Saltanat Berdikeeva wrote in the China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly: “According to the UNODC study, criminal groups in Tajikistan seem much larger compared, for example, to Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan where many “small groups (3-5 members) and a relatively limited number of large groups (16 members or more)” make up organized criminal groups. Many of Tajikistan’s currently prominent crime figures were military leaders during the civil war. It has proven difficult to control their subversive activities as they are well-funded and maintain well disciplined fighting formations. As a former UN official noted, “there were [military] structures on both sides, big shots on all sides, who were already organized. That is why organized crime developed so quickly.” [Source: Saltanat Berdikeeva, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 7, No. 2 (2009) p. 75-100, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies. Saltanat Berdikeeva is a Senior Research Analyst at the Energy Policy Research Foundation, Washington DC, and a contributing security Analyst for Exclusive Analysis, London |*|]

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: In 1990, there were more than 1200 known criminal recidivists living in Tajikistan. Many of them formed gangs specialising in extortion, narcotics, smuggling and gambling. The number of these mafia-type entities rose from four in 1989 to 22 in 1992. An important feature of organised crime in Tajikistan is its rootedness in traditional social institutions. A contemporary study showed that in the country ‘a criminal group is frequently organised and maintained by ties of kinship amongst its members’. Quite often a criminal gang encompasses male youths from one mahalla, and, given the regionalistic patterns of settlement in Dushanbe and other cities, it is sensitive to issues of sub-ethnic rivalry. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]

“Hisori polvons—the outlawed fighters against the Manghit authorities—were instrumental in the emergence of organised crime groupings as a potent unofficial institution in the region by the early 1990s. At that time the four main gangs specialised mostly in extortion, smuggling and car theft. They also maintained close contacts with colleagues in Uzbekistan and enjoyed protection in high places in Tashkent.”

Warlords, Organized Crime and the Tajikistan Government

Saltanat Berdikeeva wrote in the China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly: “The allegiance of some of the former warlords, and even some state security agencies, to the authorities is shaky at best and the weakness of the government further emboldens them. Reportedly, warlords sympathetic to the opposition UTO – a socalled alliance of democratic, liberal and Islamist forces – and less so to President Rakhmon have overrun the military. Akhmad Safarov and Yeribek “Sheik” Ibrahimov are two former military commanders arrested on charges of possession of drugs and weapons in Tajikistan. Ibrahimov had a considerable number of weapons. Reportedly, he stated that “some of the weapons in his possession in 2004 belonged to the IMU.” |*|

“The links between crime and extremists were reported while dismantling guerrilla groups headed by two former UTO supporters – Mansur Muakkalov and Rakhmon Sanginov. Their groups allegedly were responsible for committing “400 grave crimes, including 270 murders” and maintained ties with the IMU. According to the Tajik authorities, the group was also engaged in kidnappings and arms and drug trade. In separate incidents, the members of Tajikistan’s Border Control Committee “have colluded with drug-trafficking gangs backed by UTO field commanders.” The public mostly distrusts the police “because of their identification with organized crime.” |*|

“Criminal influences on the country’s economy are not insignificant. For example, a gang of Suhrob Kasymov, one of the crime figures that Rahmon sought to expel, was put in charge of one of Tajikistan’s largest commercial banks, Orionbank. Meanwhile, President Rakhmon’s heavy-handed tactics against his opponents and alleged religious extremists and criminals is increasingly creating a backlash. Rakhmon, not highly regarded as a democrat in the international community, has diminished the voices of the opposition IRP and launched “criminal investigations against UTO civil war commanders,” stoking another possible civil war-like scenario. Rakhmon’s actions tipped the weight of the IRP’s support toward more extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan (IMT) and Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). |*|

“A combination of corruption and factionalism allowed groups such as the IMU to gain influence in the country by building “contacts in Tajikistan’s highest echelons of power, who are bribed to protect narcotics routes.”... Partly as a reflex to stem fierce power struggle and to assert his authority in the country before the February 2000 parliamentary elections, President Emomali Rakhmon began cracking down on organized crime by excluding “the election of crime barons.” However, this endeavor proved difficult as “resistance to the crackdown has stiffened.” |*|

