Why Conducting Academic Research in Khorog, Tajikistan is a Criminal Offense

Pamir Mountains, Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast.

Pamir Mountains, Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast, Tajikistan. © Ivan Sigal

Khorog, the town where Global Voices community member Alexander Sodiqov was wrongfully arrested and detained for conducting academic research, is a faraway place.

Khorog is faraway because it is located in the mountains of Tajikistan, Central Asia, which for many is the very definition of faraway, and it is even further away because it is a full 14-hour drive—mudslides and bridge repairs permitting—from Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe. 

Thundering along the rutted, improbable track separating lush, poplar-laden Khorog at one end of the Autonomous Region of Gorno-Badakshan (GBAO) from sparse, dusty Murghab at the other, travelers of the cloud-cutting Pamir Highway experience the thrill of passing through settlements that do not appear to belong to anyone except the people who live there, speeding across landscapes not of this earth.

But GBAO and its administrative center of Khorog do belong to someone, and in recent years Tajik president Emomali Rahmon's regime has gone to considerable trouble to remind residents of the region that “autonomy” is in the eye of the beholder.

Tajikistan—a Very Weak State

Alexander Sodiqov is a bright scholar whose writing on Tajik and Central Asian politics bears the hallmarks of any top political analyst—rigour, insight and impartiality. He is also someone, who for all his international experience, remains committed to researching the country of his birth and conveying that knowledge to the wider world.

To understand why Tajik authorities would see a threat in someone like Alex, it is important to know that his arrest was less a show of strength and more a demonstration of weakness in a region where a weak government has a profoundly weak presence.

GBAO and Khorog are often portrayed by media covering Tajikistan as a kind of Achilles’ heel for policymakers in Dushanbe—a faraway bastion of anti-government opposition where the government's writ is tenuous at best. But this analogy misses the fact that Tajikistan's government is weak everywhere in Tajikistan. If the Tajik state was ever, like the mythological Achilles, dipped in a magical river, then most of its body missed out on the benefit of the water. Just ask the million-plus Tajiks working as labor migrants in Russia, unable to find work inside the most remittance-dependent country in the world, and the millions of Tajiks inside Tajikistan that endure rolling electricity shutoffs every year during the winter months.

Cyberspace is another sore spot for President Rahmon's regime. Since June 9, YouTube and other Google services  have been blocked [ru] in Tajikistan for “technical reasons” nobody can fathom. Normally, whenever YouTube or Facebook is cut in the country, the “technical reasons” are fairly self-explanatory: the eve of presidential elections, a leaked video of President Rahmon drunk-dancing at his son's wedding, or the onset of a special forces operation in Khorog. This time, however, YouTube might have been blocked just for blocking's sake.

It is easy enough to see why the Tajik government dislikes the Internet, even though it is a resource to which only a tenth of the country has regular access. In addition to undercutting its ability to control information, the web also undermines the image the Tajik state likes to present to the international audience—that of the country with the tallest flagpole in the world, the biggest teahouse in the world, the largest library in the world and one day, it hopes, the tallest hydroelectric dam in the world. Instead of celebrating these thin veneers of success, the Internet openly mocks the regime.

Ahead of Rahmon's inevitable re-election last November, the public Facebook group Platforma was full of demotivators depicting him as the “Rahminator” (“I'll be back”) and other unflattering identities. When Tajik communications chief Beg Zukhurov (now Beg Sabur) was challenged to justify a block on Facebook in December 2012, he summoned Marc Zuckerberg to meet him in his office in Dushanbe “during his office hours”, and rapidly became the butt of every joke in Tajik cyber space.

But GBAO, one of the poorest parts of a poor country, does not see a lot of the Internet. 

Khorog and Gorno-Badakhshan: Whose Autonomy?

Until 1929, the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was itself an autonomous republic within the Uzbek SSR. High altitude Gorno-Badakhshan oblast represented an autonomous province in the same SSR, maintaining this status throughout the Soviet period and into Tajik independence following a five-year civil war in which many Badakhshanis fought on the side of the losing United Tajik Opposition. At least 50,000 people died in a conflict that saw Emomali Rahmon consolidate formal control over the country. Coming to power by the sword, Rahmon has understandably had a fear of dying by it ever since.

On the road to Khorog, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Tajikistan. © Ivan SIgal

On the road to Khorog, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Tajikistan. © Ivan SIgal

For over a decade after the civil war's end in 1997, Khorog did not outwardly resemble a bastion of opposition to anything. Traversers of the Pamir Highway welcomed it as an oasis town at the end of a barren run, where attractive girls in traditional Pamiri dress—part of a culture and language distinct from other that in parts of the country—shouted out greetings in an impressive array of foreign languages. During the period between the war and a renewal of violent armed clashes in July 2012, Dushanbe and GBAO led separate lives, with GBAO residents, most of whom follow the Ismaili branch of Islam (as opposed to Sunni Islam practiced elsewhere in the republic), turning to Ismaili leader the Aga Khan for material assistance.

But sleepy, hospitable Khorog has long harboured a dark, open secret: along with countless other Tajik towns dotted along the gossamer-like border with Afghanistan, it remains a logistics point for the traffic of opiates heading north and west towards Russia and Europe. Foreign media focussed on the region have even suggested competition between informal power-brokers in Khorog and government officials over drug smuggling profits was the catalyst for the week-long special forces operation that after July 21, 2012 and saw GBAO's communications abruptly cut off. The operation, which may have precipitated the death of up to 50 people, was far from a success. According to an American journalist who interviewed locals in Khorog about the clashes (free of harrassment, unlike Sodiqov, by state officials), government troops probably came off worse from the fighting. 

GBAO's unheard voices 

Alex's academic fieldwork in Khorog, looking at conflict resolution mechanisms within civil society, followed shortly after a renewal [ru] of hostilities between government forces and Khorog residents. On May 21, 2014 a shootout in the town between police and locals accused of trafficking drugs took place in broad daylight. Residents of the city responded by targeting government buildings with arson attacks before an uneasy order was restored. Tajik media close to the government has claimed [taj] Western involvement in the conflict. 

It would be too easy to blame the government exclusively for GBAO's unrest. Nevertheless, Dushanbe's habit of viewing residents of the region as unfinished remnants of past conflicts rather than people with development needs to be addressed is clearly a driver of conflict in the area.

Scholars like Alex, with their intellectually thirsty and impartial approach to academic study could be an ally to the Rahmon regime in helping to understand the complexities of region it has long misunderstood. By shutting down a conversation in Khorog, the Tajik government has simply revealed its fear over its loss of control of the region.



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