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Conflict in Pamir and Identity Politics

On July 23 in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO) severe clashes between Tajik military forces and local militia took place as result of military forces attempting to apprehend Tolib Ayombekov and members of his group, who were accused of killing Major-General Abdullo Nazarov. General Abdullo Nazarov, the chief of the Gorno-Badakhshan branch of Tajikistan’s State Committee on National Security (GKNB), was killed during his visit to Ishkoshim district on July 21, 2012. Strongman and head of Ishkoshim border guard section Tolib Ayombekov, former warlord who fought against the government during the Tajik Civil War (1992-1995), denied his involvement into the murder of General Nazarov. The situation in the GBAO became very tense as local people were terrified by the erupted conflict.


Moreover, on July 24 all available sources of communication including internet, landline and mobile connections were blocked and informational blockage continued for several days. This exacerbated already strained situation not only in the GBAO, but also in the entire country, as people lost connection with their relatives in the region. The informational blockage left people uninformed and confused about the scope and severity of the conflict. Worried people in Tajikistan as well as Tajik Diasporas abroad reacted to the incident by demanding reliable information and immediate ceasefire.

Vladimir Fedorenko is a research fellow at Rethink Institute, Washington DC. He specializes in democratization processes, civil society and civic movements in Central Asia, Russia and Turkey. In 2009 he graduated from George Mason University with MA in Political Science. He received his BA in International Relations from Ege University and he also graduated from Department of Accounting at Dokuz Eylul University. Vladimir is a fluent speaker of Russian, Turkish and Tajik.

On July 25 when the President Imomali Rahmon ordered ceasefire, the official death toll of the conflict according to Eurasianet was 50 combatants and one civilian[1]. Some sources, such as Radio Free Radio Liberty, claim higher death toll of 70 people[2]. The question to be asked here is why such an excessive military operation and large armed forces were deployed by the government in order to apprehend Ayombekov and few of his group? And the more important one is why the GBAO remains such a remote region where the authority of central government is so weak?

Like in many other places in Central Asia there are many problems such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, corruption and many other criminal activities in Pamir as well. And law enforcement departments and police should address each of them properly. However, this is not the scope of this article. In order to understand the situation in the Gorno-Badakhshan Province we need to look at its history, social composition and identity formation of the Pamiri people. The Gorno-Badakhshan Province was created in 1925 and was subsequently included to the newly formed Tajik SSR in 1929. Since then it has always been an autonomous province constituting almost a half of the entire territory of Tajikistan – 45 percent. It is crucial to understand that for several generations people living in Gorno-Badakhshan have had a sense of common social identity and pride of being attached to a certain culture and geography that they perceive as their motherland. Any program or project proposed by the government or NGOs that contradicts local culture or alienates from Pamiri identity will be perceived at least unappealing or ineffective if not threatening. There is a severe shortage of programs and projects that will emphasize importance and promote cultural interaction with people from other provinces in Tajikistan.

Another significant point is that Gorno-Badakhshan has a specific geographic location in Pamir Mountains. The Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, called as Roof of the World, is a very isolated high-mountain region that can be accessible only by limited routes. People residing in the region have preserved their own culture and customs because difficult to access mountainous location prevented exposure to influences of globalization and multiculturalism. Therefore policy makers should understand lifestyle, culture, norms and values of local people to be able to create apt environment for cooperation and further integration with other parts of the country.

Populated by about 250,000 people[3], the Pamir Mountains are home to several ethnic groups among which are Shughni, Rushani, Bartangi, Roshorvi, Khufi, Ishkashimi and Wakhi[4]. The Pamiri ethnic communities differ from majority Tajiks in terms of religion, language and ethnicity. The vast majority of Pamiri communities are of Nizari Ismaili Shia confession whereas majority Tajiks is Sunni Muslim. The religious leader of Ismaili Shia group, Agha Khan, enjoys significant trust and respect from the people of Pamir. It is important to mention that during the Tajik Civil War, Pamiri communities who were involved in military conflict, publicly announced that they had laid down arms not because of the government’s  order but because their religious leader Agha Khan had called them to do so. People of Pamir speak Pamiri languages, which is a linguistic group belonging to Eastern Iranian descent. The official language of Tajikistan, Tajik, has Western Iranian roots and quite differs from Pamiri linguistic group. The Pamiri peoples’ physical appearance is also quite different from that of the Tajiks too; majority of Pamiris have lighter skin, hair and eye color.

