During the Soviet era, Moscow managed to hold the lid on a pressure-cooker of clanbased tensions that had existed long before Russian intervention. Tajikistan’s various factions – Leninabadis from the north, Kulyabis from the south and their hostile neighbours from Kurgan-Tyube, Garmis from the east, and Pamiris from the mountainous province of Gorno Badakhshan (Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, GBAO, or simply Badakhshan) – had all been kept in line under Soviet rule. When independence came, the lid blew off. Civil war ensued and the clan struggles claimed around 60,000 lives and made refugees of over half a million.
As a way out of the internecine conflict, Emomali Rakhmonov (now known as Rakhmon), the former communist boss of Kulyab district, was chosen to front the government. The Kulyabis fought their way to power with a scorched-earth policy against their Islamic-leaning rivals from the Garm Valley and Kurgan-Tyube. Rakhmanov was sworn in as president after a disputed election and an all-out push from Kulyabi and Leninabad forces to get him into office. Kulyabi forces, led by Sanjak Safarov (who had previously spent 23 years in prison for murder), then embarked on an orgy of ethnic cleansing. Anyone found in Dushanbe with a Badakhshan or Khatlon ID card was shot on the spot.
The November 1992 elections did nothing to resolve the conflict (the opposition in exile refused to take part in the vote) and the Islamic opposition continued the war from bases in the Karategin region and Afghanistan, echoing the basmachi campaigns of 70 years earlier. An economic blockade of Badakhshan led to severe famine in the Pamirs during 1992 and ’93. Rakhmanov was propped up by Russian forces, which had been drawn into the conflict as de facto protectors of the Kulyab regime.
Russian troops controlled some 50 military posts along the Afghan border. ‘Everyone must realise’, Boris Yeltsin said in a 1993 pronouncement, ‘that this is effectively Russia’s border, not Tajikistan’s.’ Russia’s (and later Uzbekistan’s) fear was that if Tajikistan fell to Islamic rebels, Uzbekistan would be next. In late 1994 a second presidential election was held, in which Rakhmanov romped to victory. This surprised no one, as he was the only candidate.