Tajikistan’s security services have broken their usual silence to deny rumors that several members of the Alfa antiterrorist crack force have fled their post in the remote Gorno-Badakhshan province.
The speculation is an unwelcome reminder of a particularly shattering defection last year, when high-ranking OMON paramilitary police commander Gulmurod Halimov left for Syria and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
The State Committee for National Security, or GKNB as the body is known by its Russian initials, said in a statement on January 26 that the rumors were being spread by people inside and outside the country that are seeking to sow instability
“At the current time, all GKNB units are continuing their professional activity as normal and strictly abiding by their service duties,” the statement said.
The incendiary claims of a fresh defection appear to have initially surfaced on the Payhom website, which is linked to the now-banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
According to the report on Payhom, a group of around 11-12 Alfa troops dispatched to the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) on the night of January 21 disobeyed their orders and absconded with all their weapons in tow. The report claimed, although without providing sources for its information, that relatives of the Alfa troops in question have been detained in Dushanbe to compel the men to hand themselves in.
Payhom also said GKNB chief Saimumin Yatimov had personally traveled to GBAO to oversee the situation.
Just to compound the anxiety sparked by that report, which was published on January 23, residents of the capital, Dushanbe, over the weekend reported an unusually intense security presence in and around the city.
Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda said that situation was stable and that the intensification of security was part of a regular exercise procedure.
“This was just regular training. There are no grounds for worry. It is linked to global threats and so defense authorities need to be ready for any situation,” Rahimzoda said on January 25.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, said traffic police were checking cars at checkpoints, which have reportedly gone up around several cities. One resident of the Hisor district, which is just west of Dushanbe, told Ozodi that he had to go through five checkpoints.
The last time this level of security has been noted in Tajikistan dates back to early September, after an armed group led by disaffected defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda supposedly mounted an uprising in a bid to seize power.
That parallel has set tongues wagging in social media about what might be afoot this time.
The bulk of the speculation centers on a possible dramatic imminent change to Gorno-Badakhshan’s autonomous status. It has been long rumored that the government might at some stage seek to strip the region of its now vanishingly slight independence from the center.
According to online chatter, therefore, the tightened security is in place as readiness against possible public unrest sparked by proposed territorial changes.
But why go to the trouble of revoking the autonomy status?
A move of that nature would potentially be linked with a 2002 deal under which Tajikistan agreed to hand around 1,100 square kilometers of Gorno-Badakhshan territory to neighboring China in exchange for large debts being written off. The Chinese began erecting fences around the area in earnest in 2013, depriving the ethnic Kyrgyz sheep and yak herders living there of valuable grazing land.
The agreement to give up the land was ratified by the Tajik parliament in 2011 in the total absence of public discussion, least of all with villagers in the affected area, who were instead cowed into mute compliance by the security services. Authorities defended the decision at the time, arguing that it was a good deal and that the land in question was of no use in any case.
Even though the transfer of land has been completed in all respects, the final formalities would theoretically require approval from GBAO regional authorities. Scrapping the autonomy status would be a neat way of circumventing that hurdle.
Doing so, however, risks sparking a fresh round of confrontations with people in the region, who have proven more than willing in the past to come out in numbers to protest Dushanbe’s actions.