Organised Crime and the Political Mess in Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: The notorious gang of Rauf Soliev (a Samarkandi) that operated in Dushanbe consisted of several hundred well-armed people; it was alleged that the gang enjoyed the patronage of Tajikistan’s procurator-general, Nurullo Khuvaydulloev, and had taken an active part in the events of February 1990. Soliev’s gang was based in the capital’s suburb Obdoron, inhabited primarily by Kulobis; his deputy, Yaqubjon Salimov, was a Kulobi, which may explain the gang’s involvement in the anti-Mahkamov coup in 1990. On the other hand, Dushanbe’s Ispechak and Shomansur quarters, populated by Gharmis, had their own mobsters. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“On 29 April 1992, 13 criminal groupings that had assumed the collective name of Youths of Dushanbe City (YDC), mostly of Gharmi extraction, from Shomansur, Ispechak, Ovul, Qozikhon and Qarotegin Street, held a meeting in one of Dushanbe’s squares where they supported the opposition’s political demands and demanded Nabiyev’s resignation.Two days later armed units from Shomansur attacked the TV centre. They encountered no resistance from the ‘neutral’ police and handed control of the centre to the opposition. As Aziz Niyazi has described the Islamist movement in Tajikistan, ‘to say the least, the IRP turned into a regionalistic, monoethnic organisation that found itself associated with mafia and other corrupt groups’.

“The same characterisation could have been applied to practically every political organisation, pro-government or opposition: ‘each side’s regionalist ties solidified in response to the security threat posed by the other side’, and political leaders were not fastidious in using the underworld elements with whom they were linked by business, conjugal and patrimonial ties. One of the founding fathers of Oshkoro in 1989 was sixty-one-year-old Sangak Safarov, who had spent 23 years in jail on various charges, including homicide. His influence in the Kulob oblast was hard to overestimate. According to the region’s chairman of the executive committee, Qurbon Mirzoaliev, who became acquainted with Safarov in 1980, he was honoured to be addressed as ‘brother’ by bobo Sangak—then ostensibly an obscure bar owner.

Drug Traffickers in Tajikistan

Much of the drug trade in Tajikistan in the 1990s and early 2000s is believed to have been controlled by warlords, many of them connected with government officials and members of the Tajik and Russia military. The drug trade was the primary source of revenues for their operations. Without this money the couldn’t pay their militiamen and give bribes and would lose their power. During the civil war, anti-government forces made money from the drug trade.

The number of new Mercedes and Jaguars on the streets of Dushanbe and fancy villas in the suburbs offers evidence of the wealth and pervasiveness of the drug trade One Tajik newspaper editor told the Los Angeles Times, “If someone’s got a good house or a good car that means he’s a bandit, dealing narcotics. Because you can’t buy a car on $2 a month.”

According to Sensi Seeds: Trafficking of cannabis and heroin is largely controlled by organisations well-versed in conflict, and throughout the region, various ‘drug warlords’ have battled for supremacy over recent decades. As is often the case in regions subject to prolonged violence, the black market has become an important source of funding to various military groups. Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen and Taliban, Russian border forces, the Tajik opposition, and members of the Tajik government itself have been accused of having links to trafficking operations. [Source: Sesheta, October 15, 2014, Sensi Seeds -]

According to the United Nations: “In Tajikistan, the drug market is divided between five major loosely grouped factions formed primarily around clan-based ties and coinciding roughly with the country’s provinces, or oblasts. One network is composed of members of the Leninobod (or Khojand) clan, particularly influential in the northern part of the country and the most powerful Tajik clan before the collapse of the USSR. The second faction consists of members of the Kuliab clan in the central region within Khatlon province. During the early years of independence and into the civil war, the Kuliab clan acted both as a conservative source of opposition to the communist leadership in Khojand and an ally against the Islamist and democratic opposition. This clan emerged as the most powerful after the Tajik civil war and is currently considered to be the most influential. Crucially, its influence is strongest in Dushanbe, a major opiate consolidation and forwarding area. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“The third faction, the Kurgan-Tyube clan, identified with the region of the same name with Khatlon province, is more or less integrated with the Kuliab faction. The fourth faction, the Garm (or Kataregin) clan is based in south-eastern and central Tajikistan (Gorno-Badakhshan), one of the strongholds of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which was composed of the Islamic Renaissance Party and other Islamism opposition groups.A fifth faction, the Pamiri, is identified primarily with the Pamir ethnic group of the same name, notably the Ismailis. These various clans fought both alongside each other and against one another during the civil war and members are now competing for shares of a drug market controlled mostly by members of the Kuliab and Leninobad clans.” |*|

