Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Civil War in Tajikistan

As I've already said, Dushanbe is a lovely city. People are nice, the weather is great right now, and the streets are pleasant. At night there are lots of people about sitting in outdoor restaurants and enjoying the parks. There are even streetlights.

It's hard to believe that martial law ended here only a few years ago, and that 10 years ago the streets were controlled by armed gangs. I won't pretend to be an expert on local history and most of my information come from the Lonely Planet. It's an interesting story however, because it shows just how different the collapse of the Soviet Union looked from the other side.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was much more complex than many people in the west realize. We saw an old enemy vanquished. The Berlin wall came down; people who had never been able to travel to the west could now cross borders that had been closed for nearly 50 years. The world seemed a safer, kinder place.

But some countries didn't really want independence. The central asian countries didn't exist until Stalin invented them. As a result, the borders are a crazy jigsaw of lines on the map; lines which often serve arbitrary political purposes rather than grouping related peoples together.

Tajikistan has a section which is entirely enclosed in Kyrgyzstan. It exists because Stalin needed 1 million people to make an administrative unit and the original borders didn't have enough population. So Stalin just cut a populated bit out of Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan has two such chunks inside Kyrgzstan and a large Tajik population in the east. Kyrgystan has a large Uzbek population in the west, and the western part of the country is hard to even get to because the old Soviet roads run through the Uzbek and Tajik enclaves mentioned above. The eastern Pamirs in Tajikistan are mainly Kyrgyz speaking.

This isn't the recipe for stable countries with a strong sense of national unity although it worked OK when these countries were all welfare states controlled by mother Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed however, the money was cut off and a power scramble ensued.

For the most part the former dictators won questionable elections and ran the countries as their personal piggy banks; some of them have been in power ever since. These countries are some of the most corrupt in the world; Tajikistan ranks below Zimbabwe according to Transparency International. Turkmenistan is described as the "North Korea of Central Asia". The recently deceased ruler named one of the months after himself, created a "Ministry of Fairness", and made a big golden statues of himself that continually rotates to face the sun.

In Tajikistan there was a horrible civil war when the Pamir area, which felt little connection to the rest of the country, tried for independence. The results were catastrophic. Apparently security forces went around Dushanbe and executed anyone with a Pamir ID card on the spot.

The war eventually ended and foreign donors flooded in to help rebuild the country. The Aga Khan foundation was probably the most influential; they rebuilt much of the infrastructure themselves and the the Aga Khan is revered in most of the Pamirs. Almost every house has a little picture of the Aga Khan on the wall.

It's neat to travel in a countries that are still so young. Central asia is shaking off it's Soviet roots and trying to find it's own identity, a process which has been hard and has led to lots of excesses. Yet these are also the most beautiful countries I have ever visited, and the people are the warmest and most hospitable that I have ever met. When I walk the streets and think of the war a decade ago I can see the progress. These countries are still inventing themselves. They have some incredible materials to work with.

1 comment:

Anastácio Soberbo said...

Hello, I like this blog.
Sorry not write more, but my English is not good.
A hug from Portugal