Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “On 25 February 1990, elections to the new Supreme Soviet of Tajikistan were to be held. In light of the latest developments in the USSR, positions in the republican legislature had acquired special attractiveness to members of the power elite. For the first time, at least some constituencies had a choice of candidates. In the absence of institutionalised forms of interest aggregation such as political parties and organisations, only belonging to the communist establishment could guarantee electoral success for would-be parliamentarians. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“It was clear that Mahkamov’s coterie would dominate the Supreme Soviet unless something dramatic happened to change the alignment of forces in the CPT leadership. In February 1990, a desperate attempt was made by elements in the ruling oligarchy, heretofore alienated from supreme power, to oust Mahkamov. Intrigues and mini-coups were not uncommon in the Byzantine world of communist crypto-politics, but this time the attempt to redistribute power entailed mass civil disobedience that, intentionally or not, quickly turned to violence.

In early 1990, the southerners in Tajikistan understood quite well that Mahkamov’s hold on power would receive further legitimation through parliamentary elections. It was also evident to them that the incumbent regime had been weakened by Moscow-inspired reorganisations and, as the clashes in Isfara and Kolkhozobod had demonstrated, it enjoyed limited abilities to deal with public strife. They also remembered that militant manifestations and consequent interference by the centre in Tbilisi in April 1989 had resulted in the leadership change in Georgia.197 A group of prominent southern elite leaders decided to trigger—or, at a minimum, take advantage of—collective action in the capital city of Tajikistan in order to challenge, and possibly destroy, the positions of incumbent power-holders from the north.”

February 1990 Demonstrations and Riots in Dushanbe

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Shahidon (‘Martyrs’) Square—which was to become an important location for the 1992 opposition rallies—was renamed (and later unnamed) in memory of the demonstrators and rioters killed there and elsewhere in the city during the events of February 1990. On 10–11 February, up to 300 young demonstrators gathered in front of the Communist Party Central Committee building in Dushanbe and demanded an explanation from the government—and from Qahhor Mahkamov in particular—about the rumours that Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan would be given priority housing in Dushanbe amidst a housing crisis (in fact, only 29 Armenians had arrived and were being hosted by relatives in Dushanbe). As the government evaded answering, demands expanded—along with the size of the crowd—to include the resignation of Mahkamov and the purging of government officials. Mahkamov was taken by surprise and failed to react adequately. The crowd grew in size until as many as 3000 to 5000 people were in the streets when violence started. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Martial law and a curfew were declared as the first detachments of Interior Ministry troops from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan arrived to restore order amidst looting, vandalism and attacks on civilian bystanders, including ethnic Russians and other non-Tajiks. In one account, at 3 pm on 12 February, the size of the protest crowd increased dramatically and no further demands were heard at this time. Instead, an attack on the CPT building commenced, with stone-throwing and even armed rioters. While it is unclear which side fired the first shot (or attacked first), what is clear is that the rioters, some carrying only pistols, were outgunned by the security forces. Hastily, the 29 Armenians, plus about a hundred other Armenians who were long-time residents of Dushanbe, were evacuated on an emergency flight.

“On 13 February the mass meeting in the city centre continued in defiance of martial law; bands of marauders proceeded to operate in the suburbs. Late in the day, demonstrators nominated a new group (or the group appointed itself), named the Provisional People’s Committee or the Temporary Committee for Crisis Resolution (TCCR), also known as Vahdat (‘Unity’), to negotiate. The TCCR, endorsed by the meeting and headed by the first deputy of the chairman of the Council of Ministers and chairman of GOSPLAN, Buri Karimov, entered negotiations with Mahkamov. Niyazi describes this group: It comprised top state officials, leaders of the unofficial social-political organisation, Rastokhez, representatives of the intelligentsia, businessmen, one mullah and a worker. The Committee was headed by the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers and the Chairman of the Republic’s Planning Board, [Buri] Karimov … The Vahdat representing the demonstrators put forward a number of demands including the resignation of the government. The committee warned that if this demand were not met there would be even worse violence.

