In the late 1980s, the openness of the Soviet regime of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office 1985–91) stimulated a nationalist movement in Tajikistan, which provided the basis for Tajikistan's new government when it became independent in 1991.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Anticorruption campaigns and perestroika reforms resulted in the removal and replacement of many apparatchiks in the republic. By the end of this process, Gharmis and Pamiris were able to obtain positions that were previously out of reach. In the Vakhsh Valley the turnover of leadership at the district and provincial levels, as well as in the collective and state farms, was unprecedented. Kulobis and Gharmis, often living in mixed settlements, competed against each other for these positions as they were all-important in securing economic and social benefits locally. The local positions were tied into the political wrangling at the republic level, giving locals a strong stake in national politics. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Around the same time (the late 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s), the political and social atmosphere became less restrictive. Civil society groups and political parties began to form and agitate for further changes. After some time the political foes settled into two opposing coalitions: the incumbent leadership dominated by elites from Leninobod along with their primary junior partners from Kulob and Hisor, and the opposition coalition that included new political parties such as the mostly urban Democratic Party of Tajikistan,the Gharmi Tajik-dominated Islamic Revival Party, and the Pamiri party La’li Badakhshon.”

Gorbachev Economic Reforms in Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “In 1985, 15 per cent of all industrial enterprises and 31 per cent of all collective and state-owned farms were loss-making. Gorbachev’s ill-conceived reforms exacerbated the situation even further. In line with the Kremlin’s new idée fixe of accelerated development of high-technology sectors, Tajikistan was issued with a program that envisaged: 1) increases in the volume of capital investment and its share of national income; 2) emphasis on re-equipping and reconstructing operating factories; 3) expansion of the share of new equipment in the overall sum of investments; and 4) more allocations to the machine-building and construction industries. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Once again, planners in Moscow ignored light industry and agriculture. Millions of dollars were spent on purchasing hardware and technology abroad, but state-of-the-art machinery rusted quietly in factory backyards because there were no personnel to install and operate it. The stockpile of imported equipment standing idle rose almost elevenfold from 1988 to 1991 in Tajikistan. Growth in industrial labour productivity was the slowest amongst Soviet republics, and in 1990 actually declined by 1.2 per cent, while in agriculture labour productivity sank by 1991 to 75.6 per cent of its 1980 level. On average, construction workers in Tajikistan took three times as long to build a house as their counterparts in Russia. Tajikistan’s agriculture was especially badly hit by Gorbachev’s reforms, particularly by his obsession with gigantic and amazingly inefficient agro-industrial complexes. Over the period 1988–91, the republic’s agricultural output decreased by 17 per cent. The disruption of old All-Union food-supply mechanisms in 1990 brought about the spectre of hunger in Tajikistan.

“It appears that Tajikistan’s economy, especially its industry, could exist and produce so long as it remained an integral part of the Soviet economic mechanism. In 1988, Tajikistan exported 21 per cent of its produce to other republics, and imported 29 per cent of what it consumed from them—more than any other entity in the USSR... In the second half of the 1980s, Tajikistan was one of the few republics allowed to retain 100 per cent of turnover tax collected, and 14–21 per cent of its budget revenues comprised direct subventions from Moscow.

“Not surprisingly, when in September 1987 the Baltic republics, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and a number of Russia’s oblasts floated the idea of regional self-financing (regionalnyi khozraschet), the most vehement opposition arose from the Central Asian republics, Tajikistan in particular. Similarly, Gorbachev’s legislation introduced in June 1987, which granted individual enterprises managerial freedom, did not work well in Tajikistan: local factories simply could not survive without the patronage of a branch ministry. A sociological survey conducted that year revealed that people in Tajikistan were resolutely against Gorbachev’s economic reforms.

