Crossroads Asia

Tajikistan’s Recent Violence: What We Know (and Don’t Know)

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Crossroads Asia

Tajikistan’s Recent Violence: What We Know (and Don’t Know)

As time goes on, it will becoming increasingly difficult to figure out precisely what happened in Vahdat and Dushanbe.

Tajikistan’s Recent Violence: What We Know (and Don’t Know)
Credit: Dushanbe image via Nikita Maykov /

Two competing narratives have emerged regarding the outbreak of violence last week in Tajikistan.

The Tajik government says that deputy defense minister General Abduhalim Nazarzoda led a “terrorist” group aimed at overthrowing the government, instigating two attacks on September 4 in Dushanbe and neighboring Vahdat before fleeing to Romit gorge. An alternative narrative, which allegedly comes via phone and then Facebook from Nazarzoda, claims that he found out on September 3 that the government was planning on arresting him and his associates. Instead of waiting to be arrested, Nazarzoda and his men took up arms and fled the capital.

Since the story broke Friday, the government’s narrative has pervaded general international coverage. Outlets that do not typically carry news from Tajikistan ran stories lacking, to say the least, nuance or deeper grasping of the complicated factors at play. The headline for the New York Times’ story said “Islamist Rebels and the Police Clash in Tajikistan, Killing 17.” Pravda led with the idea that Nazarzoda “tried to arrange a military coup,” and continued by repeating Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s claim that “the organizers of the coup were acting under instructions from the Islamic State.” IHS Jane’s 360 erroneously predicts “Fighting between Tajik security services and pro-IRP militants,” ahead of Tajikistan’s Independence Day celebrations on September 9.

These reports seize upon the link between Nazarzoda and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and further repeat government allegations that the IRPT is linked to terrorists. Eurasianet profiled Nazarzoda and notes that while the government says he is an IRPT member; the party says he is not. The United Tajik Opposition (UTO), in which Nazarzoda was a commander, was a coalition of several different groups including the IRPT, but not exclusively Islamists. Bruce Pannier’s assessment for RFERL notes that “Nazarzoda officially relinquished his membership in the IRPT in connection with joining the armed forces.”

Sources closer to the ground question the official sequence of events–and provide more context. A detailed report from Eurasianet specifically points out the cracks in the government’s story:

On September 5, on the morning after the reported attacks, Vakhdat’s police station, a Soviet-vintage, two-story building with no courtyard, stood entirely intact with not a single window smashed. Police on duty warned journalists against taking photographs and threatened to confiscate cameras from anybody who tried, but an image captured from across the road with a mobile phone clearly shows the untarnished state of the building. A tour round the entire perimeter showed that no exterior part of the premises bore signs of bullet holes. Residents in the surrounding neighborhood reported no stray bullets hitting their homes.

RFE/RL, in a story based on reporting from their Tajik service, remarked that while the causes of the recent violence are unclear, “One thing that does seem clear is that this conflict has little, if anything, to do with Islam or international terrorism, as the Tajik government’s most senior figures are claiming.”

Farrukh Umari detailed the diverging storylines in a post on Global Voices that deftly weaves together the recent violence, Nazarzoda’s flight, the ongoing Tajik government crackdown on expressions of Islam, the death of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and the vestiges of the civil war without attributing the recent events to any one cause.

In that same vein, John Heathershaw places Nazarzoda’s rebellion in context of post-conflict governance systems in Tajikistan. “While the government portrays these rebels as external and terrorists, these are very much internal or intra-state conflicts over how the loot (public goods) of power are distributed,” he writes. The government may frame Nazarzoda’s rebellion as a coup attempt, but Heathershaw says “Most serious commentators, local and Russian, also see this as a tactical move by Hoji Halim [Abduhalim Nazarzoda] to pre-empt action against him by other forces within the state. In these terms, the rebellion is effectively a function of the nature of state governance.”