Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan at nexus of security problems of Central Asia, China, Afghanistan and Russia

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BISHKEK (TCA) — The prevailing calm in Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan’s remote east does not rule out the prospect of a clash between local powerbrokers and Dushanbe authorities. To mitigate the risks of a local flare-up and regional power rivalry, China and Russia should communicate with each other and nudge Tajik President Emomali Rahmon toward a smooth transition of power, according to new findings presented at International Crisis Group’s briefing, Rivals for Authority in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan, on March 14.

Following a 10-day research trip, Crisis Group has found Tajikistan’s little known and remote eastern territory of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) to be at the nexus of significant security problems, including Uighur unrest in China’s Xinjiang region, Afghanistan’s war and opium trafficking, and jihadists’ potential return from Iraq and Syria to China, Central Asia or Russia.

Gorno-Badakhshan is one of the most strategically sensitive areas in Central Asia. Situated high in the Pamir mountains, this autonomous region (or oblast) of eastern Tajikistan is bordered to the south and west by Afghanistan and to the east by China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Beijing’s security presence in the region appears to be increasing, likely motivated by concerns about Uighur militants operating across the border in Afghanistan or returning from the Middle East. Since the 1990s, Gorno-Badakhshan has sought to strengthen its self-rule, including through armed struggle. For now, it is relatively quiet, but that could change without warning. At some point soon, perhaps as early as 2020, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon is expected to hand over power to a younger family member. A rocky transition could lead Gorno-Badakhshan powerbrokers to seek a more influential role in the new dispensation. Their track record suggests they may be willing to use force to achieve their ends.

Complicating matters is that the Tajik government’s control of Gorno-Badakhshan is tenuous at best. Irregulars loyal to local powerbrokers known as “the Authorities” have clashed with government forces in the past and may do so again if challenged, particularly in the event of a disorderly political transition in Dushanbe, Crisis Group says.

Meanwhile, Beijing appears to have established a security presence in GBAO. Local officials and residents say China has built an installation in a remote corner of the oblast, near both Xinjiang and the Afghan border. The location is not surprising, given China’s concern about Uighurs fighting in Iraq and Syria, some of whom could return through Afghanistan or Central Asia. Yet Beijing’s presence has provoked some local concern, and increasing Chinese influence in the region could needle Russia, which traditionally has stronger ties to Tajikistan.

Officials in GBAO and Dushanbe confirmed Beijing’s security presence in the oblast. “There are quite a lot of Chinese soldiers here”, one said, adding that they keep a low profile. Another spoke of some form of Chinese security installation in the settlement of Shaimak, near the border with Xinjiang and the Wakhan corridor, a high mountain valley in Afghanistan separating Tajikistan and Pakistan. He described the installation as “a joint counter-terrorism centre” housing Tajik forces as well. Neither the Tajik government nor the Chinese Embassy in Dushanbe responded to further inquiries by Crisis Group.

Crisis Group has found that Rahmon’s government resists outside advice, but Moscow and Beijing, which have some influence and fear upheaval in Tajikistan, could perhaps nudge the president toward a transition that minimizes risks of violence. China also should communicate more clearly its concerns and interests in the region, to both Russia and local inhabitants.

Sergey Kwan

TCA