Tajikistan has never had it easy. As soon as it gained independence from the USSR in 1991 it was plunged into a bitter five year civil war between a Russian-backed ‘old guard’ and an Iranian-backed Islamist-led opposition movement. Fifty thousand people died, one in ten fled the country and the economy sustained damage that –to this day- has left it the poorest state in Central Asia.
The killing of twenty three soldiers by Islamist rebels yesterday, just one month after twenty five escaped from a high security jail, will therefore do little to shock a nation plagued by decades of brutal conflict. But it does underline just what a dire state Tajikistan, and much of Central Asia, is in.
The Islamists, backed by fighters from neighbouring Afghanistan as well as Chechnya and Pakistan, are generally thought to be linked to the radical Hizb Ut Tahrir and in all likelihood harbour desires for a dictatorial Islamic Republic of Tajikistan that would be at odds with the desires, and the rights, of its (majority-Muslim) population. Unfortunately the government they are taking on is not much better: President Emomali Rakhmon's People’s Democratic Party has held power for the last two decades through rigged elections, suppression of civil society and what has been described by Human Rights Watch as “rampant torture.”
This devastating stand-off between a brutal dictator and radical Islamist rebels is replicated across most of the region; not least in Uzbekistan where President Islam Karimov used the state's Islamist insurgency as a pretext to massacre thousands of democratic protestors at Adijan in 2005; and to portray himself as an ally in the ‘War on Terror’, thus averting Western criticism of his brutal rule.
Notably, as pressure on Islamist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan continues, their increasing relocation to join those in Central Asia (especially in areas of Tajikistan such as the Rash Valley, with remote terrain and a sympathetic population) is certainly possible if not probable. The indication is, therefore, that insurgencies, and consequently the violence and repression of dictatorships such as Rakhmon’s and Krimov’s, may well grow.
In an arena where tyrannical rebels are vying for power against tyrannical rulers, support for fledging democratic opposition, combined with pressure for reform and religious freedom should be the priority of any external government’s foreign policy. Anything less and Tajikistan can look forward to another twenty years of pain.