Political tensions and security threats in Tajikistan

The airport of Khorugh, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in Tajikistan (Credits: Zack Knowles, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 19 Issue 11
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

Recent clashes in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, border security problems with Afghanistan and the last Islamic State terrorist attack have underlined the problematic situation that Tajikistan needs to manage to guarantee national stability and security.

In the last days, the Tajik Government had to manage several protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, which is located in the strategic Pamir valley, plays a strategic role due to its proximity to Afghanistan and China and, thanks to local mineral resources, might become an essential component for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[1]

This analysis investigates recent events in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and possible future outcomes for Tajik national security due to local disappointment and terrorist threats. Furthermore, the research aims at assessing recent Tajik events’ potential impact on the relations with Russia and China, which are Dushanbe’s leading political, security and economic partners interested in assuring their influence in Central Asia and maintaining regional stability.

Protests and tension in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region

On May 14th, 2022, a rally was held in Khorugh, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) of Tajikistan. Several hundred residents protested and demanded the resignation of the head of the region, Alisher Mirzonabot, and the mayor of Khorugh, Rizo Nazarzoda, removing all roadblocks in the capital of GBAO and an end to the persecution of the Badakhshan residents. In addition, the protesters insisted on bringing to justice those responsible for the death of Gulbuddin Ziebekov, the release of Amriddin Alovatshoev, Chorshanbe Chorshanbiev and other residents of the region who were detained after the November protests. The protesters claimed they would again gather for a protest action if their demands were not met.[2] The region prosecutor’s office labelled the rally as an ‘illegal action’ organised by Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, Muhiddin Kabiri and Alim Sherzamonov to undermine “the country’s security”. The prosecutor’s office assured that the authorities would consider the protest an act of terrorism and respond to them accordingly.[3]

On May 16th, 2022, the protesters gave the local establishment time to consider their demands until 16:00. After having refused their requests, GBAO authorities defined the needs of the protesters as illegal.[4] Therefore, on May 16th, 2022, a large group of local youth headed toward the regional administration and clashed with law enforcement officers of Tajikistan, who used rubber bullets and tear gas.

On May 17th, 2022, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan, a group of young residents of Khorugh “at the direction” of Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov and “under the leadership” of 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev “made an armed attack” on employees of the Ministry who were “performing their official duties” in the building of the regional court, and “blew up a manual grenade. “During the “repulse of an armed attack”, Nazrishoev, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was injured and died in the hospital. Several sources of the Tajik service of Radio Liberty said that the young man died under other circumstances.[5] The Interior Ministry accused Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov of organising the rally, who allegedly “acted at the head and the direction” of Ulfathonim Mamadshoeva and wanted Alim Sherzamonov. Sherzamonov denied his involvement in the rally the day before, as did Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov.

On May 17th, 2022, the Ministry of Interior Affairs of Tajikistan also announced the launch of an “anti-terrorist operation” in the Rushan district of the GBAO along the highway Dushanbe-Khorugh-Kulma. The Tajik authorities reported that members of organised international terrorist groups illegally blocked the Dushanbe-Khorugh-Kulma international highway on a section in the Rushan region with the final goal to destabilise the regional socio-political situation.[6]

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in the Rushan region, clashes broke out between government troops and residents, who blocked the road to Khorugh. Residents considered their actions peaceful in defence of their rights. Some international organisations and the Tajik opposition, based in Europe, called on the Tajik authorities to stop persecuting peaceful protesters in GBAO. The law enforcement agency did not report any casualties in Rushan, however, according to some reports, several people were injured during the clashes.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs referred to the involvement of foreign forces in the incident, saying that “criminals” with the support of international terrorist organisations received weapons and ammunition outside the country and “enlisted foreign mercenaries to carry out terrorist acts and other forms of provocation.”. Nevertheless, the department did not name these organisations.

