Tajikistan: Lessons of Reconciliation

7 october 2012

Anatoly Adamishin was a Deputy Foreign Minister from 1986-1990, Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister from 1993-1994, and Russian Minister for CIS Affairs from 1997-1998. Presently, he is a member of the Board of Advisors of Russia in Global Affairs.

Resume: Russia can be deservedly proud that it achieved its main goals in 1992-1994. The methods employed were almost exclusively peaceful, despite attempts by both parties to drag Russia into the confrontation. By all standards, national reconciliation in Tajikistan remains a landmark event in the modern history of Russian diplomacy.

The summer of 2012 witnessed a flare up of hostilities in the remote Gorno-Badakhshan region in Tajikistan and government troops had to be sent in. This took place just weeks after Tajikistan had celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of the end of its civil war, a struggle that had almost destroyed the country. At the time, Tajikistan was in a fragile state, having just emerged as an independent country after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The peace agreement signed in Moscow in 1997 provided an opportunity to overcome inter-clan and religious rifts in Tajik society through gradual democratization. However, the country’s leadership opted for a different sort of policy, and this is the root cause of the problems that we are seeing today. They will have to be addressed again at some point.

THE BALANCE IS UPSET

Tajikistan was probably the least developed of all of the Soviet republics. Tajik birth rates soared, while arable and grazing land remained scarce. A low standard of living, backward social infrastructures, monoculture cotton farming, and rampant pollution were the hard facts of life. The ethno-territorial pattern kept the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic stable. The first secretary of the Tajik Communist Party’s Central Committee was from Leninabad (currently Khujand), while the chairman of the Supreme Soviet’s Presidium (speaker of the legislature) was always from Gorno-Badakhshan or Gharm. People from Kulob dominated the police force and law enforcement. The second secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee was always an appointee from Moscow, just like the chief of the local state security committee, the KGB.

A strong and legitimate discontent had appeared in Tajikistan during the previous Communist regime. The opposition to the regime gained strength in November 1991 when Rahmon Nabiyev, a former Tajik Communist party leader and, according to many analysts, a rather weak personality, was elected president. However, the legitimacy of the election was questioned (the liberals’ candidate was the film director Davlat Khudonazarov). Neighboring Uzbekistan backed Nabiyev. So did Moscow, most likely on advice from Tashkent. Tajikistan is directly dependent on its neighbor, because gas pipelines and other transport links cross Uzbek territory.

Anger spilled over into the streets in March 1992. The Democratic Party of Tajikistan (DPT) (largely inspired by Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost), the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (which gained legal status in December 1991) and a number of smaller movements held rallies in Shakhidon Square (formerly Lenin Square). From the beginning, the reasons behind the standoff were not so much political or religious, as regional.

Initially, the authorities did not listen to the protestors’ moderate demands and this refusal sparked even more political demands, including the resignation of the government and the election of a new Supreme Soviet. The protests soon became permanent. Nabiyev first declared that he was president “by the will of Allah,” and then called in reinforcements from Kulob and distributed weapons. The first bloodshed was in May. By the middle of the month, the demonstrators had taken over the capital and the roads leading to it, as well as the television center. A coalition government was formed in Dushanbe. The opposition gained more than a third of the seats in the Cabinet. Khujand and Kulob responded to this as a coup against the constitution.

The unrest in the capital sparked turmoil in the rural south, in the Kulob and Qurghonteppa regions. The power struggle spread to the Vakhsh Valley and other districts. Inter-regional and inter-communal strife, which in the Soviet era had theoretically been eradicated, surfaced again. Shadow economic traders, drug traffickers, and newly freed convicts played havoc with society. Fierce clashes, looting, and ethnic cleansing followed. “A rifle wields power” was the law of the street.

 

THE RISK OF DOUBLE SUBORDINATION

I was saddled with the task of dealing with Tajikistan’s affairs at the end of October 1992. At the time I did not know much about the country, therefore I had to gather information and gain experience, literally assembling a team of co-workers and specialists “on the move.” At first I could not get rid of the impression that Russia was staying aloof from the Tajik crisis. Russian foreign policy was still in the painful birth stage. As far as Tajikistan – and all of Central Asia for that matter – was concerned, no one had a clear idea about what we were trying to achieve, since the former Soviet republics had suddenly become independent states. Decisions were often spontaneous and improvised, and some issues were neglected for a long time simply because there were too many tasks to tackle.

