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Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) / Badakhshan Autonomous Republic

The mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region -- known to most by its Russian acronym, GBAO -- Tajik and Russian names meaning "more mountains of Badakhshan". It is separated from the rest of Tajikistan by hundreds of kilometers of bad roads and thousands of years of divergent history. The Tajik government’s control of its eastern territory, GornoBadakhshan, 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. The government of the Republic of China once stated that most of this area should belong to the territory of the Republic of China and part of Xinjiang Province.

Central Asians do not have a long tradition of loyalty to a state. Loyalty, if anything, is to the extended family and locality. Outside ethnic identities, this tradition of “locality” or “regionalism” is strong force. Any discussion of regionalism must begin with the fractured “state” of Tajikistan. The government in Dushanbe has never had complete control over Gorno-Badakhshan. No one ever has. For hundreds of years, China, Russia, and an assortment of emirs and khans had claimed the area, but probably few of those living there ever knew they were part of any empire -- or even that there was an empire.

Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO)

Before 1895, today’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Prefecture plus the area of Badakhshan Province in northeastern Afghanistan consisted of several small semi-autonomous regimes, including Darvas, Shugnan, Ruxiong, and Wakhan. At that time, this area was claimed as their own territory by the Qing Dynasty, Tsarist Russia, and the Afghan Emirate. The Qing government claimed to own the entire Pamir region, but its army only controlled the pass to the east of Taxkorgan.

By 1890, the area residents submitted to the Qing Dynasty, and the area was placed under the Xinjiang jurisdiction. In the late 19th century, Britain and Russia competed for spheres of influence in Asia. In 1890, Tsarist Russia entered and controlled the northern Pamirs including this place. Soon afterwards, it signed the Sino-Russian concession to explore Kashgar with the Qing and signed the Agreement on the sphere of influence in the Mir region. From the Manchu Qing Dynasty to the Republic of China, the Chinese government had always insisted on having sovereignty over this place, and did not recognize the legal occupation of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, but it was unable to station troops here to exercise effective rule.

In the Soviet era, it was initially included in the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Turkistan , and then the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast was established in 1925. After the establishment of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic in 1929 , the district became part of the Republic. In the 1950s, a large number of indigenous Pamirs in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region were forced to move to southwestern Tajikistan. After Tajikistan became independent in 1991, the district was renamed "Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Prefecture." When the civil war broke out in Tajikistan in 1992, the autonomous prefecture government unilaterally declared independence and established the Badakhshan Autonomous Republic.

While identity cleavages played a large part, regional issues were the main driver in the bitter civil war. The northernfaction based largely in Khojand (formerly Leninabad), the Kulyabis from the southern province, radical Islamic militants (with influence from neighboring Afghanistan) from Kurgan-Tyube and the Garm Valley, and the Parmiris from the Gorno-Badakhshan all fought a protracted war which left at least sixty thousand dead. Despite power-sharing agreements, problems remain.

In the late 1980s, before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had claims to disputed territories. The Tajiks’ territorial claim was from the Batken province of the Kyrgyz SSR stretching southwest of Osh up to the Tajik territory connecting the region of Tajik SSR with the mountains areas of Alay and Zaalayskiy. The Kyrgyz SSR’s assertion was the opposite of the Tajik’s, and in addition the Kyrgyz nationalists laid claim to the Gorno-Badakhshan region in the Pamir Mountains and the top reaches of the Surkhob river valley of the Tajikistan’spresent territories.

Tajikistan became independent in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and experienced a civil war between regional factions from 1992 to 1997. The war began in May 1992 when ethnic groups from the Gorno-badakhshan and Garm regions rose up against President Rahmon Nabiyev’s national government. During the 1992-1997 civil war, the region was a stronghold of President Rahmon’s main adversaries, the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), a broad coalition of opposition forces. Tajikistan has endured several domestic security incidents since 2010, including armed conflict between government forces and local strongmen in the Rasht Valley and between government forces and criminal groups in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, as well as attacks on security personnel in September 2015.

Tajikistan’s vast, mountainous eastern province of Gorno-Badakhshan, which is sparsely populated, destitute, and virtually roadless, continues to provide ideal conditions for the movement of narcotics, despite intensified efforts by Russian forces to monitor such activities. The province’s southern border is defined by mountainous northeastern Afghanistan. This trade is well organized and lucrative. A kilogram of heroin costs $100 in Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan. Once it is smuggled across the River Panj into the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in Tajikistan, its value increases to $1,000. As it is taken through Osh in Kyrgyzstan, it in-creases to $10,000; when it reaches Europe it costs $100,000.

