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Regional Relations

‘Peace-for-Power’ versus Participatory Solutions: Lessons of Tajikistan’s civil war – a book review

Arne C Seifert 11 min

In a highly relevant 2013 book, Central Asia analysts Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer (*) have looked at social relations and the political system in Tajikistan at the end of the 1990s civil war in this Central Asian neighbour of Afghanistan. Our guest author Arne C. Seifert (**) has read the book and argues that the two authors’ analysis carry important lessons for the whole region, and particularly for Afghanistan, about how to prevent post-war power sharing agreements in ethnically and politically ‘rugged’ societies from relapsing into authoritarianism and, instead, how to set course towards a specific Central Asian form of democracy. 

Tajik gentlemen discussing in Dushanbe. Photo: Thomas RuttigTajik gentlemen discussing in Dushanbe. Photo: Thomas Ruttig

“Tajikistan’s future may be uncertain, but what is certain is that no-one should disregard the lessons of Tajikistan’s past.” With this reminder, Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer summarise their comprehensive investigation of the causes and driving forces of the civil war in Tajikistan that lasted from 1992 to 1997. Breaking out immediately after independence, this war shook the young state in its foundations, at the very time when the “new Tajik government had to start nation-state building from scratch.”

The Tajik civil war and its unlearned lessons

Immediately after Tajikistan’s independence on 9 September 1991, sharp disputes broke out among different groups within the country’s elite about how to transform the republic’s political, economic and other social systems shaped in the Soviet time into those of an independent state and about the future orientation of the political order. These elites – that were sub-national and organised on the basis of Tajikistan’s main regions (Leninabad, now renamed Sogd, Karategin, Kulyab and others) – began to compete over who would shape the new character of their young state. By 1992, the conflict had turned from competing public manifestations by the different political forces in the capital (not unlike the protests on Kiev’s Maidan) into armed confrontation and finally civil war.

Two main groupings formed during the civil war: the Popular Front, of which the current president Emomali Rahmon was a leading part, and a coalition of democratic secular and Islamic opposition parties. The Popular Front brought together mainly clan elites from Kulyab, the Northern province Leninabad and Garm. On 10 December 1992, it seized full control over the capital Dushanbe and emerged victorious from the first part of the civil war at the end of 1992. The opposition parties formally merged into the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) only later, in 1995, in exile, after the leaders of the largest opposition force, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), and some leaders of other opposition parties, fled the country. They continued the battle against the government from bases in Afghanistan. After the victory in 1992, the Kulyabi clan at the very core of the Popular Front set out to mould Tajikistan into ‘their state.’

The authors are right with their reminder not to disregard the lessons of Tajikistan’s past for a number of reasons. First, as they note, “Tajikistan embodies important aspects of Central Asian politics, with all its inherent characteristics and controversies that were unprecedentedly amplified and exposed in the post-communist era.” The potential for conflict in Tajikistan remained considerably high, even after the formal end of the civil war in 1997.

Second, in Tajikistan itself, obviously, the currently ruling elites did not draw appropriate lessons from their own civil war and its causes. The chance has been missed for discussing in a democratic manner, in the Tajik society, the fundamental question about how all sides to the previous conflict could remain faithful to the fundamental philosophy of the peace agreements concluded in 1997. According to that philosophy, to which all parties to the conflict agreed once, an intra-Tajik peace would create no losers and winners but only one winner – the Tajik nation in its entirety. Initiated by the UN peace mediators but not formally codified, this philosophy kept the conflicting sides around the negotiating table since each of them expected to be rewarded by the peace accords with a share in its benefits, such as constitutional and legal recognition, national responsibilities and a part in the power sharing.

Third, external peace mediators trying to stop the Tajik conflict shied away from the double challenge of not only ending the war but also overcoming its causes.