Addressing the Demands of the Dushanbe Demonstrators

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The various demands of the protesters included the expulsion of Armenian refugees, the resignation of the government and the removal of the Communist Party, the closure of an aluminium smelter in western Tajikistan for environmental reasons, equitable distribution of profits from cotton production, and the release of 25 protesters taken into custody. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“The attempt to secure the resignation of the government of the Tajik SSR, whether planned well before the demonstration and riots or hastily planned as a response to the opportunity offered by the chaotic situation, was nearly successful. On 14 February the first secretary, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet and the chairman of the Council of Ministers ‘agreed to sign a protocol with the Vahdat on the resignation of the government’. The next day, Mahkamov, Khayoev and Pallaev announced their resignations.

A group of high-ranking officials, including Buri Karimov, began organisational work to create a Temporary Bureau of the CPT CC; however, later in the same day a meeting of ‘Dushanbe party and economic functionaries including members of the Central Committee and the Bureau’ declared the protocol invalid on the grounds that it contradicted the decisions of the sixteenth plenary meeting of the Central Committee. At this time, Soviet Interior Ministry troops were moving into the city, and by 15 February the police and military had Dushanbe under control. On 15 and 16 February, the seventeenth plenary meeting of the Central Committee was convened, where the members voted to reject the resignation of the first secretary and gave their vote of confidence. The Extraordinary Plenum of the CPT CC, which convened with the participation of the CPSU CC Politburo candidate member, B. K. Pugo, rescinded Mahkamov’s resignation. Most notably, all northerners voted against the resignation, while Nasriddinov’s group supported it.

Violence During the February 1990 Demonstrations and Riots

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “ Sporadic acts of violence continued until 19 February, but then ‘everything changed abruptly overnight’.213 Reports on the number of deaths vary—with the official Tajik government number initially given as five and unofficial accounts listing from 16 to 25 deaths. During one week, more than 850 citizens were injured and, in the highest tally, 25 people were killed (all but four by firearms): 16 Tajiks, five Russians, two Uzbeks, one Azeri and one Tatar, including a journalist and an uninvolved observer killed by shots fired from the CPT building. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“While the demonstrations and riots did not start with anti-Russian motivations, the Russian-speaking population of Dushanbe soon came under attack. One journalist reported that he heard one crowd of Tajiks at the demonstration chanting ‘beat the Russians!’. Hospital statistics revealed that more than 56 per cent of the injured and more than 41 per cent of the severely injured people treated at Dushanbe hospitals were Russian-speakers. Later recollections by ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers from Dushanbe reveal that gangs of young Tajik men specifically targeted Russians and Russian-speakers, particularly women. Russian men were attacked and lynched, while Russian and Russian-speaking women, as well as Tajik women wearing European styles of clothing, were targeted for beatings and rape. After the riots subsided various rumours of impending pogroms against the Russian population circulated, instilling further fear amongst the Russian-speaking population of Dushanbe. The riots of 1990 would, soon after the event, and ever since, be cited as an important factor in the high number of Russians emigrating from Tajikistan.

Causes of the February 1990 Demonstrations and Riots

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “ Predictably, accounts differ, with each side blaming the other for instigating the conflict. Some Western analysts prefer to cast blame on the ruling power structures, arguing that the escalation of the conflict was caused by the government’s tactics of violent suppression. The opposition’s talking points refer to those in positions of power as being responsible for the riots. For example, Muhammadali Hait, then a Rastokhez activist (who later switched his affiliation to the Islamic Revival Party), recently accused the KGB and Tajik government of having ‘masterminded’ the riots in order to discredit and oppress the opposition. Another opposition member, KGB officer-turned-exile Abdullo Nazarov, better known nowadays for being stabbed to death in the Pamirs, said the same—blaming the KGB for the entire incident. Opposition member Gavhar Juraeva draws on Nazi analogies (‘Reichstag fire’ and, possibly, the ‘Armenian question’) to blame the government for instigating the demonstrations, which then backfired on them. Twenty years later, Qahhor Mahkamov, providing very little details, cast vague blame on forces within the KGB both in Tajikistan and in Moscow while absolving the Tajik people as blameless in the events of February 1990. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Niyazi, writing the most comprehensive account of the events, portrays both sides as reckless and violent. For example, he singles out opposition Rastokhez Party members and their incoherent tactics and inflammatory rhetoric. The official government explanation casts blame widely. On 16 February the seventeenth plenary meeting of the Central Committee expressed its confidence in the first secretary and the chairman of the Supreme Soviet. It also issued a statement regarding the violence, which blamed a conspiracy of anti-perestroika forces aimed at destabilising the situation, seizing leading positions and redistributing portfolios. The anti-perestroika forces were seen as comprising a group of apparatchiks (professional party men) craving power and acting in concert with criminal groups, members of the unofficial organisation Rastokhez and Islamic fundamentalists. “The government may have reached this conclusion partly based on the negotiating group mentioned above that formed to represent the demonstrators.

