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Tajikistan: UNESCO Moves To Defuse Tajik-Uzbek Tension

Prague, 31 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, has taken steps to defuse a potentially damaging row between Central Asian neighbours Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The row can be said to have its origins more than a thousand years ago, in that it concerns the two countries' different views of the ancient Samanides dynasty. The Samanides line of rulers was founded in the year 899, and held sway for a century over what is now Central Asia, Afghanistan and eastern Iran.

The UNESCO panel took the immediate heat out of the conflict last week by suggesting, as a compromise, that a seminar be held next year in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, to discuss exactly what the Samanides had contributed to the region's culture and science. The decision whether to go ahead with the seminar will be taken next week by the general conference of UNESCO, which is now meeting in Paris.

The Tajik-Uzbek tension was sparked by the Tajik government's request for UNESCO support for its plan to celebrate the 1100th anniversary of the Samanides in 1999. The Tajiks consider the Samanides as one of their first successful national dynasties following the Arab conquest of the old Sassanide Empire in the seventh century. The Samanides' rule coincided with the Turkic tribal movements from Central Asia towards the south and the west. In 999, the Samanides were defeated by the Turkic Ghaznavides.

After declaring independence in 1991, Tajikistan saw in the Samanides a proud example of national survival in a surrounding environment of Turkic peoples.

The Uzbeks are Turkic, but this is not the main reason for Uzbekistan's concern over the Tajik anniversary plan. The Samanide capital was the city of Bukhara, located in today's Uzbekistan. Bukhara, along with Samarkand, are two major Uzbek cities with largely ethnic Tajik population.

In a recent letter to UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor, Uzbek President Islam Karimov is reported to have protested against Tajikistan's plan to celebrate the anniversary of the Samanides in 1999. Karimov apparently fears that the festivity could incite Tajik nationalist feelings and probably separatist feelings in Bukhara and Samarkand.

A similarly disputed anniversary occured last year as the Uzbeks celebrated the 660th birth anniversary of Tamerlane, a Turkic-Mongol emperor of the 14th century whom the Uzbeks consider their ancestor and the founder of united Turkestan. The Tajiks, for their part, see in Tamerlane an aggressor with a record of massacres.

Media and journalists in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are already campaiging in favor of the Samanides celebration, or against it. And, in Paris, the issue has become a hot dispute between the Tajik and Uzbek delegations to the UNESCO General Conference.

Aziz Khujaev, vice premier of Uzbekistan, told the UNESCO commission that the issue would provoke "inter-ethnic conflict" if it would be about celebrating the "Tajik Samanides dynasty with Bukhara as its capital."

In an interview with RFE/RL, Tajik poet Mumin Kanoat warned against translating cultural events and historical anniversaries into actual political disputes.

"We respect today's borders and the territorial integrity of our neighbors," he said, "but it is the right of the Tajiks to honor the creation of their great dynasty (of the Samanides) although the capital of this empire, Bukhara, is now in today's Uzbekistan."

Independent observers were concerned that the dispute could inflame an unexpected emotionalism between Tajiks and Uzbeks while both neighboring countries need peace and stability to boost economic and democratic reforms.

"Since the fall of the Soviet Union, both Tajik and Uzbek authorities have demonstrated enough care and wisdom regarding any territorial issues," said Guissou Jeannot-Jahangiri, an independent journalist based in Paris. "The planned celebration has become a stick for top-level politicians and does not seem to arouse any popular concerns."

The consensus reached in Paris seems to satisfy both sides. The Tajiks reportedly gave in by dropping clauses such as the "Tajik Samanides dynasty" or emphasizing that the capital of the dynasty was Bukhara. And the Uzbeks conceded that the Samanides' rule is a historical reality deserving attention. All five Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, approved the compromise suggestion at the meeting last Friday.

Irene Iskinder-Mochiri, a Central Asian analyst with UNESCO, told RFE/RL that the issue had become geopolitical rather than cultural. The two sides realized that it was too hot to deal with in political, inter-ethnic terms, she said. Thus "UNESCO received approval for its policy of pursuing peace and stability with its activities," as she put it.