Sep 07

Tajikistan Faces Another Rebellion from Within

What does the Hoji Halim rebellion tell us about conflict management and the state in Central Asia?

By John Heathershaw


Photocredit: RFE/RL

For three years, Nick Megoran, David Lewis, our partners at Saferworld, and I have been studying the management of minor armed conflicts in Central Asia under a project funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.  In Kyrgyzstan, we conduct research on the response to ethnic violence in the south, but in Tajikistan we have considered a different type of political violence: rebellions by commanders (sometimes called Warlords) within state structures.

From Mirzokhuja Ahmadov (2008) and Mirzo Ziyoev (2009) in the Rasht valley, through to Imomnazarov, Ayombekov and rebels in Khorog (2012) there are many such examples which highlight that Tajikistan remains, in part, a warlord state – that is, a state which was composed of warlord reintegration in the 1990s.

The rebellion of Deputy Defence Minister and Major-General Abdulhalim Nazarzoda (‘Hoji Halim’) and comrades on 4 September 2015 follows this pattern. A former civil war commander, and once part of the now-defunct United Tajik Opposition, he and allies attacked security facilities in the town of Vahdat and the capital city Dushanbe before retreating to the difficult terrain of the Romit gorge, around 100km east of the capital.   Figures are disputed but around 20 were killed in the initial violence and, with Romit surrounded, more bloodshed will come.

While the government portrays these rebels as external and terrorists , these are very much internal or intra-state conflicts over how the loot (public goods) of power are distributed.  Although the Tajikistani government presents this as a coup d’etat, it appears likely that, as the rebels themselves claim, they were acting tactically when faced by news of their imminent arrest, dispossession and perhaps annihalation on 3 September. Most serious commentators, local and Russian, also see this as a tactical move by Hoji Halim to pre-empt action against him by other forces within the state.  In these terms, the rebellion is effectively a function of the nature of state governance.

Our ongoing research on Tajikistan suggests that what is true in this particular case is also found in general.  Rather than facing rebels whose motives lay outside of their control, the post-conflict state actually generates these incentives to rebel.  Therefore, the state creates the conflicts to which it claims to be arbiter.  This is not a state that has been built, by an impartial government with assistance from third parties, but one which is constantly being formed and reformed by the political dynamics of the regime of power.

In the military sphere, this still entails the integration and retention of militias and former commanders.  In the political economy, it involves the privatization of state assets and rent-seeking positions to the narrow elite.  At the level of discourse, we see a shrill secularist narrative from the regime.  In terms of political space their actions entail the exclusion and repression of all political opposition and their tracking down in extra-territorial spaces.

In our research, particularly in a paper in draft form by my colleague David Lewis, we label state responses to armed conflict in Central Asia as Authoritarian Conflict Management (ACM).  ACM has arguably been surprisingly effective as a strategy for repressing violence and (re)forming the state in the short-to-medium-term beyond Central Asia, from Sri Lanka to Rwanda.  In the post-Soviet world it seems to be crucial to the region’s peculiarity as a place where many armed conflicts break out but are often frozen or contained.  But is there a breaking point, where  a critical number of rebellions generates the conditions for escalation towards civil war?  This big question of prediction masks prior theoretical and empirical questions for our project team as we enter the final year and the analysis and writing up of our research.  These include:

1) How do the different elements of ACM – military violence, economic rents, political discourse, political space – relate to one another?

2) Is ACM found beyond the post-Soviet world?  Is it equally effective in those contexts?

3) How do we explain variations in the effectiveness of ACM in specific cases?

4) What is the role of external powers? Do they facilitate ACM by providing security assistance (e.g. the USA), military and political support (Russia) and favourable loans (China)?  Or are their roles negligible?

5) When does ACM fail?


Concluding findings are ‘in preparation’  but a few papers speak to some of the themes introduced above:

David Lewis, “Illiberal Spaces:” Uzbekistan’s extraterritorial security practices and the spatial politics of contemporary authoritarianism, Nationalities Papers, Vol. 43, Iss. 1, 2015

David Gullette , John Heathershaw, The affective politics of sovereignty: reflecting on the 2010 conflict in Kyrgyzstan, Nationalities Papers, Vol. 43, Iss. 1, 2015

Nick Megoran et al, Averting Violence in Kyrgyzstan: Understanding and Responding to Nationalism, London: Chatham House, December 2012

John Heathershaw & David Montgomery, The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization in the Central Asian Republics, London: Chatham House, November 2014

Edward Lemon, Mediating the Conflict in the Rasht Valley, Tajikistan: The Hegemonic Narrative and Anti-Hegemonic Challenges, Central Asian Affairs, 2014, Volume 1, Issue 2, pages 247 – 272

Saferworld, Central Asia at a crossroads: Russia and China’s changing roles in the region and the implications for peace and stability, London, 2015


Specifically on Tajikistan’s rebellions and their meaning I can recommend some excellent research from our academic colleagues:

Jesse Driscoll’s book on Tajikistan and Georgia is currently the best explanation for this puzzle, empirically and theoretically, particularly with respect to the politico-military and political economy dimensions.

Tim Epkenhans Habilitationschrift explores the pre-history of the warlord state in Tajikistan

Lawrence Markowitz’s book links Tajikistan’s current fragility to its war-time recomposition as a state.

Specifically on the Hoji Halim rebellion, today’s article cites some knowledgeable commentators including Parviz Mullojonov and Arkady Dubnov