Making up almost half of Tajikistan's territory, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (widely known by its Soviet-era acronym GBAO) is a mountainous province with which the Dushanbe government had historically difficult relations. Tensions have flared up into protests and a state of emergency in the past months, but the roots of the conflict go back in history.
GBAO's population is mostly composed of Pamiris and, in the 1990s, during Tajikistan's civil war, the leadership of the region called for independence. Through GBAO run most of the rivers that feed both the waterways and the hydroelectric plants of the country. Despite its relatively small population, around 270,o00 residents, the region is of strategic importance for the government.
Emerging victorious after the civil war and the ensuing struggle for power, President Emomali Rakhmon has swiftly quashed any opposition in his 27-year rule, maintaining an iron fist at home and allegedly placing pressure on and ordering the murder of exiled political opponents. In GBAO, Rakhmon's government applied an especially oppressive regime because of the Pamiri leadership's earlier affiliation with opposing forces during the civil war.
It is important to note that, despite the differences in ethnicity and religion, the divisions seem to be motivated by power and socio-economic welfare. Besides being politically sidelined, in fact, the region was shunned by businesses and state enterprises.
For about a decade, clashes have intensified between local GBAO residents and officials of the Dushanbe government.
In July 2012, perhaps the darkest day in GBAO's recent history, dozens were killed in clashes between local groups designated as rebels and Tajikistan's military. The official tally of 42 killed was contested after hospitals and eyewitnesses said at least 200 died in the shootings. While the government hinted at the possibility that the turmoil was caused by Afghans who had crossed the border, other accounts clearly outlined a power struggle at the center of the dispute.
In the aftermath of the clashes, the region was sealed off, with communications and road transport blocked. But the militarization of the region failed to resolve the tension, which resurfaced regularly during small-scale skirmishes. In June 2014, three people, including a police officer, were killed in a shooting in Khorog, the region's capital.
In 2018, the escalation of the conflict reached a new level, with violent clashes between local protesters and the security forces.
Under heavy scrutiny from the authorities, in the autumn of 2018, youth protests were harshly repressed leading to violence on the night of November 4, when special forces opened fire against GBAO residents, injuring two. Always cited as a region where crime thrives by the central authorities, GBAO is often placed under emergency measures, which limit freedoms and keeps communication and movement monitored.
The 2018 incident sparked a new wave of protests, which were again repressed, although the government agreed to appoint an authoritative local figure, Yodgor Faizov, as the new head of the region.
Faizov kept his post until November 2021, when tensions between local residents and the authorities heated up again. At the end of November, as thousands crowded the streets of Khorog in protest against abuse of power by the police, the government moved in with special forces and attempted to suppress the demonstration. Two protesters were killed and more than one thousand were arrested, according to eyewitnesses.
Following the arrests, the region was once again locked out of communication and six military block posts were erected to monitor travel in and out of the region, only allowing for a limited number of supply trucks. The internet shutdown, which continues to date, has lasted for more than one month, preventing any independent reporting from the region. In an attempt to appease the protesters, the government promised certain concessions, including an independent investigation on the incident that provoked the tensions. Yet, the requests of the local population were later disregarded.
The ongoing conundrum in GBAO rests on the lack of legitimacy of the local leaders as picked by the central government, journalist Anora Sarkorova explained in an interview with Cabar.Asia.
The problem is that de facto, none of the leaders of the region, as well as the local parliament, hold real powers as prescribed in the Constitution. [Even] the most experienced leader in the current conditions only becomes a talking head of the central government, which makes decisions on GBAO not taking into account the interests and conditions of the Pamiris.
Until the local population is allowed to select its own leaders, the central government will have to constantly balance the region's dissatisfaction and the need to keep the situation under control.