Civil War: Tajikistan (1992-1997)

John Wilson. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The disintegration of the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) encouraged the emergence of proreform and anti-Communist political movements in many Central Asian republics. In Tajikistan, one of the Soviet Union’s far southeastern republics, Gorbachev’s reforms helped to legitimize the demands by several new political parties and groups (opposition movements) for independence, democratic freedoms, regional autonomy, and economic reforms. Following Tajikistan’s independence in 1991, these opposition movements were repressed by the neocommunist (government) forces, which led to demonstrations and riots. This civil strife finally led to regional conflict and civil war in 1992.

Following the eruption of civil war in Tajikistan in October 1992, fighting continued sporadically until 1997. Sambanis (2002, 220) lists the Tajikistan civil war as lasting from 1992 to 1994, in October of which a temporary ceasefire was signed, and by which time most of the serious fighting had ended. More frequently the civil war period is seen as 1992-1997. During these years, the temporary cease-fire was violated, and there were periods of intense conflict, until 1997, when an enduring peace accord was signed under UN auspices. The civil war resulted in the deaths of between 50,000 and 60,000 people, created a million refugees (700,000 of whom were internally displaced refugees), and prompted large numbers of professionals and skilled workers to emigrate to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (see sidebar, “Refugees and Civil War”). Some 55,000 children were orphaned and thousands of women widowed; 26,000 families were left without their primary income earners (Akiner and Barnes 2001). Beyond this immediate human cost was the loss to critical infrastructure, electricity and communication services, and education and health facilities. An estimated 35,000 houses were destroyed, as were about 10 percent of school buildings (see sidebar, “Civil War Affects Civil Education”). In total, about 40 percent of the Tajikistan population was directly affected by the civil war, although some regional populations suffered disproportionately; the majority of those killed, for example, were ethnic Tajiks from the Gharm and Pamir regions.

Following peace talks led by the United Nations and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), a peace accord was signed in June 1997 by the neocommunist and opposition parties. The accord created a National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) and set aside 30 percent of the executive positions in the presidential republic for representatives of the secular and Islamist movements that made up the United Tajik Opposition (UTO). The Russian troops and border guards previously stationed in Tajikistan were given permanent basing rights, whereas UTO military forces (around 5,000) were integrated into the Tajik army.

Since the cease-fire, low-level conflict between government forces and Islamist groups has continued, including a number of assassinations of political figures. On the whole, however, a return to civil war does not appear likely under the new political order (Akiner and Barnes 2001).

Country Background

Situated in Central Asia, Tajikistan shares its borders with Uzbekistan in the northwest, the Kyrgyz Republic in the north, China in the east, and Afghanistan in the south. Tajikistan is a mostly (93 percent) mountainous, landlocked country covering an area of 143,000 square kilometers. In fact, Tajikistan is home to some of the highest mountains in the world, which range from 1,000 feet to 27,000 feet. Nearly half of Tajikistan’s territory is above 10,000 feet. Tajikistan’s mountainous territory defines its main regions: Leninabad (the Fergana valley); the Karategin and Hissar valleys; Khatlon (Kulyab province); Gorno-Badakhshan (defined by the Pamir mountains) and Kurgan-Tyube. Its capital, Dushanbe, is located in the west of the country.

Tajikistan’s population in 2006 was about 6.6 million people, most of whom live in rural areas. Additionally, 1 million Tajiks live in Uzbekistan and 4 million in Afghanistan. According to the 2000 census, the breakdown of key ethnic groups of the country is as follows: Tajik, 80 percent; Uzbek, 15 percent; Russian, 1 percent; Kyrgyz, 1 percent; others, 2.6 percent (CIA 2006). Prior to the civil war, Russians made up about 7 percent of the population. The vast majority (85 percent) of the population are Sunni Muslim; only about 5 percent are Shi’a Muslim.

Because two of central Asia’s main rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Daryaiver, run through Tajikistan, the country is well endowed with water resources. This allows about 80 percent of Tajikistan’s arable land to be irrigated and has contributed to Tajikistan’s specialization in cotton production (about half of the total agricultural production). There is also substantial hydroelectric power generation, which provides surplus electricity for aluminum production.

Regime Type

The modern state of Tajikistan traces its origins to 1924, when the Soviet Union established it as an “independent” republic within Uzbekistan. In 1929, it became the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. Before real independence in 1991, Tajikistan was ruled as a one-party state by the Tajikistan Communist Party (TCP), primarily by elites from the northern province of Leninabad but also with the support of the Kulyabis from the south, who were in charge of military affairs. Today, Tajikistan is a presidential republic with a bicameral legislature. The lower chamber has sixty-three deputies (forty-one directly elected, twenty-two proportionally elected), whereas the upper chamber has thirty-three deputies. Local councils indirectly elect twenty-five members, and the president appoints eight.

At independence in 1991 and before the civil war, Tajikistan was rated “partly free” (see Tables 1 and 2). Many members of the new parliament were parliamentarians who either had previously served under Soviet rule or had headed local and regional governments.

