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Tajikistan: A Political and Social History

Kirill Nourzhanov
Christian Bleuer
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This book is a historical study of the Tajiks in Central Asia from the ancient times to the post-Soviet period. For millennia, these descendants of the original Aryan settlers were part of many different empires set up by Greek, Arab, Turkic and Russian invaders, as well as their own, most notably during the Middle Ages. The emergence of the modern state of Tajikistan began after 1917 under Soviet rule, and culminated in the promulgation of independence from the moribund USSR in 1991. In the subsequent civil war that raged between 1992 and 1997, Tajikistan came close to becoming a failed state. The legacy of that internal conflict remains critical to understanding politics in Tajikistan a generation later. Exploring the patterns of ethnic identity and the exigencies of state formation, the book argues that despite a strong sense of belonging underpinned by shared history, mythology and cultural traits, the Tajiks have not succeeded in forming a consolidated nation. The politics of the Russian colonial administration, the national-territorial delimitation under Stalin, and the Soviet strategy of socio-economic modernisation contributed to the preservation and reification of sub-ethnic cleavages and regional identities. The book demonstrates the impact of region-based elite clans on Tajikistan’s political trajectory in the twilight years of the Soviet era, and identifies objective and subjective factors that led to the civil war. It concludes with a survey of the process of national reconciliation after 1997, and the formal and informal political actors, including Islamist groups, who compete for influence in Tajik society. “Tajikistan: A Political and Social History is the best source of information on this important country in the English language. Drs Nourzhanov and Bleuer present a comprehensive yet detailed account of the past and prospects of this emerging nation, and have filled one of the major gaps in Central Asian scholarship. This book must be read by those who wish to grasp the vagaries of Central Asia’s evolving political and cultural landscapes.” Reuel Hanks, Professor of Geography, Oklahoma State University, and Editor of the Journal of Central Asian Studies. “If Tajikistan is known outside its region, it is often for the civil war that gravely damaged it. This volume authoritatively provides the longer perspective to the unsettling events of the 1990s and skilfully explains them in terms of history, social structure, and sub-state identities. In addition to highlighting a wealth of local factors, it is insightful on the ways in which antagonists can be transformed into broader ethnic and regional blocs. Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer are erudite guides to an understudied part of Central Asia, while astutely instructing us about larger patterns of state-society relations and their impact on the logic of conflict.” James Piscatori, Professor of International Relations, Durham University.

    eISBN: 978-1-925021-16-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Maps, Figures and Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Note on Transliteration
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  7. [Map]
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  8. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Pain and bitterness permeate these words of one of the foremost contemporary Tajik writers.¹ And bewilderment as well—bewilderment at the outburst of violence and destruction that in the early 1990s swept through Tajikistan, hitherto quiescent for so many years. Why did the bloodshed occur in Tajikistan and not in the neighbouring republics of the former Soviet Union? What were the origins of the conflict? Who was on the winning and losing sides? What factors shaped the composition of the opposing parties to the conflict? These are but a few questions, the answers for which can only be provided by...

  9. 1. Tajiks on the Crossroads of History, from Antiquity to the Age of Colonialism
    (pp. 11-26)

    It is impossible to study the process of change in any society in the modern era without exploring its historical setting. Establishing a multidisciplinary framework that first combines elements of ethnic history, social anthropology and comparative political development has obvious advantages when it comes to analysing such a complex and ancient society as Tajikistan’s. Tajikistan has a rich and varied history that connects far beyond the area of present-day Tajikistan and Central Asia to the broader Eurasian landmass. It is notable that the caravan routes of what has come to be referred to as the ‘Silk Road’¹ crossed the territory...

  10. 2. Forging Tajik Identity: Ethnic Origins, National–Territorial Delimitation and Nationalism
    (pp. 27-50)

    Contemporary usage of ‘Tajik’ generally narrows to sedentary, Persian-speaking Sunni Muslims in Central Asia and Afghanistan (with a few exceptions such as Dari-speakers who claim Pashtun lineage). Beyond this simple categorisation, many scholars stress that ‘Tajik’ refers to Persian-speakers of diverse origins.¹ As for the language of the Tajiks—variously referred to as Persian, Farsi, Dari or Tajik—the historical linguistic changes in Central Asia within the Iranian-language family should be noted. The Eastern Iranian languages in Central Asia were superseded by a mutually unintelligible Western Iranian language (Persian)² several hundred years after the Arab conquests in a process that...