China has a growing security presence in the region. 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.

Its predominantly Ismaili Shi'a inhabitants have long thought of themselves as distinct from the rest of the country. During the Soviet era the region benefited from massive subsidies from Moscow, but has fallen into neglect since independence. Business leaders complain that Dushanbe hinders Badakhshan's development by preventing the issuance of mining licenses and makes it difficult for tourists to reach the region's spectacular mountains and scenic valleys. Trade with China, a lifeline for both Badakhshan and the country as a whole, is similarly hampered by central government policies. Despite such problems, some areas are showing improvements, including Murghab, high on the eastern Pamir plateau. Much of the development work in Badakhshan has been carried out by the Aga Khan, through a network of charitable and for-profit entities, but some residents expressed frustration with an organization viewed as paternalistic and monopolistic.

In many ways, the Badakhshan Autonomous Region is separate from the rest of Tajikistan. Its roughly 220,000 inhabitants are two-thirds Ismaili Shi'a, while the rest of Tajikistan is Sunni. Even GBAO's small Sunni population differs from the rest of the country in that it is predominantly ethnic Kyrgyz. Badakhshan's Pamir ethnic groups speak a number of Eastern Iranian dialects, each endemic to a particular valley, that are for the most part unintelligible to Tajiks elsewhere in the country. During the Soviet period GBAO benefited from Moscow's policy of providing heavy subsidies and other support to regions and ethnic populations deemed to be less advanced. Accordingly, Badakhshan continues to be characterized by relatively high levels of literacy, education, and Russian-language ability.

Since Tajikistan's independence, however, the region has drifted into neglect. The most palpable aspect of this is its physical isolation. The drive from Dushanbe to the regional capital, Khorog, takes 14 hours under ideal conditions; more often than not, however, conditions are anything but ideal. Although on maps the road appears as Tajikistan's major (and in some places, only) east-west artery, for most of its length it is in fact nothing more than a one-lane dirt track clinging perilously to vertical escarpments. The twisted and rusting vehicles occasionally glimpsed in the valleys below -- many of them military transports dating from the civil war -- testify to the hazardousness of the route. Beyond Khorog the road improves somewhat as it climbs onto the 4,000-meter plateaus of eastern GBAO, and many stretches leading up to the Chinese and Kyrgyz borders are fairly well-paved. The improvement is not due to better maintenance, but rather the fact that the region's flatter terrain and lower precipitation have resulted in less erosion.

The region is frequently no easier to access by air than it is by land. Though there is ostensibly a daily flight from Dushanbe to Khorog, it is canceled at the least appearance of bad weather because the Antonov-28 flying the route must actually pass through, rather than over, the high peaks leading to Khorog. In places the plane's wings are reportedly within 50 meters of the mountains on either side. During the Soviet era this was reportedly the only route for which pilots received danger pay. The ticketing system for the flight is rudimentary: prospective travelers queue up each morning to see if the flight will take off. If it does not, they return the next morning, and so on. Those who make it onto the flight sometimes have to pay a small consideration to move to the front of the line.

A constant theme in discussions with business and political leaders in GBAO was the extent to which Dushanbe's policies have hampered the region's economic development. Though some said Dushanbe's policies might reflect a simple lack of interest in a distant and thinly-populated region, most believe the national leadership had deliberately sought to stunt the economic and political autonomy of a historically fractious region. During the 1992-97 civil war GBAO's population was generally aligned with the opposition, and to this day the government sees it as a potential challenge to central authority.

Dushanbe officially classifies GBAO as an agricultural region, despite the fact that only 0.2% of the land is arable. In official government statistics, GBAO appears to be relatively self-sufficient, growing 100% of its own potatoes and 70% of its own grain. In fact, however, a great deal of the region's produce is imported from Dushanbe or China. Precipitation has been declining steadily since the 1960s, so even the 13,000 hectares of arable land are producing progressively smaller yields. (The 2009 harvests were an exception due to above-average spring rains. In lower elevations apples and other fruit trees appeared abundant, and wheat was being cultivated in terraced fields as high as 3,300 meters.) Only in meat production is GBAO truly self-sufficient, and meat prices are considerably less than in Dushanbe. Livestock levels were declining as well, however. During the Soviet period the Pamirs had 30,000 yaks, but the number has since been halved.

