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Tajikistan/Uzbekistan: Ripples From Deteriorating Relations Spread Through CIS

By Salimjon Alioubov

Prague, 16 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Deteriorating relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are causing alarm not only in the two Central Asian countries, but throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky said on Saturday that the dispute between the two neighbors is extremely dangerous for the whole CIS, the organization which includes 12 former Soviet states, including Russia.

Speaking in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, Berezovsky said the recriminations between the two countries "complicate the fragile peace in the CIS.2 He said Russia could use its "dominating role" in the region to prevent conflict between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

In the dispute, Tajikistan's government is accusing Uzbekistan of military interference in connection with an armed uprising by rebels in northern Tajikistan, which began early this month. Uzbekistan denies these charges, calling allegations about the penetration of rebels into Tajik territory from Uzbekistan "completely groundless."

The rebellion was launched by renegade Tajik army colonel Mahmud Khudoiberdyev, who led an estimated 1,200 troops and seized several towns in the northern Leninabad Oblast. The rebels were defeated by the joint forces of the Tajik government and the Islamist-led Tajik opposition, after six days of heavy battles in which more than 300 people were killed and 600 wounded.

Tajik authorities claimed the rebels had been trained in the Zomin region of Uzbekistan as well as in Afghanistan's Mazar-e-Sharif area and that they had crossed the Uzbek-Tajik border to launch the offensive.

Speaking in parliament on 12 November, Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov made grave accusations against Uzbekistan. He alleged that the Uzbek leadership was behind the rebellion. He said he had evidence that Uzbek President Islam Karimov "fully supports" the organizer of the Tajik mutiny, whom he named as exiled former Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullojonov. Rahmonov said that by organizing coups and helping rebels, the "Uzbek leadership wants to take the whole of Tajikistan under its control.2

An Uzbek Foreign Ministry statement described Rahmonov's remarks as "emotional and ill-considered.2 The Uzbeks also said they are ready to let Tajik authorities make a search to check that the rebels are not on Uzbek territory.

Even while making his accusations, Rahmonov urged Tajik parliamentarians not to set the Tajik and Uzbek peoples against each other. The president said that politicians should give a balanced assessment of what happened in Leninabad. "Presidents come and go, but peoples have been and remain friends," he said.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has not commented publicly on Rahmonov's remarks. However, on the eve of the Tajik rebellion he said in a radio interview that the Tajik peace process should include "capable leaders" from the north, "such as Abdullojonov.2

Abdullojonov, who was prime minister from 1992 until 1994, is one of a number of exiled Tajik political leaders who has been spending time in Uzbekistan. Tajikistan has previously called on fellow CIS countries to detain such exiles and send them back to Tajikistan.

This is the second time that Tajikistan has accused Uzbekistan of interference in its internal affairs. In August, 1997, when the notorious Khudoiberdiev staged another rebellion and led his elite army unit toward the capital Dushanbe, Tajik authorities said Uzbekistan also masterminded that action. Tashkent strongly denied the accusations at the time. Uzbek President Karimov called on Rahmonov to remember whose tanks he rode upon when he arrived in Dushanbe in December, 1992, to take control of Tajikistan. This was a reference to Uzbekistan's support for Rahmonov's government in its fight against the Islamic opposition at that time.

Rahmonov himself has confirmed that his government has often made use of Uzbek military and technical support. During the past civil war, which started in 1992, there were a number of Uzbek military advisors in the Tajik army, as well as Uzbeks in the power ministries. In addition, the first Tajik defense minister was appointed on the recommendation of the Uzbek president and arrived in Dushanbe from Tashkent.

But there appeared to be an unexpected change in Uzbekistan's long-time support of Rahmonov's government in 1995, when Karimov invited Tajik Islamic opposition leaders to Tashkent and met with them several times.

Since then, there have been many ups and downs in Tajik-Uzbek relations, and the resulting tensions have now reached such a level that the CIS is worried about their wider implications.

Whether Uzbekistan is actually helping Khudoiberdyev or other renegades and exiles, there are several other factors in the equation. One is that Tajik politicians, whether in the government or the Islamic opposition, tend to use allegations of Uzbek interference to divert attention from the fact that many Tajik factions and their leaders have been left out of the country's present political process. Another factor is that Russia and Uzbekistan together could be said to foster instability by acting as rivals for influence in the region. Moscow apparently sees its long-held dominance of the area as challenged by Uzbekistan's assertiveness.