Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: Apart from familial and religious affiliations, which overlap and complement one another, there is another important source of identity that arguably matters most for Tajiks in the context of political processes. Much of the population of Tajikistan self-identifies not by ethnicity, but by locale. Amongst Tajiks, individuals identify themselves by town or region of origin. The use of ‘Tajik’ is, of course, only for identifying oneself to outsiders. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“French scholar Olivier Roy was one of the first in the West to attempt an analysis of ‘the influence of political loyalties based on geographic origin’ in shaping conflict in Tajikistan, defining this phenomenon as ‘localism’. He also drew a very important distinction between ‘localism’ and the social fragmentation along clan and ethnic lines, thus contrasting with so many authors who are tempted to mix together ‘the long-suppressed clan, regional and ethnic rivalries’” and “that ‘the present fragmentation is largely a product of the Soviet period’, could be misleading. Regional identities were not created during the Soviet era, but had in fact already been important at both the elite and the non-elite levels. Soviet policies, however, gave these identities the ‘meaning and structure’ that they currently have by politicising regional identities, giving them relevance at both the elite and the non-elite levels. ‘Which region are you from?’ is a standard inquiry in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, although in Tajikistan the question became more sensitive after the civil war. Individuals may cite the wider region of their origin or a town within it, depending on the situation. Nevertheless, many here identify with their region of origin, even after being three generations removed. People identify with their paternal grandfather’s place of birth, and in order to identify with that region, according to popular belief, an individual’s ancestors must have been there for a minimum of three generations.

“In Tajikistan, regional identity can be seen as a factor in not just group conflict and competition, but also in many types of other social behaviour such as marriage preferences for co-regionals and university socialisation patterns, where there are reports of students from the same region eating, drinking and living together, with the occasional fights between groups of youths from different regions. Locally based identities, whether at the regional, village or mahalla level, can be significant when a person leaves their home. In their new location their origin is frequently employed to seek assistance from co-regionals. ‘Regionalism’, according to presidential candidate Davlat Khudonazarov, ‘manifested itself even in the spatial distribution of Dushanbe, where people of the same region often lived clustered together.’

“In this study, the region is understood to be an area with a recognisable community that has: 1) distinctive physical traits, such as weather, length of growing season, vegetation, and similar features; 2) a distinctive history; 3) special cultural characteristics such as dialect, costume, architecture, use of given tools, rituals—what is referred to in anthropology as a ‘culture area’; 4) natural and artificial barriers—for example, mountain ranges and administrative borders; 5) a focus of gravitation, such as a trade centre and/or political or historical capital; ) an ad-hoc problem: environmental pollution, crime, ethnic tension, and so on.

“The crucial point about regionalism in contemporary Tajikistan is that, unlike in America or Europe, it does not denote the interrelationship between the several areas in the total nation, and, therefore, has a pronounced divisive meaning. Economic factors and institutional variables (such as regional representation in decision-making bodies) play a subordinate role in shaping self-awareness in a given region compared with the fundamental ‘givens’ of communal affect; still, they warrant a thorough examination, for they do influence the intensity of this self-awareness and the ways it transforms into political action.

Regionalism as a Divisive Force in Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The entire course of Tajik history, both before and after the 1917 revolution, has been conducive to the emergence and survival of distinctive sub-ethnic communities that could never merge effectively into a modern nation. Called mahallagaroyi or mantaqagaroyi in the Tajik language, this phenomenon will hereinafter be referred to as ‘regionalism’, which appears to be a more precise term than ‘localism’, both linguistically and in view of the realities in today’s Tajikistan. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Akiner lists the cultural ‘markers’ of the various sub-Tajik regional identities as including ‘group histories, social structures, customs, music, folklore, and material culture (e.g., traditional styles of clothing and ornamental designs)’. Kilavuz provides a very similar list of markers when she writes that significant differences, especially cultural, are given for those from the different regions of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The people themselves cite regional differences amongst the same ethnic group that manifest in ‘dialect, physical appearance, traditions and customs’. In regards to language, Muriel Atkin notes that while members of the Tajik elite can speak literary Tajik (and Russian), most people speak various Tajik dialects, divided most broadly between northern and southern dialects, with ‘several further subdivisions’. Kilavuz cautions that while the regions may have their own characteristic dialects, with differences even within the region, many people have the ability to speak in different dialects, including the standard literary form promoted by the government. Akiner adds ‘psychological stereotyping’ as a significant factor in marking group boundaries amongst Tajiks. The examples of stereotypes she provides are that: Qaroteginis (Gharmis) are ‘flexible and adaptable’; Kulobis are ‘conservative and obstinate, reluctant to compromise’; and ‘northerners like consensus and continuity, [and] are good at manipulating people’.

