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Volume VII, No 3 (January-February 1997)

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Intervention in Central Asia
Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy

Since the Soviet Union's demise in December 1991 and the emergence of 15 independent states in its place, many have hailed the end of the Cold War and the end of Soviet imperialism. Initially, President Boris Yel'tsin's administration announced that the goal of Russia's foreign policy would no longer be to impose Moscow's domination upon other peoples, as had been the case during the Soviet period. At first, Yel'tsin was also an adamant supporter of full independence not just for Russia, but for all of the Soviet republics; prior to the Soviet Union's disintegration, he even advocated self-determination for any of the non-Russian nationalities which wanted genuine autonomy from the RSFSR. (1) However, less than one year after Russia and the fourteen other Soviet republics had become sovereign states, Russia was once again on the brink of becoming involved militarily in another country's domestic affairs. That country was the newly independent state of Tajikistan.


By early September 1992, Tajikistan was in the first stages of a particularly violent and destructive civil war. Some Russian troops were already stationed there, left over from Soviet border contingents whose purpose had been to guard the Tajik-Afghan frontier against weapons and drug smuggling. At the request of the new Tajik coalition government, more Russian border troops were sent. In the beginning these troops were declared to be a neutral force, whose main task was to safeguard important military and industrial installations and to act as peacekeepers. However, soon it became obvious that many of the Russian troops were aiding the pro-Communist rebel forces of former president Rakhmon Nabiev by selling or giving them Russian weapons and military supplies, a fact which was corroborated by Western journalists. Before the end of October 1992, Nabiev's supporters were able to regain control of Dushanbe and to force the resignation of the coalition government. (2) Since then, the Russian troops' main function has been to keep the pro-Communist government, headed by Emomali Rahmonov (Nabiev's successor), in power in Dushanbe, and to try to gain back the rest of the country's territory from those who oppose him.


It is estimated that Rahmonov's government is in control of only about 15-20% of Tajikistan's territory, while the opposition controls approximately 50%. (3) Without the support of Russian military forces, Rahmonov's government would most assuredly collapse. In fact, Moscow still is in virtually complete control of the Tajik economy, because there was not enough time before the civil war broke out to dismantle the old Soviet economic structures in Tajikistan. The old relationships between the Tajik ministries which control the military elements and the KGB, as well as the other Moscow "power ministries," are also still in force. (4) Thus, it could be said that those parts of Tajikistan which are under government control constitute Russia's first post-independence colony.


The Russian government maintained the fiction of neutrality vis-a-vis the civil war in Tajikistan until February 1993, when it pledged quite openly its continued assistance to the Tajik Communists until the end of the century, following the signing of cooperative defense agreements between the governments of Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. (5)


Conceivably, Moscow's initial motivation for becoming involved in Tajikistan's civil war may have been concern for the Russian minority residing in or near Dushanbe. During the demonstrations of 1991, many of the leaders of the various Tajik opposition groups (6) undertook not only to assure Dushanbe's Russian population of their goodwill, but also to appeal for support from that minority in forcing the old Communist government to establish a democracy and to respect basic civil rights. However, as Nabiev and his supporters maintained total control over the media, they were able to portray the members of the opposition as radical Muslims and Tajik nationalists who were hostile to all non-Tajiks (including not only Russians, but Uzbeks, Tatars, Koreans, and others). This frightened many of Dushanbe's Russian population, and caused them to adhere to the Communist government. (7)


The main reason for Russia's support of the Tajik Communist forces, however, has been the preservation of the political and economic status quo in Central Asia as a whole. Moscow's case is that civil strife and economic and political chaos in Central Asia could cause large numbers of refugees to flee to Russia, straining its own economy even further, as well as putting the Russian stake in Central Asian energy resources at risk. Furthermore, Russia still enjoys a fairly lucrative trade relationship with all of the Central Asian republics, due to a number of special commercial privileges, some of which have been embodied in CIS agreements. The potential for Russia's trade with Central Asia and for Russian participation in the development of Central Asia's energy resources looks very bright, but only if the region remains under Russian control.


The alleged danger upon which Russian and many Western politicians harp most often, however, is the threat of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia, via Iran, Pakistan, and, most recently, Afghanistan. It is claimed that Islamic fundamentalism would engender severe civil strife and religious terrorism throughout Central Asia, and then presumably in Russia, were its supporters to gain power in Tajikistan. Therefore, Russia's support of the Tajik Communist Party is interpreted as support for the continued existence of a secular government in Tajikistan which acts as a safeguard against the forces of Islamic fundamentalism.


