Probably the poorest of the fifteen republics that made up the Soviet Union, and one with little or no historical claim to nationhood, Tajikistan lacked a significant movement for self-determination before it suddenly became a country following the failed coup in Moscow of August 1991. Of its 5.5 million people, the majority are Tajiks, an ethnically Iranic people.
In this, Tajikistan differs from the other former Soviet central Asian republics, which are mainly Turkic, as is the largest minority in Tajikistan - the Uzbeks, who make up nearly a quarter of the population. Uzbekistan, population 20 million, is the stronger neighbor that now exercises sway over much of Tajikistan. Uzbekistan's President, Islam Karimov, has jailed opposition party members, closed independent newspapers, organized assaults on peaceful demonstrators and driven leaders of the country's small human rights movement into exile. Apprehension that the chaos in Tajikistan will spread seems to underlie Karimov's attempt to extend his repressive rule to that neighboring country.
The causes of Tajikistan's descent into communal conflict are similar to those that have had dire consequences in several other new states. They include: its unreadiness for independence and the absence of institutional mechanisms to prevent struggles for power from turning violent; a sudden escalation of the importance of ethnicity in a state established along ethnic lines; the politicization of Islam internationally; and the apprehensions this has created in a state bordering on Afghanistan and having historic, cultural and ethnic ties to Iran. Then, too, when the state was created, public offices were distributed to supporters of various regional leaders, thus enhancing their status; when armed conflict erupted, they emerged as local warlords. Automatic weapons are widely available, a problem that is especially acute in Tajikistan because of the nearby Afghan arms bazaar and because of sales by corrupt former Soviet border guards and other troops. In May 1992 the government passed out thousands of Kalashnikovs to its supporters in an effort to quell protest demonstrations. Such weapons have quickly transformed what may have started as minor quarrels into great grievances that lead to ever-increasing violence.
Although there are many subfactions in Tajikistan, currently three main factions vie for advantage: the Uzbekistan-liked communist government, a small but growing Islamic fundamentalist movement and a coalition of moderate Islamic and secular groups committed to pluralism and democracy. A leader of the last of these is a 49-year-old filmmaker and former chairman of the Soviet Association of Filmmakers, Davlat Khudonazarov. He had been an elected member of the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies, where he was active in the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies, led by Andrei Sakharov. Despite apparent electoral fraud, he was officially credited with 30 percent of the vote in Tajikistan's presidential elections of November 1991 and subsequently served as an effective mediator among rival ethnic groups until it became too dangerous. Having survived several assassination attempts, Khudonazarov is now making the rounds in Washington and at the United Nations in an attempt to focus attention on Tajikistan and to obtain humanitarian assistance.
It is a rough sell. In a world wearied by Somalia and Bosnia, not to mention more neglected catastrophes, few are eager to hear about Tajikistan Russia is close by and has the technical capacity to deliver aid, but its armed forces have made matters worse when they have intervened in other conflicts in the former Soviet Union. Moreover, the Russians have supported the Karimov government in Uzbekistan, and any involvement by them would be regarded with justifiable suspicion in Tajikistan. To everyone else who might help, the place is far away, unfamiliar and geographically daunting. Ongoing violence, even against refugees returning from camps across the border in Afghanistan, makes the organization of an effective relief effort unpromising.
An even larger obstacle to meaningful humanitarian intervention is that places like Tajikistan seem to matter so little in a world in which superpowers no longer contend everywhere for hegemony. In some circles, it is impossible to rouse enthusiasm for costly and difficult relief efforts unless they confer a geopolitical advantage. To another segment of public opinion intervention itself has a bad name. This is especially true when the delivery of assistance might involve the military, which would probably be necessary in Tajikistan for political reasons.
Aside from humanitarian assistance, the situation in Tajikistan requires denunciation of the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for their abuses of human rights, and economic and diplomatic sanctions to persuade them to change their ways. Ideally, sanctions should be imposed multilaterally; if not, the United States could take such measures on its own as denying these governments assistance under the Freedom Support Act of October 1992. It could also call on the Yeltsin government to impose economic sanctions.
Halting the global epidemic of ethnic and religious conflict is a formidable but urgent task. Such conflicts tend to spread, and the authoritarianism of Uzbekistan is characteristic of the way governments respond when they fear that their countries will be infected. The victims in Tajikistan should be our foremost concern because they matter in their own right, but also because of the great cost we will ultimately pay if we ignore their plight.