Gregory Freidin


The New Republic, October 14, 1991



On September 22, marshal law was declared in yet another republic of Soviet Central Asia -- Tadzhikistan, a small country of over four million people, mostly Pharsi-speaking Muslims, inhabiting the region of the Pamir mountains bordering on China and Afghanistan. The overwhelmingly Communist Supreme Soviet of Tadzhikistan replaced the Acting President, Kadreddin Aslonov (the presidential elections are scheduled for October 27), with the strongman Rakhmon Nabiev, who had served as the head of the Tadzhik Communist Party until 1985. Today's reports from Tadzhikistan suggest that this strategically situated republic, with its impressive but poorly organized anti-communist opposition, may be on the verge of a bloodbath.


Many will be inclined to treat this event as additional proof of fundamental incompatibility between the "East" and the "West" of the Soviet Union. It has been a key article of received wisdom among the students of the Soviet Union that Central Asian republics (with the exception of Kazakhstan with its large Russian population) ought to be jettisoning from the future non-Soviet Union, and the sooner the better. One of the major sources of the budget deficit, these republics are castigated for being a drain on the ever-dwindling resources of the imperial center, and, as parts the Islamic cultural sphere, they are seen as an alien, potentially hostile, force, inimical to democracy and, therefore, incapable of close productive cooperation with the "Christian" and "democratic" republics of Russia, Bielorussia, and the Ukraine. Both arguments have merit, as do most stereotypes, but like many stereotypes, they are seriously flawed. Whatever the budget statistics tell us about the net drain on Union resources, they do not take into account the ecological, social, and economic disasters brought about by half a century of thoughtlessly one-sided, unchecked development -- imposed, not from Tashkent, Dushanbe, Alma-Ata, or Frunze, but from Moscow. Indeed, some advocate such a separation precisely because of the exorbitant price that would have to be paid for reversing or alleviating some of the more notable disasters: the drying up of the Aral sea, the mind-boggling contamination by pesticides of land, air and water causing astronomical cancer and mortality rates, or the social consequences of forcing generations of children to pick cotton instead of attending school.


The argument regarding the incompatibility between the Christian cultural sphere of the Slavic republics and their Central Asian counterparts, shaped by Islam, is equally questionable, betraying as it does the to blame on the victim for the perpetrator's sins. After all, the Bolshevik "oriental despotism" was imposed by the "occidental" center, not the Islamic periphery, nor were the horrors of the Gulag or the disastrous development schemes invented by the minds steeped in Islamic tradition. At the same time, since before the 1917 revolution, Russian culture has functioned in Central Asia not only as the culture of the oppressor, but also as the culture of the Enlightenment and emancipation and was adopted by many members of the local elite as their own without altogether replacing their particular local identity. True, the reputation of Central Asian republics for greater conservatism, for a singularly oppressive combination of traditional corruption, nepotism, and communist authoritarianism is well deserved. Yet, the high percentage of ethnic Russians residing permanently in Central Asian republics and constituting a substantial portion of the local political, economic, and cultural leadership should give pause to those rushing to make sweeping generalizations. After all, few would deny that the vices for which Soviet Central Asia has been famous, are blooming untamed in the European republics as well. As an example, Bielorussia comes readily to mind, with its well-deserved reputation for being the perestroika Vend?e and her leadership's active support of the putschists.


The August coup d'etat proved to be an instant test of one's commitment to democracy and freedom, and the results cannot be tallied neatly along the "Orient/Occident" divide. Indeed, with the exception of the Baltic leadership, the only two republic heads who threw all caution to the wind and immediately came out against the plotters were Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Askar Akaev of the Central Asian republic of Kirghizia. Kazakhstan's Nazarbaev and Kravchuk of the Ukraine, -- at least, initially -- displayed considerable caution. In the words of a commentator for the Russian TV, spoken on the air in the heady hours of August 22, this hesitation "justly qualified them as provincial." This was a searing insult, given the centuries-old history of Russia's imperial state. By the same lights, Akaev's behavior was thoroughly cosmopolitan. As soon as he learned about the coup, he send his emissaries to other republics with an invitation to form a block against the plotters. This courage and decisiveness earned the Kirghiz leader enormous respect, and he used it wisely in helping to shape the transitional central authority in the wake of the putsch. Those who were present, as I was, at the post-coup session of the USSR Supreme Soviet (August 24-31) and were privy to the wheeling and dealing behind the scene knew that it was the soft-spoken Akaev, with his moral authority intact, who helped Yeltsin and Gorbachev to find a common ground; it was he who skillfully muted the clamor raised by Yeltsin's unceremoniously hegemonic behavior in the first days following the coup; and it is his enlightened policies that promise to make his republic, with its substantial Russian population, a safe haven for business and a model of inter-ethnic peace. Whatever the future holds for the former Soviet Union, its peoples can ill afford to lose a leader of Akaev's caliber and stature or, for that matter, the institutions which his leadership has enabled to emerge.


