Forces of Nationalism
Ethnic tensions increased in Tajikistan, as they did elsewhere in Central Asia, under the troubled conditions of the late Soviet era. Already in the late 1970s, some ethnic disturbances and anti-Soviet riots had occurred. One consequence of heightened resentment of Soviet power was violence directed at members of other nationalities, who were made scapegoats for their attackers' economic grievances (see Economic Conditions in the Early 1990s, this ch.). An example of this conflict was a clash between Tajiks and Kyrgyz over land and water claims in 1989. Antagonism between Uzbeks and Tajiks reached a new level during Tajikistan's civil war of 1992, when Uzbeks living in Tajikistan joined the faction attempting to restore a neo-Soviet regime to power (see Transition to Post-Soviet Government, this ch.).
In 1989 attacks on Meskhetians (one of the Muslim groups deported from Central Asia by Stalin) spilled over from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan when about 2,000 Meskhetians were evacuated from eastern Uzbekistan to a remote settlement in northern Tajikistan. A violent conflict between inhabitants of the area and the Meskhetians resulted in the intervention of security forces and removal of the Meskhetians entirely from Central Asia.
The late 1980s and early 1990s also saw open criticism by Tajiks of their treatment as a people by the central Soviet authorities and by their Turkic neighbors, especially the Uzbeks. A key issue was disparagement of the Tajik heritage in statements of Soviet nationalities policy, which labeled the Tajiks a "formerly backward" people that only began to progress under Russian and Soviet tutelage. Tajiks, who claimed a heritage of more than 2,000 years of Persian and Eastern Iranian civilization, also were indignant at the emphasis on Russian and Western civilization, at the expense of the Tajik heritage, in the history and literature curricula of Soviet-era schools in their republic. Soviet policy toward publication of literature and the two Soviet-mandated alphabet changes served to isolate Tajiks from their cultural heritage.
One of the important consequences of the growth of Tajik nationalism in the late Soviet era was the enactment in 1989 of a law declaring Tajik the state language (although the use of Russian, Uzbek, or other languages was still recognized under some circumstances). The law officially equated Tajik with Persian and called for a gradual reintroduction of the Arabic alphabet. By the early 1990s, however, the law's main impact was to alarm the republic's Russian speakers; although some Russian loanwords were dropped in favor of contemporary Iranian Persian terms, the use of the Arabic alphabet remained sharply limited.
Like the Russians, the Uzbeks were criticized for denying the Tajiks' distinctive ethnic identity and ancient roots in Central Asia. Tajik nationalists accused the authorities in Soviet Uzbekistan of practicing overt discrimination against the Tajik population by forcing Tajiks to register their nationality as Uzbek, undercounting the size of the Tajik minority in Uzbekistan, and failing to provide Tajiks there with adequate access to educational and cultural resources in Tajik. Tajik nationalists also complained that the central government and their Central Asian neighbors had exploited Tajikistan's raw materials and damaged its environment.
Although nationalism had an increased appeal in Tajikistan in the late Soviet and early independence periods, it was not a dominant political force there. No popular movement advocated secession from the Soviet Union before its dissolution at the end of 1991, although there was support for renegotiating the union treaty to obtain more favorable conditions for Tajikistan. In the late 1980s, supporters of the communist old guard played on nationalist feelings to enhance their own position, but after Tajikistan became independent, those individuals became increasingly antinationalist; identification with local patron-client networks continued to rival nationalism as a political force.
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