“What happened in Dushanbe in February 1990 was an attempt at an oligarchic coup; however, neither Buri Karimov nor his associates from the 17-strong TCCR, who included mostly intellectuals of Gharmi origin devoid of political influence, were the real culprits in this gambit. According to Narzullo Dustov, vice-president of Tajikistan in 1991–92, the whole scheme was masterminded by Ghoibnazar Pallaev, whose resignation alongside those of Mahkamov and Khayoev was just a manoeuvre. He was actively aided by the leaders of the Kulob faction: Kulobi youths formed the backbone of hit squads during the riots, commanded by a convicted criminal, Yaqub Salimov, who less than three years later would be made interior minister. Evidence suggests that the head of the Political Department of the Ministry of Interior, General A. Habibov, a Kulobi, collaborated with the rioters. Needless to say, the investigation never unmasked the real figures behind the bloodshed and violence. In January 1991, Tajikistan’s procurator, G. S. Mikhailin, reported that 105 people had been sentenced (all ‘small fry’—‘hooligans’ and arsonists), and that ‘at this juncture the investigation cannot provide juridical evaluation of the deeds committed by Karimov, Tabarov and others’. The groups within the ruling elite had reached an accommodation and wanted to forget the whole episode.”

Who is to Blame for the Events in February 1990 in Dushanbe? (Results of a poll conducted throughout Tajikistan in May–June 1990): 1) Communist leadership of Tajikistan: 35.2 percent; 2) Law enforcement agencies: 13.9 percent; 3) Informal associations: 11.5 percent; 4) Religious circles: 10.7 percent; 5) Dushanbe city authorities: 9.7 percent; 6) Tertiary institutions’ professors: 9.0 percent; 7) Creative intelligentsia: 8.2 percent. [ Source: R. Alimov and M. Saidov, Natsionalnyi vopros: raschety i proschety (Dushanbe: Irfon, 1991), p. 101]

Features of the February 1990 Demonstrations and Riots

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “ The events that occurred in Dushanbe in February 1990 had several peculiar features. First, the disturbances in Dushanbe were not spontaneous. A concerted propaganda campaign, impressive logistical support (thousands of protestors were fed, sheltered and transported from one location to another) and activities by compact combat groups suggested careful planning. The organisers were also aware of the fact that at the time there were few interior troops in the city and its military garrison had been reduced. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Second, the majority of participants were not residents of Dushanbe, but people brought in from Kulob, Qurghonteppa and districts to the south of Dushanbe. Many of them did not realise what exactly they were doing in the capital, as, for instance, the 300 schoolchildren from the ‘XXII Party Congress’ kolkhoz in the Lenin raion who simply obeyed the orders of their four grown-up leaders. Indeed, many Dushanbe residents, both Russian and Central Asian, blamed out-of-town young men for the rioting and looting. Residents claimed that unnamed persons transported young men to the city and gave them ‘money, drugs, and alcohol to encourage them to riot’. Yaacov Ro’i cites one rumour in which ‘bearded strangers’, some allegedly (and implausibly) ethnic Azeris, gave alcohol to schoolboys and paid them in order to incite the riot. At the same time the Tajik Komsomol press asked, in regards to the demonstrators/rioters: ‘Who could have doped them with drugs and nationalist slogans?’These conspiratorial views are completely in line with the varied narratives of blame for riots and demonstrations throughout Central Asia around this time.

