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Tajikistan's Unconquerable Gorno-Badakhshan Region

FILE: The town of Khorog serves as the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan.
FILE: The town of Khorog serves as the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan.

Yodgor Fayzov has just been named head of Tajikistan's eastern Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region in what appears to be the government's latest attempt to increase control over an area that arguably has little in common with the rest of the country.

President Emomali Rahmon visited Gorno-Badakhshan's administrative capital, Khorog, on September 15 and criticized local officials for failing to rein in lawlessness, which Rahmon suggested was the work of "five or six criminals." Rahmon said that if local authorities could not bring order to Gorno-Badakhshan within one month's time, the government would be forced to send additional security forces to the region -- a potentially fraught idea for locals who have seen the consequences of government security operations several times already.

The government in Dushanbe has never had complete control over Gorno-Badakhshan. No one ever has. For hundreds of years, China, Russia, and an assortment of emirs and khans had claimed the area, but probably few of those living there ever knew they were part of any empire -- or even that there was an empire.

Difficult To Reach

"The gates are mine to open,
As the gates are mine to close,
And I abide by my Mother's House,'
Said our Lady of the Snows."*

Those lines, from Rudyard Kipling's Our Lady Of The Snows, could have been penned about Gorno-Badakhshan, an area high up in the Pamir Mountains. Until very recently, only one road led from the Tajik capital to Khorog, and that road is closed by snow and avalanches most of the year. (There has long been another road from Kyrgyzstan through the Tajik town of Murghab to Khorog, the lifeline for Gorno-Badakhshan during the civil war.) During Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war, travel was regularly interrupted on the Dushanbe-Khorog road. During the winter, small planes are the main means of transport to Khorog, but unpredictable and often severe weather through the high Pamir Mountains can make flying impossible for days, and sometimes weeks.

Gorno-Badakhshan accounts for some 45 percent of Tajikistan's territory, yet only about 220,000 of Tajikistan's 9 million people live there. Tajik language is spoken there, but local languages, Pamiri languages, are also still spoken, including Shugnani, Rushani, Yazgulomi, Ishkashimi (Vakhani), and Sariquli (the latter in the Chinese border area), preserved by isolated communities in the region's remote valleys.

Most of the people in Gorno-Badakhshan are Ismailis, Shi'ite Muslims, the people of the Aga Khan. Fayzov, the region's newly named head, also heads the Aga Khan Fund office in Tajikistan and follows several Ismailis who were previously in charge of Gorno-Badakhshan.

The Aga Khan, Prince Karim, and his fund have provided more assistance to Gorno-Badakhshan than any other individual or group, including the Tajik government. The Aga Khan Foundation has helped build small power stations, developed hybrid crops that can grow at the high altitudes of Gorno-Badakhshan, established a university in Khorog, and built bridges across the Pyanj River to open up trade with Afghanistan, among other projects.

But the region has no major industries to speak of. Unemployment is believed to be well over half of the eligible workforce despite a government figure of around 20 percent. Reports for decades have cited smuggling as a major source of income in the region. The same "narrow defiles and strong situations" that Marco Polo used to describe the land of "Balashan" and giving "apprehension of any foreign power entering it [Badakhshan] with a hostile intention" are also well-suited to smuggling, from precious stones and narcotics to cigarettes.

The Soviet government was probably the first government to actually control Gorno-Badakhshan. Gorno-Badakhshan borders Afghanistan and China, so there were strategic military concerns. But Soviet policy sought to rid the U.S.S.R. of illiterate peasants, and great progress was made toward teaching all the inhabitants of the Soviet Union, including the mountain villagers of Gorno-Badakhshan, to read and write in Russian.

In the 1970s, Soviet authorities decided to move large groups of Pamiris from the eastern mountains to the flatter agricultural lands of southwestern Tajikistan. The policy appeared to accomplish two goals at once: further integrating the Pamiris into the relatively developed areas of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic and providing extra labor in the fields.

Mountain people don't tend to fare well when moved to lower altitudes and hotter climes, and so it was with the Pamiris. But following 1991 independence, these Pamiris had other pressing concerns. Back in their native region, a nationalist group called Lali Badakhshan had quickly sought greater autonomy from Dushanbe; then when civil war broke out in 1992, Lali Badakhshan sided with government opponents.

