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Tajikistan/Uzbekistan: Foreign Minister's Visit Brings Signs Of Improving Relations

By Bruce Pannier And Salimjon Aioubov

Prague, 17 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov made a working visit to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on Saturday and Sunday -- the first high-level Uzbek visit to Tajikistan since the Uzbek Prime Minister visited at the start of 1998.

Officially, Kamilov was there to discuss bilateral relations and to hold talks on strengthening stability in the region. The neighboring countries have much to discuss as their relations have greatly soured in the last half year. But in an interesting twist, Kamilov also came to Dushanbe to talk about the Tajik peace process, a subject the Uzbek government has shown little interest in since the signing of the Tajik peace accord in 1997.

After meeting with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, Kamilov told journalists Uzbekistan "comprehensively" supports Rakhmonov's policies and that the meeting with the Tajik president had been "more fruitful than protocol suggested." Such statements are a change from recent comments by Uzbek officials on Tajik affairs and are a hopeful sign that bilateral relations are now improving.

The relationship between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from 1992-1997 could be described as one of dependent cooperation. While Rakhmonov's government was at war with the forces of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) during this period, Uzbekistan was instrumental in propping up Rakhmonov. Uzbekistan supplied fuel, food and even sent a battalion to help guard Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan in order to keep UTO forces in Afghanistan where they had fled at the end of 1992 and early 1993. In return, Uzbek officials felt free to advise Rakhmonov on various points of governing Tajikistan.

The Uzbek government had its own reasons for helping Tajikistan. With a concern over possible Islamist unrest on its own soil, the Uzbek government saw Tajikistan as the front line in the fight against extremism.

But Uzbekistan was not the only country interested in Tajik affairs. Russia had a large military presence in Tajikistan and provided the bulk of forces guarding the Tajik-Afghan border. Iran, with its strong cultural links to Tajikistan, also had an interest in the country. While Tehran developed relations with the Rakhmonov government it also had ties to the UTO, which included allowing UTO leaders to live in Iran.

Eventually, Iran and Russia took the leading roles in bringing the two Tajik factions to the peace table where they finally signed the Tajik National Peace Accord in Moscow in June 1997. That agreement allowed the UTO to return to Tajikistan and share in governing the country. All but one country in the region, as well as Russia, Iran and the UN, signed on as guarantors of the agreement. The exception was Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government wanted to keep Islamist parties out of the region and opposed their inclusion in the government of a neighboring country.

Relations between Tashkent and Dushanbe began to deteriorate with the signing of the peace accord but the real deterioration came last November. That month, a rebel colonel who had served in the Tajik Army entered Tajikistan through Uzbekistan and attempted to seize the area around the northern Tajik city of Khujand militarily. Rakhmonov and other government officials publicly accused Uzbekistan of helping the rebels. Uzbekistan pulled its battalion off the Tajik-Afghan border in response and shut off natural gas supplies to Tajikistan.

Tashkent has also complained many times this year about the continued presence of Russian soldiers in Tajikistan now that the war is over. Tashkent also voiced strong criticism about plans to give those Russian soldiers two official bases in Tajikistan, particularly as one of those bases will be near Khujand, an area which is surrounded on three sides by Uzbekistan.

Following these growing strains, Kamilov's visit may therefore mark a turning point in bilateral relations. Kamilov said representatives of the two countries will meet again soon. Commenting to reporters in Dushanbe about the state of relations, he said that the weekend meetings proved there are no subjects upon which the two countries can not find some agreement.

"I would like to say that [irreconcilable differences] did not come up. We are always prepared to resolve questions openly on a bilateral basis, without any intermediaries, without any interference from a third party because I think it will be easier for us to come to agreement eye-to-eye, in the course of direct, open, honest negotiations instead of involving a third or fourth party who have their own interests which do not always coincide with our common interests in Tajikistan."

Though neither side provided many details of the weekend talks, Uzbekistan's motivation for renewing ties with its eastern neighbor may not be so mysterious. Rakhmonov announced last Friday that Tajikistan will hold not only parliamentary elections this year, as the United Nations has called for on many recent occasions, but also presidential elections. Kamilov's delegation may have been in Tajikistan, therefore, as much for fact finding as to improve relations.

Also, Tashkent will soon host a meeting of the "six plus two group," which was created to help bring peace to Afghanistan. The Uzbek delegation to Dushanbe may have been attempting to coordinate positions on the Afghan problem with officials in Dushanbe.

However, the fact that a delegation led by Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister traveled to Dushanbe appears in itself to have been a significant step forward in relations between the two neighbors.