Although parliamentary elections were held during the civil war, international observers declined to monitor the 1994 elections because of continued fighting and the elections’ boycott by opposition parties. Unsurprisingly, the elections resulted in a parliament dominated by the TCP, led by President Emomali Rahmonov. Over the course of the civil war, dozens of journalists were murdered; despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, independent journalists continued to face harassment and intimidation. For these reasons, the regime type of Tajikistan was rated “not free” in 1995, with a Polity IV rating of-6 (where a fully autocratic regime would score -10).

Following the 1997 peace accord, presidential elections were held in 1999 and parliamentary elections in 2000. Although these elections were peaceful, they were widely considered flawed and unfair. (This is according to the U.S. Department of State [2004], but it could also describe the most recent elections in Tajikistan in 2005.) The supporters of President Rahmonov (who were mostly former members of the old Soviet bureaucracy) limited the ability of the opposition, the UTO, to compete for power. The UTO alleged that the government did not allow some opposition candidates to be registered, excluded UTO representatives from election monitoring commissions, and engaged in widespread vote rigging.

In addition to concerns about the conduct of democratic elections, Tajikistan is still regarded as fairly autocratic because parliament has little true independence; real power lies with the president. According to the constitution, the president appoints and dismisses the prime minister, the government ministers, the regional, provincial, and city chairmen, and the chairman of the National Bank. The president also determines which government ministries to establish or abolish, the composition of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, the High Economic Court, and state committees, as well as chairing the Security Council and the Council of Justice.

In 2003, President Rahmonov further consolidated his power by using a popular referendum to approve a package of constitutional amendments to increase the powers of the president— the most controversial of which (Article 65) allows the president to serve two seven-year terms instead of the one term agreed to under the 1997 peace accord. This constitutional change allows Rahmonov to seek a further two terms following the expiry of his current term in 2006. These retrograde steps in Tajikistan’s democracy have contributed to a fall in its 2003 rating on the Polity IV variable to -3 (Marshall and Jaggers 2004).

Economic Situation

Tajikistan is one of the least wealthy countries in the world and the poorest nation within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The country’s social development and economic indicators have only just begun to return to the levels seen before the onset of the civil war (see Table 2). Tajikistan’s economic and social recovery also remains vulnerable to external events, such as the typhoid epidemic that struck the capital, Dushanbe, and Southern Tajikistan in 2002. Drought has reduced cereal harvests, whereas ongoing border and customs difficulties with neighboring countries have had a negative impact on cross-border trade.

Although gross domestic product (GDP) has begun to rise slowly since the 1997 peace accord, per capita GDP declined almost two-thirds between 1990 and 2000. Essential physical infrastructure—shelter, hospitals, schools, water systems, roads, bridges, and energy lines—were severely damaged in the civil war, whereas population displacement and massive destruction of property combined to create housing shortages and property disputes. The growth of the population from 5.3 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2006 has placed considerable demands on land and other resources. Because a significant proportion of the population is young, youth unemployment has also become a problem. In 1997, almost 60 percent of people aged sixteen to twenty-nine years were unemployed. More positively, life expectancy at birth remains higher than in many Central Asian republics, and the infant and under-five mortality rates are improving. Literacy was almost universal and well above other countries before the civil war (UNICEF 2005).

The Tajik economy is now in a period of adjustment. By the end of 2000, Tajikistan had achieved full currency convertibility, almost complete price liberalization, and significant progress in small-scale privatization. Institutional reforms—tax reform in 1998, the banking sector’s restructuring, and the legal and regulatory development of markets—have helped Tajikistan’s macroeconomic indicators improve. Growth rates have been as high as 10 percent, whereas inflation has stabilized at around 11.5 percent per annum. However, the country’s external debt has increased substantially, and the economy remains heavily dependent on exports of cotton and aluminum. There are also a substantial underground economy and corruption because of the extensive criminal networks that have infiltrated much of Tajikistan’s political and economic life. Tajikistan was ranked among the ten most corrupt countries surveyed by Transparency International in 2004 (Transparency International 2004).

Conflict Background

Although the disintegration of the Soviet Union encouraged Tajikistan’s transition to declare independence in September 1991, it also helped precipitate the civil war that erupted between opposing political and regional factions in October 1992. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of generous budget transfers to Tajikistan (equivalent to about 40 percent of GDP) and the end of ready markets for Tajikistan’s goods. Consequently, Tajikistan’s economic conditions rapidly deteriorated, leading to protests about the worsening living conditions and the need for economic and political reform.

At the same time, Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost suggested that these protests would be tolerated. By 1990, a number of political movements and parties opposed to the Communist regime had formed. They included the Rastokhez Popular Movement (RPM), the Democratic Party of Tajikistan (DPT), and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRP). These organizations and political parties, together with the La’li Badahshon and Nosiri Khusraw societies, formed what became known as the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), or “the opposition” for short. La’li Badahshon is a political party composed mostly of Pamiri people. It advocated greater autonomy for Badakhshan, a mountainous region in eastern Tajikistan.

