The last seven months have been a rollercoaster of hardships for residents in Gorno Badakhshan. The protests that followed the killing of Gulbidin Ziyobekov after a special operation by the SCNS to detain him on November 25 led to the central Tajik government imposing an internet shutdown throughout GBAO. This was accompanied by unprecedented violence by the armed forces, fatally wounding two more people. In the subsequent months’, relative stability was restored, despite a major rise in electricity outages and rolling blackouts in the region. And at the same time that this stability even brought the restoration of the internet to the table, the 18th of May brought a new round of unrest, which was resolved by the security forces in an acutely violent manner, resulting in the killing of 25 ethnic Pamiris. This was the reason that the conflicts escalated to a level that was not witnessed over the past decade. This comes at a terrible time for the region. Afghanistan has entered an era of major instability due to the return of the Taliban and the action of ISKP within the country, whereas Pakistan is hit by one of its greatest financial crises, making an arrangement with the IMF an eminent need. Finally, Central Asia, being highly dependent on the Russian economy is facing hardships as a result of the sanctions targeting Moscow.
Taking the whole state of affairs into consideration, human rights violations are not the only reason that violent deterrence ought to be stopped in Khorog. Central and South Asia are struggling to maintain control over their political and financial landscape, and destabilization even in a small region might fully disturb the balance and cause mayhem. Hitherto, it is of uttermost importance to better understand the current situation in the Pamirs and how it can generate a reinforcing loop of violence throughout Eurasia. It is also paramount to comprehend how such an outcome can be avoided, bringing conciliation between Khorog and Dushanbe and peace and stability in turbulent Tajikistan.
Events leading to today
Protests and acts of violence in Khorog are not something new. This strain was initiated in 2012 when clashes that took place as part of the occasional special operations resulted in both civilians and militia being killed. The grounds for this distress were considered to be the fact that the central Tajik government was exploring the possibility of removing the informal leaders of GBAO from their duties.
August 2012 entailed a new round of clashes after the informal leader of Gorno-Badakhshan, Imomnazar Imomnazarov, was murdered. And although efforts to return life to normal were successful, two years later, in 2014, the killing of two Khorog residents sparked the fire that brought the Pamiris back to the streets.
Connecting the dots with the November 2021 protests as well as the skirmishes of May, two themes are clear.
The first one is that Dushanbe’s response to the voicing of concerns from the Pamir community includes solely escalating violence and exercising more hard power. The reaction from President Rahmon in 2018 was to deploy another military contingent and to collaborate with China on a military base in the Wakhan Corridor. Later, in retaliation for the 2021 protests, the government imposed a region-wide internet shutdown.
The second one is that these exact strategies are unquestionably not bringing peace in the region and actual collaboration between Khorog and Dushanbe. The only clear outcome of these policies is increasing suffering and a multi-faceted crisis that spans from human rights violations to finance energy and telecommunications. This has a clear direction for a humanitarian crisis.
The complexity of this problem is widely underestimated currently by the global community, with only a few state actors merely acknowledging the existence of a crisis in Central Asia, while most of them remain silent. The rationale behind this silence is deemed to revolve around the fear that involvement in a region dominated by Russia and China, during a time of a shift in the geopolitical world order, has a high chance of resulting in a war on a global scale.
While this reasoning seems to make sense, apart from the lack of an ethical aspect and consideration, there is also a lack of a systemic approach and understanding of the regional security of Central and South Asia. Escalation in GBAO can easily formulate a chain of events that might make the unrest challenging, or even impossible, to contain after a certain point.
A potential chain of violence throughout the region?