“It would be incorrect to say that Tajikistan lived off the more developed regions of the Soviet Union. After all, indicators such as the volume and structure of net material production and national income, labour productivity, and resource and investment efficiency simply reflected the sectoral composition of republican economic complexes that had been moulded according to directives from Moscow. As long as the All-Union economic mechanism was intact, it made little sense to speculate who was the donor and who was the recipient inside USSR, Inc. A senior Russian diplomat based in Dushanbe, who had previously served with the Soviet State Planning Authority (GOSPLAN), recollected that ‘while Tajikistan produced one million tonnes of cotton a year, we could provide it with all the goods it needed and even some extras, without incurring losses’. The leaders of Tajikistan were happy with such an arrangement and could not, or did not want to, respond to the crisis resulting from Gorbachev’s economic endeavours. At a time when the political cohesion of the USSR was in tatters, when the breakdown of central planning and severe monetary and fiscal crises signalled the end of the Soviet socialist economy, such inaction betrayed either extreme naivety or, at the very least, an astonishing level of complacency.”

Mounting Social Problems Under Gorbachev

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The downward spiralling economy inevitably led to a deteriorating quality of life in the USSR. It has been suggested that in 1987 ‘simply to maintain the current standard of living in Tajikistan, which was already the poorest republic, would demand a 250 per cent increase in investment or another 6 to 7 billion roubles more. Considering that the entire budget in 1988 was only 2.1 billion roubles, no such investment was possible’. According to official figures and considering revenues from the formal sector only, in 1988, 12.6 per cent of the Soviet population lived below the poverty line; the corresponding figure for Central Asia was 45 per cent, and for Tajikistan a staggering 58.6 per cent. By 1991 this figure had increased to 87.3 per cent. It can be argued that the actual state of affairs may have been better in Central Asia due to undeclared incomes and produce-in-kind from private plots, but statistical evidence shows that Tajikistan was the worst off amongst all Soviet republics on a variety of socioeconomic parameters. Even the food pyramid of an average Tajik family did not meet nutritional norms—as in centuries before, bread remained its major element. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

In another serious development that was detrimental to the social order, towards the end of the 1980s crime increased dramatically in Leninobod, Kulob and Qurghonteppa. In Qurghonteppa, local mafias operated in the black market with some official protection during the 1980s. Fraud, theft of state property, falsification of cotton production and other forms of organised crime and embezzlement all contributed to weakening state capacity. In response, first secretary, Qahhor Mahkamov—forced by a second secretary appointed by Moscow —implemented a campaign against corruption between 1986 and 1991, resulting in a large turnover of political and economic elites. At a lower level in society, youth problems were becoming increasingly violent in nature by the mid 1980s. Instances of mass violence, ‘hooliganism’, binge drinking and violent assaults were all cited as serious problems in Dushanbe. In two of the more notorious events, foreign students at the Agricultural Institute were attacked in 1987, and two years later, just down the street, a mass riot involving students from the Pedagogical Institute, the riot police and a third unidentified group spilled over into attacks on uninvolved pedestrians and theatre patrons, who were assaulted with sticks and iron bars.”

Institutional Changes in Tajikistan in the Gorbachev Era

Tajikistan was regarded as ‘the quietest and the most obedient of all the republics. Whatever the centre ordered, was accepted, with a thousand thanks.’ By 1989, the CPT CC apparatus had shrunk by one-third compared with 1986. Party structures at lower levels were weakened to the point where they did not have the organisational capacity to implement social control: the committee of the Hisor raion, with a population of 230 000, had 12 staff, whereas, in comparison, four registered mosques in the district had 24 official mullahs alone. In spring 1988, 25 ministries and 17 state committees that operated in Tajikistan were reorganised into 12 new agencies. The Tajik KGB was especially badly crippled in the late Gorbachev period: its staff cuts were three times the All-Union ratio. One major deviation from the Moscow pattern was that freedom of speech and freedom of association never really took off in Tajikistan. While in 1989 in Moscow alone there existed 500 unofficial organisations which ‘strove to some degree or other to influence the domestic or foreign policy of the state’. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

Qahhor Mahkamov had the following to say on the subject of the proliferation of alternative associations: “And, really, let us think—is it appropriate today to put forward suggestions about creating this or that new public organisation, when we already have more than enough of them? Those who have a sincere desire to help perestroika can apply their energy, initiative and craving to serve their people, and transform them into practical deeds, through Party, trade-union and Komsomol organisations, newly elected Soviets and our numerous existing public associations and creative unions.”