The future of the 201st motorized rifle division, which remained in Tajikistan after the breakup of the Soviet Union and was largely blocked in its barracks, would be settled as late as the autumn of 1992. Fortunately, Lieutenant-General Eduard Vorobyov, dispatched to Dushanbe with a special mission, was firm: he said that the division would stay where it was, there would be no handover of firearms or military equipment in defiance of demands from armed militant groups, and the blockade of the barracks and garrisons would end. Five paratroop battalions were quickly sent to Tajikistan to do the job. Amid anarchy and chaos, the 201st division was the only real force in the country. Its first task was to protect the Russian-speaking population, which then numbered 300,000.

I found it puzzling that the then Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev supported an idea that the 201st division would be doubly subordinate to both Russia and Tajikistan. In that case, the acting chairman of the Tajik Supreme Soviet Presidium, Akbarsho Iskandarov, would be able to use the division in any way he deemed correct. Iskandarov was already issuing orders to the division’s commander, Mukhridin Ashurov (a future Hero of Russia). Russia was being dragged into an intra-Tajik conflict. A harsh response from the Kulob faction and its backers in Uzbekistan was inevitable. Not to mention such a “trifle” as the possibility that the Russian military could be used outside Russia without permission from the national legislature, Russia’s Supreme Soviet. My arguments fell on Kozyrev’s deaf ears, so I turned to the then acting head of the Cabinet, Yegor Gaidar. He replied that there could be no backtracking, because there had been a prior agreement on that score with President Boris Yeltsin.

At that moment I gained a strong argument in my favor from Victor Komplektov, whom I had sent to Central Asia. He reported that neither Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, nor Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, would support Iskandarov. They suspected that the Iranian-leaning Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan stood behind Iskandarov. However, this argument did not work and the double subordination agreement was signed. The argument said that a figure should be found identical to Afghanistan’s Najibullah. Iskandarov and Ashurov, whose father was an ethnic Tajik, would restore order and protect the Russian-speaking population. The pact at once came under fire from the other side. The leader of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Shodmon Yusuf, accused the Russian military of intervening in the internal affairs of Tajikistan. He said the Russian population was now a hostage. As Russians started fleeing the country, the evacuations had to be carried out under extreme conditions.

I received support when I least expected it and from the least-expected source. The agreement that had been signed with Iskandarov was blocked by the Russian President’s State Law Office, which demanded that a special agreement be signed on the handover of the division to the Tajiks, but on the condition that it be ratified by the Supreme Soviets of both countries. No one knew when the Tajik Supreme Soviet would convene and Russia’s Supreme Soviet would definitely not ratify such a deal under any circumstance. However, the idea of double jurisdiction was brought to the foreground again. In Moscow, Iskandarov was promised weapons and support; each department and each office had its own idea of what the country’s foreign policy should be. In response, Uzbekistan started arming the Kulobis, whose leader warned that he would “rip open Ashurov’s belly and stuff it with stones.”

Upon his return from a trip to Central Asia, Kozyrev said that in his presence Nazarbayev had made a very telling remark to Uzbek President Islam Karimov: “Look, don’t try to storm Dushanbe while we are having a chat here.” Joint pressures by the Central Asian presidents on the Russian foreign minister removed the question of the division’s handover from the agenda once and for all.

 

“WE DO HAVE AN ACTION PLAN, MR. GAIDAR”

November 13. The CIS heads of government have gathered for a meeting. During a break, Gaidar asked me (I was representing the Foreign Ministry in the capacity of Kozyrev’s first deputy): “We don’t have an action plan for Tajikistan, do we?” I replied: “We do have one.” “And you can tell me what the plan is right away?” “I most certainly can.” I briefly outlined the ideas my ‘Tajik think tank’ had come up with:

– not to take sides in Tajikistan, let alone conclude any pacts with Iskandarov, who is about to step down;

– to keep persuading the CIS countries to move a peacekeeping force into Tajikistan, because it would be far better if we were not alone there;

– to do our utmost to bring the rival factions to the negotiating table and try to convene a meeting of the Supreme Soviet;

– to protect the Russian population with the use of the 201st division, but not go any farther than that; in all other respects the division must remain neutral;

– to provide humanitarian assistance wherever possible.

