In ex-Soviet Tajikistan conspiracies are not an occasional habit of government, they are its lifeblood.
Around 18 years ago, the Tajik government and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) signed a UN-and-Russia-brokered peace agreement that put an end to a bloody five-year civil war that cost over 100,000 lives.
The deal promised the UTO a share of power in exchange for them laying down their weapons and acknowledging President Emomali Rakhmon's government as legitimate. But Rakhmon, 62, a former collective farm manager, was never fond of the idea of sharing power with his enemies. They, in turn, found him a difficult boss to love.
On the morning of September 4, the Asia Plus news agency reported that a police checkpoint in Dushanbe and police station in Vakhdat — a provincial town 10 kilometres east of the capital — had been attacked by militants.
The numbers of militants and police that died during the attack changed throughout the day. The interior ministry eventually settled on 13 militants and 9 police. An ongoing military operation has claimed a further four militant lives, the ministry says.
In a fog of confusion and with no police statement many Tajiks initially linked the attacks to the alleged murder of a 23-year-old student, whose family claimed he was beaten to death by police for wearing a beard.
Context: “Anti-Muslim” police in Tajikistan beat this student for having a beard. He died last night. pic.twitter.com/vb3YcFovqH
— Christian Bleuer (@ChristianBleuer) September 4, 2015
The Tajik Interior Ministry later denied that the dead man's family had initiated the attacks.
Instead, it said the attacks were planned and “personally led” by Deputy Defence Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda, a former UTO commander integrated into the government in 1999. He was relieved of his duties later the same day.
After allegedly carrying out the attacks Nazarzoda fled to a remote and mountainous region northeast of the capital with an unknown number of armed supporters.
Hailing the deaths of a further four militants in the operation there, the ministry announced on September 6 there were only seven or eight left to catch.
Officially Gen. Hoji Halim “left only 7-8 supporters” and like in Indian movies these 7-8 never ends :)
— AbuSha (@AbdulfattohSH) September 7, 2015
That turned out to be false when on the evening of September 7 the ministry announced a further 20 had been detained as the operation continued.
Two (or more) sides to a story
On social media, users still struggling to comprehend why a top-ranking police colonel abandoned his post to join the radical ISIS in the Middle East in May, were at a similar loss to explain the motives behind General Nazarzoda's rebellion.
Was he, as President Rakhmon said during a visit to Vakhdat on Sunday, just a criminal out to destabilise the country?
Poster of president on spanking new road in Vakhdat: “President is the guarantor of peace and stability” #Tajikistan pic.twitter.com/8yKW7VGNVh
— Peter Leonard (@Peter__Leonard) September 5, 2015
A Tajik Facebook user claiming to represent the former minister published a post September 6 in which he cited General Nazarzoda as saying he had fled the capital without launching attacks on police having received a note from a well-placed source inside the government.
The source had supposedly informed him that all former UTO commanders would be arrested following a false flag operation whereby the government would frame the former opposition it made peace with in 1997 for the murder of several police officers.
The message cannot be verified as General Nazarzoda's but as Edward Lemon pointed out he would not be the first general to be rooted out following the appearance of an apparent plot to destabilise the government:
Yakub Salimov (jailed in 2005), Mahmadruzi Iskandarov (jailed in 2005), Ghaffur Mirzoyev (jailed in 2004) amd Mirzo Ziyoyev (killed in 2009)
— Edward Lemon (@EdwardLemon3) September 7, 2015
On Fergana.ru, Tajik political scientists debated the events of the past days, with Parviz Mullojonov noting Nazarzoda “was a loyal military official, without much influence or special connections…not the kind of figure to organise a state coup.”
Mullojonov also said the attacks marked the end of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), a party consisting partly of former UTO members that rose from the ashes of the civil war to become a legitimate and moderate opposition force in the republic.
In recent weeks the government has sealed off the party's headquarters, accused it of ties to ISIS and declared its activities illegal. On September 4 following the violence, it said Nazarzoda was a secret member of the party, an allegation the party denies.
Blocks on YouTube, Facebook and the Russian social network Odnoklassniki as well as a number of articles on news websites have compounded the poverty of information coming out of the republic and muffled Tajik voices in the debate over what is happening in their country.
Vakhdat police station. Does it look like there was a big battle here? #Tajikistan pic.twitter.com/D1HhVwX0Ec
— Peter Leonard (@Peter__Leonard) September 5, 2015
But as the overall picture of the September 4 attacks grows ever murkier, a better understanding of Tajikistan — a country still coming to terms with the legacy of its awful civil war — emerges:
John Heathershaw, a British academic, who has spent much of his career studying the country writes:
Our ongoing research on Tajikistan suggests that what is true in this particular case is also found in general. Rather than facing rebels whose motives lay outside of their control, the post-conflict state actually generates incentives to rebel. Therefore, the state actually produces the conflicts to which it claims to be arbiter.