“Third, unofficial strongmen, such as avlod leaders and organised crime bosses, played an important role in challenging the political authorities. The heads of four major gangs in Dushanbe were asked to spring into action by the statesmen ‘who feed them, protect them from law and keep them handy for a crucial time’. Targets for pilfering were selected carefully during the riots: in one street, some shops were looted, but others, under racketeer protection, remained intact.

“Fourth, contrary to the images disseminated by the Moscow-based media, the conflict did not have anti-Russian and/or pro-Islamic roots. A closer look reveals that it was a case of struggle for power, where one of the parties ‘pursued its pragmatic political objectives camouflaging them artfully in nationalist and religious overtones’. The leader of Muslims of Tajikistan, Qozikalon Akbar Turajonzoda, was asked by B. K. Pugo to join the mediating process between the TCCR and Mahkamov’s group, and succeeded in cooling passions in the city precisely because he was viewed as a neutral figure.

“Fifth, law enforcement structures proved themselves useless as a means of protecting the populace. Initially, the minister of the interior, Mamadayoz Navjuvonov, was made the military commandant of Dushanbe in charge of all armed formations. He was so grossly inefficient in this role that within hours General I. Senshov from the Central Asian Military District took over. Even then, the army and interior troops could provide security only for government institutions. On 13 February, Qahhor Mahkamov called on residents of Dushanbe to defend their lives on their own. Efficient self-defence units were instantaneously organised on the basis of mahalla committees and groups of apartment complex residents. This was yet another lesson of perestroika for the people of Tajikistan: only local centres of power could offer viable strategies of survival in times of tumult.

“The full truth about the events in Dushanbe has never been disclosed. Qahhor Mahkamov, at the time, limited his assessment to clichéd incantations concerning the ‘human factor’ so characteristic of the Gorbachev period: Absence of attention to the man, to his necessities and demands, the second-rate attention given to this particular factor … have led to the growth in unemployment, especially amongst youngsters, to the increase in crime. As a result, social tension has been aggravated in the republic, in the city of Dushanbe in particular.”

Impact of the February 1990 Riots

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “ While the blame for the violence is hard to place, the effects of the violence are clear. Atkin writes that this outburst of violence in the capital of the republic heightened political anxieties. Various elements of Tajikistani society, including Tajik reformers, supporters of the old Soviet order, and members of the Russian minority, saw the February events as a warning that their worst fears, ranging from the stifling of reform and perpetuation of repression to Islamic revolution and the persecution of non-Muslims. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

Niyazi writes of the demonstration effect: The February events were the first blow against the stability of the ruling group. They showed its lack of competence and inability to negotiate with people or to act without recourse to the usual party methods. As the analysis of large mass movements in the non-Soviet Middle East shows, such blows are not necessarily recognized immediately. Their effects are ‘stored’. The results of the riots are transferred to the political sphere and become really apparent only after the ruling regime considers the crisis to have ended. Here much depends on the personal qualities and political abilities of the ruling elite.

Interior minister, Mamadayoz Navjuvonov, stated that he believed similar events would happen again in Tajikistan. He stated bluntly that ‘[t]he force that provoked the events is a very serious force and it must be looked for in the higher echelons, the very high ones. And not simply be looked for but exposed and punished—disregarding the rank and the position.’

The documents of the eighteenth plenum of the CPT CC held on 3 March 1990 to investigate the whole affair were loaded with vague references to ‘certain anti-perestroika forces’, ‘several unexpected developments’, ‘demagogues and political profiteers’, ‘some leaders who overstepped norms of Soviet legality’, and so on. No names were mentioned, except for Buri Karimov and Nur Tabarov, who were made scapegoats and expelled from the party for breach of party discipline, but Karimov even retained his post in the government. The likely real organisers of the events—leaders of southern regional groupings—remained in the shadows.