Following the resignation of the head of the Tajik Communist Party, the democratic and Islamic opposition parties pressured the Tajik Legislature to suspend TCP activities and to declare the republic’s independence, which it did on September 9, 1991. This, however, precipitated a strong Communist backlash. The Communists declared a state of emergency, reconstituted the TCP in parliament, and nominated Rahkmon Nabiyev as president for the November elections. (Nabiyev had been the head of the TCP in Tajikistan before being removed by Gorbachev in 1985.) Opposition parties nominated a well-known film director, Davlat Khudonazarov, as their presidential candidate. Nevertheless, Nabiev was elected president of Tajikistan in November 1991 with 57 percent of the vote, against Khudonazarov’s 37 percent.

Following the November 1991 presidential election, the legitimacy of Nabiev’s presidency began to be called into question as doubts about the conduct of the election were raised and further developments unfolded. Attempts by the ex-communists (Leninabadis and Kulyabis) to remove all opposition members from the parliament and government led to frequent public demonstrations in the capital, Dushanbe, between supporters of the government and the opposition parties. During March and April 1992, opposition supporters held a rally in front of the building of the Central Committee of the TCP. In response, the government launched its own rally in support of the president. In addition, the president created a number of “presidential guard” units, which were drawn from supporters from Kulyab but which also contained some criminal elements. These units were armed with 1,800 Kalashnikov automatic rifles. (These units would later form the basis of the Popular Front of Tajikistan [PFT], a political party that, when it came to power, engaged in criminal and violent activities.) On May 5, 1992, opposition supporters stormed the national television station as well as the presidential palace. In so doing, they gained access to the armory. Inevitably, this resulted in armed clashes between the two groups, which continued on the streets of Dushanbe until May 10.

The demonstrations and violence prompted talks between the two sides, which succeeded in reaching an agreement on the formation of a coalition government. The Government of National Reconciliation (GNR) saw several opposition leaders receive a number of key posts. Of eight members, four represented Pamir-Gharm and four Kulob-Leninobod. Leninabad, Kulyab, and the local Uzbeks all refused to recognize the GNR, however, which they declared unconstitutional.

Commanding little authority, the GNR was unable to prevent the civil unrest that followed. Criminal activities increased as the system of law and order broke down, followed by the gradual disorganization of all municipal services and the economy in general. A released criminal, Sangak Safarov, established himself as a warlord at the head of the Popular Front, a coalition of Soviet-era political elites and criminal elements. The Popular Front attacked opposition sympathizers in the south part of the country. With the support of Uzbekistan, further attacks were launched on the approaches to Dushanbe and on the Regar and Gissar areas, which had small Uzbek populations.

The opposition responded by forming self-defense units—one of which, led by Said Nuri, succeeded in pushing the Popular Front back. In September 1992, a pro-opposition group of youth captured President Nabiev and forced him to resign at gunpoint. These events prompted a joint communiqué from the presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. The communiqué described the conflict as a threat to the entire Commonwealth of Independent States and stated that intervention would be necessary if the fighting could not be halted (Neumann and Solodovnik 1995).

In November 1992, the situation became untenable for the GNR, and they resigned en masse. Imomali Rahmonov was then appointed chairman of the Supreme Soviet’s Executive Committee and proclaimed a civic truce. Despite the truce, the Popular Front (with the support of the Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division and the Uzbek air force) continued to bomb opposition strongholds in Kofernihan and subsequently captured opposition positions. The Popular Front’s military tactics include brutal reprisals against opposition sympathizers, especially those of Gharmi or Badakhshoni descent.

These attacks pushed opposition forces across the Panj River into Afghanistan and forced democratic and Islamic opposition leaders to take refuge in Moscow, Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. From their positions along the Tajik-Afghan border, opposition forces continued to fight, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country.

By the summer of 1993, the civil war had subsided considerably. Nevertheless, Russia’s political and military leadership was of the view that a peace settlement was the only solution. The activities of the opposition groupings within the country and ongoing military tension along the border showed Russia that Tajikistan was far from stable and cast doubt on the ability of Rahmonov and his command to restore order. Consequently, in September 1993, Kazakhstan and Russia asked the UN to give the 25,000-strong Russian forces in Tajikistan a mandate to operate as a UN peacekeeping force. Even though this request was rejected by the UN, the director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Evgeni Primakov, managed to make direct contact with the Tajik opposition in the following months. By March 1994, Anatoli Adamishin, President Yeltsin’s envoy to Tajikistan, had met with Akbar Turajonzoda in Teheran.

Although peace efforts continued throughout 1994, they had reached a stalemate by 1995. Then, in 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul, upsetting the regional geopolitical balance. Foreign governments became alarmed that the Taliban might also threaten Tajikistan and therefore began to encourage their respective allies within Tajikistan to begin negotiating an end to the civil war. Factions within Tajikistan also came to understand that ongoing civil conflict might lead to losing the country entirely. Foreign governments subsequently provided practical support to the peace process that sought to achieve a power-sharing compromise to govern the country. With both sides realizing that their ultimate interests were converging, the UN was able to “build a momentum for peace” (Akiner and Barnes 2001). The peace process culminated in the General Agreement on the Establishment of Peace and National Accord, which was signed in Moscow during June 1997 under UN, OSCE, and Russian auspices.