The Pamiris who had been forcibly resettled in the west less than two decades earlier were easy targets for pro-government supporters, and they were massacred.

The western part of Gorno-Badakhshan, along the road from Dushanbe, was the scene of protracted battles. Russian border guards protected the border at a series of posts along the frontier with Afghanistan (and were later briefly joined by "peacekeeping" troops from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan), the only areas in Badakhshan that could be generally regarded as having something resembling law and order. Khorog was nominally under government control, with help from Russian troops. The rest of Gorno-Badakhshan was beyond anyone's control, and remained so after the Tajik peace accord was signed in late June 1997 and peace settled in.

'Informal Leaders'

With only the most tenuous of holds over the region, the Tajik government allowed powerful local figures -- "informal leaders" -- to administer to Gorno-Badakhshan as representatives of the Tajik government. Many of these local officials, natives of the region, have been suspected of being part of smuggling operations.

One example of the influence, or lack thereof, the Tajik government has had in Gorno-Badakhshan came on February 23, 2008, when an armed group loyal to Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, the former chief of the Murghab border-guard unit, attacked the Interior Ministry building in Khorog. The Interior Ministry gave Mamadbokirov's gang until 6 p.m. local time on February 26 to surrender and hand over their weapons. Mamadbokirov ignored the deadline. Asia-Plus at the time quoted many residents of Khorog in support of the Interior Ministry's intention to disarm "illegal armed groups"; several hundred locals came out into the streets to demand that such groups be neutralized.

The government appeared to have lost much of its support when it announced it was incorporating six districts of western Gorno-Badakhshan into Tajikistan proper. By mid-March 2008, several hundred Khorog residents were protesting against the government's move.

Dushanbe then sent reinforcements to Gorno-Badakhshan, which appeared to increase local resentment.

At the start of July 2008, the government signed a deal aimed at ensuring law and order in Gorno-Badakhshan. Signing on behalf of Gorno-Badakhshan were local leaders Imomnazar Imomnazarov, Tolibbek Ayombekov, Yodgorsho Mamadaslamov, and Mamadbokirov, the latter being not only still free but also back in a position of authority.

Tolibbek Ayombekov later resurfaced. In July 2012, members of Ayombekov's alleged gang were accused by the authorities of killing Gorno-Badakhshan's regional security chief, General Abdullo Nazarov. At the time of the killing, Ayombekov was the commander of the Ishkashim border detachment; he was subsequently accused by the government of being a tobacco and gem smuggler after Nazarov was dragged from his car, in the Ishkashim district, and stabbed to death.

The government sent more troops, and dozens of people were killed in the ensuing violence. (Eurasianet recently did a fine job of recounting the events of summer 2012.)

Ayombekov, still free, was in the news again recently, rejecting -- in comments posted on RFE/RL's Tajik Service (Ozodi) website -- reports that he had beaten Shodikhon Jamshed, the man Fayzov this month replaced as head of Gorno-Badakhshan.

There are dozens of figures like Ayombekov or Mamadbokirov in Gorno-Badakhshan. They probably know the people there far better than officials in Dushanbe.

It is still difficult to imagine the government establishing firm control of Gorno-Badakhshan, and the authorities in Dushanbe seem disinclined to take steps that could arguably help the region.

For example, trucks that cross from China into Gorno-Badakhshan pay no customs fees until they arrive at Dushanbe. That policy deprives Gorno-Badakhshan of revenues from cargo trucks that transit the region.

The Tajik government does not appear to have debated any plans for building factories or plants in Gorno-Badakhshan. There are no obvious development plans for Gorno-Badakhshan, except to claim it as part of Tajikistan.

So there is Gorno-Badakhshan and there is the rest of Tajikistan. With limited resources, Gorno-Badakhshan probably needs whatever support and supplies the Tajik government can offer. But equally, the terrain; the cultural, religious, and linguistic differences; and recent historical animosities suggest the Tajik government might never gain firm control over Gorno-Badakhshan except through statecraft that Dushanbe does not appear willing to engage in with respect to its eastern region.

* Thanks to Karl Meyer and Shareen Bryan for including that Kipling passage in their excellent book Tournament Of Shadows, a must-read for those interested in Central Asia.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report. Also thanks to Edward Lemon, formerly from the Harriman Institute, currently working at the Kennan Institute, for his help. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.