The most important idea was that national reconciliation should be proclaimed as the end goal of our efforts. Gaidar said: “Ok, it sounds like the way to go about this business.” Proceeding from Soviet experience I also suggested creating a special inter-departmental group for Tajikistan under the presidential office and putting the foreign minister in charge.

At a meeting with the leaders of Central Asian republics in Almaty, Kozyrev said in public: “Russia cannot afford to discard its years-long tight bonds with Tajikistan.” That was fundamentally important, particularly against the backdrop of pro-walkout sentiment in the Russian liberal camp. The participants in the meeting urged Akbarsho Iskandarov to convene an urgent session of people’s deputies in Khujand – the most peaceful city in the country at the time. On November 16, 1992, not only members of the Supreme Soviet, but also a republican assembly of regional delegates and even field commanders, gathered in Khujand. It looked like something incredible.

The first steps were taken towards national accord after the two weeks of sessions. This time the voluntary resignation of Rahmon Nabiyev was declared constitutional. In September, the opposition had forced Nabiyev to resign at the Dushanbe airport. The office of the president was abolished. Iskandarov and a number of other officials stepped down. Emomali Rahmon was elected Chairman of the Supreme Soviet. In all likelihood there had been a compromise between the Khujand and Kulob field commanders, among whom the strongman Sangak Safarov was the clear leader. For the first time ever in Tajikistan’s recent history, the Kulobi clan took over the country. The Kulob faction’s central task was to gain a still firmer foothold. As far as Rahmon’s candidacy was concerned, Moscow had to face an accomplished fact.

The Supreme Soviet unanimously voted for an appeal to the CIS countries to send in a peacekeeping force. The corresponding agreement was concluded promptly on December 1. Most of the peacekeepers were Russian, but it was a multilateral brand. Small units from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan had their own roles to play, too. The peacekeepers’ contribution was tangible. For example, they delivered hundreds of tons of humanitarian cargo to remote mountain regions. To many, this meant they were saved from starvation.

The Russian media responded negatively to the results of the Khujand meeting. In those days our liberals dismissed offhand the slightest possibility any “old-timers” might stage a comeback, irrespective of the concrete situation. Many were saying that the Rahmon government was doomed to be short-lived. (In two years Emomali Rahmon would be elected to the restored position of the president and he remains in office to this day.) But what was the alternative? Further lawlessness and chaos? The complete criminalization of society and the breakup of the country? It was anyone’s guess what line of action would have been pursued by Afghanistan, where the Taliban was rising to power, or by Islamic Iran. The authorities that emerged in Tajikistan had the greatest degree of legitimacy possible in December 1992. Russian-Tajik relations started to gain an international legal and regulatory basis. In case of an outside threat, Russia would have been able to hurry to the rescue on solid legal grounds.

The search for accord with the opposition looked to be the next logical step. The Khujand meeting of the Supreme Soviet was labeled as conciliatory. Regrettably, the new authorities emphasized force. The so-called Popular Front (PF) was armed, mostly by Uzbekistan. The Kulobis and ethnic Uzbeks, both Tajikistan’s own and those from neighboring Uzbekistan, made up its backbone. The military advisers were Uzbek and, one must admit, Russian; the latter were hired on an individual basis. At the end of December (Nazarbayev must have had second sight), the PF’s armed groups stormed Dushanbe. Rahmon, his adversaries claimed, rode into the city on an Uzbek tank. There are eyewitness accounts that several hundred people from the Pamir and Gharm regions, many of them intellectuals, were killed in the rampage that followed. The slogan of the day was: “The winners are free to do as they please!” The civil war did not die down, but rather grew more ferocious. Hostilities were raging east and south of Dushanbe. Aircraft were used in some cases, which Russian historians Valentin Bushkov and Dmitry Mikulsky claim were Uzbek. Armed gangs shot defenseless peasants, raped women, and looted. Tens of thousands of people – some of them militants, but mostly civilians – were forced to flee to Afghanistan. Whole villages had to take to the road, while others fled to neighboring Uzbekistan. In the summer of 1993, liberal and Islamic parties and movements were outlawed.

Moscow’s repeated calls upon the Tajik government to start the search for a peace settlement were left unanswered. The United Nations’ involvement in the peace efforts was possibly the sole positive achievement at that stage. The UN Secretary General appointed former Uruguayan ambassador to Moscow, Ramiro Piriz-Ballon, as his special envoy to Tajikistan.

