a former collective farm boss, ceding some positions in the government and security forces to the losing factions, which included both Islamists and liberals.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But as the years have passed, Rahmon has increasingly lost interest in sharing his power, and has consolidated authority around a small group of family members and allies from his home region of Kulyab, shutting out not only the Islamists and liberals but more and more of his former allies. He has cartoonishly put forward his children as potential future leaders: his daughter has been a TV news presenter – aged 16. His eldest son is a member of the Dushanbe city council, owns (as well as plays on) the national champions soccer team, and heads the Youth Union of Tajikistan and an investment-promotion agency. He’s 22. Meanwhile, many parts of the country have electricity for only an hour a day, and young Tajik men migrate abroad, especially to Russia, in droves to find jobs.
As a result of the narrowing of the circle of power, Rahmon has accumulated plenty of enemies, and so it’s not clear who’s behind the recent rash of violence, or indeed if any single group is responsible.
The government has tried to pin the violence on transnational Islamist terror groups and attributed the suicide bombing in Khujand to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU, while initially made up of Islamist opponents to the government of Uzbekistan, has focused more recently on Afghanistan and Pakistan than Central Asia. It remains, however, a favourite bogeyman for Central Asian leaders who want to claim that their opponents are implacable international jihadis rather than homegrown political opposition, so many observers are suspicious of the government’s blaming of the IMU.