At the beginning of 1990, the overall impression was that throughout Central Asia popular acceptance of the republican leaderships remained high; the participation of the population in political life was nowhere near ‘as advanced or as widespread as was public involvement elsewhere in the country’. The communist elite was still in charge in Tajikistan, and the major menace to its dominance emanated not from disgruntled masses of people, but from the internecine struggle inside the apparat.

Increased Centralisation in Gorbachev Era Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Gorbachev’s methods of re-establishing Moscow’s firm hand in Central Asia included wholesale purges, unfair trials and a massive influx of ‘trusted cadres’ from the centre. First secretary of the CPT CC, Rahmon Nabiyev, vehemently objected to the Politburo’s plans to place 78 ‘outsiders’ in positions of authority in Tajikistan, and was dismissed in December 1985. His replacement, Qahhor Mahkamov, was expected to be more amenable to Gorbachev’s plans. From early 1987 to the end of 1989, Mahkamov—using what Markowitz terms ‘attacks’, ‘reforms’ and an ‘anti-corruption campaign’—attempted to dismantle the patronage networks within the Communist Party. These included actions against the elites of patronage networks in Kulob, Qurghonteppa and Mahkamov’s home province of Leninobod. Mahkamov removed many regional elites from their administrative positions and appointed ‘reformist politicians’—often Pamiris and Gharmis/Qaroteginis—in their place. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

This portrayal of Mahkamov as a motivated reformer needs to be qualified. In particular, the reforms he carried out need to be placed in the context of the Soviet Union, in particular Moscow’s relationship with and control over the republics. Mahkamov was widely regarded as a mere puppet of the Kremlin. Although he had spent many years in high government positions and served as the chairman of the Council of Ministers of Tajikistan between 1982 and 1986, Mahkamov did not have a wide-ranging power base built on parochial and solidarity ties. On top of that, Mahkamov obviously lacked features necessary for an authoritative national leader in Tajikistan. Unlike Nabiyev, he did not belong to a traditional noble family; in fact, he was orphaned at age fourteen. Nor did he use marriage to create any alliances: his wife was a Tatar; his elder son married a Korean, and his daughter a Lithuanian. He owed his position exclusively to good relations with higher-ups in Moscow.

“The real power in Tajikistan became concentrated in the hands of the second secretary of the CPT CC, a close associate of Gorbachev. Karim Abdulov, the chief of staff for President Nabiyev (1991–92), writes disparagingly of Mahkamov as an ‘inept’ and ‘slow-witted’ leader who was dictated to by Moscow desantniks (literally, ‘paratroopers’; figuratively, aggressive and arrogant outsiders who arrive suddenly and without invitation). Chief among these outsiders, in Abdulov’s opinion, was the second secretary (1986–89) and true power in Tajikistan, the Moldovan Petr K. Luchinsky—better known nowadays as Petru Lucinschi, president of Moldova from 1997 to 2001. Abdulov is quite open in his feelings towards the ‘chauvinist’ Luchinsky, whom he blames for using and exacerbating regionalism (mahallagaroyi) in his placement and removal of cadres in Tajikistan. Abdulov maintains that Luchinsky’s tactics worsened the regional divides in Tajikistan and pushed the country towards war. Abdulov is adamant about the effect of the Mahkamov–Luchinsky reforms, especially the increased level of regionalism. He points to the period from 1985 to 1990 as a time when the people of Tajikistan ‘became slaves of the centre’, and when ‘[e]veryone became concerned with only themselves, their own families, and their own relatives’. While other analysts are less concerned with assigning blame, they do agree on the increased importance of region of origin as a result of how the reforms of the late 1980s were implemented.