As earlier, there remained a strong sentiment in Moscow that Tajikistan was none of its business and that it would turn into “another Afghanistan.” Russia believed that the costs were too high and that the most reasonable decision would be to pull out of Tajikistan. However, that would have been tantamount to leaving the Russian population at the mercy of fate, to neglecting unique economic interests, and to leaving the border unguarded. If this happened, there would be virtually no protection against drug trafficking or terrorists for thousands of kilometers deep into Central Asia and into Russia. The Soviet Union’s perimeter borders left some chance of keeping the frontiers under control. On the other hand, we needed to be careful not to repeat the mistakes made in Afghanistan. We proceeded from the understanding that Russia should help the Tajiks, but not act for them. The local leadership should bear the responsibility for restoring order and for negotiating a balance among the clans, and regional and political forces.

 

THE 12th BORDER OUTPOST TRAGEDY

A thunderbolt came in July 1993. The armed opposition had long staged guerilla raids into Tajik territory from bases in Afghanistan, in some cases gaining control of vast territories. Skirmishes with Russian border guards were a daily occurrence. The border guards’ mission was to protect the frontier under a bilateral agreement between Russia and Tajikistan. The 16,000-strong contingent was a major force. The July 13 attack on the 12th outpost was something out of the ordinary. The guerillas fired on the outpost from Afghanistan and from the rear, from Tajik territory. All approach routes that the regular army might use to hurry to the rescue had been mined. The outpost was razed to the ground and twenty-five border guards out of a total of fifty-one were killed.

An urgent crisis meeting convened by the then Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin revealed that the border guards and the 201st division had been grossly unprepared. The squabbles between them had become permanent: the Security Ministry was unable to come to terms with the Defense Ministry, and the boarder guard units lacked personnel. The issue was taken before a meeting of the Security Council under the chairmanship of the president. In the end, Yeltsin gave instructions to draft an executive order to settle the conflict on the Tajik-Afghan border, which we did within the tightest deadlines. Political measures were given priority. For the first time ever, Russia made an unequivocal statement at such a level to the effect that it would promote the establishment of contacts between the government of Tajikistan and the opposition.

When the Foreign Ministry was asked for its opinion, I explained that it was not a Tajik-Afghan conflict, or a Russian-Afghan one, but a Tajik-Tajik standoff. The opposition, forced into neighboring Afghanistan, was continuing its struggle with the government and was trying to recruit Afghan militants to its side. The Afghans were used as mercenaries and they were not very eager to fight. Ahmad Shah Massoud was even rumored to have told his field commanders not to support the Tajiks. It was very important to stress this point because the Tajik leadership had often blamed its own mistakes on the need to fight with Afghanistan. The president nodded in approval, but Defense Minister Pavel Grachev intervened: “The ambassador in Dushanbe is lousy. He must be replaced.” We, Foreign Ministry people, had a very different opinion of the ambassador, and I retorted: “It’s our business to decide who is doing a good job and who isn’t, and who is to be replaced.” A reprimand from Yeltsin followed: “You should heed what experienced people are saying.” The prime minister joined the discussion and suggested dismissing Georgy Kunadze, Kozyrev’s deputy. As a matter of fact, the discussion on the merits came to an end. After the tragedy on the border, it was declared that Grachev would coordinate the military and political agencies, and that Kozyrev was appointed special presidential envoy for the Tajik conflict. The next day both took a vacation.

 

“COME ON, EMOMALI, HAVEN’T YOU BEEN IN THE WAR YOURSELF?”

I flew south after the Security Council’s meeting. The delegation included Defense Ministry and Emergency Situations Ministry officials tasked with taking technical and military measures to ensure proper border protection. I was carrying a message from the Russian president to the leaders of the Central Asian republics. That allowed me to request audiences with top officials. I explained the basics of Russia’s position: to prevent a new round of civil war in Tajikistan, which might grow into a full-scale conflict; to ensure the security of the multi-ethnic population; to put the country on the track of democratization and national reconciliation; and to prevent Tajikistan from turning into a hotbed of extremism and violence for the entire region of the CIS. Russia’s ideas were welcomed in all five capitals.