Rivalries Between Drug Traffickers in Tajikistan

The United Nations reported: “In differentiating between groups on a regional level, there are clear rivalries with groups based in Khatlon and northern Tajikistan and again with those in Gorno-Badakhshan. Such rivalries over the drug trade are a reflection of the divisions dating back to the civil war and before that to Soviet times. In the current situation, actual confrontation between groups in Tajikistan seems remarkably rare given the violent past. This is, in many other settings, an indication of consolidation and shared control by a few networks. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

According to one United Nations official, the entire Tajik-Afghan border is effectively divided between clans. Their level of control is such that clans permeate the power structures of the state. Thus, one clan with political power can be overrepresented in key ministries with law enforcement responsibilities. At the individual level, criminal group leadership is still dominated by former warlords active in the civil war. Many of these joined the political process in the 1990s and many continue to be reliant on illicit economies. These mid-level operators are involved in the drug trade either directly or through taxation, with some overseeing specific territories. This was the case in GBAO, for two ethnic Pamiri groups led by former commanders. Both groups have approximately 20-40 members, operate in Khorog and have international links with groups in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Indicative of their paramilitary origins in the civil war, these types of groups are highly organized with a single leader, a clearly defined hierarchy and a strong system of internal discipline. |*|

An interesting distinction is the degree to which organized crime groups in Central Asia have connections to Afghanistan. A common language and the relative ease of crossing the Tajik-Afghan border, when compared to the Uzbek and Turkmen networks, means that some Tajik groups access Afghan production directly. In this context, it is possible that integrated Afghan-Tajik groups have emerged, although so far these seem to consist only of mid to small-scale operations. The Langariev group, a now defunct Tajik trafficking organization led by former field commanders, had 20 per cent of its membership composed of Afghans. Similarly, although the responsibility of most Afghan groups stops at the Afghanistan-Central Asia border, there are increasing drugrelated arrests of Afghan nationals in Tajikistan (and Uzbekistan) There have also been drug-related arrests of Afghans in Uzbekistan and even further afield in Kazakhstan. Although linguistic and cultural limitations are mitigating factors, it may be justified to think that Afghans will eventually attempt to do away with the middleman and traffic opiates directly into the Russian Federation. |*|

Trafficking between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is reportedly controlled by mixed TajikUzbek networks, as both ethnic groups span the border on both sides. Logistic operators for these groups appear to be based in the border areas of each country and function by leveraging close family ties. These groups are facing restrictions owing to political tensions on the Tajik-Uzbek border and the concentration of Uzbek agencies along its length. There is little information on the groups controlling the trade inside Uzbekistan. Law enforcement agencies estimated that in 2009 about 20 networks were active in trafficking heroin through the country, and involved Uzbek nationals as well as members of other Central Asian nationalities. For example, the leader of a major regional organization trafficking opiates into the Russian Federation was a Tajik citizen residing in Uzbekistan. |*|

Drug Trafficking and the Tajikistan Government

Saltanat Berdikeeva wrote in the China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly: “The Tajik civil war of 1992-1997 facilitated the creation of drug smuggling routes by international organized crime groups in the country. In 2006, President Rakhmon said that “Tajikistan occupies a first place in the CIS and a fourth in the world on the quantity of annual seizures of illegal drug trafficking [and that] over 60 percent of all seized drugs in the CIS are seized in Tajikistan.” Other estimates show that “more than half of Afghanistan’s opium exports go through Tajikistan and Turkmenistan,”while the drugs passing through Tajikistan amount to about “30 percent of the country’s GDP.” [Source: Saltanat Berdikeeva, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 7, No. 2 (2009) p. 75-100, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies |*|]

