An uneasy air of anticipation has descended over the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) after the region was the scene of massive protests in November as people came out to show their anger over the killing of a local resident at the hands of the police.

Eurasianet says that now many worry that the authorities are intentionally going back on their word to set the ground for a fresh and more brutal crackdown.

Advocates for autonomy are reportedly being targeted for arrest. Promises to deescalate the security presence in the region have pointedly been broken.

Over the past week, the state-run broadcaster in the GBAO has been running reports about what it describes as the region’s criminal gangs.  And the local community, the reports add ominously, have been lending these gangs cover.

Many in Khorog, the capital of the GBAO, are reportedly alarmed that officials are purposely seeking to spark a confrontation.

Eurasianet notes that the complaints of officials about gangs in the GBAO engaged in smuggling and racketeering have more than a grain of truth in them.  Few locals would deny that. But the story is more complicated than that.

Robust formal opposition to the regime is wholly impossible under the deeply authoritarian system, Eurasianet says, noting that in this vacuum of legitimate politics, criminal groups have in effect assumed the role of “informal leaders,” as they are often called. 

Tensions between Dushanbe and the GBAO have reportedly been bubbling away for decades and occasionally spill over into major unrest.  Serious clashes occurred in the region in 2012, 2014, 2018 and, most recently, in November last year.

That latest flareup was triggered by the killing of a local resident Gulbiddin Ziyobekov by law enforcement officers.  Khorog reacted with fury. Thousands came onto the city’s main square.  At least two people were killed after an initial attempt by government forces to suppress the demonstration, according to Eurasianet.

The crowds only dispersed after the government agreed to the creation of an investigative commission into Ziyobekov’s death.  There were also promises that participants in the rallies would not be prosecuted. Finally, officials pledged to restore internet connections.

Faromouz Irgashev, one of members of Group 44, told Eurasianet that law enforcement agencies – specifically, the General Prosecutor’s Office, the police and the State Committee for National Security, or SCNS – routinely summon ordinary people for questioning and thereby pile pressure on them.

Irgashev said that contrary to promises made after the November demonstrations, residents who chopped down trees to block roads and who clashed with police are being investigated.  Fully 66 people have had travel bans imposed on them over suspected involvement in the unauthorized rallies.  The death of Ziyobekov, meanwhile, is being forgotten about, he said.

Armed checkpoints have stood at the entrance to Khorog since 2018. Officials promised they would be removed.  That too was a lie.

Some analysts believe this month’s unrest in Kazakhstan may provide Rahmon with further cover for a security sweep in the GBAO. He and fellow members of a post-Soviet military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, readily went along with the official Kazakh narrative about those disturbances being the work of mysterious terrorist forces. Similar-sounding rhetoric is routinely used by the Tajik government to smear, discredit and finally imprison opponents.

“It seems [Rahmon’s] special services will try to present the situation in GBAO as being analogous to the Kazakh protests. By coupling that with some kind of ‘Afghan link’,” he will get the consent of Russia to destroy his opposition in Khorog,” Andrei Serenko, an expert on Central Asian security affairs at Moscow’s Center for the Study of Contemporary Afghanistan, wrote on his Telegram account.