Together with being different from the majority Tajiks, the Pamiri ethnic communities are also diverse and different within each other in ethnic, linguistic and cultural terms. The Pamiri people speak many different languages among which are Shughni, Bajuwi, Rushani, Bartangi, Roshorvi, Khufi, Sarikoli, Yazghulami, Wakhi, and Ishkashimi.[5] Moreover all of these languages have numerous dialects so that people speaking common language can often have trouble communicating within each other due to different pronunciation and usage of vocabulary. The linguistic, cultural and ethnic differences among Pamiri people make them a unique, peculiar and diverse group which stands separate from the majority population of Tajikistan.

During the Civil War the elites of Pamiri communities united with Islamic Renaissance Movement of Tajikistan were one of the belligerent groups. Because of this, in the chaos of ongoing war, people of Pamir, who lived in different cities around the country, were alienated or even treated as enemies by other ethnic groups in Tajikistan. People of Pamir were often discriminated, mistreated and even killed. This made Pamiri people leave everything behind and flee to Gorno-Badakhshan where they felt safer and more protected. Social traumas received by the people of Pamir during anarchy and disorder of Civil War unfortunately will have an effect for many decades to come, if not generations.

While abovementioned reasons explain why central government has weak influence in the Gorno-Badakhshan Province, one can ask what makes strong man such as Tolib Ayombekov to possess strong influence and significant authority in the region. Is it just a “respect” stemming from people fearing the head of an armed group involved in the criminal activities or something more? Pamiri strongmen such as Abdulamon Ayombekov, store accountant-turned-commandeer and Majnoon Pallaev, high school sport instructor-turned-commandeer, used to be ordinary citizens who decided to take arms to protect their people during the Tajik Civil War. To note, Abdulamon Ayombekov, who was also known as Alyosha Gorbun, was the brother of Tolib Ayombekov. Maverick strongmen played a significant role in mobilizing people and creating balance between fighting sides to protect local population. For example, Alyosha Ayombekov disarmed and extradited warlord Jumma, relative of commander in chief of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) Rizvon Sodirov, and his people who were terrorizing people in Darvoz District. Pamiri strongmen also didn’t allow Rizvon Sodirov to create a military base for the United Tajik Opposition in GBAO not even letting him enter the Province despite his threats to invade the region[6]. Therefore attitude of the locals towards these well-known individuals fluctuates from treating them as heroes, to whom people feel deep gratitude for what they did during the war, to treating them as organized criminals and outlaws. Therefore, large-scale military operation organized in order to apprehend just a few individuals accused of homicide of General Nazarov might lead to misunderstanding and wrong interpretations by the people in the region. Post-civil war traumas make people remember the horror of the past.

From the abovementioned facts it can be concluded that Gorno-Badakhshan Province and people living in this area need specific deliberate approach and identity-based policies that will integrate the people of Pamir to Tajikistan. These policies should ensure the implementation of equal rights granted by the Constitution to every citizen regardless of ethnicity, religious beliefs and place of residence. This can be implemented by providing opportunities for people of Pamir to interact with majority Tajiks and other ethnically and culturally different communities of Tajikistan. Different seminars, workshops, educational and cultural events and platforms should be organized so that people of different backgrounds could intermingle, engage in dialogue and know each other better. For examples, joint collaboration of people in arts, music, sports, agriculture, education, business initiatives and other fields would help people to unite and interact with each other on the daily basis. Central government should encourage the formation and development of currently weak civic initiatives and non-government organizations in order to boost the integration of Pamiri people into the country. For example, collaboration with Agha Khan Development Network, which enjoys credibility and trust among communities of Pamir, would help to substantially speed the cooperation and improvement of mutual understanding between Pamiris and Tajiks. Furthermore, the government should make strong emphasis on embedding the idea that being a Pamiri does not contradict with being a Tajik citizen. On the contrary, it will contribute to cultural richness and diversity. To summarize, Tajikistan should move from ethnocentric approach, which has been the main focus in the identity-building process since independence, towards more inclusive civic nationalism.

[4] Leila R. Dodykhudoeva Ethno-Cultural Heritage of the Peoples of West Pamir Coll. Antropol. 28 Suppl. 1 (2004) 147–159

[5] Leila R. Dodykhudoeva Ethno-Cultural Heritage of the Peoples of West Pamir Coll. Antropol. 28 Suppl. 1 (2004) 147–159 

  • January 31, 2021