Increased Regionalism in Gorbachev Era Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Initially, in the mid 1980s, the dividing lines for struggles among the nomenklatura were between the ‘northerners’ (Leninobod) on one side and the ‘southerners’ (Gharmis, Kulobis and Pamiris) on the other. The southern apparatchiks were optimistic about their chances of gaining positions of power as the hold of the Soviet centre over the Tajik SSR’s mechanisms of power weakened. This process quickened considerably as Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms took effect. Soon Makhamov was attempting to defuse the situation by appointing representatives of Kulob, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) and Gharm to high positions in the state apparatus. By the late 1980s, thanks to perestroika, non-Leninobodis from the south (Pamiris, Kulobis and Garmis) were brought into high government positions, resulting in ‘ambitious hopes among southerners’. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“None of the CPT CC secretaries of the 1985 vintage remained in office in 1987. By the end of 1986, all oblast leaders had been replaced in Tajikistan, and so had more than 80 per cent of party officials at raion (town) level. There are reasons to believe that Moscow was preparing a frontal assault on the Tajik political elite along the lines of the ‘Uzbek affair’. In 1986, a special group of investigators was seconded to the republic from the USSR’s General Procurator’s Office with unlimited powers to investigate and uproot corruption. The Kulob oblast had been singled out, and in 1987 the obkom first secretary, Salohiddin Hasanov, and the head of the Regional Procurement Authority, Halil Karimov, were arrested on charges of bribery and abuse of office. As in Uzbekistan, in Tajikistan prosecutorial attacks and judicial arbitrariness were hallmarks of Gorbachev’s centralisation drive. Moreover, General S. M. Gromov, who headed the inquisition team in Tajikistan in the late 1980s, later confessed that ‘violations of legality committed by investigative officers in Tajikistan were incomparably greater than in any other republic of the former Soviet Union’. In 1991, Hasanov, Karimov and dozens of other high-ranking Tajik officials were fully acquitted. Lieutenant Colonel V. A. Shushakov from the USSR Ministry of Interior, who had initiated a number of illegal criminal cases in the Kulob oblast, went into hiding in 1990 after he became a subject of investigation himself.

“Gorbachev’s frontal attack on the old nomenklatura in Tajikistan was successful in the sense that it did excoriate the elaborate system of patronage networks in Tajikistan. For the time being the Kremlin regained full control over all recruitment there; between 1986 and 1990, ‘no kolkhoz chairman, no workshop director, no university lecturer could be appointed without Moscow’s permission’. The Tajik elite surrendered its positions without much resistance due to internal friction based primarily on regional rivalry. Henceforth, there was no need for a mass campaign similar to the ‘cotton affair’ in Uzbekistan—which had made the words ‘crook’ and ‘Uzbek’ synonyms in the Soviet media. Gorbachev’s victory, however, quickly backfired. As James Critchlow has noted, the old Soviet elites in Central Asia, whatever their shortcomings, helped the Party to maintain political stability while promoting economic development and a degree of social change in the face of challenges of many kinds. These elites evolved over many decades in response to the Party’s needs for an apparatus that could deal with a largely Islamic-traditionalist, nationalistic, elder-venerating, agrarian, male-dominated society with inherent hostility to change. Now the equilibrium of many years has changed.

“Gorbachev, Luchinsky and their lieutenants brought in from the European Soviet Union could not and did not pay any attention to the intricacies of Tajik domestic policies. Jabbor Rasulov and Rahmon Nabiyev were very skilled operators who managed to maintain a modus vivendi amongst regional cliques. Between 1986 and 1989, the balance of parochial interests in Tajikistan was irreparably damaged. The fragmentation of the national power elite reached new heights.”

Regional Groups in Gorbachev-Era Tajikistan

At republic level, four major competing groups emerged in the Gorbachev-era Tajik Republic:

1) The group of Qahhor Mahkamov, first secretary of the CPT CC, which embraced representatives of relatively minor clans from the north, such as the CPT CC secretary, Guljahon Bobosadykova, and deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, Habibullo Saidmurodov, from Uroteppa (Istaravshon). It also included some prominent politicians from Leninobod who were in personal opposition to Rahmon Nabiyev—the charismatic regional first secretary, Rifat Khojiev, and another CPT CC secretary, Temurboy Mirkholiqov. Since Mahkamov’s status was not rooted primarily in the local community, he had to rely heavily on the ‘paratroopers’ from Moscow and a rather limited circle of people who owed him favours. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

2) The group of Rahmon Nabiyev. Though ousted from the top leadership, Nabiyev continued to command wide respect in his patrimony, Leninobod. Old-time nomenklatura cadres sacked or demoted after 1985 tended to coalesce around him; they were not only northerners but influential Kulobis as well—most notably, former minister of education Talbak Nazarov. Rahmon Nabiyev was chairman of the Society for Environmental Protection of Tajikistan in 1986–90, a post that allowed him to travel widely on official business and maintain personal contacts with leaders in Moscow and Central Asian capitals.

