Main languages: Tajik, Russian, Uzbek, Pamiri languages, other languages including Turkmen, Yaghnobi and Kyrgyz
The official language is Tajik, a dialect of the Persian language. Russian is widely used in Dushanbe and other major cities among the intelligentsia, and political and business elites. It serves as the language of communication between various ethnic groups. Also, Russian has legal status as the language for interethnic communication according to national legislation (Constitution of Tajikistan). Uzbek (a Turkic language) is spoken by ethnic Uzbeks primarily in northern Sughd Province and Kubodiyon and Bokhtar, in the southern part of Tajikistan. Shughni is spoken by the Pamiri people in Khorugh, capital of Gorno–Badakshan Autonomous Province. Worthy of mention is the fact that the Pamiri languages include six other dialects mutually used by locals. Another distinct language is Yaghnobi spoken by the Yaghnobis, living in Zerafshan Valley and Zafarabod District in mountainous areas of Sughd Province. English is in high demand, particularly among the youth. The major reasons are educational and professional opportunities abroad and access to information.
Main religions: Islam (Sunni, Khanafiya Mashab, Ismai’li, Shi’a), Orthodox Christianity
Main minorities and indigenous peoples: According to government statistics and other sources for the years 2020 and 2021, the population of Tajikistan was estimated to be 10,050,414 people, in which 4,940,198 were men (49 per cent) and 5,110,216 were women (51 per cent). Tajikistan is populated by different ethnic groups. The majority are Tajiks, making up 85 per cent (8,542,581) of the population. About 11 per cent (1,093,203) is identified as Uzbek, mostly living in the following districts in Sughd Province: Jabbor Rasulov, Devashtich, Asht, Shahriston, Zafarobod, Spitamen and Bobojon Gafurov; and in the southern Khatlon Province in Bokhtar, Vakhsh, Temurmalik, Kubodiyon, Shaartuz, as well as the capital, Dushanbe. There are also Kyrgyz, who number 55,915 (0.5 per cent), located mostly in Jirgatol of Rasht Valley, Murgab in Pamir, and in the north – Isfara, Gafurov, J.Rasulov, Khistevarz Districts. Turkmens are estimated to be 14,031 people, mostly living in Jilikul, Shaartuz in the southern part of Tajikistan. Russians make up 11,318 people. Many Russians left after the civil war (1992-1997). Now the number of Russians may be increasing, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in September 2022. Tatars are a small minority in Khatlon Province; they consider themselves Arab by descent, although they speak Tajik. They are estimated to be 5,415 people. There is also a small community of Arabs – 3,234 people, who live in Qubodiyon, also in Khatlon Province, Khisor in the Districts of Republican Subordination, and Isfara in Sughd Province.
The Afghan refugee population has increased following the Taliban’s return to power in 2021. According to the Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan, there were around 10,000 Afghans, mostly refugees, in the country by early 2022. Around 4,000 of them have since secured residency rights in Canada. Currently, Afghans are residing primarily in Vahdat District in the Districts under Republican Subordination.
There are also smaller communities of Turks, Chinese, Persians, Koreans, Germans, Kazakhs and Azerbaijanis residing in Tajikistan.
Notably, the census included Pamiri people, who are estimated to comprise about 230,100 people (2.2 per cent of the population) in 2022, within the Tajik category – a categorization which they dispute. During the census, Pamiris and Yaghnobis were registered as Tajiks, while Laqays, Kongrats, Durmens, Barlos, Katagans, Uzys, Mings, Kesamirs and Semizs were also recorded as Uzbeks.
Pamiris live in Gorno-Badakhshan (also known as Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast or GBAO) in the eastern part of Tajikistan. The total population is 230,000 people, according to national statistics for 2022. Pamiri culture is a mixture of ancient Zoroastrian beliefs and Ismailism, a Shi’a branch of Islam. The culture began to form over two thousand years ago and has survived to this day due to the extreme isolation afforded by the formidable Pamir Mountains. In the past, Pamiri culture was prevalent in several mountain enclaves of Central Asia, but today it thrives almost exclusively in the towns and villages spread along the Pamir Highway.
