Pamiris are considered ‘Tajik’ by the authorities in Dushanbe, but they are widely considered to constitute a separate ethnic group, differing from Tajiks in terms of language, religion and culture. Pamiri languages are a Southeastern branch of the Iranian language family. Additionally, while most Tajiks are Sunni, Pamiris are followers of the Ismaili branch of Shi’a Islam. They refer to themselves as Badakhshani or Pomir in their own languages. Because none of the Pamir languages are written, Pamiris use Tajik in many aspects of daily life.
Pamiris live mainly in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, a mountainous region to the east of the country which is considered the economically most disadvantaged region of Tajikistan, where they make up the majority of the population. They are divided into several linguistic groups: Shughnanis and Wakhi in the western and central parts of the province, and Darwazi and Yazgulami in the north. The economy of the region and its inhabitants remain heavily dependent on the aid organization of the Aga Khan, who is regarded by Pamiris as their spiritual leader.
Pamiris have for much of their history been isolated due to the extreme geographic remoteness of the mountainous region of the Pamirs which they have inhabited for many hundreds of years. During the late 1980s a separatist movement emerged. A Pamiri nationalist party, Lali Badakhshan, gained control in Gorno-Badakhshan after 1991. There followed anti-government protests in the province, followed a declaration of independence in 1992, though this was subsequently revoked. Pamiris were massacred during the civil war, especially in the Dushanbe and in western parts of the country, apparently because they were perceived as largely having backed the United Tajik Opposition.
In 1993 the government introduced certain reconciliatory policies, having signed an agreement with the Gorno-Badakhshani authorities. Nevertheless, the government afterwards imposed an economic blockade on Badakhshan and carried out punitive expeditions and detentions of local leaders. In response, ‘self-defence’ paramilitary units, linked to the local authorities and the opposition across the border, began to emerge.
Gorno-Badakhshan was the main scene of military operations in 1994 and 1995, with opposition attacks provoked by the increasing government military presence in Tawildara. After 1993, although officially a part of Tajikistan, Gorno-Badakhshan became a de facto self-ruled breakaway area.
While autonomy has provided a measure of political control and participation, these powers are still somewhat limited: the vagueness of the Constitution and the president’s power to appoint the chair of the Gorno-Badakhshan assembly and the province’s judges are being used to increase the control of central authorities to circumvent some of the province’s autonomy. Outside of the Gorno-Badakhshan province, Pamiris complain of continued discrimination, are largely excluded from exercising any significant political influence or participation in public life.
The legacy of the civil war, when many Pamiris sided with opposition forces against the government, has left a legacy of bitterness and estrangement between authorities in Dushanbe and Pamiri communities that has been manifested in a number of episodes of violent unrest. These include the killings of dozens of civilians in clashes between government armed forces and local armed opposition in June 2012, following the death of a security official, and in May 2014 further protests after soldiers killed and injured several civilians in a gunfight. During the clashes administrative buildings were set alight, three people died and five were injured. Following this, government officials on several occasions accused unspecified ‘foreign states’ of trying to undermine stability in the country. Reportedly, protest leaders reiterated demands for ‘more autonomy’ for the region within Tajikistan and expressed their suspicion of Dushanbe’s policies in Gorno-Badakhshan, especially the appointment of people from other regions to high-level government posts in the province.
Language issues remain another sensitive topic. A lack of programmes in Pamiri languages on national television and radio has reportedly been a chronic source of discontent in Gorno-Badakhshan.
Updated April 2018