The territory of present-day Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, located in the Pamir mountain range of Tajikistan, and still widely referred to by its Soviet-era acronym GBAO, was a central hub for the ancient Silk Road. To this day, it also remains a contested center of wars for power and influence in Central Asia, which continues to affect the daily life of the local population, known as the Pamiris, just as it did during the 19th century during the Great Game between Great Britain and Russia.
During the 1992–97 Tajik civil war, Pamiri field commanders in GBAO sided with the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which led to ethnically motivated persecution of Pamiris in the west of the country as well as a supply crisis in GBAO. The civil war ended with a power-sharing agreement under which former UTO field commanders would occupy 30 percent of high-level government posts. However, in the course of the consolidation of President Emomali Rahmon’s power, almost all former leading members of the UTO have been successively sidelined or otherwise politically silenced. The increasingly authoritarian character of the political system manifests in, among other things, more restrictive measures against NGOs, critical journalists and citizens, a ban on the main opposition party (the Islamic Revival Party) in 2015, pressure on independent media, and internet censorship.
In remote GBAO, however, the groupings around current President Rahmon, who emerged as a winner in the civil war, were able to assert their monopoly on political and economic power to a lesser extent than elsewhere. Based on their reputation as defenders of the region during the civil war, some of the former Pamiri field commanders of the UTO retained a certain informal influence (particularly in the regional capital of Khorugh) , their control over weapons and groups loyal to them, and their income sources from drug smuggling with Afghanistan. They maintained a heroic status, particularly among sections of the youth, because they exploited a widespread sense of resistance to undemocratic external rule for their own purpose.
Regular conflicts between the region and the center from 2012 to 2018
The central government's attempt to eliminate former Pamiri field commanders of the UTO as political and economic actors and thereby impose its own monopoly on power in GBAO culminated in a massive attack by government forces on their respective strongholds in Khurogh on July 24, 2012. The intervention was described as a “special operation” by the authorities in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. The day-long violent conflict in the city left dozens killed and resulted in dozens of casualties and a further alienation of the local population. After the assassination of one of the former Pamiri field commanders of the UTO in August 2012, there were massive demonstrations in Khorogh. Human rights violations during and after the attack were never adequately addressed by the authorities.
On May 21, 2014, an amateurishly executed and bloody attempt by security forces to arrest or liquidate a local suspect of drug smuggling in the city center during rush hour, in which three civilians and a policeman were killed, resulted in an angry mob setting fire to three government buildings in Khurogh. Political demands against arbitrary violence by security forces were expressed in a demonstration that lasted several days.
During a visit to Khurogh in mid-September 2018, President Rahmon blamed the provincial government and security forces in GBAO for an allegedly deteriorating security situation in the region. He gave them a one-month ultimatum to deal with a “handful of criminals,” by which he most likely meant former Pamiri field commanders of the UTO. He also gave permission for the military to be deployed. Subsequently, many high-ranking officials in both the provincial government and the security forces in GBAO were replaced.
In october 2018, Rahmon appointed Yodgor Faizov as the new governor for the region. Faizov is an Ismaili, a member of the Shi'a school of Islam school that dominates in the region, and a native of GBAO. He built his career within in the Aga Khan Foundation, an influential Ismaili NGO, and served as a mediator as its highest representative in Tajikistan during the 2012 conflict, which explains this popularity among the GBAO population. However, the central government maintained a massive military presence, and the alleged threat to law and order posed by organized crime in GBAO remained a strong and uniform theme in pro-government media.
Civil society representatives inside and outside GBAO soon reacted and published a petition on the Change.org website on October 14, 2018, expressing concerns about the situation in the region and opposing the use of military force in the fight against drug trafficking and the possession of illegal arms.
On November 6, 2018, a demonstration against the massive presence of security forces in Khurogh took place. It was triggered by non-fatal shootings of a group of young men by security forces, and motivated by the growing frustration of many residents of with the militarization of the city. Eventually, the situation calmed down at least on the surface, mostly thanks to a mediation by Governor Faizov.
The establishment of the inter-agency committee on law and order enforcement in GBAO in September 2018 resulted in a wave of arrests, particularly of young male Pamiris, leading to repeated demonstrations and clashes between the Tajik-dominated security forces and Pamiri civilians. Moreover, three military checkpoints still remain in place in central Khurogh, visibly demonstrating the military presence in the city.
The situation is further destabilized by the collapse of the elected government in Afghanistan and the takeover by the Taliban in August 2021. The Tajik government is reacting to the attempts by people to flee Afghanistan with a strict policy of sealing the border and repatriating refugees. Alleging the danger of infiltration by armed groups from Afghanistan, the government further strengthens the military presence, which has a negative impact on the fragile domestic political situation in GBAO.
Renewed conflict in 2021
Tension resurfaced in the region in 2021 due to new changes in power relations. On November 5, 2021, President Rahmon decided to remove popular Governor Faizov and replace him with Alisher Mirzonabot, the mayor of Khurogh who made his career in the domestic intelligence agency. At the same time, the city experienced an increased military presence in addition to the existing military checkpoints.
On November 25, 2021, State Committee on National Security forces sought to arrest Gulbiddin
Ziyobekov, a young man from the village of Tavdem in Roshtkala district (approximately 20 km
east of Khurogh), who was accused of coercing an official in February 2020. The latter was alleged to
have sexually harassed a local girl from Tavdem. During this operation by the security forces, Ziyobekov was fatally injured under contested circumstances.
As a reaction, a demonstration by residents of GBAO began in front of the regional administration
building in Khurogh. They demanded an investigation into the circumstances of Ziyobekov's death, the withdrawal of most of the military stationed in Khorog, the dismantling of the military checkpoints in Khorog, and the removal of the newly-appointed Governor Mirzonabot.
Two demonstrators were killed and several injured by shots fired by security forces into the crowd. Members of security forces and Governor Mirzonabot were also injured during the events. Reacting to the demonstration, the authorities immediately blocked the internet in GBAO on November 25, 2021
Internet shutdown and state-sponsored intimidation
Internet access has not been restored in Khorog and the neighboring districts of GBAO since
November 25, 2021. This has had serious implications for the education, banking and economic
spheres and undermined the confidence of parts of the civilian population in promises made by the authorities. The regional authorities have justified the fact that the internet has not been
restored with the alleged fear that “certain groups in Europe” might instigate further conflicts.
The central authorities also continued to intimidate and prosecute protesters. On December 9, 2021, an article in a governmental newspaper announced the beginning of investigations against protesters by the public prosecutor. Many people who had taken part in the demonstrations of November 25–28, 2021, were summoned for interrogation by the State Committee on National Security. A travel ban was imposed on some of them and criminal cases for cutting trees, that we used to block access, were started against 13 of them. In cooperation with Russian law-enforcement which is present in Tajikistan, the Tajik authorities also took legal measures against several prominent youth representatives from GBAO who live abroad.