The culture began when Indo-Iranian tribes migrated to the region more than two millennia ago, bringing the Zoroastrian religion and culture with them. This culture was further shaped by the extremely harsh living conditions in the Pamirs which influenced everything from lifestyle and traditions to unique rituals and practices. In the 8th century, Central Asia was invaded by Arab tribes which brought Islam to the land. Unlike Tajiks and most other regional ethnic groups, the Pamiri people voluntarily accepted the beliefs of the Shi’a branch of Islam, for Ismailism arrived not through armies but through preachers.
Pamiris are a marginalised minority facing many challenges and security problems. The region lacks infrastructure and suffers the highest poverty rate in the country, at 39 per cent of the population. On average, 90 per cent of family income is spent on food, due to high unemployment, especially among youth. Fifty per cent of the population lacks ready access to drinking water, and there are high rates of anaemia among children and women. The region’s isolation is exacerbated by strict controls from the government and limited access to information, e.g. through internet shutdowns and threats of state reprisals against local journalists. The authorities regularly detain lawyers, civil society activists, youth leaders, entrepreneurs and others.
Another marginalised ethnic group in Tajikistan are Yaghnobis, who are settled in area between the Zarafshan and Gissar mountain ranges: currently Ayni and Kukhistoni Mastchoh Districts and the Yaghnob Valley. A number of Yaghnob families also live in Dushanbe, Varzob, Rudaki, Yavan, Shahrinav, Khisor and Vahdat Districts. Before their resettlement began in the 1960s, there were 32 villages in Yaghnob, where about four thousand people lived. In March 1970, valley residents were forcibly relocated to Zafarobod district in helicopters. In total, over 3,000 Yaghnob residents were resettled. Based on a study by a local scholar conducted in 2019, there are currently thought to be 1,704 Yaghnobi families, comprising a total number of 8,972 people in Tajikistan.
The Yaghnobi language and culture are under threat of extinction, and the few (less than 1,000) residents remaining in the Yaghnob Valley do not receive any proper state support. Despite repeated requests to the government’s Committee of Language and Terminology to incorporate the Yaghnobi language into the school curriculum, no action has been taken.
Due to the under-developed infrastructure in their region, Yaghnobis live in poor conditions, with lack of access to primary education and health care. It is especially hard for pregnant women in wintertime, as roads are closed due to the harsh weather. Yaghnobi families face economic hardship; some localities lack electricity or other services. The community mainly lives off of subsistence farming.
The Yaghnobi language is a Persian language and similar to Farsi. The law on national language indicates that the Yaghnobi language should be protected, as well as Pamiri. This language has similarities with other Eastern Iranian languages like Pamiri, Ossetian and Pashto and is less similar to Tajik, which is part of the Western Iranian language group. Despite the legislation protection, both Yaghnobi and Pamiri are under threat of extinction.
There is also a very small Jewish community in Tajikistan. The population is estimated at between 200 and 600, with most of them concentrated in Dushanbe, Khujand and other regional centres of the country. About 40 per cent of Tajik Jews are of Bukharan origin, and the rest are Ashkenazim who moved from elsewhere in the Soviet Union during World War II. Of the 15,000 living in Tajikistan in 1989, only a few hundred are left. A small house-synagogue is maintained by the community. The previous synagogue, a centre of Dushanbe Jewish life, was torn down in 2008 to make way for a presidential palace and park. Its destruction led to international outcry, and the current building was given to the community in partial compensation. The synagogue in Khujand was closed in 1999.
Growing authoritarianism in Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest country, has seen a widespread crackdown on human rights activists and political opposition groups as the regime of Emomali Rahmon – who has ruled as President since 1992, shortly after Tajikistan gained independence – has taken steps to consolidate its power, including a constitutional referendum that abolished term limits for Rahmon and paved the way for his son to succeed him. The state has targeted the families of dissident exiles, harassed the independent media, jailed lawyers who defended opposition figures and broke up what was previously the only legal Islamic party in the country.
