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Central Asia: Summit To Highlight Tajik-Uzbek Relations

By Bruce Pannier and Salim Aioubov

Prague, 9 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The upcoming Central Asian summit in Kyrgyzstan is expected to highlight the poor state of relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Ties between the two have been strained since the 1997 announcement of the Tajik peace accords. Relations worsened last November after some Tajik officials accused Uzbekistan of aiding an insurrection in northern Tajikistan.

The summit, set for Friday in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, was intended to confirm Tajikistan's application to join the Central Asian Union. Now, some are wondering whether Uzbekistan will support Tajikistan's bid to join, as Moscow -- rather than Tashkent -- appears to be winning the battle for influence in the region.

In a sign of the times, Uzbekistan last week said it was dropping out of the collective security treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Uzbek officials say that Russia used the treaty as a way of dominating CIS members.

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, a few days later, countered by affirming support for Russian policies in Central Asia. He said Russia was Tajikistan's "only true partner."

Both Moscow and Tashkent originally supported Rakhmonov and his government during the five-year Tajik civil war. Uzbekistan's support was driven by fear the civil war could provoke an outbreak of Islamic fanaticism within its own borders. Uzbek President Islam Karimov later initiated the CIS collective security treaty, which provided the legal basis for Russian and Uzbek participation in Tajikistan's civil war.

When the Tajik peace accord was signed, though, Uzbek officials couldn't hide their disappointment. The accord allowed members of the Islamic opposition to take seats in the government. This provoked renewed Uzbek concern about radical Islamic movements in the Uzbek part of the Fergana valley. Uzbekistan later launched a campaign against an Islamic group, the "Wahhabis," in late 1997.

Relations worsened at the end of last year when a former colonel in the Tajik army attempted a rebellion in the northern Tajik city of Khujand. The rebellion was put down by the Tajik government in conjunction with fighters of the opposition and, some say, Russia's 201st division. The Russian division has been in Tajikistan since before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

When the colonel and other leaders of the rebels disappeared after the battle, Tajik officials openly speculated the men had fled to neighboring Uzbekistan. Tajik officials also suggested the rebels had trained on Uzbek soil with the knowledge of authorities there.

Uzbekistan responded by withdrawing its battalion from the CIS peacekeeping force in Tajikistan. Uzbek officials sought to minimize damage from the move by suggesting it was planned long before the failed rebellion.

President Karimov also used the opportunity to accuse Russia of bearing responsibility for the worsening relations. Karimov said Russia had created a special department charged with sabotaging good relations between the CIS Central Asian states, specifically Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.