Rather than developing GBAO as an agricultural region -- or, more accurately, failing to develop it at all -- the government could be concentrating on two potentially much more lucrative sources of revenue, mining and tourism. Badakhshan's soil contains sizable quantities of gold, silver, tungsten, uranium, nickel, and precious stones such as rubies. Indeed, in the mountains east of Khorog there are mines dating from the first millennium. Instead of developing these resources, however, the government continued to drag its feet on issuing licenses for mineral exploration, especially to international companies, under the premise that Tajikistan's geology is a state secret.

Few if any domestic companies have the capital and expertise to mount a profitable mining operation. Although the sector is underdeveloped throughout the country, the government is particularly reluctant to see a profitable mining enterprise in their region. A Canadian mining company spent several years in GBAO building access roads, drilling test mines, and bringing in equipment, only to have its license suddenly revoked by the Tajik government. Although details are unclear -- some said the company was mining tungsten while others said gold; some placed the mine north of Khorog, others to the east -- the fact that the story was so ubiquitous indicates the extent to which Badakhshanis see Dushanbe as hindering GBAO's development. (Note: In an unprecedented move, the government declassified a number of Soviet-era geological studies of the Fon Yaghnob coalfield to the north of Dushanbe, for which the U.S. Trade and Development Agency is funding a feasibility study. The declassification, which had been rejected on numerous occasions over the past year, required the signature of the President himself.)

Many in Badakhshan complain that the government in Dushanbe is not concentrating any resources on developing other industries in the region. They note that during and immediately after the Soviet period Khorog hosted a textile mill, a bread factory, a milk processing factory, and a hydropower station. Only the latter remains. Alibakhshov said 90% of the wool produced in GBAO is wasted because there are no facilities for cleaning and processing it. The same is true of hides. While there is Chinese interest in importing wool, phytosanitary restrictions require that it be cleaned before being exported. Much of GBAO's milk is also wasted because there are no means of exporting it. Regional officials say they do not have the funding to promote economic development on their own. As a result of government policies concentrating budget authority at the center, 79% of GBAO's revenue comes as subventions from Dushanbe. Private investors see GBAO's numbers as too small to be attractive.

Though the economics of industrial development in a region as remote and sparsely populated as GBAO may be questionable, several business and government contacts noted that the central government is failing to make even simple changes that would bring money into the region. Chief among these would be to open the Kulma border crossing with China to more traffic. While Kulma ranks as one of the world's more inaccessible crossings -- at 4,360 meters above sea level, hundreds of kilometers across unimproved roads from Khorog -- it nevertheless represents an economic lifeline for the region and the country. Millions of dollars in Chinese goods, from rice to minivans, pass through each year on their way to bazaars in Khorog, Dushanbe, and other cities.

In the summer of 2008, however, Kulma was closed to Tajik citizens entering China. Traders from GBAO who once easily bought goods in Kashgar, China, must now make their way by plane or vehicle to Dushanbe, take one of the twice-weekly flights to Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, then travel overland to Kashgar before returning to Tajikistan. Chinese citizens may continue to pass through Kulma in both directions. Interlocutors in GBAO were not sure why the border rules had changed. Some said it was part of a deliberate effort to hamper the region's economic growth, while others thought Beijing may have made the change during the Olympic games. Either way, most agree it has made trading in a harsh region even more difficult.

Much of Dushanbe's neglect of GBAO has a "cutting off its nose to spite its face" element to it. As a result of Soviet era transportation links, the vast majority of Tajikistan's trade comes through Uzbekistan, with which it has very poor relations. Shipments are frequently held up due to border closures, changing customs rules, and other difficulties. Officials in GBAO point out that the government should be actively promoting trade links with China rather than hindering them. Not only does this fill markets throughout Tajikistan, but it fills government coffers with customs fees. The fact that all of Kulma's customs fees go to the central budget also rankles some Badakhshanis. Tourism suffers as well. Kashgar receives some 2.5 million tourists a year, many of them western Europeans interested in Central Asia. Even if only a very small percentage of them were interested in extending their trip into Tajikistan, opening Kulma would increase by several orders of magnitude the number of tourists, and the amount of tourist revenue spent, in the Pamirs. As of mid-September 2009, the Murgab Ecotourism Association had assisted only 72 tourists to the region, according to the center's director. Tourists are hindered as well by the continuing requirement, a legacy of the USSR, to receive separate permission from the government to enter GBAO.