The government of Tajikistan has also long targeted what it perceives as non-Tajik influences on its domestic culture. Poorly developed and discriminatory national policies have fragmented Tajik society into insular ethnic identities, a legacy of the country’s five-year civil war that ended in 1997. In this repressive climate religious and ethnic minorities have particularly suffered, both as collateral damage and as a result of direct targeting. This includes ethnic Uzbeks, the country’s largest minority, who continue to be politically marginalized and are regularly referred to as members of the ‘Uzbek diaspora’, despite being citizens of Tajikistan.
In 2015, authorities accused the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) of plotting to overthrow the state, ordered it to shut down and designated it a terrorist group. In June 2016 the country’s Supreme Court handed out life sentences to two party chairmen, 28-year sentences to four other leaders, and sentences ranging from two to 14 years for other party activists. Hundreds of party members were reportedly jailed since the 2015 crackdown and many others forced to flee the country. While the government justified its attack on the IRP by alleging links to ISIS, the party had been vocal in its opposition to jihad. Analysts have suggested it could have potentially served as a buffer against radicalization by giving believers a voice in government. As it is, the repression of the party amplifies a message that the state has been sending for years – that devout Muslims, particularly Sunnis whose practices may differ from the narrowly-defined brand of Hanafi teachings that the government mandates, do not have a place in the Tajik state.
The IRP’s suppression has been accompanied by several other official displays of intolerance for diverse expressions of Muslim identity. Local authorities in various parts of the country have collectively closed shops selling hijabs and other clothing that law enforcement deemed reminiscent of Arab or Afghan religious dress, counselled thousands of women to remove their hijabs, and forcibly shaved the beards off men. The official crackdown on ‘alien’ influences has been accompanied by a range of draconian measures against anyone who has opposed it: in May 2016, for instance, a court in the northern district of Isfara sentenced a local man to a year in prison for inciting religious hatred after he filmed a video of police arresting two women for wearing hijabs that was later shared online. In September that year, the last remaining legal madrasas in the country were closed on the grounds that their teachings deviated from those of the state.
Authorities also suppress many non-Muslim religious practices. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose organization was banned since 2007 on the grounds that they proselytize, continue to meet and practice in private while actively working for legal status. The group reports periodic mistreatment at the hands of authorities, including raids on centres of worship where police have allegedly beaten congregants.
Due in part to the scale of religious repression in Tajikistan, the issue of inter-ethnic relations has received less coverage by media and human rights organizations. Yet the cultures and languages of ethnic minorities have also fallen victim to the government’s attempts to establish a hegemonic state identity. A vivid example is Rahmon’s 2016 order to rename ten prominent places bearing Turkic – that is, Uzbek or Kyrgyz – names with Tajik names. While this move may not have had a profound impact on the day-to-day lives of Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, it reflects the increasing hegemony of Tajik which has left some Uzbeks with limited career opportunities.
Furthermore, hostile relations with neighbouring Uzbekistan have reinforced Tajik nationalism, making daily life particularly difficult for Uzbeks. This reinforces a broader climate of antagonism and exclusion. Uzbeks remain underrepresented in many areas of public life, and discrimination has reportedly encouraged some Uzbeks to claim Tajik ethnicity on their official forms to access greater opportunities than would typically be available to them. There have even been reports that Uzbek parents increasingly choose to send their children to Tajik-language schools for this reason.
Relations between the two countries have improved significantly after 2018 with the launch of a number of joint initiatives for economic and energy cooperation with Uzbekistan. These include the Rogun Hydropower Project as well as the inauguration in 2022 of the first passenger train in 30 years between Dushanbe and Tashkent.
Their relationship has also expanded since August 2022 to encompass military cooperation, reflecting shared security concerns regarding Afghanistan. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have however taken different approaches to the Taliban government in Afghanistan, with the latter opting for more direct engagement.
