The current surge in violence in center-east Tajikistan sheds some light on a precarious and dicey situation in the Central Asian country. Host of a five years ugly civil war, the likes of deceased Arab-Chechen warlord, Amir Khattab (Samer al-Suwailem) and the Head of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s (IMU) Armed Wing, Jum’a al-Namanjani (Jumaboi Khojayev), the country is no stranger to jihadism and armed Islamism (yes, there is quite a difference…and no, not just another academic luxury….the distinction has an impact on both behaviour and policy).
Very briefly, recent developments in Tajikistan included the return of a few “Afghan-2001” veterans (as opposed to Afghan-1979), the resurfacing of Mullah Abdullah, the strong militia leader who refused the 1997 peace agreement, and a few clashes. One of those resulted in the death of the former leading field-commander of the United Tajikistani Opposition (UTO), Mirzo “Jaga” Ziyoev. In the post-conflict agreement, the UTO, a combination of Islamists, democratic and nationalists forces (though clan, region and sect may explain the fault-lines better!), was supposed to be granted 30% share of the government.
In that regard, Ziyoev was handed the “Ministry of Emergency Situations;” a ministry that was created for him with no power and no clear mandate! Disenchanted with the political conditions in the country as well as with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) (which he severed as one of its leading commanders but never joined it officially), Ziyoev chose to exit: rearm and hit the mountains.
He had few followers this time. Commander Ziyoev was more attractive for jihadist wannabes than Minister Ziyoev . What we do not know so far are the details of his plan, the scope of his contacts, and why did he chose to go down and negotiate with the government forces. What we do know is that he was killed during these negotiations.
The regime, armed opposition and even the IMU are denying responsibilities. More importantly, however, is that the conditions in Tajikistan are bad enough to make a former minister prefer the mountains to the office; the gun to the pen. Some Tajik analysts described post-2001 political environment as follows: “Iraq lost Saddam, we are about to get one!” In other words, Takrit and Dangra became synonymous.
It is no coincidence that the IRP, a party that once led the armed opposition and now looks up to the Turkish AKP as a model, is losing grounds to Salafis, Hizb al-Tahrir as well as armed Islamism. In a recent meeting with Dr Muhiydin Kabiri, the head of the IRP, a Tajik youngman asked: “if you can’t influence policy, constantly harassed and repressed, and suffering from election rigging, why are you in that game?!”
The current political environment is by no means rewarding moderation; if it is not punishing it. The potential for re-radicalization is quite high. In that repressive context, Mirzo Ziyoev might not be regarded anymore as a “sellout” but as a “martyr” whose steps in the Tavildara Mountains should be followed.