Fourth – and the question remains unanswered in the book although it is highly relevant in the current situation – not only in Tajikistan and the whole Central Asian region but also in other regions, most acutely in the Middle East: what kind of political order is capable of developing more effective means for conflict prevention that can hold together fragmented societies such as those in Central Asia? Is it an authoritarian, or what the authors respectively call a “mono-organisational order” (p 229) or “mono-organisational socialism” (p 219), or is it the West’s bourgeois-democratic system of rule?

These four reasons for not disregarding the lessons of Tajikistan’s civil war are linked causally and logically and complement each other in their political effects. Let us, therefore, regard them as the main criteria from which to depart when commenting on the present book.

Contradictions and Conflict

But prior to that I want to offer a general appraisal of the book: its authors, Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, present to the reader a work of highly empirical value. Non-Tajiks, in particular, will be able to close gaps of knowledge about aspects and important details of how the conflict developed in Tajikistan, the significance of which they could only, more or less, conjecture up to now. One recognises better, who played which role, in what context and for which motives in the Tajik war and its solution. It is the merit of the two authors that they base their analysis on facts of interwoven aspects of ethnicity, religion, social organisation, migration, state-building, politics and economics in Tajikistan, especially during the Soviet era. They also include factors which played a role in shaping the loyalties and actions of individuals and groups during the pre-war era and through to the outbreak of the conflict. So the authors keep their promise to present a “book that demonstrates the logic behind the outbreak and continuation of conflict, and show that the cultural and political factors shaping the opposing sides into regional and ethnic blocs are steeped in history” (p 9).

Fulfilling their promise, they inform the reader about a wide spectrum of essential aspects such as the problem of Tajik ethno genesis; the evolution of Tajik statehood; patterns of economic development; nationality policy and state formation in the Soviet era; politicisation of ethnic identity; traditional society and regionalism in Soviet Tajikistan; regionalism as cause of social polarisation; composition, mobility and patronage-building of the political elite in Tajikistan; the history of the Communist Party and its experiments; the rise of the Tajik opposition; Islam in society and politics; the roots of the Islamic Revival Party and the biography of its long-standing leader Sayid Abdullo Nuri (died 2006); Islam, ethnicity and the regionalisation of forces; the slide from political confrontation into civil war; the current challenges of sub-ethnic divisions and Islamism.

I am going to comment on the book from a retrospective view, that is, from the angle of the current level of conflict regulation and how the inner-societal contradictions and constellations and their structural causes have been dealt with since 1992. This is the point where the authors stop in their book. They limit themselves to explaining the genesis of those contradictions up to their first violent eruption in 1992. However, since their book was published twenty years after the civil war began they, regrettably, owe the readers concentrated information about the political course the inner-Tajik contradictions took in the following period. Their theses withstand the litmus test when held against the current political realities, first of all through the current quality of dealing with the Tajik inner-societal contradictions and the level of stability achieved thereby.

At this point I would like to emphasize that I consciously have chosen the terminological distinction between ‘contradictions’ and ‘conflict.’ “Contradictions,” being “the root of all movement and liveliness,”(1) are in themselves a positive phenomenon and as such unavoidable. However, the art of politics consists in learning to control contradictions in order to prevent them from escalating into violent conflict, so that a society does not break up due to those contradictions, but that the ‘art’ of their management becomes a permanent source of democratic societal behaviour and governance.

Looking back: causes of conflict

The authors’ key questions are: “Why did the bloodshed occur in Tajikistan? What were the origins of the conflict? Who was on the winning and the losing side?” The authors’ answer is comprehensive and can be summarised by the following citations:

Political developments in Tajikistan from 1985 to 1991 were characterised by three main features: The first was economic decay. […] While the bulk of the people were still quiescent, deteriorating quality of life was about to result in a frustration-aggression reaction amongst the most deprived strata of the population. The second was the atmosphere of instability and uncertainty brought by Gorbachev’s reforms. Ideological cohesion, sets of specific values and identities, and modes of social behaviour were undermined and destroyed. The third feature was the deflation of the state, both in the sense of contraction of its agencies and in the loss of moral authority. (pp 190–91).

