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Bringing Peace to Tajikistan's Mountain Fiefdoms

Hopes rise for return of vital UN observers after suspects confess to July killings.

By Lucian KimSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 1998



DUSHANBE, TAJIKISTAN

Only occasional gunshots break the eerie silence that envelops this capital at night. Residents abandon the tree-lined streets long before dark, and the few drivers to venture out race through red lights in the city center.

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Tajikistan's violent civil war has been over for more than a year, thanks to the fragile peace accord brokered by the United Nations. But the current state of lawlessness grips the country in a stranglehold.

Seven years after independence, the smallest and poorest country to emerge from Soviet Central Asia finds itself in a difficult process of national reconciliation.

Tajikistan's twisting borders, like those of other Central Asian republics drawn up after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, were intentionally designed to weaken the region's ethnic groups. The lack of history as a nation-state was one reason it plunged into war.

On Sunday, the Tajik Interior Ministry announced that three suspects had confessed to the killings last July of four UN observers on patrol east of Dushanbe.

The UN recalled all nonessential foreign staff from Tajikistan following the ambush. Officials say full operations will not resume until the investigation is complete and all those charged are brought to justice.

The three suspects, said to be former members of the United Tajik Opposition, were taken into custody by the UTO and handed over to police. A fourth suspect remains at large.

"We know of renegade groups in and around Dushanbe with a record of hostage-taking," says UN special envoy Jan Kubis.

"Both Tajik sides want us to resume [our operations], and I am telling them we can't go there because we can't read the security situation," he says.

UN monitoring is essential to the success of the peace process. Analysts say the government and opposition alike realize that without a neutral international presence, Tajikistan would once again descend into violence. Killings of local officials occur almost weekly.

In the mountains of Tajikistan, which blanket more than 90 percent of the country, allegiances are based on localities and clans, many affiliated with neither the government nor the opposition.

One international aid worker in Dushanbe has compiled a map of the country with 17 fiefdoms drawn on it.

The government itself has no less than four different armies that heed only their respective ministries.

"How does this country begin to function as a nation-state when its geography supports individual localities?" asks a Western diplomat.

While placards in Dushanbe herald the establishment of a "sovereign, unitary state," the fragmentation of power remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to peace. Elsewhere in Central Asia, a pronounced sense of national identity has become the bedrock for strong central governments.

"The problem is that the country is run by a government of six men with one figurehead, who have no control over the troops, the militias, and the various mafias," says one aid worker. "Even if the government wanted to do the right thing, it doesn't have the ability to do it."

Tajikistan's internal weakness has made it especially dependent on assistance from the outside world - including from its former master, Moscow.

Many Tajiks resent the presence of 25,000 Russian troops, who guard the border to Afghanistan in the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose union of 12 former Soviet republics.

In private, many Tajiks suspect that without Russian backing, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov's government would fall, and that the real winner of the civil war was Moscow, which as a guarantor of the Tajik peace process has secured its influence over the region.

In many ways, Dushanbe still resembles the provincial Soviet capital it once was, with a statue of Lenin standing in the main park and a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, despised founder of the KGB, glowering over an intersection. Ironically, whatever Tajiks now think of the Russian military presence, they look back at the relative peace and prosperity of Soviet times with a certain nostalgia.

Today, the lingering aftermath of the civil war has all but frozen Tajikistan's economy. According to the World Bank, 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. Those Tajiks fortunate enough to have a job earn less than $20 per month on average.

Economic recovery depends on the successful implementation of the peace process, which up until the UN murders was moving ahead step by step.

Yet as long as international monitoring is suspended, Tajikistan's transition to a functioning state will remain stalled.