Instability in Central Asia: Dmitry Shlapentokh discusses the implications of last year's prison revolt in Tajikistan.

JurisdictionNew Zealand
Date01 September 2020
AuthorShlapentokh, Dmitry

In May 2019, a prison revolt erupted in Tajikistan. It involved not just common criminals but also Islamists. The revolt was brutally crushed. Still, it indicated instability, not just in Tajikistan but possibly in Central Asia as a whole. It also might well induce Central Asian leaders to maintain a good relationship with Moscow and Beijing as the only safe havens in case of their regimes' demise.

Tajikistan, a small Iranian-speaking country in Central Asia, rarely attracts the attention of the world press or, in general. Western scholarly discourse about the region. Nonetheless, it deserves special attention, not only because of its geographic location--its border with Afghanistan --but also because of recent history. Tajikistan was among the very few post-Soviet states in which the separation from the imperial body led to civil war. It was extremely brutal, with possibly more than 100,000 people killed. More people died in Tajikistan than in any other post-Soviet republic.

The major conflict was between 'Vovchiki', the nickname for Islamists, and 'Iurchiki', the more moderate and non-Islamic group. In addition to the religious/ideological dimension, the conflict had a strong regional dimension, and in each region of the country either the Vovchiki or Iurchiki dominate. There was also the problem of Gorno-Badakhshan. with its clear regional issues, Iurchiki prevailed mostly due to their ability to strike compromises with the moderate segments of Vovchiki, and some Vovchiki were included in the government. Still. Emomali Rakhmonov (he later changed his name to Rakhmon to sound more Tajik--at least, he clearly believes this) has no real desire to share power with the opposition. which have been squeezed from the government and increasingly repressed. Rakhmon's position was not stable. Revolts and other disturbances periodically erupted, including in Gorno-Badakhshan, the autonomous province in the east. There were also serious economic problems.

There were several reasons why the regime survived. Most important was Russia's position. It is true that the relationship with Moscow has not been smooth. Moscow allows thousands of Tajiks to work in Russia and the money which they send back is a considerable help to the local economy. Russia's military base in Tajikistan also provides a modicum of security. Even so, the revolt indicates that the regime, and Central Asia in general, could experience potential explosions in the future, and even the...

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