On a more realistic note, it is also distinctly possible that, had the opposition forces been allowed to take control of the government in Tajikistan, similar opposition groups in the other Central Asian republics might have gained the strength to begin putting real pressure on their own governments to make concessions in the area of human rights and political freedom. Uzbekistan, under Islom Karimov's leadership, would be particularly vulnerable to pressure for democratization, partly due to its geographic proximity to Tajikistan, but also in reaction to Karimov's absolute ban on political opposition of any kind and harsh persecution of all government critics. A free, democratic government in Tajikistan could threaten Karimov's own hold on power.


This is at least one of the reasons for Uzbekistan's intervention on the side of the pro-Communist forces in the Tajik civil war. It is important also to note that many of the members of the Tajik Communist government come from Khujand (formerly Leninobod), a region in northern Tajikistan which borders Uzbekistan and which has a substantial Uzbek population. In fact, under Soviet rule, Tajikistan's leadership traditionally was chosen from among the Khujand elite, many of whom were reputed to be Uzbeks. (8) Therefore, Karimov may see his support of the Tajik Communist government as a way of maintaining Uzbek political hegemony over Tajikistan.


In addition to fearing the twin specters of Islam and democracy in Tajikistan, Karimov has a third cause for worry; namely the dispute over the location of the Uzbek-Tajik border. The origins of this dispute are to be found in the mid-1920s, when the Uzbek SSR first came into being, and the Bolshevik authorities decided to include such ethnically Tajik population centers as Samarqand, Bukhara, and parts of Ferghana within Uzbekistan's borders. These cities and their surrounding oblasts were not only important cultural centers with Tajik majorities, but they also contained fertile land and water sources. Tajik Communist Party members lobbied hard for many years to have these areas returned to Tajikistan, until most of them were executed in Stalin's first wave of purges.(9)


In the early 1990s a small faction of Tajiks once again began to call for the redrawing of the Uzbek-Tajik border, and Tajik national consciousness in Uzbekistan began to grow. Tajiks residing in Uzbekistan started a movement to establish Tajik-language schools for their children and many Tajiks were willing to identify themselves as such on their internal passports. (10) Karimov responded to this movement with repressive measures, viewing it as a source of serious instability and a challenge to his government, especially if it were to begin receiving support from opposition forces in Tajikistan. Lending military support to the leaders of the old Tajik Communist regime, then, was another way in which to ensure that Tajik nationalism and political opposition to the Uzbek government were squelched.


The intensification of the conflict in Afghanistan last fall, with the Taleban's victory in Kabul, alarmed both Russian and Central Asian leaders, and caused them to reevaluate their policies toward the Tajik civil war. The leaders of Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan met at an emergency summit in Almaty in October 1996 in order to discuss ways in which to respond to the Taleban's victory and how to handle further the conflict in Tajikistan. It was decided to send Russian reinforcements to the Tajik-Afghan border, raising the number of troops there to 20,000, as well as to send a Central Asian "peacekeeping force" to the region. (11) Russian and Central Asian leaders have professed fears that the Taleban will not be satisfied with extending its rule over all of Afghanistan, but has designs on Central Asia as well, and could combine its forces with those of the Tajik opposition in order to achieve this goal. President Karimov has admitted to providing General Abdul Rashid Dostum (an ethnic Uzbek who currently controls most of Northern Afghanistan) with "humanitarian aid," supplying his forces with electricity, and is suspected of providing him with military aid as well. (12)


Russia had been driving against the Tajik opposition forces on two fronts: from within Tajikistan itself, but also from Afghanistan, where groups of opposition fighters had established bases from which they launched their attacks against the Tajik government. In September 1996 Russia managed to convince the Afghan President Mohammed Rabbani to sign an agreement on military cooperation against the United Tajik Opposition. A "security zone" was established which would allow Russian border troops to go as far as 25 kilometers across the Tajik-Afghan border into Afghanistan in pursuit of Tajik opposition fighters. Afghan government troops were to attack the Tajik opposition forces from the other side, and catch them in the crossfire. Afghan government troops were also to try to destroy Tajik opposition bases within this "security zone." In return, Rabbani's government was to receive further financial and military aid from Russia, which was supposed to enable his supporters to withstand the Taleban's forces and, at the very least, to maintain control over Kabul. (13) Two weeks later, the Taleban took over Kabul, and, by the end of October, the Russian government had changed its tactics again and was pressuring President Rahmonov to pursue serious peace negotiations with the United Tajik Opposition.