3) The group of Kulobis headed by Hikmatullo Nasriddinov, minister of irrigation and the CPT CC secretary under Nabiyev. Technically, Izatullo Khayoev, the chairman of the Council of Ministers of Tajikistan, was the most senior representative of the Kulob region in the government, but he was regarded as a weak leader loyal to Mahkamov rather than to his patrimony.

4) The group of Ghoibnazar Pallaev, the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Tajikistan, comprised officials of Gharmi and Pamiri extraction including the first deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, Akbar Makhsumov—son of the widely respected first Revkom chairman of Tajikistan from 1924 to 1933, Nusratullo Makhsum—and Dushanbe’s mayor, Maqsud Ikromov.

Competition and Conflicts Between Tajik Regional Groups

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Kulobis and Gharmis became primary targets of restructuring and reorganisation campaigns launched by Mahkamov and Luchinsky. Luchinsky, for his part, was a leader who wanted to completely dismantle certain regional groupings, Kulobis in particular; however, the Gharmis sustained the most humiliating losses (at the national level), especially when Akbar Makhsumov was sacked from the government and made head of the republic’s botanic garden. The program of accelerated industrial development of the south had been abandoned; in 1989, the Leninobod oblast received 60 per cent of the funds earmarked by Moscow for Tajikistan, whereas Kulob received a mere 6 per cent. Thus, the main line of confrontation in the late 1980s appeared to be between the north and the south (that is, valley Tajiks and mountain Tajiks). Toshmat Nozirov, then chairman of the Executive Committee of the Farkhor raion in the Kulob oblast, reminisced that ‘the conflict was brewing on the regionalistic grounds then … A group of unsavoury politicians based their intrigues on this dichotomy to play for power’. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“In 1989 it became clear that Gorbachev’s experimentation had led to ‘a diminishing of the regime’s power over society, even as he sought to increase his own power over the regime’. Having failed to extract the obedience of the party apparat, he attempted to downgrade it and use other institutions, such as the legislature, the army and security establishment, as his power base, but with little or no success. The ‘mature’ Gorbachev practised what Joel Migdal has called the ‘politics of survival’—a ‘pathological style at the apex of the state’, which incorporated ‘a mechanism of deliberately weakening arms of the state and allied organisations in order to assure the tenure of the top state leadership’. Creation of the presidency, glasnost, an invitation of the masses to politics through popular referenda and contested elections, also contributed to the atmosphere of legal and political uncertainty in Central Asia.

“As for the populace of Tajikistan, they held very strong, negative views on Gorbachev’s reforms.A sociological study conducted in the Tajik State University in 1989 revealed that students and staff members link perestroika with the emergence of negative phenomena in the life of modern society, such as: organised crime, economic chaos, absence of concrete deeds … aggravation of ethnic relations, inertia and reversals in social development, growth of alcoholism and its consequences, profiteering, lawlessness … absence of social protection, evanescence of public consumption goods.

“A year later it was disclosed that while seven Balts and Georgians out of every ten say there is too little freedom and very few people claim there is too much, Central Asians are quite different; only 28 percent of the Turkmen and Tadjiks and 36 percent of the Uzbeks complained of restriction on freedom, and 20 percent of the Tadjiks say there is too much freedom.

“Gradually, the incumbent ruling elite in Tajikistan came to realise that reliance on the decaying centre could not guarantee its stay in power. It might have embarked upon the path of adapting the political machine to the new conditions, mobilising the masses under the slogans of nation-state building, as was done in the neighbouring Central Asian republics; instead, Mahkamov’s clique deployed its own version of the ‘politics of survival’, which pursued the sole objective of pre-empting the emergence of competing power centres in Tajikistan. Coalition-building along regional lines and pitting sub-ethnic groupings against each other were two important elements of this strategy.