On July 30, there was a long and fundamental discussion of Yeltsin’s message with Emomali Rahmon. Moscow’s stance was firm: it is deplorable that many democratic laws adopted earlier in Tajikistan were ineffective, that there were no security guarantees for refugees returning home from Afghanistan, and that there was no peace for the Russian-speaking population. The time was ripe to think about national reconciliation in earnest. Russia was a firm advocate of talks with the oppositional leaders and commanders of armed groups. For our part, we would honor all of our obligations to Tajikistan that stemmed from bilateral agreements. However, at a certain point the leader of Tajikistan seemed to have changed his mind. We had barely left Dushanbe when an official statement was issued stating that any possibility of negotiations with the opposition – “with people who are elbow-deep in blood” – was out of the question. The Kulobis, who were taking commanding positions one by one, thought that further hostilities would play into their hands and allow them to gain more power.

Hence the importance of a meeting in Moscow, to which Yeltsin invited the top officials of the five republics in his message. Russia went to great lengths to achieve its aims. The meeting, the first in this format following the emergence of the CIS, took place on August 7, 1993. All five countries agreed to attend, including Turkmenistan, although not at the highest level. I did my best to persuade Saparmurat Niyazov to come to Moscow, but he refused and dispatched Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shikhmuradov instead.

What amazed me the most at that meeting was the behavior of the leaders – they were literally falling over themselves to win the good will of Boris Yeltsin, “the leader of a great power that plays the decisive role in Central Asia,” and they were spewing out flowery, Soviet-style rhetoric. What a stark contrast to the arrogant lecture on Russia’s “imperial” ambitions that the Uzbek president had staged several days earlier in Tashkent, when we spent over three hours sipping brandy and talking shop. The saddest thing of all was that what he had been saying sometimes made sense. I was naïve enough to think that he would angrily criticize Moscow’s policies again. Nothing of the sort happened. Then I realized that this behavior was very effective as a means of getting benefits from Russia.

Of course, the results of the meeting were important and met our expectations. The six countries said in unison that a political settlement was the key goal, and they called upon the international community to back the efforts along those lines. All those present began to persuade Rahmon. At some point Nazarbayev said: “Come on, Emomali. Haven’t you been in the war yourself? What sort of ‘elbows-deep-in-blood’ talk is this?” In the end the Tajik government, for the first time, agreed to start a dialogue with the opposition.

Yet even the Moscow summit failed to produce a final settlement. Dushanbe was either unprepared or reluctant to negotiate with its opponents. To be more precise, it was prepared to negotiate solely with the internal opposition on the condition that armed groups in neighboring Afghanistan would be disarmed. The groups were the main fighting force of the United Tajik Opposition. The government deserves credit for promoting the return of several thousand refugees from Afghanistan, but it was not strong enough to suppress the opposition through military force. Therefore, the sides had reached a deadlock and there was a risk that Russia would be dragged into hostilities under the Afghan scenario. Among other measures we used the inter-departmental commission for Tajikistan. The unanimous conclusion was that Rahmon was certain that Russia and Uzbekistan would support him. He demanded that the opposition lay down their arms as a pre-condition for negotiations, but no one was eager to talk with him on such terms. At the same time, Rahmon was the best of all the possible candidates for the country’s leadership. The Uzbeks needed to be talked to frankly and told that they should stop attempting to remove him. Rahmon should be systematically persuaded to hold a dialogue with the opposition and, in the longer term, to share power. The suspension of military assistance was also considered as a possible means of leverage, but was reserved as the next resort.

Generally speaking, we were not very good at using pressure. Brezhnev’s 18-year-long rule had made itself felt. The authorities in the republics had become used to the paradigm in which Moscow pretends it issues orders, and we pretend to obey. We were accused of imperial ambitions, although we had never mastered the skill of imperial governance.

 

“YOU WANTED INDEPENDENCE? HAVE AS MUCH AS YOU WANT!”

The tide changed in February 1994. Kozyrev paid a very productive visit to Tashkent and I followed. The Uzbeks displayed their full readiness for cooperation over Tajikistan: the government and the opposition should be brought to the negotiating table right away. We remained divided when it came to Tajikistan’s internal affairs. The Uzbeks wanted personnel reshuffles, which looked essentially correct, because inter-clan strife might cause the country to break apart into several independent regions. Yet the Uzbeks wanted us to make all the changes, to which, naturally, we disagreed. Let there be a referendum, we said, the way the Tajiks want it; let there be elections, just as the Tajiks want; and let them elect those they deem right.