The situation in Gorno-Badakhshan collapsed in recent days after courts sentenced activist Amriddin Alovatshoev to 18 years in prison and MMA fighter Chorshanbe Chorshanbiev to eight and a half years in prison. Alovatshoev was charged with hostage-taking, illegal imprisonment and “other acts of a criminal nature,” but the authorities did not name specific articles of the Criminal Code. After being deported from Russia, MMA fighter Chorshanbiev was detained in Dushanbe on December 31st, 2021. Initially, the authorities accused him of “inciting ethnic and religious hatred and calling for the overthrow of the government.” The first charge was later dropped.[7]

Since November 25th, 2021, the situation in GBAO has been tense because, during a “special operation” of security forces in the village of Tavdem, Roshtkaly district of GBAO, local resident Gulbuddin Ziyobekov was killed. After the death of Ziyobekov, up to several thousand people gathered in the central square of the city of Khorugh. The rallies lasted four days. The audience demanded to bring to justice those responsible for the death of Ziyobekov, the resignation of the new head of the region Alisher Mirzonabot, the withdrawal of the military from Khorugh and the restoration of Internet communications in the area.[8]

The authorities promised the protesters to restore communication, launch an investigation into the death of Ziyobekov, withdraw the military and not hold the protesters accountable if they left the square. The rallies ended on November 28th, 2021. However, according to members of the “Commission 44”, created by civil activists on the last day of the rally in Khorugh, the investigation into the murder of Gulbuddin Ziyobekov and two other victims of the November events continues to this day.[9]

Geopolitical scenario and risk assessment

Dushanbe needs to maintain the control and stability of the GBAO because this region plays a strategic economic and political role in the region. The Government has stressed the threat coming from Afghanistan and Islamist movements that might cross the borders and try to destabilise the Tajik territory. In this regard, on May 15th, 2022, the Afghan news channel Afghanistan International reported about armed clashes on the Afghan-Tajik section of the border.

“Local sources in northern Afghanistan report that Tajik border guards and Taliban forces exchanged fire for four hours on Saturday evening at the common border in the Sherkhan Bandar region… According to these sources, the clashes came after verbal tension between the Taliban forces and Tajik border guards, and the Taliban opened fire first,” the channel informed.[10]

Previously, on May 8th, 2022, the press centre of the border troops of the State Committee for National Security of Tajikistan (GKNB) confirmed that the border area of ​​the republic was shelled from the territory of Afghanistan. The Islamic State Khorasan claimed responsibility for the rocket attack on Tajikistan from Afghanistan. It was the second time that Islamic State fighters attacked Tajikistan from the Afghan territory.[11]

Since the United States announced the troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan after the Doha agreements, Tajik authorities have expressed their concern over security situations at the Afghan-Tajik borders asking for regional and international support. Consequently, after the Taliban took power in Kabul and started their interim Government, Tajikistan strengthened its security partnership and cooperation with the Russian Federation since Moscow has been concerned about the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border, which is the focus of Russian attention. In this framework, Moscow and Dushanbe have maintained intensive contacts between defence departments, border services and diplomatic missions seeking cooperation in strengthening the defence capability of Tajikistan and its border service.[12] Furthermore, as noted during the recent meeting between Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia is still the leading trade and economic partner of Tajikistan. So, at the beginning of 2022, trade between the countries increased by more than 70%.[13]

Dushanbe has also discussed security cooperation with Beijing reaching an agreement with Chinese authorities to build a militarised base in the GBAO thanks to the equipment and machinery imported to Tajikistan from China.[14]

Considering the significant role that Gorno-Badakhshan has in Tajik security and economy and the Kremlin and Beijing’s political and financial interests in the region, the Tajik Government might use military forces to stabilise the GBAO also in the future exasperating the regional social situation and pushing local young generations towards terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State which recently started propaganda orchestrated to recruit people from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.[15]

Sources

[1] Farkhod K. Rahimov, Yunus M. Mamadjonov (2015) Mineral Resource Potential of Tajikistan: As an Important Component of Sustainable Development of the Silk Road Economic Belt, Journal of Resources and Ecology, Vol. 6(2), pp. 125-128.

[2] CentralAsia Media (2022) Протесты в Таджикистане: В Хороге протестующие требуют отставки местной власти (Protests in Tajikistan: In Khorugh, protesters demand the resignation of local authorities). Link: https://centralasia.media/news:1781021.

[3] Bomdom (2022) Новый Митинг Протеста В Хороге. Прокурор Гбао Обвинил Бокира В Терроризме (New Protest Rally In Khorugh. GBAO Prosecutor Accused Bokir Of Terrorism). Link: https://bomdodrus.com/2022/05/16/novyj-miting-protesta-v-horoge-prokuror-gbao-obvinil-bokira-v-terrorizme-video/.