“Mahkamov’s northerners found an unlikely ally in the face of the Pamiris, who were promised greater political and economic autonomy. During the fifteenth plenum of the CPT CC in December 1989, Mahkamov declared that there are already shifts in this field. For example, the Chairman of the [Badakhshan] oblast Soviet of People’s Deputies will have the status of Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the republic. The right of legislative initiative has been granted to the oblast. A certain quota for the GBAO representatives in the Supreme Soviet should be envisaged in the future.

“The appointment of Mamadayoz Navjuvonov, a Pamiri army colonel with no police experience, to the position of minister of interior in March 1989 signalled a major departure from established personnel practices—previously this crucial post had been occupied exclusively by Kulobis (or by someone who allowed Kulobis to dominate in the ranks). In the words of one prominent opponent, Navjuvonov ‘elevated regionalism to its repulsive heights. He placed his relatives and friends in important positions in regions, districts and towns of the republic, and especially within the Ministry of Interior.’130 The significance of this change in the Ministry of Interior for regionally based grievances is clear.”

Competition in Qurghonteppa and Kulob

The struggle for dominance in Qurghonteppa involved Kulobis, Gharmis and Uzbeks (the last made up almost one-third of the population). Aziz Niyazi describes the situation in the Qurghonteppa oblast: In the second half of the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s local conflicts constantly erupted in the region, both between Tajiks and non-Tajiks and among Tajiks themselves originating from different regions of the republic. Sharp nomenklatura infighting broke out, mostly between Uzbeks, Garm and Kuliabi Tajiks over administrative and managerial posts at all levels. It was there, in a region being industrialized at full speed, with its ethnic and subethnic mosaic, that the sores that would later affect the body of the republic first came to a head. Regional contradictions and interests were spreading over into parochial struggles involving the district and regional authorities. The localist threads of intraregional nomenklatura games were reaching out into the central power apparatus. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

In the 1980s, the pattern of sharing power in Qurghonteppa was as follows: obkom first secretary from Kulob, chairman of the executive committee from Gharm and head of the local cooperative society (Tojikmatlubot) an ethnic Uzbek. In 1988 there was a restructuring of the administrative status of southern Tajikistan when Kulob and Qurghonteppa lost their oblast status. There are several conflicting versions for the motivations behind the merging of the Kulob and Qurghonteppa oblasts into the united Khatlon oblast in April 1988: a) the leadership of Kulob had secured the merger on their initiative; b) the consolidation of Kulob and Qurghonteppa was aimed at reducing the power of Kulobi elites;and c) the merger was an attempt on the part of the ruling elites to create fragmentation amongst the southerners, who were at this time starting to agitate against northern domination. The Kulobis had received most of the top administrative jobs in the newly established Khatlon oblast, much to the annoyance of Gharmi settlers in the Vakhsh Valley, who had by that time ‘gained control of transport and trade, the spheres that had always brought much profit’. Nevertheless, Mahkamov’s bureaucratic changes had also allowed Gharmis to secure some important positions in the Qurghonteppa regional government. According to Rahmon Nabiyev, the merger was a purely political exercise, costly, unnecessary and not warranted by any economic considerations. Kulob and Qurghonteppa would eventually regain oblast status in January 1990 with the dismantling of Khatlon. At this time the locals in Kulob were able to take back control over the local government apparatuses. But while the attacks on local elites had now ended, the Kulobis were still excluded from national-level positions while Pamiris and Qarotegini (Gharmi) Tajiks were now increasingly being appointed to national-level positions. This led to an even further disaffection between the Kulobi elite and the centre as the Kulobi elite no longer saw any beneficial relationship to be had with the centre.

While Roy pointed to the relative personal wealth of Gharmis in Qurghonteppa, it was control of collective farms that was the most contentious issue in the competition between local Gharmi and Kulobi elites, as well as between the memberships of their respective networks. The collective and state farms of Qurghonteppa’s Vakhsh River Valley accounted for 40 per cent of the value of Tajikistan’s agricultural production, resulting in the competition for influence and control here being ‘one of the greatest sources of inter-regional tension in the republic’.As elsewhere in Central Asia, in Qurghonteppa Province administrators traditionally had very long tenures, the powerful chairmen of collective farms in particular. For example, in a sampling of 15 Qurghonteppa farm bosses from the late 1930s to the mid 1980s, Markowitz finds that the mean number of years in office was more than 23; however, starting in the early 1980s there was significant turnover of political and economic leaders in Qurghonteppa. The purges of the second half of the 1980s included the replacement of the purged leaders with Russians, Pamiris and Gharmis. The very brief tenure of district first secretaries in Qurghonteppa Province, as opposed to the long tenure of their predecessors, illustrated this trend. Despite these actions, the reforms in Qurghonteppa were not successful in asserting control over the local power structures, even as the old elites’ patronage networks were dismantled. Established patterns of political and economic power were not easy to displace.