In Dushanbe, where we flew from Tashkent enjoying gorgeous views of the Gissar Range on the way, we had a warm and even trusting (or so it seemed) conversation with Emomali Rahmon. This time he agreed, at last, to my trip to Tehran for talks with the opposition. He had long objected to the idea. What if he might have to share power? But Moscow was firm – without such a step, surely very hard to take, the risks remained high that the civil war could resume. Rahmon strongly requested the opportunity to go to Moscow for talks with Yeltsin, because the situation was very serious. Tashkent had a tiny, three-day supply of flour. In my message to Moscow I mentioned the possibility of Rahmon’s brief working visit for a meeting with the Russian president, although I had very strong doubts anything would come of it. Abdujalil Samadov, Tajikistan’s new prime minister, visited Moscow specifically for a meeting with Chernomyrdin. After several days of stalling, the latter refused to receive him. Then the deputy prime minister canceled a meeting, too. “It’s no use coming unless you have been invited. They wanted independence? Now they can have as much of it as they want.”

 

“WE WILL CERTAINLY BE THERE”

We went to Tehran next, because a confirmation had arrived from the special UN Secretary-General’s envoy for Tajikistan that the opposition leaders were waiting for us. When we discussed a venue for future talks, I had a feeling that Piriz-Ballon would not insist on Moscow. He said the opposition was against it, preferring Tehran, Islamabad, or Geneva, as the last resort. Then I made my counter-move: tell the opposition I will fly to meet them in Tehran, for which they had been pressing all along, and they would agree to Moscow as the venue for the talks. We had received no reply from the opposition by the time we boarded the flight to Tehran. I told the foreign minister that the effort may have been fruitless and the opposition might refuse to come to Moscow. Yet we decided that going to Tehran was still worthwhile.

The Iranians had changed their mind regarding the Tajik issue – the key issue for us. At the beginning of the turmoil the Iranians were quite active: they were the first to open the embassy and their diplomats were seen handing out cash to Tajiks. Tehran surely had nothing against planting an obedient government in Dushanbe. However, the attempt did not work because Russia decided to intervene. The Iranians had not given up the idea of enticing Tajikistan over to their side. Now they decided to offer spiritual help and ensure that close politicians and public figures would remain influential in the country, a task that would be hardly possible without a modus vivendi with the authorities. That is where our interests converged.

The first contact with the opposition was at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati opened the meeting. The opposition had sent a team of four: two Islamist leaders – Khoja Akbar Turajonzoda, the chief delegate, and Mohammed Sharif Himmatzoda; and two democrats – Otakhon Latifi, the only one with whom I was acquainted because he had been a correspondent for the daily Pravda, and Abdunami Sattorov, a Doctor of Science (Philosophy) and professor at Tajikistan’s university. All of them looked like people with whom one could talk and do business. Of course, they were bluffing somewhat. They claimed that they were strong enough to topple the government by force, and the sole reason why they had not done that yet was because civil war would wipe out the Tajiks as a nation. In the course of the talks we secured their consent to enter into a direct dialogue with the government in Dushanbe. Before that, they had brushed off such invitations with the arrogant argument that they would be prepared to negotiate only with the Russians. Incidentally, my invariable reply to that was this: had Russia been the boss in Tajikistan, the dialogue with the opposition would have been long underway.

Bakhtiyar Khakimov, our main specialist on Central Asia, and I had the idea of moving the meeting to our embassy. Along with other benefits of being at home, we could rid ourselves of unwanted attention from the Iranians. When the discussion at the Iranian Foreign Ministry was drawing to a close, I said that we would like to talk a bit more and that I was inviting the Tajik representatives to the Russian embassy. To our surprise, Akbar replied at once: “We will certainly be there.” At the embassy we gave them a warm reception, treated them to a good lunch, and showed them the hall where the Tehran Conference of the Big Three was held in 1943. Whereas at the meeting at the Iranian Foreign Ministry the Tajik negotiators had been very evasive whenever we invited them to hold talks in Moscow, at the embassy they quite unequivocally agreed to both holding the talks and to having the first round in the Russian capital.

