Ethnic Conflict in Tajikistan
The war in Tajikistan has been one of the deadliest and most intractable conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet Union (FSU). With estimates ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 dead, more people died in this conflict than in all of the other conflicts in the FSU combined prior to the outbreak of war in Chechnya. Roughly half a million refugees were compelled to flee their homes. Western governments somewhat belatedly turned their attention to this conflict but found themselves faced with a situation riddled with confusion and misunderstanding.
As the conflict in Tajikistan first began to explode in the spring and summer of 1992, several fears were common among many Western observers. One was that the war was primarily an interethnic or religious war, stemming from deep historical ethnic or religious antagonisms, and consequently that compromise would be unlikely. Another was that the presence of Islamic forces in the opposition signaled a dramatic growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the region; and a third, that the conflict would spread throughout the entire Central Asian region, generating important strategic and political consequences.
At the time, all of these fears were misplaced. The origins of the conflict were more related to regional schisms and economic and political differences that developed during the Soviet period than they were to long-standing ethnic rivalries or religious antagonisms. In part they stemmed from vast disparities between north and south: the northern part of the country dominated politically, received a disproportionate share of economic investment, and experienced relatively high rates of growth, for example, while the southern regions remained among the poorest in the USSR. The increased economic hardship and struggles for power that accompanied the collapse of the USSR exacerbated these schisms.
Similarly, there were few indications that a strong, anti-Western fundamentalist Islam would develop in the region. The outbreak of war pitted Muslim against Muslim; and Tajik against Tajik and in its initial stages the war was very much an internal one to Tajikistan, contained on Tajik soil.