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Central Asia: Are Uzbek-Tajik Relations At A New Low?

  • Bruce Pannier

Uzbek border guards searching for IMU materials (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) Relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have rarely been good since those two former Soviet republics gained independence in late 1991. This month has been particularly harsh on mutual ties, with Tajik and Uzbek authorities trading accusations and counteraccusations over security on their common border. RFE/RL looks at what has prompted the diplomatic rancor this month between Tashkent and Dushanbe.

PRAGUE, June 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For the Tajik public, news this month cannot have inspired much love or trust in their neighbor to the west.

Tajik courts sentenced three men to jail terms of up to 15 years after finding them guilty of spying for Uzbekistan.

In a separate case, also in Tajikistan, two alleged members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were arrested. Those arrests came just weeks after Tajik authorities jailed six other members of the IMU, whose stated goal is the overthrow of the Uzbek government but whose members have stirred up trouble in neighboring Tajikistan since 2005.

Tajik Border Guards complained last week that land mines laid by the Uzbek military along their common border are killing innocent Tajik citizens. They also claim that Uzbek border guards sometimes fire their guns indiscriminately into Tajikistan, causing casualties.

Meanwhile, a renegade Tajik army colonel and his supporters are believed by Tajik authorities to be sheltering in Uzbekistan.

Espionage Conviction

On June 13, a court in the northern Tajik province of Soghd found 55-year-old Uzbek national Abdukarim Gafurov guilty of spying for Uzbekistan and sentenced him to 13 years in jail. Gafurov was the third person sentenced for spying on Uzbekistan's behalf since June 2. Gafurov's lawyer, Tatyana Khotyukina, says her client is innocent, and had just begun to seek Tajik citizenship.

"[Gafurov] said here [in court] that he did not engage in any spying and he was even in the first stages of renouncing Uzbek citizenship and accepting Tajik [citizenship]," Khotyukina said.

The same day as Gafurov's conviction, Tajik Interior Ministry spokesman Khudonazar Asoev announced the arrest of two men whom he described as IMU members. One was from Tajikistan's southwestern Khatlon Province; the other was from Uzbekistan's eastern Andijon Province. Their arrests follow a Soghd provincial court's sentencing of six IMU members in May.

...And Other Complaints

Tajik authorities blame the IMU for the death of a military official earlier this year and bombings in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, in 2005.

Tajikistan also complained again about the Uzbek mining in 1999 of its borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The move was reportedly intended to keep out armed IMU militants. But the land mines were placed haphazardly, and no one is exactly sure where the explosives lie. In Tajikistan, land mines have killed locals gathering wood and children playing in the border area.

Tajik Border Guard spokesman Khushnud Rahmatulloev spoke at a news conference last week and gave these figures for land-mine casualties along the Uzbek border.

"Since 2000, there have been 65 confirmed land-mine explosions and, as a result, 68 people were killed and 83 people were injured," Rahmatulloev said.

Tajik Border Guards accuse Uzbekistan of violating an Ottawa convention prohibiting and ordering the destruction of land mines, the Ottawa Convention On The Prohibition Of The Use, Stockpiling, Production And Transfer Or Anti-Personnel Mines And On Their Destruction. They also complain that -- since 2000 -- there have been 15 incidents of cross-border fire from Uzbek territory. Those shootings have left eight Tajik citizens dead and six others wounded.

On this last point, Uzbekistan has responded with counteraccusations. Uzbek border officials blame their Tajik counterparts for "allowing themselves to fire their automatic weapons not only into the air, but also in the direction of Uzbekistan," and putting innocent people at risk.

Sheltering Terrorists?

The Tajik State Committee for Border Protection also released a statement on June 13 accusing Uzbek authorities of sheltering terrorists. The statement referred to renegade Tajik Army Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiyev, who twice in the late 1990s led armed insurrections against the Tajik government. In the last attempt, in November 1998, Khudaiberdiyev and his troops attacked areas of northern Tajikistan near the Uzbek border. Once defeated, many of those armed insurgents -- including Khudaiberdiyev -- vanished. Tajik authorities said at the time -- and repeated last week-- that Khudaiberdiyev found safe haven in Uzbekistan.

Marat Mamatshoev is a chief editor at the independent Tajik media outlet Asia-Plus. He says Tajik-Uzbek frustrations have been simmering for some time.

"The relationship between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has generally been tense for many years, let's say," Mamatshoev says. "And apparently [those tensions] have reached a certain point."

Mamatshoev says the example of former Colonel Khudaiberdiyev shows why the Tajik authorities may be tiring of the Uzbek government's reluctance to address mutual grievances.

"Concerning [the allegation of] Uzbekistan hiding some people who participated in the attempted mutiny of 1998, the Tajik side has made statements [on the topic], but there has never been any comment from the Uzbek side," Mamatshoev says.

John MacLeod is a senior editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He agrees that the Tajik government has not raised new issues with Uzbekistan. He suggests that Dushanbe's sudden spate of criticism may have more to do with domestic political events later this year.

"Not one of these problems is new. Historically, it was the Uzbek government that tended to make public remarks about diplomatic problems of various kinds in its relationship with Dushanbe," MacLeod says. "So to me, it certainly remains a mystery what is prompting the Tajik government. There are no kind of objective, external factors that would prompt it to [increase its criticism of Tashkent]. The only possible explanation really is that a general sense of nervousness has pervaded the Tajik government ahead of the presidential election at the end of this year."

Uzbekistan has its own complaints -- about environmental damage from a Tajik aluminum plant near the border and about IMU militants hiding in Tajikistan's rugged mountains.

But as Tajikistan's presidential ballot in November approaches, it appears that officials in Dushanbe are likely to do most of the complaining.

(Iskander Aliev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
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