 

“YOU’RE THE MOST RESPECTED MAN”

Problems cropped up in the least expected places. Kozyrev visited Dushanbe where he had gathered Central Asian foreign ministers. Imagine how bewildered I was when I heard him say afterwards that political dialogue with the opposition was unnecessary: neither the Tajiks nor the Uzbeks want the talks; to be more precise, both parties wish to negotiate, but later, while now it is far more important to address Tajikistan’s domestic issues, primarily the economy. It was pretty clear that our foreign minister had been brainwashed in Dushanbe, where Rahmon had tried to shirk negotiations once again. That was the limit. Was it worth spending so many months on lobbying and acting in concert with the Uzbeks to persuade Rahmon, to achieve the unachievable in Tehran (as one daily newspaper put it), to bring the opposition to Moscow with the net effect of quitting the talks! The foreign minister, to his credit, did not resist long when he heard counter arguments from four critics. But shifting the process into reverse again was not easy. The Tajiks had already changed their minds and now I phoned them to tell them the opposite viewpoint. They kept asking: “Hasn’t Kozyrev told you that it has been agreed to postpone the talks?” I lost my nerve and told Prime Minister Samadov: “You are asking for money, but we cannot put up with a situation in which Russia will give rubles and is slapped on the cheek in exchange.” That drove the message home.

The next day I had a hotline call (the Soviet-era HF phone lines still worked) from Rahmon. Naturally, I did not say a word to him about a link between the promised money and the delegation’s arrival in Moscow. Moreover, I confirmed that Sergei Dubinin, the finance minister, was about to disburse much-needed cash to Tajikistan. I spoke with Dubinin and he agreed to delay the transfer. I told him outright: “I have no permission on this score. I am acting the way I feel right in this situation.” Dubinin understood me and delayed the transfer for a day or two. Without that, nothing would have been accomplished. Tajikistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Moyensho Nazarshoyev, from the Gorno-Badakhshan Region and who was to lead the delegation to Moscow, was assassinated. His death was blamed on the opposition, and Rahmon told a rally that he would not sit at the negotiating table with murderers.

The resistance to the negotiations was very strong. Some said the Tehran-based opposition did not represent anybody, although the names of the people with whom we had established contact had been agreed on with the Tajiks and authorized in Moscow. A rumor was started – not without a certain role by some of our military – that Abdulloh Nuri, the supreme leader of the Islamists, had disavowed the Tehran team of negotiators. In reality, it turned out that Nuri had never said anything like that. On the contrary, he supported the talks. I avoided discussing those themes with Rahmon, too. I kept telling him that negotiations on national reconciliation would add to his authority. He replied: “You are the most-respected man in Tajikistan. I am sending a delegation to Moscow.”

Then the Tajiks on the other side began to drag their feet. To me that looked like less trouble: if they disrupt the talks, they will bear the entire responsibility for that. The Foreign Ministry had warned about that kind of risk. Later I would learn that Turajonzoda was not being whimsical. He had received word from his people in Tajikistan and in Iran that he might be killed in Moscow. It is likely that some people were trying to scare him in order to disrupt the Moscow talks at the very last moment. The resourceful Bakhtiyar Khakimov persuaded the foreign minister to issue Russian diplomatic passports to the two Islamic leaders for a short time. This was an unprecedented case, indeed. What made the situation on the eve of the talks still worse was the military’s intention to hold a peacekeeping exercise involving military hardware and aircraft near the Tigrovaya Balka Nature Reserve – a unique natural site in Tajikistan.

It was a real breakthrough when Tajik-Tajik talks began in Moscow on April 5, 1994. There were observers from the United Nations, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan at the talks. Kozyrev warned at the opening ceremony that: “Russia will not understand it if either party quits the talks to take up arms.” That set the tune for the entire lengthy process. The negotiations (the second round would take place in Tehran in June 1994, and the third in Pakistan in September; there would be a total of eight) would proceed in about the same fashion, with ups and downs, and to the accompaniment of armed clashes. For a long time neither side agreed to abandon the use of force as a decisive means to put pressure on the opponent. We had to pay close attention to all matters involving the government and the opposition, as well as the UN mediators. Dushanbe’s negotiators had the impression, sometimes for a good reason, that the UN was encouraging the opposition and disliked the government (pro-communist, as the UN mediators said, although there was certainly nothing Communist about it). Whenever it was necessary, we did not hesitate to point out that the United Nations’ stance showed a certain bias that must be corrected. The fact that the UN was plugged into Tajik settlement efforts from the outset was a major achievement. Overall, the UN and its military observers (we had spent a long time trying to bring them in and finally succeeded in October 1994) played a positive role.