With 6,000 inhabitants, Murghab is the administrative center of eastern GBAO and the gateway to China and Kyrgyzstan. At upwards of 3,700 meters in altitude, the surrounding land is a vast high desert whose economy depends almost entirely on herding yaks, goats, and sheep. Despite the remoteness and harshness of the climate, there has been evidence of change. The town's market has doubled in size since the previous year, and many of the sellers' stalls are made out of more permanent structures (see reftel). Apples, tomatoes, peppers, and other produce from Kyrgyzstan and China were readily available, at prices only a little higher than in Dushanbe.

The region still faces immense challenges. Chief among these was the lack of power. Murghab's electricity comes from a small hydroelectric station built in 1960. The plant does not even merit the term hydropower station. It was more like a student project, slapped together over a few weeks one summer. Even if it operated at its rated capacity of 400 kWh, it would be wholly inadequate for Murghab's population, which has more than doubled since 1980. At its best, the plant only operates at 200 to 250 kWh during the spring thaw. In winter it produces less than half that. The lack of power was visible everywhere in Murghab; the town's incandescent bulbs shine so weakly they barely functioned as nightlights. All important functions were performed by private generators, whether diesel or solar-powered. Many of Murghab's citizens use Chinese-made solar panels to power light appliances.

As in much of GBAO, the general theme in Murghab was one of neglect and suspicion by the center. The ethnic question is a complicated one in GBAO. Pamiris expressed a contradictory set of understandings of their own ethnic identity and sense of belonging in Tajikistan. Many elaborate how they were different from Tajiks elsewhere in Tajikistan, frequently referring to those outside of Badakhshan as "Tajiks", evidently distinct from "Pamiris." When this distinction was pointed out, some offered the explanation that Pamiris are the "original" Tajiks, speaking ancient and uncorrupted (by Uzbek, Farsi, and Russian) versions of the Tajik language. Regardless of the historical and linguistic merits of this argument, it is evident that there exists a substantial sense of ethnic independence among Pamiris -- a sense that under some circumstances is at odds with an official narrative of ethnic unity promoted in Dushanbe. Linguists classify Tajik as a western Iranian dialect, along with Farsi and Dari, while the Pamiri languages belong to the eastern Iranian branch of the family, indicating separate but parallel development of the two language families.

In addition to language, one of the chief aspects separating Pamiris from others in Tajikistan is their Ismaili Shi'a faith and adherence to the Aga Khan. Many Pamiri homes prominently feature portraits of the Aga Khan. The many branches of the Aga Khan Development Network [AKDN] are very active in GBAO, involved in everything from hotel management to power production to relief work to the construction of a huge new university campus in Khorog. Some interlocutors in GBAO, however, expressed some cautiously worded but insistent criticism of the Aga Khan's activities. The AKDN has a monopoly on relief and development work in the region, essentially discouraging would be competitors from getting involved. Pamirs say the work of the Aga Khan was principled and useful, but they complain that the overall approach was paternalistic and top-down and did not address needs that Pamiris themselves felt were important.

GBAO ranks as one of the more remote regions on earth, and economic development is challenging. Pamiris are unlikely to benefit again from massive subsidies as they did during the Soviet era. Then again, it is also clear that the central government is doing little if anything to develop what potential exists. The Kulma policy is particularly short-sighted, robbing not only the region but the country as a whole of a much-needed source of tourist revenue, customs duties, and Chinese goods. The Pamir transit route offers an important counterweight to the current reliance on Uzbekistan for the majority of Tajikistan's imports, although the completion of the transport corridor from Dushanbe through the city of Gharm to Kyrgyzstan and on to China will be an important step in this direction. The central government is clearly wary about developing a region that recently sought territorial autonomy within Tajikistan. The question is whether a policy of neglect -- or outright obstruction -- will be more successful than one of support in ensuring harmony and economic development not only in GBAO, but the country as a whole.

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Page last modified: 12-08-2020 15:26:49 ZULU