“Akiner also argues for the importance of geographical influences, particularly the mountain–plains dichotomy, on the distinct sub-Tajik identities, citing these regions of Tajikistan—having distinct ‘economic, political and cultural environments’—traditionally having a low level of interaction with each other in the Soviet era. The small size and relative isolation of mountain settlements created ‘tight-knit communities with strong local identities’. By the end of the Soviet era, the majority of Tajiks lived in rural areas and more than 80 per cent of the rural population still lived in their place of birth, in one of more than 3000 villages. Rural social life in Tajikistan, the least urbanised of the Soviet republics, was still ‘comparatively isolated and inward focused’. At this time many villages in Tajikistan were mono-ethnic, and where they were multi-ethnic they may in fact be divided into mono-ethnic neighbourhoods. In addition, Tajik villagers are, according to several Soviet-era researchers, ‘highly endogamous’. Atkin, however, warns that these conclusions should be viewed with caution due to the ‘imprecision’ of the Uzbek and Tajik nationality categories.

“Aziz Niyazi sets a contrast when describing Tajiks in southern Tajikistan, noting that they are more isolated and ‘self-contained’. He posits that they (Kulobi and Gharmi Tajiks) are, in comparison with valley Tajiks (for example, Ferghana Valley Tajiks), subjected to more fragmented local subcultures. The term ‘Gharmi Tajiks’ (hereinafter ‘Gharmis’) refers to Tajiks from the now defunct Province of Gharm—a usage that began after the large-scale transfer of Tajiks from Gharm Province to the lowlands of the Vakhsh Valley; however, the term ‘Qaroteginis’ is also used, as Gharm Province included the Qarotegin Valley, as well as the smaller Darvoz and Vakhyo valleys. Qarotegin and Darvoz, as well as provinces such as Kulob, roughly match pre-Soviet areas that were ruled as semi-independent beks in the Bukharan Emirate. The name for Gharm Province is taken from the small city of Gharm, which was the pre-Soviet capital of the Qarotegin bek.

Regional Identities in Tajikistan During the Soviet Period

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “For Tajiks, there was the reality that ethnic Tajiks from different regions had obvious differences in dialect and in many other aspects of their culture... The administrative demarcation in the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic was largely implemented along pre-existent boundaries. The constituent regions were incorporated into the All-Union division of labour, but the level of economic integration inside the republic remained low—the potential for productive cooperation between oblasts and raions of the republic in the late 1980s was 12–18 per cent. The specific Soviet economic policy, however, was only one element in the intricate mosaic of inter-regional interests and contradictions in the republic, which in recent years have acquired the following configuration. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Regional differences are a common feature of many countries, but they held—and still hold—a particular social, economic and political significance in Tajikistan. During the post–World War II period, Tajiks from the northern province of Leninobod (now Sughd)—particularly from the city of Khujand—dominated the upper echelons of the Tajik SSR’s government and they cultivated patronage networks that were dominated by co-regionals. Besides competition within northern Tajikistan, these northern Tajiks then had to contend with their less privileged southern counterparts, whose elites also organised intricate patronage networks that came to be identified with regions such as Kulob and Gharm. Of course, the people in these networks were not completely averse to cooperating with outsiders in mutually beneficial arrangements, especially at the higher levels. And the networks did not benefit all people in a particular region, so it should be considered that they were dominated by people from a single region and mostly based there (and in the capital) rather than entire regions and their populations competing against each other.

“Nevertheless, the end result was the ‘politicisation’ of regional identities—elites and those within their regional networks would benefit or suffer based on government appointments and bureaucratic decisions. For example, when a Kulobi held the post of minister of the interior, Kulobi Tajiks dominated the ranks of that ministry. The police force continued to be dominated by Kulobis throughout most of the 1980s. But when a Pamiri was appointed to that post during the late 1980s, ethnic Pamiris moved into the ministry in large numbers and displaced Kulobis from their positions—creating a pool of unemployed (and presumably angry) Kulobi former police officers.

“Concerning Tajiks from Gharm, they had a more modest level of access to national-level positions in the late Soviet era, and many turned instead to entrepreneurship and ‘grey market’ activities such as selling agricultural products to markets not just in Tajikistan, but in other republics as well. This activity was especially significant in the Vakhsh Valley, which was now home to many Gharmi and Kulobi Tajiks. At a more official level, the competition for government posts at the district and provincial levels, as well as for the top positions in the collective and state farms of Qurghonteppa Province (at times subsumed within Khatlon Province), was particularly fierce. An official position gave a person access to resources and jobs that they could then distribute. Losing one’s position meant far more than one disappointed Communist Party cadre; an entire network would then be at risk of losing benefits such as jobs, university acceptance, equipment, fertilisers, and other political and economic goods.