 

A PRECIOUS SUITCASE WITHOUT A HANDLE

In the context of Tajikistan, a power struggle, property division, and re-division, all of which was quite common in the territory of the former Soviet Union, produced many contradictions, including social, economic, inter-clan, inter-family, regional, and religious. These issues created a variety of modern political movements of curious and bizarre shapes. There was nothing like a simple and easy split into democrats and former communists, with wholesale support for the former and a total rejection of the latter, although this sort of interpretation prevailed in our vision of Tajik events at the start.

The religious factor was probably exaggerated; sometimes neighboring Uzbekistan used it as a means of incitement. At times, Tashkent showed no intention of promoting national reconciliation in Tajikistan and preferred to rely on force. However, from the first months of 1994, Uzbekistan and its president, Islam Karimov, made a tangible contribution to promote accord between Dushanbe and the opposition. Islamic fundamentalism grew into a major threat later, largely due to harsh government methods in Central Asia. Nevertheless, had we continued to support the DPT-IRPT coalition (there was a plan for putting the 201st division under their control), in view of the weakness of the former and the better organization and greater strength of the latter, we might have played into the hands of those who had been hatching plans for an Islamic state in Tajikistan. That was precisely the aim of efforts by a number of countries in the Middle East and international Muslim organizations.

In those days the former Soviet republics were looked upon as a suitcase without a handle: too hard to carry around and too valuable to drop. Russia did not drop it. Who would have filled the vacuum if we had walked out of Tajikistan? Would we not have had a situation in which Islamic extremism would have shaken loose all the countries in the region one by one? Would our withdrawal from Central Asia not have turned the whole region into a boiling pot close to our borders? Tajikistan has remained in Russia’s orbit and all of that was decided in 1992-1994.

While backing the Tajik government, we threw our whole weight behind efforts for reconciliation among the Tajiks and did our best to hold back the government and the opposition in their bellicose intentions. Indeed, for how much longer could the fighting continue? Casualties, first and foremost, civilian ones – Tajik, Uzbek, and Russian – were appalling. After a while the following statistics would be released: over sixty thousand people were killed, another hundred thousand were missing, and fifty-five thousand children were orphaned. There were hundreds of thousands of refugees and forced migrants. Industries were paralyzed and agriculture was ruined. The material damage from the war was equal to the country’s revenue over fifteen years. Of all conflicts that erupted in the post-Soviet space after the so-called “bloodless” breakup of the Soviet Union, the one in Tajikistan was the bloodiest of all.

There is no doubt that it was Russia that brought the Tajiks to the negotiating table. Russia also kept them negotiating whenever another stalemate emerged. At the same time, we have always proceeded from the awareness that we would not be able to produce an accord for the Tajiks. In the context of prolonged and bloody turmoil, in a climate of mutual hatred and continuing armed clashes, the road to peace would be very long. In the end it took three years to walk. On June 27, 1997, in Moscow, the place where the negotiations began, Emomali Rahmon and Tajik opposition leader Abdulloh Nuri signed a general agreement to establish peace and national accord in Tajikistan. Russia is one of the international safeguards of that agreement.

Rahmon conceded 30 percent of his power at various levels, ranging from the national to the local, to the opposition. Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia where Islamists have been appointed to the Cabinet. Several thousand militants have found a place for themselves in civilian life, and a large number of refugees have been repatriated. Rahmon has since taken back much of the power he had given away and has broken many of his democratic reform promises. However, this is the topic for another, and not very optimistic, story.

Russian soldiers have been involved in intra-Tajik clashes, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, the soldiers of the 201st division responded only when attacked. Our casualties have been relatively small.

Russia can be deservedly proud that it achieved its main goals in 1992-1994 (the several-point list that was offered to Gaidar has been implemented in full). The methods employed were almost exclusively peaceful, despite attempts by both parties to drag Russia into the confrontation. Russia has not turned Tajikistan into a protectorate, although requests for Russia’s caretaker role or even for joining the Russian Federation have been made repeatedly.

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