BACKGROUND: Early in the morning of September 4, gunmen attacked police checkpoints in Vahdat and Dushanbe, leaving at least nine officers dead. According to the Tajik government, Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda orchestrated the attacks. Following the initial attacks, he fled with a few dozen supporters to the mountainous Romit gorge, 30 miles north-east of Dushanbe. After a lengthy counter-insurgency operation, the Ministry of Interior claimed to have killed Nazarzoda on the afternoon of September 16. In total, 25 militants have been killed and approximately 125 detained in the operation. The regime lost 14 law enforcement officers, including the commander of the special operations group of the State Committee for National Security of Tajikistan, Colonel Rustam Amakiyev.
Until early September, Major-General Nazarzoda – also known as Hoji Halim – was one of the last United Tajik Opposition (UTO) commanders to be given a post as part of the 1997 peace agreement to remain in government. Born near Dushanbe in 1964, he worked as a factory laborer, becoming the head of a warehouse in Dushanbe in 1991. During the early months of the civil war in 1992, he commanded an armed opposition group in the Karotegin region of Dushanbe. He spent the rest of the war in Kazakhstan, but returned to Tajikistan after the hostilities ceased and took up a position in the Ministry of Defense in 1999. A skillful player of the political game, he rose to the position of Deputy Minister in 2014.
Two versions of the events leading up to the conflict exist. The regime has argued that Nazarzoda was plotting a military coup and launched the attacks on September 4 as the start of his bid for power. President Rahmon stated during a speech in Vahdat on September 5 that Nazarzoda and his supporters were “terrorists with evil intentions to destabilize the situation.”
Nazarzoda himself has given a different version of events. On September 3, he lost his job for forging documents. According to a statement released by his supporters on September 6, the regime plotted to remove Nazarzoda for refusing to agree with the recent banning of the IRPT. When he heard that he was going to be targeted, he assembled supporters and decided to fight his way out.
While neither narrative can be entirely trusted, Nazarzoda’s story seems more plausible. Indeed, the official framing of events contains a number of inconsistencies. First, if Nazarzoda planned the coup in advance, then why did he let the regime capture most of his weapons cache on September 4? Second, western observer Peter Leonard visited the scene of “heavy fighting” at Vahdat police station on September 5 and found little evidence that a gun battle had taken place. This would not be the first time the Tajik government misrepresented the circumstances of an armed incident. In January 2011, the regime claimed to have killed militant leader Ali Bedaki in a gun battle. A video later emerged that showed Bedaki being interrogated at gunpoint.
IMPLICATIONS: Nazarzoda’s demise has given the regime an excuse to make its final moves against the IRPT. The party has been under intense pressure this year. In the March elections, the party lost its two seats in parliament. A June 16 article in state-run newspaper Jumhuriyat accused the party’s leader Muhiddin Kabiri of corruption. He has remained in exile since shortly after the elections, fearing arrest should he return to Tajikistan. During the recent conflict, the government stressed Nazarzoda’s wartime membership of the IRPT. Some officials have even claimed that he is still a member. Given that law enforcement officers in Tajikistan cannot be members of political parties, this assertion is clearly false.
Nonetheless, on September 17 the Prosecutor General accused Kabiri of ordering the attacks. The statement accused 13 other IRPT deputies, including spokesman Hikmatullo Saifullozoda and deputy chairman Mahmadali Hait, of planning the attacks. The security services have already started acting on the accusations. Hait was arrested whilst trying to board a plane to Almaty on September 16. The security services detained First Deputy Chairman Saidumar Husayni on the same day.
Despite the regime’s repeated attempts to blame instability on external actors, the recent crisis emerged from within the state itself. The distribution of power in the post-conflict Tajik state renders it prone to violence. After the war, the spoils of the state were divided among former commanders from both sides. As part of the 1997 peace accords, the government allocated 30 percent of the ministerial posts to the opposition. Five former UTO commanders were given cabinet positions. Commanders from the government-led Popular Front also received positions. For example, Popular Front strongman Ghaffur Mirzoyev was given command of the Presidential Guard.
Government posts in Tajikistan are less about serving the public, and more about serving the post holders and their families. Holders of office have amassed sizeable fortunes. Nazarzoda, for example, used his political influence to run a construction business, buy a bread factory and three dachas in Varzob, according to a state TV report. This made him an attractive target for rivals looking to appropriate his wealth.
As Rahmon’s regime has consolidated its power, it has gradually removed these former commanders, often using accusations of treason and corruption to legitimize the ousting. Mirzoyev lost his job in 2004 and was imprisoned in 2005 for plotting a coup. The UTO’s supreme military commander Mirzo Ziyoyev, who was Minister of Emergency Situations until the government disbanded the ministry in 2006, died under mysterious circumstances in 2009 after being accused of terrorism.
The government’s attempts to constrain the influence of local commanders have occasionally resulted in violence. Recent conflicts in the Rasht valley between 2008 and 2011, and Khorog in 2012 and 2014, resulted from this aggressive form of state-building. This most recent outburst of violence is part of this same process. But it is the first time in many years that conflict has broken out in the capital city itself.
CONCLUSIONS: Despite the fixation among many analysts with the threat of spill-overs from northern Afghanistan and Tajiks going to fight with the Islamic State, recent conflicts in Tajikistan have been more about local politics than about religion. This latest incident emerged from within the Tajik state itself. And in blaming the violence on the IRPT, the regime has used the conflict to legitimize the banning of the party and arrest of its leading members.
Outbreaks of violence will continue to occur in the fractious post-conflict Tajik state as elites continue to struggle over resources. More Nazarzodas may exist within the government. Having seen the regime’s attempt to purge a potentially disloyal figure, they may become desperate enough to rebel too.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Edward Lemon is a doctoral candidate at the University of Exeter. In his research, he examines the relationships between security, Islam and migration in Tajikistan.
Image Attribution: www.rferl.org, accessed on Sept 25, 2015