The Insurgents

Distinguishing between the rebels and government forces in the Tajikistan conflict is problematic because, at various stages of the conflict, both sides could be said to have rebelled against the official government. Both the rebels and government forces were essentially political groups formed around regional and historical attachments who could mobilize substantial armed support. Both sides in the Tajikistan conflict largely depended on support from foreign sponsors.

On one side were the old Communist sympathizers and elites from the Leninabad region, who joined with people from the Kulob region in the south, and eventually the Hissaris, to form a new alliance, the People’s Front of Tajikistan (PFT). During the Soviet period, Kulobis were generally underrepresented in positions of national authority. As the conflict began, they were able to create armed groups and support the government. As the war continued, the Kulobis began to gain the balance of power in this “government alliance.” By the end of the 1990s, the Kulobi faction had managed to marginalize the Leninabad elites and cement their own power under President Rahmonov. Russia and other Central Asian countries, principally Uzbekistan, supported the progovernment faction financially and militarily.

The opposition forces were a coalition of new opposition political parties that could be identified by their different ideologies—promoting national unity, democracy or Islamic values— and also by the regions that supported them (such as Gharm and Gorno-Badakhshan). The civil war should not, therefore, be seen simply in terms of an ideological struggle. Instead, the various ideological movements—communism, democracy, and Islamism—helped to reinforce people’s sense of regional identity.

Sources: Marshall and Jaggers 2004; UNICEF 2005; World Bank 2005 .
War: United Tajik Opposition (UTO) vs. government
Dates: October 1992-June 1997
Casualties: 50,000-60,000
Regime type prior to war: -2 (1991; ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: -1 (2000; ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: US $496 (nominal, 1990)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $252 (nominal, 2003)
Insurgents: 5,000 United Tajik Opposition (UTO) forces
Issue: Postindependence ideological struggle
Rebel funding: Regional clans, Iran, Pakistan
Role of geography: Mountainous terrain reinforced regional rivalries
Role of resources: Negligible
Immediate outcome: National peace accord, power-sharing arrangements
Outcome after 5 years: Relative peace, flawed parliamentary elections
Role of UN: Established UNMOT, facilitated peace talks
Role of regional organization: OSCE active in institution and democracy building, drafting constitution, and promotion of human rights
Refugees: 950,000 (700,000 internally displaced)
Prospects for peace: Reasonable if economic and political reforms are implemented.
Table 1: Civil War in Tajikistan


Indicator 1990 1995 2000 2003
Sources: Freedom House 2004; Marshall and Jaggers 2004; UNICEF 2005; World Bank 2005 .
Regime type (Polity IV) -2 (1991) -6 -1 -3
Political rights (Freedom House) 5 7 6 6
Civil liberties (Freedom House) 5 7 6 5
Status (Freedom House) ParÚy free Not free Not free Not free
Population (million) 5.30 5.84 6.19 6.25
Percentage of under-fives suffering from stunting .. 36% (1995-2003)
Life expectancy at birth 69 .. 67 66
Net primary school enrollment/attendance .. 80% (1996-2003)
Share of government expenditure on education 4% (1992-2004)
Share of government expenditure on health 2% (1992-2004)
GDP (US $ billions, nominal) 2.63 .. 1.06 (2001) 1.64
GDP per capita (US $) 496 .. 171 252
Rate of inflation 153% (1990-2003)
Military expenditure as share of GDP 0.4% (1992) 1.0% .. 1.3%
Armed forces personnel (thousands) 3(1992) 18 7(1999) 7
Share of government expenditure on defense 9% (1992-2004)
Table 2: Selected Country Indicators

The first new opposition organization to appear was the Rastokhez Popular Movement, which appeared in 1988 and was composed mainly of Dushanbe-based intellectuals. The RPM’s agenda was built on issues of national identity such as the promotion of national culture and recognition of the national language as the state language. Then followed the formation of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan (DPT) in August 1990 and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRP) in October 1990. The DPT, as its name suggests, was opposed to Marxist ideology and a totalitarian system of government, aiming instead to introduce democracy, a market economy, and a fairer distribution of power. The IRP aimed for a greater role for Islam in the political life of Tajikistan. With its support base in the southwest part of the country, the IRP was the largest of the opposition parties. Jointly, these three parties formed the UTO.

The UTO forces were supported by Iran and to a lesser extent by Afghanistan and Pakistan. Davlat Usmon, a UTO leader and former deputy prime minister of Tajikistan, revealed that sympathetic Tajik Afghan mujahideen commanders and a number of Islamic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) supplied arms, ammunition, and financial support to the UTO. The former allowed the UTO to base themselves across the border in Afghanistan.

It also appears that militant Islamist interests in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may also have supported the UTO. According to Akiner and Barnes (2001, 93), Pakistan helped Tajik Muslims by providing religious training to refugee children as well as by extending financial assistance through Islamic organizations. Pakistan allegedly gave covert military aid to the Tajik opposition via governmental and nongovernmental channels (Iji 2001, 369).