“Domestic opium production also remains a headache for the authorities. As recent accounts show, fighting drug trade is a continuous challenge as “the main elements behind the drugs business remained unidentified and the problem is getting complicated.” Tajik law enforcement is weak, corrupt, and under-trained, and, therefore, ineffective in the fight against the drug trade. Both Russian and Tajik border guards stationed along the Afghan-Tajik border have been implicated in drug running. Often border guards are bribed and unwilling to resist well-armed smugglers. According to the commander of the Border Administration of the Russian Federal Border Service, Alexander Markin, “the chief obstacle preventing border guards from stopping the narcotics traffic is posed by Tajik soldiers in the Russian border forces who have family members on both sides of the border, and whose local custom dictates that they cannot refuse passage to a family member.” |*|

“Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency (DCA), established in April 2000, started off well by making initial progress in interdicting drugs and “winning accolades from international organizations and major foreign governments.” In 2005, however, the DCA’s image was tarnished by the arrest of its chief, Ghaffar Mirzoyev, who was charged for “murder, corruption and involvement in major drug trafficking.” The DCA also came under domestic criticism for being a “closed structure, which provides very little information on its activities.” Its lax presence in different parts of the country, except for the capital, drew more criticism. At the official level, Tajikistan has stepped up efforts to jointly fight narcotics with NATO and the EU. |*|

“President Rakhmon announced in 2006 that in the past five years “over 800 officials were arrested and convicted on charges of drug trade,” including four officials from the DCA, employees of the Ministry of Defense and border guards.Unlike the Tajik Prosecutor General, President Rakhmon “did not acknowledge the “protection” rendered to drug traffickers by law enforcement structures.”Some of the arrests that attest to the collusion between drug traffickers and government officials include the capture of “86 kilograms of heroin in a diplomatic car belonging to a Tajik trade representative” by Kazakh authorities in 2000. The trade representative was sentenced to 10 to 15 years of jail time in 2001. |*|

“In another incident, among arrested four drug traffickers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in June 2005 two were employees of Tajikistan’s Soghd province Department of Internal Affairs.These and other examples illustrate that drug trafficking is an important source of revenue for some officials in Tajikistan, which creates a favorable ground for illegal drug trade. Active attempts of the deputy Minister of Interior Habib Sanginov to investigate organized crime and drug trafficking problems resulted in his assassination in 2001. |*|

Money Laundering and Arms Smuggling in Tajikistan

Saltanat Berdikeeva wrote in the China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly: “According to UNODC, Tajikistan’s “underdeveloped banking sector may keep it from being attractive for money laundering in the near future.” Although money laundering is hardly accomplished through the weak banking and financial system of the country, widespread corruption, drug trade and shadow economy (approximately 70 per cent) facilitate capital flight and proceeds from illegal trade and remittances from abroad are believed to be extremely high. According to an estimate of a UNDP representative, about “30 percent to 50 percent of the entire economic activity of Tajikistan is linked to drugs from Afghanistan.” [Source: Saltanat Berdikeeva, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 7, No. 2 (2009) p. 75-100, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies |*|]

“Worker remittances of Tajik emigrants and proceeds from drug trafficking flow to Tajikistan in cash, as the banking system is considered unreliable. Tajikistan has criminalized money laundering a few years ago as a separate offence in the Criminal Code, which, however, does not require that banks and financial institutions disclose suspicious transactions to law enforcement agencies. In addition, “the money laundering offence in the Criminal Code does not appear to cover all manners of concealing, transferring, etc. the proceeds of crime.”However, the government’s attempts at amnesty for the “grey” capital, i.e. allowing the citizens to “freely enter funds into accounts at one of eight major commercial banks without paying fines or taxes,” yielded some success. |*|

“Tajikistan has also become a key transit point and a destination of weapons and explosives from Afghanistan.... The flow of arms to Tajikistan goes together with drug trafficking. The Tajik civil war brought weapons from multiple sources, including an abundant flow of arms from Afghanistan and “theft, purchases, food and alcohol bartering from the Russian military.”Arms caches dotted many parts of the post-civil war country, primarily the Rasht valley, Khofornihon and Tavildara region, as well as the Afghan-Tajik border. Some of the arms found along the border with Afghanistan were “intended for the protection of drug dealers caught in skirmishes with border guards,” while others are tied to the vestiges of the Tajik civil war and the IMU. |*|

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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