Markowitz describes the situation in Qurghonteppa leading up to independence: [T]he provincial elite was divided from 1988 onwards, splitting districts and even collective farms with some tied to reformist cadres (who primarily originated from the Karategin Valley [Gharmis] and GBAO [Pamiris]) and others tied to the old guard (who had close ties to Leninabad and Kuliab) being appointed to posts in the region following Makhkamov’s resignation in August 1991.

Mahkamov’s campaign included law enforcement investigations into areas that were previously under the protection of local party officials. Of course, the turnover was implemented in a manner that would keep Leninobodis/Khujandis in a dominant position. But still, Pamiris and Tajiks from Qarotegin were appointed to significant national-level positions for the first time since the 1940s. In reaction to Mahkamov’s policies, the elites in Kulob no longer saw a mutually beneficial patronage relationship with the central government. They soon started embezzling agricultural profits while taking over local law enforcement and judicial agencies as a way to protect their scheme. By the end of the Soviet period, farm bosses and regional politicians in Kulob exercised ‘significant influence’ over law enforcement agencies and the courts while increasingly relying on illegal income.

Stephane Dudoignon describes an intensified competition during 1990–91 at the elite level in Qurghonteppa between the Brezhnev-era elite on one side and Gharmi and Pamiri elites on the other. The Pamiri and Gharmi elites continued to push for political and economic reforms that would bolster their decreasing power and influence. In competition with the Gharmi and Pamiri elites were many apparatchiks from Kulob who were—since autumn 1991 during the lead-up to elections—working as part of an alliance with Nabiyev. Mahkamov’s bureaucratic changes had allowed Gharmis to secure important positions in the Qurghonteppa regional government. But the situation changed by late 1991 when President Nabiyev’s counter-reforms allowed Kulobis to gain ‘unprecedented access’ to powerful positions in Qurghonteppa. This was part of an effort by Kulobi elites that Schoeberlein-Engel terms an attempt to ‘dominate and even annex’ Qurghonteppa; however, not as many old elites were able to retake their positions as those in Kulob had done.

Violence Between Gharmis and Uzbeks in 1988

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “In 1988 a series of clashes between Gharmis and Uzbeks erupted in the Qurghonteppa region, especially in its southern Kolkhozobod raion. Uzbeks, who were the indigenous population, demanded fairer distribution of scarce arable lands and the break-up of collective farms into smaller units on an ethnic basis. The CPT leadership showed remarkable inability to cope with the problem. The crisis lasted a whole month and ended only when local elders took the initiative into their hands and demarcated fields and living quarters, bypassing the civic authorities. Trespassing was strictly prohibited, and ethnic militias armed with clubs and hunting guns were formed, for the first time in the Soviet period. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

At one point the Kolkhozobod district party committee was ransacked during a mass rally: It was the first political gathering that claimed blood … People driven to the edge had realised that the leader of the Tajik state, Mahkamov, was incapable and his government was in a state of paralysis. Preparations for overthrowing Q. Mahkamov’s regime were underway amongst the Gharmis, Qaroteginis and Pamiris residing in the Qurghonteppa region.

