Geopolitics of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO)

The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) is a region in the Republic of Tajikistan
The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) is a region in the Republic of Tajikistan (Credits: EC-JRC/ECHO, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 29 Issue 10
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) might be considered one of Central Asia’s most strategically important areas, attracting multiple global powers’ attention. Under Dushanbe’s control, the region has experimented with the confrontation between the central authority and the local population.

In the last years, GBAO has been experiencing internal tensions and violent clashes, leading to concerns from foreign entities. In November 2021, the security forces’ killing of a Pamiri man sparked widespread protests, leading to the government’s forceful response, including sending military reinforcements and shutting down the internet. In May 2022, several international organisations and diplomatic delegations expressed deep concern about the reported internal tensions and violent clashes within the GBAO.

The GBAO covers more than 40% of Tajikistan’s territory, but only about 2.4% of the country’s population of 9.5 million live there. The region has a history of conflicts between the provincial government, security forces, and the central government. In September 2018, President Rahmon visited GBAO and criticised regional authorities for allowing a “state of lawlessness” to develop, sending additional security forces to the region.

In June 2022, after the protests registered in May 2022, President Rahmon claimed that foreign-financed terrorists with the goal of revolution necessitated military actions in GBAO. However, it is unclear what foreign interests are involved in the region. The concerns expressed by foreign entities seem to be focused on the internal tensions and violent clashes within the GBAO rather than any specific foreign interests.

Geopolitical scenario

Gorno-Badakhshan is a mountainous region in the eastern part of Tajikistan, which shares its borders with China and Afghanistan. Indeed, GBAO borders in the north with the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan, in the east with the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China, in the south with the province of Badakhshan of the same name in Afghanistan, in the west, northwest and southwest with other regions of Tajikistan.

GBAO has been a subject of geopolitical interest among regional and global powers, as it provides access to valuable resources, including minerals, water, and natural gas.

Gorno-Badakhshan has a complex history of political, economic, and social upheaval partly due to its strategic significance in the region. The region has been the site of cultural and economic exchange since ancient times, connecting the Silk Road trade route and serving as a vital trade centre between different civilisations. However, in the modern era, GBAO has faced several political and economic hardships that have severely impacted the socioeconomic landscape of the region.

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan has significantly impacted Gorno-Badakhshan, which shares its southern border with Afghanistan. During the Soviet era, Gorno-Badakhshan was a closed zone, heavily guarded by border officials on both sides. This resulted in the region being cut off from the rest of Tajikistan and having little contact with the outside world.

However, the post-Soviet era brought new challenges to Gorno-Badakhshan, as the region fell into political instability and economic hardships. The area became infamous for being a hotbed for drug trafficking, religious extremism, and terrorism. The geographical location of GBAO, with its shared borders with China and Afghanistan, has made it a potential transit route for drugs and other illegal activities. Moreover, several militant groups in neighbouring Afghanistan raise concerns about regional security.

In recent years, geopolitical tensions in the region have heightened, with China and Russia vying for influence. China has been actively investing in infrastructure in GBAO, including building a major highway connecting Pakistan and Afghanistan through Tajikistan, which will pass through Gorno-Badakhshan. The proposed route would give China faster access to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, providing significant economic benefits.

In October 2021, the Tajik authorities announced that China would build a militarised base in GBAO, but it would belong to Tajik security forces. The Deputy of the Majlisi Namoyandagon of the Majlisi Oli of the Republic of Tajikistan, Azimzoda Tolibkhon Sitammurod, said that this base would belong to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan. According to him, all equipment and machinery imported to Tajikistan from China during the construction of the base are exempt from customs duties.

The military base in GBAO confirmed Chinese interests in Tajikistan and Beijing’s desire to control an area which borders the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR). In this region, China fights against the Uyghur movement and local terrorism since it has a strategic role in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Meanwhile, Russia has maintained its dominance in the region through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance comprised of Russia and several Central Asian countries, including Tajikistan. The CSTO is essential for Russia to maintain its strategic interests in Central Asia, including monitoring militant groups and conducting joint military exercises.

Tajikistan’s strategy in GBAO

Tajikistan has a complex and evolving strategy in Gorno-Badakhshan. The region has been a source of political unrest and violence over the past several decades, including a civil war from 1992 to 1997. In recent years, the government has developed a more nuanced approach to the region that seeks to balance security concerns with efforts to promote economic development and political stability.

One key component of Tajikistan’s strategy in GBAO is increased security measures. In recent years, the government has invested heavily in improving its military and police presence in the region, focusing on limiting the power and influence of local warlords and other armed groups. Tajikistan has also improved cross-border security with neighbouring countries, particularly Afghanistan, which shares a long and porous border with Gorno-Badakhshan.

At the same time, Tajikistan has sought to address the root causes of instability in the region by promoting economic development and greater political inclusion. The government has invested in infrastructure projects, such as roads and bridges, that connect Gorno-Badakhshan to the rest of the country and facilitate more significant economic activity. It has also encouraged private investment in the region, particularly in the mining and energy sectors, which have the potential to generate substantial employment and revenue.

