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Tajikistan: At Last, Something To Celebrate -- Peace

Prague, 9 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Today, September 9, Tajikistan celebrates its sixth Independence Day. The years after independence from the USSR have been hard on all the former Soviet republics: inflation, unemployment, crime and a number of other problems have often been the most visible signs of change in the post-Soviet countries. Tajikistan has suffered similar problems, but has in addition endured civil war for most of the time.

Today, the people of Tajikistan can be happy in that soon they may be able to concentrate on those more normal day-to-day economic and social problems. This is the first Independence Day anniversary on which there is not war in the country, and on which former enemies and old friends are coming home to participate in the celebrations.

After independent Tajikistan came into being in 1991, there was little to celebrate over the following anniversaries. The country was factionalised, and was soon enveloped in the civil war. Battles were being fought for a number of reasons -- politics, religion, ethnicity, region, clan -- and probably many old scores were settled which were not concerned with the civil war at all.

By the time the first anniversary of independence arrived, 20 to 25 percent of Tajikistan's population of nearly six million was homeless and wandering and possibly as many as tens of thousands of people were already dead. Besides this, after five months of civil war there were three changes of government.

About two months after the first independence day, Imomali Rakhmonov was elected Chairman of the Communist Party at a secret party session in the north Tajik city of Leninabad. He held that post until his election to the newly re-created post of president in November 1994 and is still president today.

Though the second anniversary, in 1993, saw relative order restored in the capital, the countryside was still a haven for guerrilla fighters of the opposition groups forced to flee to bases in neighboring Afghanistan. That pattern continued for the next two years, but last year on September 9, fighting in central Tajikistan was at its worst since 1991. Bombs went off in Dushanbe, one near the parliament building. Of course, also about this time the Taliban in Afghanistan were pushing toward Kabul, which they would capture before month's end. The whole area seemed to be falling apart and peace never looked so far away.

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and the leader of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) Said Abdullo Nuri met in Khostdeh, northern Afghanistan, in the first half of last December. Though they had met before, there was a new sense of urgency. Fighting in central Tajikistan, which began in Spring, had been fierce for months and casualties were well into the thousands. There was also the possibility that Afghanistan's problems would come northward. If Tajikistan was dragged into the problems of its southern neighbor, Rakhmonov, Nuri, and their camps would all lose. The two met again in Moscow before the end of 1996 and laid the foundations for a final peace.

The Tajik National Peace Accord, the result of almost three years of negotiations, was signed in Moscow on June 27 this year. The agreement gives the opposition seats in the government, provides for merging their armed forces into the regular army, gives amnesty to those in the UTO, and most important creates a reconciliation council. The 26-member council (13 from the government, 13 from UTO) is responsible for introducing legislation which will allow fair elections to be held to parliament. The chairman of the council is UTO leader Said Abdullo Nuri.

It is disappointing that Nuri is not expected to be in Dushanbe for the celebration today, as was originally scheduled. His arrival and that of a UTO delegation has been held up by what are described as minor "technical difficulties" which have arisen, slowing the implementation of agreements.

Few from the UTO, besides their representation in Dushanbe and a large contingent of UTO body guards, are in Tajikistan for this anniversary. Though forgiven for any offenses during the civil war, many UTO members have not begun to return to Tajikistan as, with only small-scale UTO political representation in Tajikistan, they are still cautious and do not feel the time is ripe. But, the process of repatriating the estimated 22,000 Tajik refugees from camps in Afghanistan continues since its start in July and according to press reports brings as many as 300 Tajiks back home daily.

There are still many problems to be solved in Tajikistan. Many observers note that peace is only the first step in rebuilding the country. There has been violence since the signing of the peace agreement, but it is mainly perpetrated by those who have something to lose once peace is established. The Tajik government and UTO have not been the agents of these problems and have shown an ability to cooperate with one another in combatting those who would derail the peace process.

Such cooperation will be needed in the months to come. But for today a reunited people can relax with the real hope that the worst is now behind them.