By Roman Kozhevnikov DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Tajikistan should engage with non-violent Islamic groups to avoid sliding toward conflict with a new generation of home-grown insurgents and fighters crossing back from Afghanistan, the International Crisis Group said.
The ICG, a Brussels-based think tank, said in a report that Tajikistan was not immune to the popular unrest sweeping parts of the Arab world and that attempts by the government to crush religious expression could backfire.
"The secular, Soviet-trained leadership that emerged from the civil war now finds itself dealing with a society increasingly drawn to observant Islam," said the ICG report, issued Tuesday.
"Officials allege that the main opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, is becoming increasingly radicalized. Clumsy policies may make this a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Tajikistan, a mountainous republic bordering Afghanistan and China, is the poorest of the 15 former Soviet states. More than 47 percent of its 7.5 million people live on less than $2 a day, according to World Bank data.
President Imomali Rakhmon, who has ruled largely agrarian Tajikistan since 1992, has said "Arab-style revolutions" are impossible in Tajikistan as its citizens would not risk a repeat of the 1992-1997 civil war that killed tens of thousands.
But the ICG said a new generation of fighters, mainly men in their twenties, had little memory of the Tajik civil war that pitched Rakhmon against a loose alliance of Islamists and other opponents of his Russian-backed government.
It said Tajik authorities faced a security threat both from home-grown rebels and a resurgent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose members want to create an Islamic caliphate in the region and have fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Rakhmon's office did not respond to requests for comment on the ICG report.
Tajikistan, whose porous border with Afghanistan stretches for 1,340 km (840 miles), jailed more than 100 members of banned groups last year and has called home students in Islamic schools abroad.
The government, which says it has been fighting militants linked to al Qaeda, has asked for European Union help to protect its Afghan border.
Security sources say it is also in talks to deploy Russian guards.
The ICG recommended that China be drawn into negotiations with the United States and Russia to assess and respond to security threats, while donors should take a tough line on drug trafficking.
It said "billions of dollars" of drugs passed through Tajikistan en route to Russia and China every year.
"The Tajik government should be put on notice that a failure to address support for the narcotics trade within its own elite will seriously damage its credibility and outside support," the organization said.
(Writing by Robin Paxton)