On November 16, a Tajik border guard shot and killed one of his Uzbek counterparts. Uzbekistan's National Security Service seized on the shooting as an indicator of "criminal and provocative" behavior that signals disregard for international standards. It then went on to accuse the Tajik side of triggering 24 incidents in the past year -- including several military incursions across their nearly 1,200-kilometer border.
Tajik authorities acknowledged the mid-November shooting, but countered that their border guards' actions were legal and were prompted by an Uzbek incursion over a barbed-wire fence. They said the Uzbek guards had ignored warnings and their own forces were simply acting in self-defense.
Within a day of that incident, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported that an Uzbek military court had sentenced five people -- including two Tajik citizens -- to lengthy prison terms on charges that included spying for the Tajik government. An unnamed court official was quoted as saying that a Tajik woman disguised as a prostitute had been sent to Uzbekistan to gather sensitive information about Uzbek military sites in the border area. The source suggested that an Uzbek military officer had been recruited from a nearby airbase along with an Uzbek woman who had received training in subversive activities at a special camp in Tajikistan.
But a spokesman for the Uzbek National Security Service, Olim Toraqulov, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on November 17 that this spy case dated back to 2004.
Uzbek "spy mania" continued as local media gave extensive coverage to the case of a Tajik citizen who was accused of having been recruited by the Tajik Interior Ministry to assassinate Uzbek officials. Uzbekistan's leading television channel aired a program called "Threat," in which that suspect claims that senior Tajik officials ordered him to "eliminate certain people in Uzbekistan" and provided him with a weapon and $800.
Turnabout As Fair Play
Days later, on November 21, a Tajik military court began the trial of two men accused of killing the head of the Defense Ministry's Military Institute, Kahkimsho Khafizov. A report by Avesta news agency suggested that the defendants killed the Tajik general on January 27 to avenge his refusal to continue collaborating with a fugitive former military commander, Makhmud Khudoyberdiev.
Both defendants in the Tajik case are ethnic Uzbeks -- and are said to be Khudoyberdiev supporters. Tajik authorities have accused the ethnic Uzbek Khudoyberdiev of attempting a coup d'etat in 1998, when they accuse him of entering Tajikistan from Uzbekistan with a group of armed supporters.
Also in November, Tajik authorities launched a campaign to resettle some 1,000 ethnic Tajik families to a western border region that is primarily populated by ethnic Uzbeks. The official aim is to cultivate agricultural land, but local observers have accused authorities of seeking to counterbalance ethnic Uzbek dominance in a key industrial area. A local aluminum-smelting business that some have said was at one point under Uzbek influence, contributes hugely to Tajik exports.
These recent contretemps come against a backdrop of uneasy bilateral relations since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Dushanbe and Tashkent have long lists of mutual grievances.
But the public accusations that have followed these latest incidents have aggravated relations. What is worse, they appear to reflect long-standing animosity between Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Tajik counterpart, Imomali Rakhmonov, in a region where personal ambitions can dramatically affect policies.
Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are members of the same regional groupings -- including the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Eurasian Economic Community, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- and, correspondingly, are expected to cooperate and share information in the economic and military spheres.
Uzbekistan's attempts to seal off its lengthy border with Tajikistan and its strict visa regime have hurt trade and left some residents deprived of the right to visit relatives on the other side of that frontier.
But Tashkent remains deaf to Dushanbe's appeals to ease such restrictions. On the contrary, Uzbek authorities are likely to use the recent border shooting and espionage cases to justify delays in responding to such calls.
For their part, Tajik authorities appear inclined to use incidents with Uzbekistan to show that they are unwilling to tolerate an attitude of superiority from Tashkent. President Rakhmonov's recent election to a third term as Tajik president almost guarantees that responses to unwelcome Uzbek activities will only get louder -- and perhaps more frequent.
Such tit-for-tat relations -- particularly if they include such skeletons as the two-year-old espionage case -- are unlikely to improve bilateral relations. On the other hand, the Uzbek and Tajik leaderships might well curb this "spy mania" if they reject a policy of confrontation.