By Bill Khazanov, Ravshan Temirov and Bruce Pannier
Prague, 15 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Relations between the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan appear to be improving after the presidents of the two countries met last Friday at a summit of leaders from that region.
Progress made at the event was followed up when officials from the two countries met yesterday in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, for an annual meeting to discuss economic ties. In addition, an interview with Uzbek President Islam Karimov -- published Tuesday in the Russian newspaper "Vremya MN" -- indicates that Karimov may have forgotten any animosity toward Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, at least for now.
Friendly Uzbek-Tajik ties first deteriorated last November when a former colonel from the Tajik army crossed from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan and seized several towns and cities before retreating. He then disappeared, possibly into Uzbekistan. Rakhmonov spoke to parliament during what he called the attempted "rebellion" and said the Uzbek government had a part in the affair.
Relations immediately worsened. By the end of that month, Uzbekistan had pulled out its battalion from the CIS peacekeeping force still in Tajikistan. The border of the two countries was closed for the rest of the year, reopening infrequently, until the terrorist bombings in Tashkent on February 16, when it was again closed. Comments by Karimov and other Uzbek officials that some of the terrorists had received training in Tajikistan further aggravated tensions with Tajikistan.
Closer ties between Tajikistan and Russia may be a result of Uzbekistan distancing itself from its eastern neighbor. Last week, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev visited Tajikistan and said a deal for establishing a Russian military base in Tajikistan was nearly complete.
The Uzbek government -- particularly President Karimov -- made its objections to this Russian deal known immediately.
Private conversations between Karimov and Rakhmonov last week in the Turkmen capital, however, appear to have mended differences somewhat. Tuesday's interview quotes Karimov as saying Rakhmonov was perhaps not responsible for his words to parliament last November. Instead, he said, it was "those (parliamentary deputies) who supercharged the atmosphere" and who "wanted to see ... a sponsor" for the rebellion in northern Tajikistan who influenced Rakhmonov to blame Uzbekistan in his speech.
Karimov also apologized for the inability of his country to totally control its 1,200-kilometer border with Tajikistan, but he noted that mountainous areas make this difficult, if not impossible.
Tuesday's meeting of Uzbek and Tajik officials to discuss economic ties was prompted by the Karimov-Rakhmonov meeting in Ashgabat and attempted to seize on the improvement in relations which the two presidents initiated in Ashgabat.
Tajik Prime Minister Yahye Azimov said:
"We have an annual tradition of meeting on this level to discuss economic cooperation. But this meeting follows the agreements of our presidents in Ashgabat."
The two sides agreed on several issues, among them transportation links, border problems and means of improving economic ties. There was also agreement on the use of water, particularly sharing hydro-power resources.
"The main issue is water power, which is becoming a ripe issue now. We have signed an agreement, which is considered a priority for both sides."
That agreement -- according to a report yesterday from the Russia news agency Itar-Tass -- provides for the countries to share hydro-power alternately, depending on the season of the year. In March and April, Uzbekistan will send electricity from hydropower sources to Tajikistan. In May and June, Tajikistan will ship the same to Uzbekistan.
Karimov and Rakhmonov had not met each other -- except briefly at the CIS summit in Moscow at the end of March -- since before the events of November. This make their talks in Ashgabat encouraging. Though Tuesday's meeting of government officials in Tashkent is a regularly scheduled event, the Uzbek side promised to send a delegation to Tajikistan in the near future.
Relations between the two countries could hit another snag this week, however. Rakhmonov begins an official visit to Moscow today. During his stay, it is expected the agreement on setting up the Russian base in Tajikistan will be signed. The thaw in Uzbek-Tajik relations may be interrupted by another chilly period.