While at present Russia's and Uzbekistan's interests do not appear to be in conflict--both governments are alarmed by the Taleban's advances in Afghanistan, and agree that the civil conflicts in Afghanistan and Tajikistan must be contained--Turkmenistan seems to be pursuing its own path, which could lead to an escalation of conflict for all concerned. Turkmen President Niyazov (a/k/a Turkmenbashi) was the only Central Asian head of state who did not attend the emergency summit meeting in Almaty in October 1996, and so far he is the only one who has not only refused to condemn the Taleban, but has denounced the other Central Asian leaders' criticism of that Afghan movement. Shortly after the emergency meeting in Almaty, a spokesperson for the Turkmen embassy in Moscow also stated that the Taleban had offered security guarantees for the planned construction of a $2 billion natural gas pipeline that is to run from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. (14) The US oil company Unocal, in partnership with Saudi Arabia's Delta Oil Company, is leading a consortium composed of Russia's Gazprom company, Turkmenistan's Turkmenrusgaz company, (15) and unnamed Japanese and Pakistani partners, to undertake the project. (16) Although Unocal expects the current Afghan conflict and the absence of stable government in Kabul to slow down the process of raising sufficient funds for the pipeline's construction (financial arrangements are expected to be completed in the next three years), company representatives said that they had been in contact with all of the factions involved in the conflict, and had received written agreements from seven of them, recognizing Unocal's leading role in the pipeline construction consortium. (17) Company spokesmen also stated that they would be willing to provide "peace dividends" in the form of humanitarian aid to the various factions involved in the Afghan conflict, in return for their guarantees of the pipeline's safety. (18) The pipeline is to be completed by the year 2000, and is to run from Herat in the northwest to Kandahar in the south before entering Pakistan. (19)


Although there is no evidence that the Turkmen government has directly supplied the Taleban with military aid, the Russian press has claimed that the Taleban entered Kabul on Ukrainian tanks whose point of entry into Afghanistan has been traced to the Turkmen-Afghan border. (20) The Turkmen government has denied these charges vehemently, stating that Turkmenistan is a neutral territory and therefore does not permit arms shipments of any kind across its territory. (21)


Thus, not just Russia, but also Uzbekistan and, most recently, Turkmenistan, are using the civil conflicts in Afghanistan and Tajikistan to try to extend their influence beyond the borders of their own states. Again, there are signs of empire-building in a part of the world that has too often been the battleground for major powers in their grab for hegemony. In this case, however, regional players are struggling over what might seem to be relatively unimportant issues in the eyes of outsiders. Because the interests of these minor powers conflict and they are willing to use military force in order to achieve their goals, and given Russian armed intervention, Central Asia has become a battlefield. In addition there is a potential for Iranian and Pakistani involvement in a region that cries out for development, not warfare.


1 Dunlop, John B., The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
2 "Diary of Events," Central Asia Monitor, no. 5, 1992, pp. 4-10.
3 Bird, Chris, "Renegade Tajik commander's tanks leave Tursunzade," Reuters, 10 January 1997 (
4 Schoeberlein-Engel, John, "Conflict in Tajikistan and Central Asia: The Myth of Ethnic Animosity," Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review, vol. 1 (1994), no. 2, p. 54.
5 Ibid., citing Argumenty i facty, no. 6, 1993.
6 The main opposition groups in 1992 consisted of Rastokhez, a cultural revivalist movement; the Islamic Renaissance Party; and the Democratic Party of Tajikistan. Ibid., pp. 34-35.
7 Ibid., pp. 30-31.
8 Atkin, Muriel, "The Politics of Polarization in Tajikistan," in Central Asia: Its Strategic Importance and Future Prospects, Hafeez Malik, ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), p. 211.
9 Masov, Rahim, Istoriia Topornogo Razdeleniia (Dushanbe: Irfon, 1991), pp. 89-90.
10 Tajiks speak the only Indo-European, non-Turkic language among Central Asians.
11 United Press International, 20 October 1996 (Nexis).
12 Sharif, Mukhammad, "Central Asian leaders Meet in Almaty," Tashkent Pravda Vostoka, 8 October 1996 (FBIS-SOV-96-214-S, 8 October 1996) (
13 Teague, Elizabeth, Foye, Stephen, and Socor, Vladimir, "Russia's Grip Over Tajikistan Threatened,"The Fortnight In Review--A Bi-Weekly On The Post-Soviet States, The Jamestown Foundation, vol. 1, no. 7 (1996).
14 Bezanis, Lowell, "Turkmenistan Condemns Criticism of Taliban,"OMRI Daily Digest, no. 198, Part I, 11 October 1996.
15 "Turkmen/Pakistan Pipeline Moves Ahead," Middle East Economic Digest, 11 October 1996.
16 "Unocal Pursues Afghan Project,"Middle East Economic Digest, 31 December 1996, Reuters Textline, BBC Monitoring Service.
17 Ibid.
18 United Press International, 9 December 1996 (
19 Ibid.
20 "Ogonek Claims Ukrainian Tanks in Kabul," Moscow Ogonek, no. 43, October 1996, p. 24 (FBIS-SOV-96-214-S, 1 October 1996)
21 "Authorities Deny Allowing Arms Supplies To Afghanistan," ITAR-TASS news agency (World Service), Moscow, 22 November 1996.

Copyright ISCIP 1997
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially for

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