“The authorities in Dushanbe and Moscow were generally able to control this process within the authoritarian system of the Soviet Union; however, this ‘control’ was only in the sense that cadres did not challenge the arrangements at the highest levels. In Tajikistan, corruption was pervasive and local apparatchiks competed to replace each other—but within the system.”

Failure of the Soviets to Reduce Regionalism

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: The statements of Soviet authorities to the effect that ‘the spread of literacy, general rise of culture caused by industrialisation and reconstruction of agriculture have made the groups of Tajiks closer to each other’ are not particularly convincing. Certainly, it would have required the concerted efforts of several generations to achieve any positive shifts at the popular cultural level. An immensely thorough study of Tajik folktales completed in 1971 linked most of their moralities and plot lines to Iranian, Sanskrit, Arabic and even Chinese influences, which was not surprising; however, experts noted the unusually high level of localised variation in motifs, functions and language forms of the 419 analysed texts coming from different regions of Tajikistan. Shodmon Yusuf, an eminent Tajik political opposition figure, commented on one occasion that ‘the so-called Tajik people do not have a single song that would satisfy all regions [of Tajikistan]’. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Tensions among six historical-geographical regions of Tajikistan failed to diminish as the grotesquely uneven development patterns lingered. They could be checked temporarily either by coercive methods (such as campaigns against mestnichestvo, or localism, under Stalin and Khrushchev) or by channelling more resources from the centre (as was the case under Brezhnev), but they were always present. Interaction amongst regional elites has formed the core of all symbolic processes and practical endeavours in Tajikistan. During the Brezhnev era, the Tajik party-state structure demonstrated an almost infinite capacity to control regional ambitions in the republic. Moscow’s stabilnost kadrov (stability of cadres) policy allowed the web of informal ‘understandings’ and exchanges amongst the regional elites in Tajikistan to become institutionalised. In the 1980s, it was the order of the day for the authorities to issue quotas for regional representation in the republican legislature, industrial management and law enforcement agencies, or to decree how many doctorate degrees should be given to each region.These practices found reflection at the popular level in a common saying that ‘in our republic nobody sits idle: Leninobod rules, Kulob guards, Qurghonteppa ploughs and Pamir dances’. As long as Tajikistan fulfilled its economic obligations to the Union and complied with the general line prescribed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Moscow did not seem to object to the peculiarities of local personnel policy.

“In the Soviet period bargaining for resources on behalf of the regions was an essential part of political activism in Tajikistan. It was also an arcane process, hidden from public view. In September 1961, during the CPT congress, Saidali Jumaev, first secretary of the Gharm raikom, must have stirred quite a commotion when he criticised the republican leadership for its lack of interest in the development of his region. After the congress Jumaev was sacked. Twenty-five years later, people in Tojikobod staged a protest against neglect of their needs on the part of Dushanbe; 60 or 70 of their delegates came to the capital and marched to the building of the CPT Central Committee. The next day all editors of republican, regional and district newspapers received an order to refrain from mentioning Tojikobod forthwith, in any context, in order ‘to expunge this word from people’s memory altogether’.

Regional Divisions in Practice in Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Competition and overt animosity amongst people from different regions can have various manifestations. The most obvious of them is the wedding taboo—for example, representatives of the Tajik sub-ethnic group of suguti, who live in Varzob to the north of Dushanbe and are anthropologically close to the Hisoris, would never marry Kulobis, though technically both of them are mountain Tajiks.The division between mountain and valley, or between northern and southern Tajiks, where the Hisor mountain range serves as a geographical marker, certainly remains intact.” [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

As a well-known Tajik poet, Saidali Mamur, has put it:

‘Where do you come from?’ is the first thing you ask,
Then you check all my ancestry—that’s a difficult task.
North or South—should it really matter that much?
Put this discord away, and in peace shall we bask.
Why don’t you ask what I keep in my hand?
Your only query is about my homeland.
Alas, you have never offered me help,
There’s stone in your heart, all good feelings are banned.

Nourzhanov and Bleuer wrote: “It is the division amongst six main regions, however, that presented the major cleavage in Tajik society, especially in the immediate post-independence era. Indeed, anthropologically, the Kulobis and the inhabitants of Gharm and the Western Pamirs are very similar, but there is little love lost between them. With this in mind, it is hard to disagree with a Tajik journalist’s opinion that the most tragic absurdity in the history of Tajikistan is a hostility that lasted for many years between the people of the Pamirs and the people of Kulob. No one was able to explain clearly the reason for this confrontation which in the past had been confined to hooligan tricks, and from the beginning of the political struggle it has led to the heavy and bloody conflict.

“As a hypothesis, it can be argued that contemporary political struggles are reinforced by the historical memory of the populace: Kulobis formed a part of the Afghan army when it ravaged the Pamiri principalities in the late nineteenth century. The narrative of the Afghan army’s massive atrocities (and the role played by the Kulobis) has been passed on from generation to generation.