A strain of violence at a timing like this in the region of Central Asia can open the pandora’s box for a series of destabilizing factors. Starting from non-state actors, the actions of Islamic militia such as ISKP over the past year, using Afghanistan as a base of operations, have audibly depicted the group’s appetite to expand to Central Asia. The attack in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been silenced by the respective governments and the terrorist group has not managed to get deployed to these countries, primarily due to the so far political stability in the region. If the violence in Khorog persists, such non-state actors can use this vulnerability as an entry point in two ways. Firstly, the Tajik military is currently heavily occupied with efforts to deter the Pamiri protests, which might mean that blind spots in the borders could emerge over the next months. Secondly, the local community in GBAO feels devastated, having a strong sense of injustice, and rightfully so. Feeling desperate, there might be a possibility that they see the ISKP as a way to voice their anger, which is certain to have far-reaching ramifications for the whole Tajik community, including the people in Gorno-Badakhshan.
Mounting on the hard power in Khorog, Dushanbe is utilizing its military strength, which is financially intensive. A persevering series of violence will require the central government to increase the usage of military resources and even deplete them, causing further bleeding of its financial resources. Contemplating the financial strain that put pressure on Tajikistan to resort to the IMF, a continuation of the violence for months could be the cherry on top of an economic failure that can generate a default domino in the region. This is especially important, since Pakistan is also in a critical macroeconomic situation, seeing its foreign reserves almost depleted, and Afghanistan is lacking an internationally accepted head of political leadership.
The last threat to the stability in Central and South Asia is related to the human rights aspect of the Pamiri repression. The neighbourhood of GBAO encompasses the Chinese Xinjiang region, where claims over concentration camps and human rights violations against the Uyghurs have been dominating the discussion of the global community. There is already a lot of frustration from the Uyghur community and diffusion to the Pamiri one (or the other way around) can easily result in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, which can also be diplomatic. The diplomatic element stems from the fact that key global players and international institutions already deem the Xinjiang issue too sensitive to intervene, primarily because it is under the control of the Chinese authorities. If unrest expands beyond Beijing’s reach, there is no guarantee that the same stakeholders will remain idle. The consequences might be dire.
How to put an end to the turbulence
A pragmatist approach to the violence from the international community starts by putting pressure on Dushanbe to put an end to the exercise of hard power. The method that is already being widely followed in the Ukraine war is that of the sanctions. Nevertheless, numerous limitations ought to be taken into account. Primarily, the situation in Khorog is not internationally acknowledged as human rights violation, which might make the justification procedure for the sanctions challenging. Secondly, the Tajik economy is strongly connected with the Russian one, which is already hit a considerable level from the existing sanctions due to the invasion of Ukraine. It is, thus, questionable to what extent there can be additional pressure put on Dushanbe from such an approach.
A strategy that can prove to be helpful is to take advantage of the need for Tajikistan to secure cashflows immediately due to the financial strain and the low level of foreign reserves, combined with the pressure due to the sanctions on Moscow. The result of these events is that President Rahmon has been seeking a loan from the IMF. The financial international institution is notorious for its request for reforms from the loan-receiving countries and this can be the perfect opportunity so that the central Tajik government can be incentivized, through the carrot and stick method, to change its modus operandi towards the Pamiris in exchange for a bailout package. The need for liquidity from Dushanbe comes at a perfect time so that key global players can contribute to stopping the violence without exercising hard power and creating imbalance.
The mass protests in GBAO have reached a point of unacceptable violence, where tens of people are being killed and the region is cut from all forms of communication and energy. And while the frustration from the Pamiris’ side is completely understandable, the ceasing of violence followed by a channel of communication between Khorog and Dushanbe is the only way forward. There is very little that the rest of the world can do to support the Pamir community without disturbing the very sensitive line of balance that currently exists in Central and South Asia. The first step should be the clear acknowledgement from everyone that GBAO is facing a strain of violence from the Tajik armed forces and it is not a simple conflict. The second step involves exploiting the need of Tajikistan for financial support to demand treatment towards the Pamiris per the human rights. All of this ought to happen in a very delicate manner and with a systemic approach, having in mind the several irregularities within the region. To that end, it is highly advisable to also set up a diplomatic mission, potentially similar to the OSCE Minsk Group, which would be responsible for the restoration of lasting peace within the turbulent Tajik jurisdiction and the Central Asian region in general.