Mirbobo Mirrahimov, TCCR member and one of the founding fathers of the Tajik democratic movement, though also refraining from mentioning names, was more frank: Today’s regime in Tajikistan is a dual power. First, this is a purely nominal power of the Soviets that have no rights. Second, this is the clan-based, party-administrative mafia of the republic, which is wrapped and permeated by threads of conjugal and localistic relations … In order to strengthen its position, each clan has to compromise others. And only one goal unites them—preservation of the present regime … As a result of the bloody tragedy the Party-clan mafias have strengthened their positions in the system of power. Some disarray and hostility in the CC and the Council of Ministers are temporary, very soon the clans will unite again for the sake of the regime’s stability. The events have shattered the leading clan and damaged its authority … Other clans were in complete control and didn’t lose a single member.

“The Kulobi faction benefited most from the new alignment of forces. A steady trickle of investments was diverted to the region again. The strategically important Kulob–Qurghonteppa railroad, a project that had been in the making for 50 years, finally received the necessary financing: the USSR Ministry of Railroad Transport agreed to foot half of the 260 million rouble bill for the construction to be completed by 1995. The breaking of the north–south polarisation and rapprochement between the elites from Leninobod and Kulob received symbolic capping in July 1990 when these two regional centres became sister cities. In the long run, Gharmis proved to be the major losers in the power-sharing scheme. Ghoibnazar Pallaev was relieved of his duties as the Supreme Soviet Presidium chairman. His replacement, Qadriddin Aslonov, though also a Gharmi from Qurghonteppa, did not have Pallaev’s clout and influence. In March 1991 the Gharm zone of districts underwent administrative restructuring: the Komsomolobod and Gharm raions were broken up into smaller units with populations below 20 000 each. This measure was aimed at further reducing the organisational capabilities of local bureaucratic structures.”

Elections After the February 1990 Riots

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “ The elections to the new Supreme Soviet of Tajikistan went as planned; 95 per cent of those elected were communists, and only two of 225 were active members of the incipient democratic movement. In the lower-level soviets the communist share was not as high: 80 per cent in the oblast legislatures and slightly more than 50 per cent in city and raion soviets. The effects on elite politics are clear, as the February 1990 episode ‘had the effect of strengthening the existing leadership, by enabling it to eliminate opposition within the party’. Similarly, Niyazi notes the increased ‘authoritarian’ style of administration after February 1990, including the merging of the positions of first secretary and chairman of the Supreme Soviet. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“When Qahhor Mahkamov was elected president on 30 November 1990, he then held executive and legislative powers. His legislative authority was certainly helped by the outcome of the ‘closely supervised’ Supreme Soviet elections of late February 1990 in which the Communist Party won 94 per cent of the seats. Outside the Communist Party, the government blamed opposition movements of the nationalist or Islamist persuasion for the violence and restricted their freedom to operate even further. In particular, the Islamic Revival Party was not able to gain official recognition until the end of 1991. Between February 1990 and August 1991, the incumbents in the government strengthened their hold on power by introducing emergency measures that included ‘curfews and harassment of the opposition, as well as the usual censorship of the media and Communist party supervision of enterprises, universities and institutes’.

“Gorbachev’s emissary Boris Pugo was instrumental in keeping Mahkamov’s clique in power; however, the fact that he had to negotiate with the opposing sides rather than simply deliver Moscow’s verdict, the failure to avert violence in advance and the sheer sluggishness with which law and order were restored in Dushanbe indicated that the Kremlin was again losing its grip on Central Asia. By 1990, bureaucrats in central government agencies, especially from industrial ministries, had become Gorbachev’s main adversaries. Not only was he forced to give up centralisation efforts in the periphery, he also had to seek the support of territorial bureaucracies against the recalcitrant apparat in Moscow. In a very short period, ruling elites in national republics regained their autonomy and legitimised it during what was referred to as the ‘parade of sovereignties’.

The Supreme Soviet of Tajikistan adopted the ‘Declaration on State Sovereignty’ on 24 August 1990. This document stated, in particular, that the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic is a sovereign multinational state. The state sovereignty manifests itself in the unity and supremacy of the state power on all territory of the Tajik SSR and independence in external relations … The Tajik SSR decides independently all questions related to political, economic, socio-cultural construction on its territory, except those which will be voluntarily delegated by it to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

This was everything the incumbent elite could hope for. It did not long for complete independence, it simply wanted to have a free hand in commandeering and distributing its share of the Soviet budget, and to be backed up by the centre’s security apparatus, if need be.

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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