[4] Radio Ozodi (2022) Митинг в Хороге. Власти отказались выполнить требования участников акции протеста (Rally in Khorog. The authorities refused to comply with the demands of the protesters). Link: https://rus.ozodi.org/a/31853011.html.

[5] Nastoyashee Vremya (2022) В Горно-Бадахшанской автономной области во время протестов погиб один человек, ранены трое силовиков (In the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, one person was killed during the protests, three security officials were injured). Link: https://www.currenttime.tv/a/v-khoroge-vo-vremya-protestov-pogib-odin-chelovek/31854383.html.

[6] Avesta Information Agency (2022) МВД Таджикистана сообщает о начале антитеррористической операции на востоке страны (The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan announces the start of an anti-terrorist operation in the east of the country). Link: https://avesta.tj/2022/05/18/mvd-tadzhikistana-soobshhaet-o-nachale-antiterroristicheskoj-operatsii-na-vostoke-strany/; Radio Azzatik (2022) МВД Таджикистана сообщило о начале «антитеррористической операции» в ГБАО. Что происходит в Рушане? (The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan announced the start of an “anti-terrorist operation” in GBAO. What’s going on in Rushan?). Link: https://rus.azattyk.org/a/31856160.html.

[7] Mediazona (2022) Суд в Душанбе приговорил к 18 годам колонии лидера бадахшанской общины в России Амриддина Аловатшоева (The court in Dushanbe sentenced the leader of the Badakhshan community in Russia Amriddin Alovatshoev to 18 years in prison). Link: https://mediazona.ca/news/2022/04/30/alovatshoev; MMA Boxing (2022) Чоршанбе Чоршанбиев осужден: почему сядет боец из Таджикистана (Chorshanbe Chorshanbiev convicted: why a fighter from Tajikistan will sit down). Link: https://mmaboxing.ru/news/Chorshanbe-Chorshanbiev-syadet-na-vosem-let.html.

[8] BBC (2021) Митинг в таджикском Хороге после убийства местного жителя: что известно (Rally in Tajik Khorugh after the murder of a local resident: what is known). Link: https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-59431637.

[9] Pamir Daily (2022) «Комиссия 44» и представители Генпрокуратуры обсудили хорогские события (“Commission 44” and representatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office discussed the Khorugh events). Link: https://pamirdaily.com/комиссия-44-и-представители-генпрокур/.

[10] Afghanistan International (2022) بر اساس گزارش‌ها نیروهای طالبان با مرزبانان تاجیکستان درگیری شدند (Taliban forces reportedly clashed with Tajik border guards). Link: https://www.afintl.com/202205152376.

[11] Afghan Islamic Press (2022) Daesh claims launching attack from Afghan soil into Tajikistan. Link: https://www.afghanislamicpress.com/en/news/94795.

[12] Giuliano Bifolchi (2021) Tajikistan: the Kremlin’s frontier against the Taliban, Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598, Vol. 9(1). Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2021/07/08/tajikistan-russia-taliban/; Giuliano Bifolchi (2021) The effect of terrorism in Afghanistan on Russian-Tajik relations, Geopolitical Report 2785-2598, Vol. 12(5). Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2021/10/11/terrorism-tajikistan-russia/.

[13] President Respubliki Tadzhikistana (2022) Встреча с Президентом Российской Федерации Владимиром Путиным (Meeting with the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin). Link: http://www.president.tj/ru/node/28332.

[14] Giuliano Bifolchi (2021) Chinese military base in Tajikistan: regional implications, Geopolitical Report 2785-2598, Vol. 12(13). Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2021/10/28/chinese-military-base-in-tajikistan-regional-implications/.

[15] Riccardo Valle (2022) Islamic State Khurasan Province threatens Uzbekistan, Central Asia, and neighbouring countries, Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598, Vol. 19(4). Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/05/05/islamic-state-uzbekistan/; Lucas Webber, Riccardo Valle (2022) Islamic State in Afghanistan seeks to recruit Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Eurasianet. Link: https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-islamic-state-in-afghanistan-seeks-to-recruit-uzbeks-tajiks-kyrgyz.