While Tajikistan has benefited from a thaw in relationships with one neighbouring country, relations with the other neighbour, Kyrgyzstan, have deteriorated. Sporadic clashes were taking place throughout 2022, including in January, March and June, leading to casualties among both civilians and border guards. In September 2022, the long-running border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan escalated, causing a hundred casualties and the displacement of a thousand people.
Ethnic tensions along the Tajik-Kyrgyz border were present already during Soviet times, and until the present day, only 60 per cent of the border between the two countries is demarcated. The current disagreement centres on the ownership of land and water sources along the border. The dispute has intensified, due to a stalled negotiation process which has led to increased militarization of the border area that contributed in turn to the recent burst of violence. Although both parties were reluctant to take responsibility for the escalation of the conflict on the border, a ceasefire agreement was signed shortly after the incident in neighbouring Uzbekistan, at a summit of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
There are speculations that one of the reasons for the conflict is the upcoming handover of power in Tajikistan. Long-standing President Emomali Rahmon is 69 years old and is preparing to pass the position on to his son Rustam Emomali, who is currently the speaker of Tajikistan’s parliament. Such a succession could be thought to require a demonstration of power. In addition, for Rahmon, this may be an attempt to distract the international community as well as regional neighbours from the current crackdown on Pamiris by the Tajik government.
The sparsely-populated east of Tajikistan is home to a significant linguistic and religious minority – the Pamiri people who speak several languages in the Eastern Iranian group and are predominantly Ismaili Shi’a Muslims, unlike Tajikistan’s Sunni majority. They are concentrated predominantly in Gorno-Badakhshan (also known as Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast or GBAO), where they make up the majority and which is considered the economically most disadvantaged region of Tajikistan.
Gorno-Badakhshan is a multi-cultural region, home to a range of indigenous and minority populations. The predominant religion in the region is Ismaili Shi’a, whose adherents see the Aga Khan as their spiritual leader, unlike the majority Sunni population in Tajikistan. Khorugh is the main town of the region. Most of the population belong to a linguistic and religious minority. In the eastern part of Gorno-Badakhshan, there is also a significant Kyrgyz minority, who also refer to themselves as ‘Pamiri’ and are impacted by the political and economic situation. There has been a general trend of loss of Pamiri language and culture in the late twentieth century, due to a lack of support on the part of the state and the education system for their promotion.
Although Gorno-Badakhshan is designated as an autonomous region, the central government has retained and gradually reinforced its close control over the local administration. Regional authority representatives are appointed rather than elected. An increased military presence in the region has further increased the discontent among the local population, creating a climate of fear and insecurity amongst residents. Khorugh, the main town of Gorno-Badakhshan, has been the scene of violent clashes and demonstrations against suspected human rights violations by security forces in 2012, 2014, 2018, 2021 and 2022. Demonstrations in May and June 2022 were met with a severe crackdown by the government, which was still continuing at the end of the year.
The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation in February 2022 has precipitated a number of socio-economic changes within both the Russian Federation and Tajikistan, as the two economies are closely linked. The deteriorating economic situation in Russia, has the potential to lead to a substantial number of migrant workers from Tajikistan and Gorno-Badakhshan returning. This is in addition to a sharp increase in the prices of certain essential goods, including imports from Ukraine and Russia.
The Republic of Tajikistan is a small landlocked republic in south-east Central Asia. The terrain is mountainous, with the northern part of the country (Khujand) cut off from the rest of the republic. Tajikistan borders Uzbekistan to the north and west, Kyrgyzstan to the north-east, the People’s Republic of China to the east and Afghanistan to the south. Its territory includes the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan in the Pamir mountains. Partially because of its size, and the fact that only 7 per cent is arable land while the rest is mountainous, Tajikistan never received such large numbers of Slavic settlers as other parts of Central Asia.
The population of Tajikistan is growing by about 220,000 more people annually. This raises critical problems, especially concerning lack of access to land and other resources, because of poverty and government corruption.
In past years, tensions existed between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Roghun dam, located in Tajikistan, was first proposed in 1959. Construction commenced in 1976 but was interrupted with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The government of Uzbekistan protested in 2010, expressing concern that the dam would hamper access to water supplies. Presently, there is a mutual agreement that Tajikistan will ensure that Uzbekistan retains necessary access.