“The stalemated pattern of leadership at the top was about to be challenged by civil violence, focusing on political issues but rooted in much deeper cultural cleavages. By early 1992 in Qurghonteppa the competing Gharmi elites—some tied to ‘patrons in the Karategin valley’—on one side and elites tied to Kulob and Leninobod on the other ‘increasingly viewed their interests as under attack from the other’ as each side made ‘repeated efforts [to] gain ground over the other’ in the competition for control over state-controlled resources. Markowitz argues that ‘[t]ension and barely concealed hostility within the provincial elite left the region primed for the outbreak of conflict’. The situation worsened once President Nabiyev agreed to form a ‘Government of National Reconciliation’ in May 1992. The emboldened opposition leaders then attempted to remove selected leaders in the Qurghonteppa regional administration, many of whom had been appointed in late 1991 when Nabiyev returned to the top leadership position. Markowitz argues that the administrators appointed by Nabiyev ‘had come to represent a foreign occupying force among those with patronage ties to the Karategin Valley [that is, Gharmis]’. Under pressure, Nabiyev allowed his new appointee to the top administrative position in Qurghonteppa to remove several politicians and attempt to remove others with ties to Kulob; however, the new appointee, Nurali Qurbonov, did not have the power to remove the strongest local politicians and economic actors. The action further polarised the two sides in Qurghonteppa.”

Ethnic Tensions in Tajikistan

Ethnic tensions increased in Tajikistan, as they did elsewhere in Central Asia, under the troubled conditions of the late Soviet era. Already in the late 1970s, some ethnic disturbances and anti-Soviet riots had occurred. One consequence of heightened resentment of Soviet power was violence directed at members of other nationalities, who were made scapegoats for their attackers' economic grievances. An example of this conflict was a clash between Tajiks and Kyrgyz over land and water claims in 1989. Antagonism between Uzbeks and Tajiks reached a new level during Tajikistan's civil war of 1992, when Uzbeks living in Tajikistan joined the faction attempting to restore a neo-Soviet regime to power. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Uzbeks were criticized for denying the Tajiks' distinctive ethnic identity and ancient roots in Central Asia. Tajik nationalists accused the authorities in Soviet Uzbekistan of practicing overt discrimination against the Tajik population by forcing Tajiks to register their nationality as Uzbek, undercounting the size of the Tajik minority in Uzbekistan, and failing to provide Tajiks there with adequate access to educational and cultural resources in Tajik. Tajik nationalists also complained that the central government and their Central Asian neighbors had exploited Tajikistan's raw materials and damaged its environment. *

In 1989 attacks on Meskhetians (one of the Muslim groups deported from Central Asia by Stalin) spilled over from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan when about 2,000 Meskhetians were evacuated from eastern Uzbekistan to a remote settlement in northern Tajikistan. A violent conflict between inhabitants of the area and the Meskhetians resulted in the intervention of security forces and removal of the Meskhetians entirely from Central Asia. *

Increased Nationalism in Tajikistan

The late 1980s and early 1990s also saw open criticism by Tajiks of their treatment as a people by the central Soviet authorities and by their Turkic neighbors, especially the Uzbeks. A key issue was disparagement of the Tajik heritage in statements of Soviet nationalities policy, which labeled the Tajiks a "formerly backward" people that only began to progress under Russian and Soviet tutelage. Tajiks, who claimed a heritage of more than 2,000 years of Persian and Eastern Iranian civilization, also were indignant at the emphasis on Russian and Western civilization, at the expense of the Tajik heritage, in the history and literature curricula of Soviet-era schools in their republic. Soviet policy toward publication of literature and the two Soviet-mandated alphabet changes served to isolate Tajiks from their cultural heritage. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

One of the important consequences of the growth of Tajik nationalism in the late Soviet era was the enactment in 1989 of a law declaring Tajik the state language (although the use of Russian, Uzbek, or other languages was still recognized under some circumstances). The law officially equated Tajik with Persian and called for a gradual reintroduction of the Arabic alphabet. By the early 1990s, however, the law's main impact was to alarm the republic's Russian speakers; although some Russian loanwords were dropped in favor of contemporary Iranian Persian terms, the use of the Arabic alphabet remained sharply limited. *

Although nationalism had an increased appeal in Tajikistan in the late Soviet and early independence periods, it was not a dominant political force there. No popular movement advocated secession from the Soviet Union before its dissolution at the end of 1991, although there was support for renegotiating the union treaty to obtain more favorable conditions for Tajikistan. In the late 1980s, supporters of the communist old guard played on nationalist feelings to enhance their own position, but after Tajikistan became independent, those individuals became increasingly antinationalist; identification with local patron-client networks continued to rival nationalism as a political force. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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