The PFT’s military tactics included brutal attacks on opposition sympathizers, especially those of Gharmi or Badakhshoni descent. Gharm and Pamir villages, which were opposition strongholds, were bombed by the Uzbek air force. With the support of the Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division, which numbered about 25,000, the Popular Front managed to capture most of the areas still held by the opposition. According to Neumann and Solodovnik (1995), the 201st Motorized Rifle Division may have provided four tanks and six armored personnel carriers to the Kulyabi forces loyal to Nabiev, and these may have been decisive in their subjugation of Kurgan-Tyube.

Following the collapse of the GNR in 1992, opposition forces retreated across the Panj River into Afghanistan as well as into the difficult terrain of the interior of Gorno-Badahshon. From their positions along the Tajik-Afghan border, opposition forces continued sniping activity and minor attacks on border posts. The most serious of these occurred on July 13, 1993, when a border post with a contingent of 47 Russian soldiers was attacked; 24 guards were killed and another 18 wounded. In total, close to 300 people, including civilians, insurgents and border guards, were killed in this attack (Neumann and Solodovnik 1995).

Causes of the War

Although there is no consensus on the causes of the Tajikistan civil war, a number of internal (domestic) and external (geopolitical) factors have been suggested. At the domestic level, a set of political and economic grievances, reinforced by history and geography, worked against the emergence of a genuine Tajikistan national identity following its independence from the Soviet Union. Ethnic diversity and the mountainous terrain were contributing factors, while “lootable” natural resources do not appear to have played a role in the emergence of the conflict. External geopolitical factors—the security concerns of Russia and Uzbekistan—aggravated the slide into civil war.

Internal Factors

Regional Factionalism and Lack of Democratic Institutions

Regional factionalism was one of the primary domestic causes of Tajikistan’s civil war. Both government and opposition forces had strong regional bases. The government (excommunist) forces were supported by the northern Leninabad and Kulob regions, whereas the UTO drew support from ethnic Tajiks in the Gharma and Qarateguine Valleys east of Dushanbe and from Pamiris who lived in Dushanbe. This regional factionalism was partly the product of Soviet policies and partly the result of Tajikistan’s mountainous terrain, which reinforced a sense of regional, rather than national, identity.

Tajikistan was a direct creation of the Soviet Union, but it was created with little regard for the cultural and ethnic basis of the Tajik people. Although there were 1 million Tajiks when the country was formed in the 1920s, only 300,000 found themselves in the newly established state of Tajikistan. The rest were isolated within other national borders. For example, the cities of Bukhara and Samarqand (historically and culturally important to the Tajiks and the majority of whose population was Tajik) were located in the new state of Uzbekistan. This cultural fragmentation was then reinforced by the ongoing Soviet suppression of any emergent Tajik national identity.

The natural barriers provided by Tajikistan’s mountain ranges also served to compartmentalize the different regions by making communication and contact between them difficult. This appears to confirm Collier and Hoeffler’s (2000) model, which suggests a negative relationship between the degree of geographic dispersion of the population and civil war outbreaks. In other words, a highly concentrated population is associated with fewer civil war outbreaks, whereas a high degree of dispersion—as a result of geographic features such as mountain ranges—may contribute to a higher risk of conflict.

Applied to Tajikistan, this means that local politics and regional identity became more important than any sense of national identity. Indeed “identity regionalism” is a loose translation of the local term mahalgaroi—blood and geographical origin as a basis of group identity.

When the Leninabad region’s elites ascended to top Communist Party and government positions in Tajikistan in the 1940s, they used mahalgaroi as a policy to maintain regional rivalries and their own position as the most economically developed, most politically privileged region during the Soviet era (Iji 2001, 359). Even following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Leninabad region used their control of the political apparatus to channel as much as 70 percent of the country’s budget into their own regions.

By contrast, many of Tajikistan’s other regions suffered declines in GDP of as much as 60 percent as a result of the loss of Russian subsidies, a reduction in access to credit, a decline in customary markets, and an increase in corruption and crime. (Corruption—nepotism, theft, and bribery—had intensified in the 1980s to the extent that “mafias” were engaged in large-scale illegal economic activities, often with the covert participation of officials.) Such one-sided regional economic development only aggravated the regional and social tensions. For many opposition or antigovernment forces, the Soviet establishment was synonymous with Leninabad rule. When these opposition forces began to demand more equitable regional economic development, political reforms, and national unity, the Leninabad’s hold on power and economic privilege were threatened.

A second aggravating factor in the slide into civil war was the undeveloped nature of Tajikistan’s fledgling democracy following independence. The suddenness of the transition to independence meant that Tajikistan simply did not have the features essential to a well-developed democratic process: respect for human rights, a free media, an independent judiciary, and an acceptance of political competition through democratic political parties. Frustration at the un-evenness of regional economic development and at widespread corruption led to grassroots protest in Dushanbe in February 1990. Faced with a power structure that seemed set on preserving these economic disparities, opposition forces were able to mobilize and focus demands for a truly national Tajikistan society based on democracy, the rule of law, and equality.