“Stereotypes and prejudices of a similar kind are widely spread throughout Tajikistan. In the words of academician Tursunov: ‘regionalism has firmly settled in the consciousness of our people, and not its backward section at that; the regionalistic self-awareness manifests itself at all levels of social stratification, especially, to our shame, amidst the intelligentsia.’ Within the rigid framework of the Soviet system it could never acquire the form of violent political action. Moreover, it had been de facto institutionalised and, henceforth, could be controlled and manipulated to a certain extent. The ruling regional elite from Leninobod did not need to invoke traditional institutions of power to maintain its privileged position; its legitimacy was guaranteed by Moscow. Generally, in the Soviet period traditional social structures and popular Islam on the one hand, and regionalism on the other, operated on different planes: private and public. These phenomena were closely linked, however, and there always remained a possibility that informal networks would be activated as the primary mechanism for establishing the authority of a clique with roots in a particular region.

Urban and Rural Populations of Tajikistan by Region

Tajikistan: A) total population in 1989: 5,092,603; B) urban population in 1989: 1,655,105, (32.5percent); C) rural population in 1989: 3,437,498, (67.5 percent). [Source: Itogi Vsesoiuznoi perepisi naseleniia 1989 goda po Tadzhikskoi SSR Vol. II (Dushanbe: Goskomstat TSSR 1991) pp. 10–23.

Leninobod oblast: A) total population in 1989: 1,554,145; B) urban population in 1989: 522,384, (33.7 percent); C) rural population in 1989: 1,031,761, (66.3 percent).

Kulob oblast: A) total population in 1989: 619,066; B) urban population in 1989: 156,130, (25.2 percent); C) rural population in 1989: 462,936, (74.8 percent).

Qurghonteppa oblast: A) total population in 1989: 1,044, 920; B) urban population in 1989: 182,009, (17.4 percent); C) rural population in 1989: 862,911, (82.6 percent).

Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast: A) total population in 1989: 160,887; B) urban population in 1989: 20,154, (12.5 percent); C) rural population in 1989: 140,733, (87.5 percent).

Gharm group of raions: A) total population in 1989: 224,615; B) urban population in 1989: 9,510, (4.2 percent); C) rural population in 1989: 215,105, (95.8 percent).

Hisor raion, including the city of Tursunzoda: A) total population in 1989: 259 258; B) urban population in 1989: 65. 948, (25.4 percent); C) rural population in 1989: 193,310, (74.6 percent).

Regional and Ethnic Composition of the CPT Central Committee

Leninobod: A) Place of origin: Europeans: 42, (34.1 percent); Unidentified locals: 28, (22.7 percent); B) Total membership: 7, (5 percent). [Source: Printed materials of the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth congresses of the CPT and party telephone directories. ‘unidentified locals’ are mostly people born in Dushanbe or Tajiks of Samarkand or Bukhara origin and Asians whose affiliation to regions in Tajikistan could not be traced]

Khatlon: A) Place of origin: Europeans: 22, (17.8 percent); Unidentified locals: 9, (7.3 percent); B) Total membership: 8, (5.7 percent). Khatlon includes Kulob and Qurghonteppa;

Hisor: A) Place of origin: Europeans: 9, (7.3 percent); Unidentified locals: 140, (1981); B) Total membership: 11, (7.9 percent).

Gharm: A) Place of origin: Europeans: 4, (3.5 percent); Unidentified locals: 48, (34.2 percent); B) Total membership: 30, (21.4 percent). Gharm includes adjacent mountain districts;

Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast: Europeans: 9, (7.3 percent); Unidentified locals: 24, (17.1 percent); 12, (8.6 percent).

Indices of Regional Economic Development, 1990

Leninobod: A) Capital investment: 17.2 percent; B) Industrial output: 36.4 percent; C) Agricultural production: 24.8 percent. [Source: M. Nurnazarov and M. Rahimov, Khojagii khalqi Tojikiston (Dushanbe: Vazorati maorifi Jumhurii Tojikiston, 1994), pp. 148–65]

Hisor: A) Capital investment: 45 percent; B) Industrial output: 42.9 percent; C) Agricultural production: 16.7 percent.

Qurghonteppa: A) Capital investment: 10 percent; B) Industrial output: 15.4 percent; C) Agricultural production: 39.5 percent.

Kulob: A) Capital investment: 7.3 percent; B) Industrial output: 4.9 percent; C) Agricultural production: 13.7 percent.

Gharm: A) Capital investment: 19.1 percent, Mostly investment in the construction of the Roghun hydro-electric power station; B) Industrial output: not known C) Agricultural production: 3.3 percent.

Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast: A) Capital investment: 1.4 percent; B) Industrial output: 0.4 percent; C) Agricultural production: 2.0 percent.

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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