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This why the fate of another Central Asian republic, Tadzhikistan, straddling the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, should be of serious concern to everybody interested in the "new world order." Like Kirghizia, Tadzhikistan, too, can have a leader of exceptional courage, stature, and imagination: Davlat Khudonazarov, the candidate of the republic's democratic forces, including the Popular Front, the Democratic Party and the small and hitherto banned Party of Islamic Renaissance. One of the best-known Soviet film makers (at the age of 26, he has twenty documentaries and ten feature films to his credit), Khudonazarov entered political fray in earnest in 1988 when he was elected USSR People's Deputy from Tadzhikistan. Despite every legal and illegal obstacle set up by the Tadzhik Communist Party to prevent his victory, he received 90% of the votes in his district in the capital Dushanbe. Together with Sakharov, Yeltsin, Popov, he soon became one of the most active members of the Inter-regional Group of Deputies. The First Congress of People's Deputies acknowledged his leadership potential by electing him to the upper chamber, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. A most severe challenge of his abilities as a leader came during the February, 1989, riots in the capital of Dushanbe. Breaking his engagements at the West Berlin International film festival, Khudonazarov (he had been elected by that time Chairman of the USSR Union of Cinematographers) flew home and undertook to negotiate -- right in the streets -- a truce between the army, which was ready to pounce on the demonstrators, and the crowds, enraged by the shooting deaths of twenty eight civilians (over a hundred were wounded). He succeeded in preventing further bloodshed, if not the unjust prosecution of some of the demonstration organizers. All his subsequent efforts to set up an independent investigative commission were first blocked by the local authorities and, later, by an alliance between the republic's President, Kakhar Makkhamov and the USSR Interior Minister, Boris Pugo, despite Gorbachev's promise to set up an independent investigation. In January, in the wake of the bloodshed in Vilnius, Khudonazarov was one of the authors of the "letter of 116," signed by many of the most respected and authoritative figures in Soviet culture, which sharply criticized Gorbachev's stance as one that encourage illegality and violence.


Immediately after the coup, while still in Dushanbe, Khudonazarov used his Moscow office of the Cinematographers' Union to organize resistance. On the 20th, under an assumed name he flew to Moscow and was able to organize quickly the transfer of jurisdiction of his own union, as well as the unions of Soviet musicians, actors and architects to the authority of the Russian Federation. In part, inspired by his example, the Ministers of Ecology (Nikolay Vorontsov) and Chemical Industry, (Khadzhiev) followed suit. This was an act of enormous personal and civic courage, considering the fact that some of the ministers, who had initially agreed to sign the letter declaring the transfer, had withdrawn their signiture at the last moment (I have in my possession the letter's copy with one of its signitures whited out). Using his prerogatives as a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee (he was included in accordance with the so-called Yakovlev-Gorbachev slate at the 28th Party Congress), he saw to it that these documents were received by the top leaders, Lukianov among them, despite their efforts to be elusive.


On August 27, Khudonazarov told me that he had received documents proving that the the First Secretary of the Tadzhik Communist party and the republic's president, Makkhamov, had been a supporter of the coup. By that time, Makhamov had already renamed the Party into the "Party of People's (sic!) Democracy" and set up a new Presidential Council, including in it the heads of the Border Guards, the regular armed forces, and the KGB. We discussed his plans to release the documents at the session of the Supreme Soviet. I asked him about his small son and his wife, who were still back home in Tadzhikistan and very vulnerable. He was worried. The new head of the KGB, Vadim Bakatin, whom he had asked that morning to provide security for his family, confessed that he had not yet had anybody he could trust in Tadzhikistan. Having found some other, local, means to assure his family's security, Khudonazarov took the floor and made an impassioned speech, calling on the deputies not to abandon their compatriots to the arbitrary rule of the provinical juntas. "The putsch," he declared with foresight, "has not really failed, its goals are being realized -- in the failure to sign the Union Treaty, in the deteriorating relations among the republics, and the worsening political situation in some of them." He called for a united resistance to despotism, for using all available legal remedies against it, but cautioned against revenge: "May God save us from acting illegally. We must not encourage a satanic revelry when the air is charged with negative electricity seeking a discharge. We must be gentler and treat many with compassion and kindness." The other Tadzhik deputies, who would later on warmly congratulate Khudonazarov out of the TV camera eyes, sat motionless his speech.


Some time in early September, urged by the Tadzhik democrats, Khudonazarov agreed to run for President of the Republic. On September 20th, he left Moscow for the capital Dushanbe where mass anti-cimmunist demonstrations prompted the city's Mayor, Maksud Ikramov, to follow the example of Moscow's Gavriil Popov and order the removal of the towering statue of Lenin. I have been told that a tug-of-war between the detractors and the upholders resulted in the statue falling down and breaking into several pieces. Rakhmon Nabiev, the new emergency President has ordered the arrest of Ikramov, and to have the statue re-installed. According to the last communication from Dushanbe, Mayor Ikramov is still at large, the statue cannot be put together again, and Davlat Khudonazarov is heading the resistance.


Copyright (c) 1991 by Gregory Freidin