The land that is now Tajikistan has for more than 6,000 years been the site of human habitation. Its proximity to Iran has meant that for much of its more recent history it was within the sphere of the Persian empire. While Russia’s proximity has meant it has had contacts with this part of Asia for centuries, it was in the 19th century, between 1873 and 1876, that it conquered the khanates Khokand, Bukhara, and Khiva, and in so doing prepared the ground for the eventual creation of what is today Tajikistan. In 1895, the British and the Russians agreed to use the Amu Darya River as the border between the Russian and British Empires, and this became the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In 1924, it became the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, a part of Uzbekistan. In 1929, it received the status of a constituent republic of the USSR as the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic.
Tajikistan declared independence in September 1991 and established a presidential republic. Rahmon Nabiyev, a former first secretary of the Tajikistan Communist Party, was elected president obtaining 57 per cent of the vote. His main rival, Davlat Khudonazarov, representing various democratic and Islamic parties, received 30 per cent. The important factor in Nabiyev’s victory was the backing by the Khujand northern clans and the Uzbek and Russian minorities, who feared that the country might be transformed into a Tajik ethnic and Muslim state.
Aggravation of the economic situation and Nabiyev’s unwillingness to enter a meaningful power-sharing arrangement with the opposition, as well as frustration among those groups seeking the establishment of an Islamic state, led to increasing tensions. Riots started in April–May 1992 and resulted in armed clashes in Dushanbe, the capital. The civil war, which erupted in summer and autumn 1992, claimed up to 100,000 dead and a million refugees. The civil war saw mobilization of supporters along regional, ethnic and clan lines in the struggle to resolve the ideological conflict between Islam and secularism and the political question of who would rule the country.
Different parties and organizations appeared in the country under the name of ‘democracy’. However, their activities were in fact aimed at illegally seizing power, changing the social system of the country and building an Islamic state. By threats and violence, these organizations divided up the republic into regions and started a fratricidal war between Tajiks. Parliamentary deputies were taken hostage, and under threat of violence, the chairman of the parliament and other officials were forced to resign their posts. The creation of a so-called government of national consensus was pushed through parliament. President Nabiyev was forced to resign on 7 September 1992, but this failed to stop the conflict in the south.
In November 1992, the parliament accepted Nabiyev’s resignation, abolished the presidency and elected Emomali Rahmon as parliamentary chairman. The Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CIS) peacekeeping forces for Tajikistan were established. In December, the opposition-led government fell, and Rahmon took office as head of state. Uzbek and Russian military support ensured that the new government stayed in power. These developments finalized the first round of power redistribution in Tajikistan, when a Khujand–Kulob alliance was installed in power, with Kulobis from Rahmon’s region in a dominant position. Ethnic and social fragmentation increased. The mandate of the CIS peacekeeping troops was extended into 1996. Following important military gains by the opposition, a UN-brokered peace agreement was signed by Rahmon and Islamic opposition leader Sayed Abdullo Nouri in December 1996. As well as an end to the fighting, the agreement called for a general amnesty, a prisoner exchange and the repatriation of refugees. The agreement promised 30 per cent opposition party representation in every government structure. The December agreement was designed to become the cornerstone for the creation of a national reconciliation commission in 1997.
While disarmament occurred in 1999 and parliamentary elections were held in 2000, some areas of the country remained under the control of former opposition forces, despite Rahmon largely consolidating power. There were also assassinations in subsequent years of a number of high-ranking officials, including a peace accords negotiator and a minister of culture. Overall, democratic institutions and the rule of law were not adequately strengthened in the wake of the peace agreement. The rate of reconstruction was slow, while people remain seriously impoverished.
In recent years, Rahmon has maintained his hold of the presidency through a tight power-sharing structure made up of his family and others from his hometown of Danghara and the wider region of Khatlon. This political elite has a disproportionate influence over government affairs and better access to political power than other regional and ethnic groups.
