Exposing Old Wounds: New Waves of Protests in the Pamirs6 min read

 In Central Asia, Civil Society, Editorial
On May 16, fighting broke out in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) of Tajikistan between security forces and local residents. Protests had begun two days earlier in response to the prolonged detention of those arrested during another protest in November 2021. The exact number of casualties has been difficult to determine as officials and locals have provided disparate accounts of what occurred. The government’s response has been eerily similar to that of Kazakh officials in the aftermath of the January protests, claiming that those involved were “terrorists”, while locals insist they were peaceful protestors. While the fighting has settled down Tajik officials have continued to wage a war of words with those in the region. 

GBAO stands apart from the rest of the country both due to its majority Shi’ite population, as well as its cultural and linguistic diversity with the majority of the population historically living in remote corners of the Pamir mountains. The region became even farther removed after the outbreak of the Tajiki Civil War in 1992. During the war, the region became a base for the Revival Democratic Movement and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) who joined together to form the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) to combat government forces led by the country’s first president, Rahmon Nabiyev. Since the fighting stopped in 1997 there has been lingering tension, especially as the government has done little to support the region after consolidating power.

Economic decline and lack of job opportunities have affected the GBAO much more acutely in comparison to the rest of the country since the end of the war. For comparison, the unemployment rate in Dushanbe is sitting around 2.1%, whereas in GBAO approximately  19.3% is currently unemployed. This is partly due to the geographic isolation of the population and many working outside the formal sector, but corruption has also been a major factor. Current President Emomali Rahmon, whose presidency marked the end of the civil war in 1997, and those in his immediate circle have funneled most of the country’s wealth into Dushanbe and their own pockets. This economic disparity has understandably led to resentment and lack of trust in the government of those living in GBAO. 

This resentment has erupted into violent clashes several times since the peace treaty was signed in 1997. One of the most harrowing incidents occurred in 2008 after Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov was removed from his position as a border guard commander. Mamadbokirov had positioned himself as an informal leader in the region helping others find work, notably in gemstone and narcotics smuggling, which led to his termination. In response to this, he gathered a group of men and attacked the Interior Ministry building in Khorog, the capital of GBAO. After a few days, tensions settled but the increased number of troops in the region led to more protesting in the city, which resulted in Mamadbokirov stepping in to garner peace. 

Since then there have been a number of smaller bouts of protest, culminating in the violence that broke out this May. The protests started on May 14 in response to the prolonged detention of those who participated in another demonstration in November 2021 spurred by the death of Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, who was shot by police for resisting arrest after hitting a security officer who had sexually assaulted a local woman. Around 1,000 demonstrators gathered in Khorog to demand not only the release of those detained but also the dismissal of the GBAO governor. In response, government officials demanded that the crowd disperse by May 16 or they would be removed by force. Protestors were not deterred by these threats and were met by security forces who began to throw stun grenades and smoke bombs into the crowd. There was at least one confirmed death of Zamir Nazrishoyev, who officials claim was responsible for his fatal injuries, however, those at the scene insist he was shot. 

Unfortunately, the situation continued to escalate after President Nabiyev announced they would be launching an “anti-terrorism operation” in the region. This announcement was strikingly similar to the one President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev gave during the January protests in Kazakhstan, putting under suspicion the actual validity of these statements. Much like in Kazakhstan, this seemed more of an attempt to justify the use of excessive force against their own people. This suspicion has been intensified by the government refusing to take any responsibility for the escalation of the protests and instead blaming the demonstrators for instigating. 

On May 17, there were many reports from those in the region of truckloads of soldiers being moved into the area, including Pamir Daily News, one of the last independent media sources in the region. Local residents were prepared for the deployment of these troops and attempted to block the Pamir highway with their cars. Instead of attempting to cooperate with the residents, security forces fired at the blockade. The next morning a gunfight broke out between security forces and local residents. The exact number of casualties is impossible to determine as Internet connection was blocked in the region and official reports have been anything but transparent, however many have placed the number around 25-40. Following the incident, the government continued to push claims that the protestors were affiliated with terrorist and criminal organizations

After the last bullet was fired, it had seemed that this bout of unrest was finally over, but then on May 22, Mamadbokirov was assassinated by sniper fire. His death appeared strongly connected to the protests, as some official reports had claimed that Mamadbokirov had a hand in organizing the demonstrations. Evidence points to this being a targeted hit by government security forces, however, officials insist that he was actually killed by his own men. This might have been an attempt to prevent further unrest in the region, however, this will likely continue to foment deepr resentment and distrust among the GBAO population, given the reputation he had developed in the region.

The government’s reaction to the recent protests in GBAO point to a much larger issue than simply failure to listen to the needs of those in the region. The events in May have shown that officials seem to believe that they will be able to strong-arm residents into submitting to the status quo. Given rising financial strain due to the COVID-pandemic coupled with the fallout of Russian sanctions and returning migrant labor, unrest is only likely to continue to mount. The assassination of Mamadbokirov is likely to also stoke resentment. Given the circumstances building in GBAO it isn’t unthinkable to predict that there might be more demonstrations in the near future without a change in approach by the Tajik government.

Featured image: Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, who was killed on 22 May / RFE/RL
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