Various alternative forms of social and political aggregation came into being to fill the void left by the shrinking CPSU. Ethnic mobilisation ultimately failed (as did Islamist mobilization), and political activism took the form of regional factionalism. (pp 171–2).

Finally the authors condense the many causes of the conflict to “regionalism” as “the ultimate cause of social polarisation” (p 107). They explain that “central governments become largely irrelevant, leaders of the militias merge, men of various backgrounds rise to prominence, based on their ability to recruit, arm and lead men in the war” (p 323). That can be agreed with. Already French anthropologist and orientalist Olivier Roy, who was the first Head of the OSCE Mission to Tajikistan opened in 1994, with his conclusion that “this war is caused more by regional than by ideological fragmentation,” (2) directed international efforts for a settlement of the conflict onto a correct track, both with regard to their content-related orientation as well as of the diplomatic tools employed.

Contradictions between the regional Tajik elites were the central cause of the civil war. This diagnosis is of essential importance with regard to the criteria mentioned before for assessing the way the Tajik inner-societal contradictions have been dealt with up to the current stage. On the other hand, the impression arises that, to a certain extent, the authors overemphasize the regional factor in its relation to other important and sustained factors of conflict, even if those appear to be secondary at first sight. In my view, the causes of conflict (regional-political, ethnic-confessional, economic, religious, ideological, cultural and socio-psychological factors) should be examined, evaluated and treated in their entirety. All those factors are organic components, which influence the political behaviour of all smaller or larger groups that continue to be involved in the Tajik conflict. They all culminate in the question which is not yet finally answered: Which political orientation should Tajikistan take – secular democratic or Islamic.

For example, I find it quite problematical to reduce the aspirations of the Tajik democratic movement emerging during the Soviet Perestroika period under Gorbachev and the first years of Tajik independence to a tool of regional elites to “find a new way to frame their mobilisation efforts […] under the guises of ‘liberalism’, ‘democracy’, ‘Islamism’ and ‘orthodox communism’” (p 219). Certainly, those activists were framed by regional circumstances and had to react to local audiences. However, if one analyses the programmes of the opposition groups – the secular Democratic Party, the more loosely structured Rastokhez movement, the autonomist movement Lal-e Badakhshan in eastern Tajikistan as well as the Islam-oriented IRPT of that time – then all of them concurred on basic aspects of a political orientation of Tajikistan as an independent state; its transformation into a democratic state in which the basic freedoms and human rights are safeguarded; orientation toward a market economy; and a strengthening of the bases of the Tajik nation and identity, embodied in its common language, culture, religion and history.

In this way, the political basis was laid for the phenomenon which Tajik democrats, in spite of the tragedy of the civil war, proudly call their “Tajik revolution.” Their visions were and are national and regional at the same time. It is this combination that has to be taken into account, for managing the Tajik inner-societal contradictions skilfully in a peaceful manner requires democratisation on all governance levels – regional and national.

Looking forward: openings for a Central Asian form of democracy?

The authors rightly conclude that “the presence of deep cleavages in Tajik society, mainly of a sub-ethnic and regional nature, always suggested the possibility of an acute internal conflict” (p 277). Therefore, the question imposes itself on the reader as to whether the current re-monopolisation of power by regional minorities (for more details, see this 2013 AAN dispatch) threatens to transform the inner-Tajik contradictions into violent eruptions again. In other words: are the structural causes of the past civil war regaining precedence? Or did the present power elite manage to become as strong, effective and widely recognised in society as the Soviet elite had before independence (pp 190–1) – in relation to which “the kinship-familian setting of Tajik society has coped well” – to be able to maintain stability (p 86)?

The notion of a “mono-organisational system” introduced by the authors should by no means be excluded from discussion. However, it does not become fully clear how the authors exactly define that term. Does it stand for the model of authoritarian political governance prevailing all over Central Asia? Or is it their synonym for what is called a ‘strong state’? If the latter is the case, then it is surprising that conflict analysts do not relate it to the conflict-preventive potential of democracy in regionally and ethno-confessionally rugged societies.