In addition to economic development, Tajikistan has also sought to strengthen political inclusion in Gorno-Badakhshan. This has included efforts to empower local governance structures and increase the representation of minority groups in national politics. For example, the government has established a separate political district for Gorno-Badakhshan in the national parliament, intended to give the region more significant influence over national policy decisions.

Overall, Tajikistan’s strategy in Gorno-Badakhshan reflects a pragmatic recognition of the complex and shifting dynamics in the region. While enhancing security remains a key priority, the government has also recognised the importance of addressing underlying economic and political factors contributing to instability. As the region continues to evolve, it will be necessary for Tajikistan to remain flexible and responsive to changing circumstances to ensure its strategy effectively promotes stability and progress.

The protest in May 2022 in GBAO underlined Dushanbe’s regional strategy. Indeed, as local and international NGOs pointed out, the government has been using arbitrary arrests, torture, and intimidation to control the population.

GBAO is home to the Pamiri people, a distinct ethnic group that the Tajik government has long marginalised. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the region has seen numerous instances of violence and conflict as the Pamiri population has resisted the central government’s attempts to control the area. The Tajik government has increasingly turned to repression and violence in response to this resistance.

One of the most sinister tactics used by the Tajik government in Gorno-Badakhshan is arbitrary arrests. The government frequently rounds up members of the Pamiri population without any evidence of wrongdoing and holds them in detention centres where they are subjected to torture and mistreatment. This kind of arbitrary detention is a clear violation of international human rights law, which requires those suspected of a crime to be given a fair trial and treated humanely while in custody.

Another tactic used by the Tajik government in Gorno-Badakhshan is intimidation. Human rights activists and journalists who report on the government’s human rights violations in the region are often harassed and threatened by government officials. This kind of intimidation creates a culture of fear in which the Pamiri population hesitates to speak out against the government for fear of reprisals.

The Tajik government’s repression in Gorno-Badakhshan has had a devastating impact on the Pamiri population. Many have been forced to flee the region to avoid arrest, torture, and mistreatment. Those who remain face constant harassment and threats and are forced to live in a climate of fear and uncertainty.

The economy of Gorno-Badakhshan

A high level of poverty, limited economic opportunities, and lack of development characterises the economy of this region. The region is rich in natural resources, but its economy depends on agriculture and mining. This essay will discuss the current state of the economy in Gorno-Badakhshan and the challenges facing its development.

The agriculture sector is the primary source of livelihood for the people of Gorno-Badakhshan. The region has a favourable climate for growing fruits and vegetables, and traditional farming practices have been used for centuries. However, despite the potential of the agriculture sector, it is limited by the lack of modern farming techniques and inadequate infrastructure. The farmers use manual labour and traditional tools for farming, which results in low productivity and poor quality of crops. The lack of irrigation systems, market access, and processing facilities further limits the growth of agriculture in the region.

Another significant contributor to the economy of Gorno-Badakhshan is mining. The region is rich in natural resources such as gold, silver, and lead, which have been extracted commercially. However, the mining industry is plagued by corruption, environmental degradation, and poor working conditions for labourers. The lack of regulatory oversight and weak governance structures have contributed to exploiting natural resources without regard for the long-term consequences.

Tourism is a growing sector in Gorno-Badakhshan, with its breathtaking natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. However, the lack of infrastructure, transportation, and promotion of the region as a tourist destination hinders its potential growth. The tourism sector is also threatened by insecurity and political instability in the area, which deter potential tourists.

The government of Tajikistan has initiated several development programs to boost the economy of Gorno-Badakhshan. The government aims to improve the region’s infrastructure, including roads and transport networks. Agriculture and tourism are also targeted sectors for development, with investments in modern farming techniques and the promotion of cultural tourism.

The economy of Gorno-Badakhshan faces significant challenges, including limited economic opportunities, poor infrastructure, and political instability. The region’s potential for agriculture, mining, and tourism remains untapped, and its development requires investments in technology, infrastructure, and good governance. The government of Tajikistan must continue to prioritise the development of Gorno-Badakhshan, focusing on the equitable distribution of resources, environmental sustainability, and the well-being of its people.


In conclusion, Gorno-Badakhshan is one of Central Asia’s most strategically important regions, with its geopolitical significance attracting the attention of multiple global powers. As a result, the region faces complex political, economic, and social challenges.

Although the inclusion in international trade and the construction of significant infrastructure might support local socioeconomic development and increase the local standard of living conditions, GBAO might face a future domestic crisis due to the continuous restrictions imposed by the government of Dushanbe as well as the problematic situation of the Pamir population.

At the centre of the geopolitical interests of China and Russia, countries that influence the dynamics of GBAO and Tajikistan, the borders with neighbouring Afghanistan and Xinjiang should alarm the authorities due to the spread of jihadist propaganda and the activities of international terrorist organisations such as the State Islamic which might exploit local disappointment in the region and recruit militants to conduct violent attacks against State military personnel or civilians.

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