Staunton, February 12 – The 1990 events in the course of which Moscow sent in its military against its own people in Baku known as Black January presaged the end of the USSR. Those in Dushanbe in which republic forces attacked Tajiks who had formed self-defense units had a different result: they led to five years of civil war in that Central Asian country.
Azerbaijan’s Black January is by far the better known of these two events (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/01/gorbachev-black-january-in-baku-and-end.html), but Dushanbe’s Black February deserves attention not only for what it led to but also for the implications it has for dealing with conflicts across the post-Soviet space.
The differences between the two events of early 1990 are striking. In the Azerbaijan case, Moscow sent in troops from the outside to crush what it saw as an independence movement that would soon be beyond the capacity of the center to control. Those forces killed almost indiscriminately in an act of state terror.
In Tajikistan, however, the challenge was different and so was the response of both the authorities and the population. Protests had broken out after reports spread that Dushanbe was allowing the resettlement of Armenians in that city. The authorities responded by using the forces on the republic’s territory, sparking a violent response.
After that, as Andrey Zakhatov, who lived in Dushanbe at that time, tells the Fergana news agency, the republic government called on the population to organize into self-defense units to prevent any more violence. The people responded with alacrity in an unprecedented move for a republic in the USSR (fergana.agency/articles/114991/).
“In every district of Dushanbe, units of self-defense began to be formed. That unique process of the self-organization of the city’s residents, something before that time unknown in any union republic occurred rapidly, especially after Khakhkhor Makhamov, the first secretary of the republic Communist Party Central Committee, issued a call for that.
“Not only I but a number of my journalistic colleagues and experts are convinced,” Zakhatov says, “that the main causes of ‘Black February’ lay must deeper than one would have thought 30 years ago.” They include both the high rate of population growth in the republic and the responses of Tajiks to perestroika.
The first of these exacerbated the land shortage and also had the effect of leading ever more urban residents to organize recreation places in rural areas where their more modern forms of behavior offended the more traditional residents of the villages and divided Tajik society into two groups.
And the second led urban residents to take up the call for the defense of the native language and culture, something that transformed the conflict in Tajikistan from a local one into a clash between the republic and Moscow with groups like Rastokhez and the Party of Islamic Rebirth emerging and assuming leadership of such demands.
Moscow made this worse by failing to give adequate coverage of what was in fact happening, something that led to the spread of wild rumors that only divided people more than they had been. Had the center provided adequate coverage, Zakhatov says, Tajiks and Russians could have acted on the basis of reality not rumor.
But because central television almost completely ignored these events, the rumors became not only the cause of future clashes in Tajikistan but the invocation of rumor as truth by Moscow commentators like Dmitry Rogozin who spoke of Black February as being “a genocide” against Russians, something completely untrue.
There was a third cause as well, Zakhatov says, and that was the decision to disband the units of self-defense all at once, thus eliminating the force that had done so much to prevent the violence from getting worse and infuriating many who had played this positive role because it showed that the powers that be weren’t prepared to cooperate or keep their word.
Getting this history right is becoming ever more difficult with the passage of time. Many who lived in Dushanbe then have left or died. Many archives were destroyed during the civil war. And officials like Mikhail Gorbachev has said that even he “doesn’t know who gave the order to shoot at protesters” or, it could be added, to disband the self-defense units.