But when opposition demands for a more inclusive and democratic political regime moved from social protest to civil unrest, the ex-Communist leaders were not only unwilling to allow these new challenges to their political authority but also unable to prevent the ensuing civil conflict. This supports findings that countries in the middle of the autocracy-democracy spectrum are actually at greater risk of civil war than those at either extreme (Sambanis 2002, 223). Tajikistan—rated close to the middle of this scale in 1991—was not so autocratic that social protest was immediately repressed, but neither was it democratic enough to allow such protest to be seen as legitimate and to be managed in a democratic way.

Other Internal Factors

As already noted, Tajikistan’s mountainous terrain limited the formation of a national identity and tended to reinforce regional animosities based on disparities in regional economic development. These regional animosities were also partly the result of ethnic divisions. Tajikistan is ethnically diverse, and the civil war in part divided it along ethnic lines. Ethnic Uzbeks living in Tajikistan constituted a powerful community of 23 percent of the population. A more even sharing of political and economic power clearly had negative implications for this ethnic group, which were concentrated in the Leninabad (Kulyab) and Kurgan-Tyube regions. The opposition forces were from areas more thoroughly Tajik and less ethnically mixed (Dunn 1997). It is these regional animosities—a consequence, in part, of the terrain and the ethnic divisions— that defined the warring parties in the Tajikistan civil war.

External Factors: Geopolitics

External factors were also contributing causes of Tajikistan’s civil war. The two main external actors were Uzbekistan and Russia, both of whom supported the Soviet-era Tajik government for their own reasons and intervened militarily. In this, they were aided by appeals from Leninabad (government) forces who realized that they would be unable to defeat the opposition alone.

Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, privately feared that any coalition of Tajikistan’s government and the Islamic-democratic opposition might be viewed as a model in his own republic (Akbarzadeh 1996). Karimov may also have feared potential territorial claims over Samarkand and Bukhara from forces seeking to regain their national identity. Publicly, however, Karimov played on fears of Islamic fundamentalism to justify military intervention.

The presence within Tajikistan of the Russian military unit, the 201st Motorized Rifle Division, also played a part in drawing Russia into the Tajikistan conflict. Faced with the prospect of cuts to the armed forces and no chance of service in Russia, the division’s Russian-speaking officers (most of whom had been born in Tajikistan) managed to play on Russian perceptions that Islamic extremism would have a domino effect in the region, reaching Russia’s southern borders (Plater-Zyberk 2004, 8). This threat seemed to be confirmed by an attack on a Russian border post in 1993 and is seen as having strengthened the resolve of Russia to remain militarily involved in Tajikistan (Sherr 1993). When asked why Russian soldiers were dying in Tajikistan, the Russian defense minister stated, “The borders of Tajikistan are the borders of Russia” (Plater-Zyberk 2004, 8). Thus, to secure the CIS generally and Russia in particular required patrolling the Tajik-Afghan border. A further justification of Russian military support of the Khujandi-PFT alliance was that a mass exodus of Russians and Russian speakers from Tajikistan might be avoided.


Conflict Status

The Tajikistan civil war was brought to a formal end on June 27, 1997, when President Rahmonov and UTO leader Said Abdullo Nuri signed the Tajik National Peace Accord in Moscow. The peace accord established a twenty-six-member National Reconciliation Commission, to be headed by an opposition representative but with seats split evenly between the government and the UTO. The NRC would implement the peace agreement, repatriate and assist refugees, and introduce legislation for fair parliamentary elections, as well as integrating UTO members into 30 percent of ministerial and departmental posts. As part of the peace accord, a general amnesty was declared for all participants in the conflict, and opposition soldiers were integrated into the regular army. Under the auspices of the United Nations Mission of Observers in Tajikistan (UNMOT) and the International Red Cross, a full exchange of prisoners was also to take place.

Following the initial transitional period of the peace accord, presidential and parliamentary elections took place in late 1999 and early 2000. With the departure of most international monitoring bodies, Tajikistan then faced the problems of reconstruction associated with all postconflict situations. This rebuilding process was not helped by the failure to implement all of the important provisions of the peace accord. The demobilization of opposition forces remained incomplete, and the government failed to meet the 30 percent quota of senior government posts to be awarded to the UTO.

Duration Tactics

The intervention of Russia, Uzbekistan, and Iran had a significant impact on the duration and ending of hostilities in Tajikistan because these states were the strongest external patrons of each side. Although Iran did not intervene militarily in the conflict, it did provide financial and political support to the Islamic opposition.

Until Uzbekistan and Russia became involved militarily, the confrontation between the Khujandi-PFT alliance and the opposition might not have escalated into civil war. This is because both the procommunists and the opposition forces fought one another as ill-organized militias bearing small arms, such that by the early autumn of 1992 neither side could prevail militarily. Once Uzbekistan and Russia intervened militarily, however, a low-level civil conflict developed into a full-scale civil war (Gretsky 2006).

The effect of such external support appears to have persuaded each side that it alone would prevail in the conflict. Consequently, both the government and the opposition parties engaged in peace negotiations only halfheartedly, with neither side seeing the other as legitimate. Russia was determined to continue to support the Rahmonov regime, which it had helped to install. It therefore endorsed the government’s attempt to strengthen its own position by holding presidential and parliamentary elections in 1994 and 1995 (Jonson 1998).