Tajikistan’s recovery after almost a decade of civil war, which destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and created severe humanitarian and refugee problems, has been slow and painful. Though the civil war has ended, tensions are still high in some parts of the country; Tajikistan remains an authoritarian state dominated by President Rahmon and his entourage. There is a multiparty political system, but the development of the rule of law and democratic progress remains slow.
Despite the absence of comprehensive human rights legislation, the international treaties dealing with human rights ratified by Tajikistan can be applied directly by the country’s tribunals. However, they are seldom invoked, partly because of the weakness of judicial institutions and partly because of the low level of awareness of the availability of these rights. Freedom of expression is protected under the country’s legal system, but independent media and journalists are subjected to government pressure and harassment and may have problems with obtaining or keeping licences. Some journalists who offend the authorities have disappeared, been beaten or arrested.
Non-governmental organizations, including those representing minorities, must be registered. This process may take years, in particular in the case of international NGOs. The activities of international organizations in the field of minority rights protection have been restricted. For instance, the Tajik authorities denied official registration to Saferworld in the territory of Tajikistan.
During his more than 25 years in power, Rahmon has presided over the deterioration of the status of Tajikistan’s ethnic and religious minorities. A 2013 report by the League of Women Lawyers of Tajikistan found that the 2009 law ‘on the state language’ – declaring that all citizens must know Tajik and that state employees who do not speak Tajik can face fines – may have reduced ethnic minority members’ access to justice. The report noted that the law’s wording allows room for citizens who seek public legal aid to be fined for not knowing Tajik. The report found that, in practice, many courts still accepted citizens’ appeals in Russian, while Kyrgyz-language documents were accepted in Kyrgyz-majority areas such as Jirgital. However, Uzbek-language documents were accepted less frequently. While the law can be overruled on the basis of the Constitution’s provisions for language equality, the League pointed out that the authorities had not made this clear to the country’s judges – let alone to private citizens. As a result, members of ethnic minorities may have to mount time-consuming efforts to exercise their constitutional rights when seeking legal aid. This situation compromised access to legal aid for Uzbek women, who were less likely to speak Tajik or Russian than their male counterparts. More recently, the situation regarding Uzbek language use has improved, in light of the improving relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Uzbek is widely used in public places. There are for instance schools with Uzbek as a language of instruction.
- Freedom from Torture: Civil Society Coalition against Torture and impunity in Tajikistan
Updated March 2023
We stand up for minority and indigenous rights. Find out howLeart more about us
9 December 2022
MRG condemns sentencing of Pamiri civil society leaders in Tajikistan
Today, a number of prominent Pamiri civil society leaders were sentenced to prison terms up to 21 years in the Gorno-Badakson Autonomous…
2 December 2022
MRG’s recommendations to the UN Forum on Minority Issues
This statement was delivered on 1 December 2022 by MRG’s Ifra Asad at the 15th UN Forum on Minority Issues under the agenda item,…
20 May 2022
Military crackdown in Tajikistan: another step backwards for Pamiri minority rights and towards potential conflict
Minority Rights Group (MRG) is deeply concerned by the deteriorating human rights situation in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region…
30 May 2022
Why Tajikistan’s indigenous Pamiri need our attention
Tune in later this month, hear about the situation of the indigenous Pamiri and minority rights in Tajikistan, and share your favourite…
11 July 2016
State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016: Focus on culture and heritage
Five organisations from Eastern Europe came together to address the growing concern of online discrimination and hate speech against Europe's biggest minority community, the Roma.
- Central Asia
- Minority stories
Reports and briefings
6 April 1997
Central Asia: Conflict or Stability and Development?
The states of Central Asia – Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – contain a variety of ethnic groups. With…
30 May 2022 • 1:00 – 2:00 pm BST
Why Tajikistan’s indigenous Pamiri need our attention
Tune in later this month, hear about the situation of the indigenous Pamiri and minority rights in Tajikistan, and share your favourite…
Don’t miss out
- Updates to this country profile
- New publications and resources