  11. 3. State Formation in the Soviet Era, 1917 to the 1960s
    (pp. 51-74)

    From the second half of the nineteenth century, Central Asia was inexorably subjected to internal developments in the Russian Empire. The hectic, often controversial process of modernisation that commenced in Russia under Alexander II, continued under Stolypin and finally took the form of socialist revolution in 1917 could not have affected this region in a more dramatic way. If modernisation is viewed as the transformation of a traditional society that commences ‘once the leaders of a society have decided to adapt their existing institutions and values to modern functions’¹ then the natural questions to ask are: who were the real...

  12. 4. Traditional Society and Regionalism in Soviet Tajikistan
    (pp. 75-108)

    The Soviet system was characterised by the incessant attempts of the state to establish overwhelming control over society. The belief that it had succeeded in penetrating all other social units, regulating social relationships down to the grassroots level, while appropriating and distributing resources at its discretion gave rise to the totalitarian concept of Soviet politics in the 1960s. This theoretical construction has, however, been criticised as far from perfect ever since (though it still appears in the literature on Tajikistan).¹ Many others have, in their work on Tajikistan, presented an analysis of qualified Soviet state effectiveness.² After World War II,...

  13. 5. Formal and Informal Political Institutions in Soviet Tajikistan
    (pp. 109-144)

    The state has traditionally been an important venue of political analysis in any society. True, ‘the state … merely provides one framework for political interaction … To proceed from here to the subordination of all other units to the state level is not only uncalled for, but probably misses the point as well’.¹ Still, it is imperative to understand the functioning of government mechanisms in order to investigate their dynamic relationship with other social actors. It has been argued that ‘the emergence of a strong, capable state can occur only with a tremendous concentration of social control. And such a...

  14. 6. Experimentation, Turmoil and Fragmentation under Gorbachev, 1985–1991
    (pp. 145-192)

    On 24 May 1979, the US Embassy in Moscow sent a cable (in reply to an assessment by the US diplomatic mission in Kabul arguing that the Soviets were worried about stability in Central Asia) that said:

    All information that we have been able to gather on this region [Soviet Central Asia] testifies that Moscow controls the situation completely. During frequent visits of Embassy officers to Soviet Central Asia few signs of discontent were discovered. Central Asian republics under Soviet leadership have achieved considerable social and economic progress and have a higher standard of living than neighbouring districts of Iran...

  15. 7. The Rise of Opposition, the Contraction of the State and the Road to Independence
    (pp. 193-230)

    The Gorbachev era freed Soviet society politically; however, democratic consolidation occurred only in a handful of the former Soviet republics; in many of them the transition from authoritarian rule did not take place. Economic factors in the 1990s undoubtedly contributed to the sluggishness of post-communist transformation, butperestroikahad equally devastating effects on all Central Asian republics, yet only Tajikistan succumbed to acute civil conflict, virtual dissolution of the state and fragmentation of the country. A hypothesis deserving of proper consideration in this sense is that ‘the consolidation of democratic rule depends not only on economic growth and a broad...

  16. 8. Islam in Society and Politics
    (pp. 231-276)

    Islam was another traditional institution that proved to be extraordinarily resistant to the policies initiated by the communist state. While there is little doubt that in Soviet Central Asia ‘political institutions and political processes have been completely freed from the influence of religion’,¹ Islam retained its position as a source of identity, a transmitter of cultural tradition and, more generally, as a way of life. In regards to the ‘survival’ of Islam in the Soviet Union, scholars have remarked on the importance of the large ‘network’ of unsanctioned mullahs who, despite the existence of the officially endorsed clerics of the...

  17. 9. From Political Confrontation to Civil War, 1991–1992
    (pp. 277-322)

    The immediate consequence of Gorbachev’s political reforms in Tajikistan was a constant flux in the rules of the political game. The transition from a mono-organisational type of national elite to a disunified one was well advanced. Additionally, non-elite involvement in the political process showed potential for growth: in September 1991, approximately 20 per cent of Tajikistan’s population felt that they had been driven to the edge by the deteriorating economic situation,¹ providing radicals from all elite factions with potential followers. The presence of deep cleavages in Tajik society, mainly of a sub-ethnic and regional nature, always suggested the possibility of...

  18. Epilogue: The Civil War of 1992
    (pp. 323-338)

    In May 1992 the political competition and street protests in Dushanbe transitioned into an extended period of violent conflict, with the worst of the violence occurring over the next seven to nine months.¹ The central government—now an uneasy power-sharing compromise—became largely irrelevant as killing, looting and destruction of property spread throughout southern Tajikistan, driving people to flee to any location safer than their homes, including to Afghanistan. At first much of the violence lacked broader coordination as no well-organised armed forces with acknowledged leadership existed at the outbreak of the civil war. The political leadership of the opposition...

  19. Appendix I: Districts of Tajikistan
    (pp. 339-340)
  20. Appendix II: Major Ethnic Groups in Tajikistan
    (pp. 341-342)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 343-404)