It was not until the end of 1995, against the backdrop of a rising Taliban regime in Afghanistan, that both Russia and Iran became seriously interested in settling the conflict in Tajikistan. It was then that Moscow began to have doubts about the prospects for a military solution to the conflict. In the face of the UTO’s advances on the battlefield, the disintegrating power of the Rahmonov regime, and the weakening capabilities of its own armed forces, Russia came to perceive the cost of further military involvement in Tajikistan to be too high. The fear of repeating the catastrophic Chechnyan scenario may also have influenced the Russians’ change in position (Jonson 1998).

The role of Iran was also important in bringing the conflict to an end. In part, Iran may have appreciated that a Shi’a Muslim revolution, as had occurred in Iran, was unlikely in Tajikistan, where most Muslims were Sunni. Iran may also have been keen to close down any opportunities for the United States and Turkey to increase their influence in the region—a position Iran shared with Russia. Iran therefore had good reasons to encourage the peace process.

External Military Intervention

The two states to intervene militarily in the Tajikistan civil war were Russia and Uzbekistan. As indicated earlier, the Russian military unit, the 201st Motorized Rifle Division, was already present in Tajikistan when hostilities broke out. The division consists of the 92nd, 191st, and 149th motor rifle regiments, the 401 independent tank battalion, and self-propelled artillery and air defense missile regiments (Plater-Zyberg 2004, 4).

Russia was, in effect, responsible for the maintenance of security and order within Tajikistan, especially along the vulnerable Tajik-Afghan border. The Russian units’ main mission was to secure the southern border of Tajikistan, which it shares with Afghanistan and across which opposition forces had been receiving substantial support. The military tactics used by the border forces have been described by Russian general staff personnel as similar to those used by the Soviet army in Afghanistan: reliance on base camps, forward deployment of combat helicopters, and counterinsurgency involving local collaborators (Neumann and Solodovnik 1995).

Military intervention by Uzbekistan also appears to have had a significant impact on the conflict. In the second half of 1992, Uzbekistan allowed the pro-Nabiev Popular Front forces to use its territory for military training and to launch attacks on Dushanbe (Akbarzadeh 1996). The use of Uzbekistan aircraft and tanks also appears to have been decisive in forcing the opposition forces across the border to Afghanistan, as well as encouraging the procommunist militia to force more than 100,000 Tajiks to seek refuge there.

Conflict Management Efforts

Although the main external actors in the Tajikistan civil war were eventually instrumental in initiating negotiations among the opposing sides, the substantial disagreement among them on the way negotiations should proceed risked deadlock. Here, the United Nations came to play an important role.

The UN defined its mandate as mediating between the two warring parties and legitimizing the Kulyabi-UTO peacekeeping formula. The UN was able to bring both sides to the negotiating table and also served as a line of communication between them. The UN secretary-general special envoy to Tajikistan, Ramiro Piriz-Ballón, set up four rounds of negotiations between the opposing sides between April 1994 and May 1995. Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan served as observers, and the OSCE and the OIC were also present at the talks (Iji 2001).

The first subsidiary-level talks were held in Moscow in April 1994. However, the Tajik government refused to accept the opposition’s proposal for a cease-fire, despite repeated statements by the Russian deputy minister of defense that Tajiks themselves should find a political resolution to the civil war. The first-round talks did achieve agreement that any questions concerning an election or a new constitution would be held over for discussion until the final round of peace talks, under the auspices of the UN.

The subject of the second round of talks, held in June 1994 in Tehran, was a cease-fire. No cease-fire agreement was signed, however, because the government rejected several of the opposition’s conditions. The opposition requested that all political prisoners be freed, that all politically motivated prosecutions be dropped, that the official ban on opposition parties be rescinded, and that restrictions on the media be removed.

At the third round, held in October 1994 in Islamabad, the parties did manage to sign the cease-fire agreement, allowing the UN to establish a mission of observers in Tajikistan (UNMOT). The mission’s primary function was to observe the implementation of the agreement, but it also gave much-needed international exposure to the Tajik tragedy.

Although in the middle of peace talks, the government attempted to strengthen its position by proceeding with presidential elections and a referendum on the constitution on November 6. Rahmonov won the election, but opposition parties were excluded, and foreign observers considered the result to have been rigged.

A fourth round of peace talks took place in Almaty in May 1995. The agenda for the fourth round—agreed upon in the first round—included the topic of political and institutional reform. The opposition’s reform package proposed the formation of a Council of National Unity, in which each side would have 40 percent of the seats; representatives from ethnic minorities would share the remaining seats. The government rejected the opposition’s reform package, arguing that it had already introduced a number of political and economic reforms. It put forward a number of minor items unrelated to the round’s formal agenda, including a permanent cease-fire and the repatriation of refugees.

