By Bruce Pannier And Salimjon Aioubov
Prague, 6 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov flew to Tashkent yesterday for a one-day visit with Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov. The two neighbors always have much they can talk about, and Karimov said just prior to the New Year he hoped 1998 would see a strengthening of the "traditional contacts" between the two peoples. However, the hasty arrangement of this meeting raises the possibility that more than the reported agreements on culture, humanitarian ties, science and technology, information and health care, were discussed between the two presidents.
During the five years of civil conflict in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan exerted great influence on the leadership of Tajikistan. It is no secret that Uzbekistan does not embrace the agreement which brought that conflict to a close. That agreement, signed in Moscow in June last year, will eventually give 30 percent of the Tajik government to former rivals in the civil conflict, the United Tajik Opposition (UTO). The bulk of the UTO comes from the Islamic Renaissance Party, long banned in Uzbekistan. Karimov addressed this issue, saying he would not like an Islamic state as a neighbor, though he softened these words by adding it was purely an internal affair of Tajikistan.
The Uzbek president also questioned the policies of the UTO, once in government, saying he had never read or heard anything from the UTO leadership, which would give a clue to the UTO stance. It is, however, unlikely the UTO will be anxious to court ties with the same Uzbek government, which backed Rakhmonov in the fight against the UTO.
The Tajik peace deal was mediated by Iran and Russia, so, while both those countries have enhanced their presence in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan's reluctance to see the largely Islamic opposition return legally to Tajikistan has left Tashkent with less influence in its eastern neighbor's affairs.
Besides Uzbek desires to renew its influence in Tajikistan, Russia may be driving Tajikistan to become a stable country using, also, Tashkent as a conduit. At the end of December, Russian Prime Minsiter Viktor Chernomyrdin paid a visit to Tashkent, and at approximately the same time Russian Minisiter on CIS Affairs Anatoly Adamishin was in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. The announcement of the Karimov-Rakhmonov meeting came after both Russian officials had departed Central Asia. Chernomyrdin is due in Tajikistan later this month.
A change in Uzbek-Tajik relations is coming in any event. Kyrgyzstan, which neighbors both countries, is now charging for supplies of water from its reservoirs. But the mountains of Tajikistan are another source of water for Uzbekistan, and the Uzbek government may be attempting to make a better deal with Tajikistan than it has so far been able to reach with Kyrgyzstan. However, Uzbekistan has supplied both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with energy supplies for years, and, since 1992 independence, has used this leverage in its relations with its two eastern neighbors. Though water and energy were among the topics mentioned as being discussed at the Karimov-Rakhmonov meeting, there was no mention of any resolution to these vital problems. Tajikistan likely has the advantage here, as there are only a few months of Winter left, and planting and irrigation of fields begins in March.
There is a large Tajik population in Uzbekistan, and there are many Uzbeks in Tajikistan, so good relations between the two countries governments are a necessity for harmony in the region. The question remaining after the Karimov-Rakhmonov meeting is what form that relationship will now take. Uzbekistan is not in a position to manipulate events in Tajikistan, as it once did, but the Uzbek government may be unwilling to deal with its neighbor on equal terms.