Without doubt, a ‘strong state’ is an indispensable precondition for the management of the complicated and complex transformation and state-formation processes as in Central Asia. What should be discussed primarily is the character of what I would call a ‘democratic strong state’ under Central Asian conditions. This could be a regime that is capable of placing the ‘social pyramid’ back on its feet, that is, back from regional minority rule to a broad social base. Such an ‘intermediary’ system of government between ‘top and bottom’ is most likely to be able to do this. It would have to be in a position to create constitutionally well-grounded mechanisms for compromise between the sub-systems (the regions) and the political regime. That would have the advantage of taking into account the transitional nature of society, in which traditional and emerging bourgeois forms of socialisation coexist and come into conflict. This would open the way to a form of representative democracy specific to Central Asia. Thanks to its mechanisms of compromise, it would have the advantage of being able to react flexibly to social tensions. In an evolutionary process of this kind, a style of government can develop that is more focused on the interests of the entire political community, which will also affect the character of political rule – away from direct, authoritarian interventions in society, from a single source of power (based on particular interests), and from the autonomy of the state. As a result, transparent ground rules emerge, politics become more open, and society’s control over its rulers improves. (3)

In present day Tajikistan, the philosophy of the 1997 peace agreements, that peace will bring about no losers and winners but only one winner – the Tajik nation in its entirety – has been abandoned. Instead of a representative democracy, a type of minority ‘clan oligarchy’ has emerged and the Tajik nation still remains engulfed in its smouldering contradictions. External conflict resolution efforts by the United Nations, the OSCE and interested states were able to stop the war and bring about a peace agreement in 1997. This was the crucial contribution to silencing the arms and bringing back peace to the Tajiks. However, although the external mediators had recognised that more enduring conflict regulation required the inclusion of wider social strata into governing the country, they stopped at including only the two parties to the armed conflict. By that, the basic defects of the political system remained unchanged.

The settlement of the Tajik civil war allows, besides providing a specific case study, the drawing of some fundamental lessons for conflict regulation. (4) Tajikistan teaches that limited political power sharing can lead to power monopolies at the expense of a democratic and representative post-war order. The external conflict regulators should negotiate not only to help a ‘peace-for-power solution,’ but to come to an institutionalised balancing of ethnic and regional interests. Otherwise, peace tends to reproduce the structural causes of conflict which activated the civil war in the first place. The paramount conclusion for future strategies of conflict resolution has to be that a wide participation of civil society is of elementary importance.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer: Tajikistan a Political and Social History. ANU E Press, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, 2013.


(*) The authors: Both Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer (a former AAN colleague) are researchers at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies of the Australian National University, Canberra.

(**) The reviewer: Ambassador Dr. Arne C. Seifert has worked as a political officer at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Tajikistan in 1996 and 1997. From 1964 , he was a diplomat for the German Democratic Republic, served in Egypt (1966/69), as head of the section for Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan of the Foreign Ministry (1978/79),  he was an advisor to the GDR’s Deputy Foreign Minister in charge of  developing countries (1979/82) and Ambassador to the State of Kuwait (1982/87) Currently, he is Central Asia Adviser at the Centre for OSCE Research (CORE) of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy of the University of Hamburg.

(1) Johannes Hofmeister, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, Felix Meiner Verlag, Leipzig, 1944, p 757.

(2) Olivier Roy, Report on Tajikistan, CSCE Forum for Security Co-operation, Vienna, 1993, p 6.

(3) See also: Arne C. Seifert, “The Political Process in Central Asia and the System Question,” OSCE Yearbook 2011, Volume 17, Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden, 2013, p 224.

(4) Arne C. Seifert, “Friedensschluß und Systemtransformation in Tadschikistan” (Peace Agreement and System Transformation in Tajikistan), Friedensgutachten 2010, Lit-Verlag, Berlin 2010, p 247.


Civil War democracy ethnic tensions Tajikistan