Faced with stalemate, Piriz-Ballón suggested a number of compromises that were seemingly agreed to by both sides. At this point, the Russian deputy foreign minister intervened and persuaded the Tajik government to refuse to sign the compromise statement. As a consequence, the fourth round of the Tajik peace talks did not produce any substantial agreement on fundamental political and constitutional reforms. More seriously, the government’s attempts at consolidating its own position slowed down the peace process, and by 1995 attention had shifted away from the negotiating table and back to the battlefield.

Peace talks remained deadlocked until 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul. This development appears to have reinvigorated peace talks. Foreign governments, now concerned with spillover effects from Taliban rule, began to put increased pressure on their respective Tajik allies to find a political solution to the war. The Tajik factions also realized that continued warfare could threaten the future independence of the country and that the compromise power-sharing agreement proposed previously was preferable to losing the country entirely. With both sides moving closer to consensus, the UN was able to play a leading role as an international and neutral mediator in the peace negotiations. These concluded with the General Agreement on the Establishment of Peace and National Accord, signed in Moscow in June 1997. It should also be noted that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also played an important role. It provided assistance in such areas as institution and democracy building, the drafting of a constitution, and the promotion of human rights.

Having two sets of mediators involved in the Tajikistan conflict management process allowed the burden of peacemaking to be shared and helped to build consensus among the parties. Mediation is usually a complex process requiring a high level of resources; by sharing this burden both the UN and OSCE may have been more effective than either alone. As Hampson (1996, 233) has observed, “Third parties need other third parties.”


Although the peace accord of 1997 signaled the end of civil conflict in Tajikistan, Tajikistan’s hard-won peace and stability remain at risk. Radical fringe Islamist groups continue to express discontent, a spate of political assassinations has occurred, confrontations between the president and former warlords is ongoing, tensions with neighboring Afghanistan and Uzbekistan remain, and the dominance of the president’s own small elite continues to fuel corruption, inefficiency, and economic deterioration (International Crisis Group 2004). The potential for further civil conflict in Tajikistan remains unless three issues are addressed: political reform, economic stagnation, and ethnoregional tension.

Political reform is necessary if the tensions between President Rahmonov and the opposition party, the IRP, are to be reduced. Although Rahmonov has openly accused members of the IRP of promoting extremist views, he has himself succeeded in changing the constitution so that his presidency could be extended for two more seven-year terms. The IRP, the only Islamic party with government participation in Central Asia, contends that Rahmonov’s government is taking the same hard-line, anti-Islamic posture that led to civil war in 1992.

The parliamentary elections held in February 2005 were criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which said the elections fell short of the international standards for transparent and democratic elections (IRIN News Organization 2005). The OSCE said that prominent opposition leaders were barred from the polls, that four independent media outlets were closed before the elections, that a lack of information available to the public prevented voters from learning more about the candidates, that vote-counting procedures were suspect, and that voter turnout appeared to be unrealistically high, casting doubts over the reliability of the figures. Indeed, “[E]lections in Tajikistan remain simply a legitimizing ritual” (Marshall and Jaggers 2004).

Tajikistan also faces several economic problems, including corruption, high unemployment, high external debt, and limited structural reforms. Members of the country’s security and police forces are alleged to have connections with organized crime groups involved in the drug trade (Freedom House 2005). Rampant illicit trafficking of Afghan opium and heroin through Tajikistan has meant increased levels of narcotics addiction; combined with poverty, it is creating a growing problem with prostitution and HIV/AIDS.

Females are especially disadvantaged in Tajikistan. The civil war stimulated increased violence against women and left many women the sole providers for their families. Discrimination against women in the workplace has increased because of high unemployment, and this has been accompanied by a contraction in girls’ access to education. Poverty and the lack of free education has meant that almost one-fifth of Tajik children between the ages of five and fourteen must work to help support their families rather than attend school (see sidebar, “Civil War Affects Civil Education”).

Although Tajikistan’s economic and social problems are recognized by the government and civil society organizations, addressing them has been hampered by a lack of resources. Social and economic problems such as corruption, violent crime, and economic distortions threaten Tajikistan’s stability and development. In turn, such problems allow more radical political forces to promote their own causes—and not necessarily through peaceful or democratic means.

The residual interregional tensions are a third area that must be addressed if a recurrence of the conflict is to be avoided. For example, the balance of power has shifted following the war in that the Kulobi elites have increased their control over national authorities and business enterprises. This shift can only exacerbate the sense of exclusion felt by those regions that do not enjoy the same levels of political and economic development. It has been suggested that the ongoing political and economic disparities among Tajikistan’s regions will result in regional leaders’ beginning to make devolutionary, or even secessionist, demands (Akiner and Barnes 2001).

It is also possible that Tajikistan’s neighbors will use these internal regional tensions to once again justify intervention in Tajikistan’s domestic affairs. For example, the Uzbekistan government may regard its own security as best achieved by installation of a client regime in Tajikistan. To this end, it may support moves by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to create an Islamic rebellion within Tajikistan through its associations with Islamic militants in that country.

Despite these political, economic and social problems, it seems that there is still underlying consensus within Tajikistan that the trauma of the civil war should not be repeated, that peaceful development should be the only way forward. This consensus may not be enough by itself to ensure the stability of Tajikistan in the coming years, but it is at least a necessary first step.