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Central Asia: Analysis -- Explaining The Uzbek-Tajik 'Eternal Friendship' Treaty

On 15 June, Uzbek President Islam Karimov made his first-ever official visit to neighboring Tajikistan. The two nations signed a treaty of "eternal friendship" -- but recent relations between the two countries have been far from friendly. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 19 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- One of Central Asia's more intriguing recent high-level official visits took place on Thursday. Nearly nine years after the Soviet Union collapsed and its 15 republics became independent nations, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov for the first time made the one-hour air trip from his capital Tashkent to Dushanbe, the capital of neighboring Tajikistan.

What prompted Karimov to make the visit now? Was it a desire to repair damaged relations with a neighbor, the need for cooperation in the face of a common security threat from Islamic militants, or the urging of Russia's new President Vladimir Putin?

Karimov actually arrived in Dushanbe Wednesday to participate in a summit of the four-nation Central Asian Economic Union, also attended by the presidents of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. That meeting in itself had some curious aspects: it was arranged quickly and came less than a month after Putin had visited Uzbekistan.

Karimov stayed on after the summit to sign several accords with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, the most important of them a Treaty on Eternal Friendship between the two nations. But if one is to believe what the two presidents said at a joint press conference, the obvious question is whether the treaty was really necessary. Here's how Rakhmonov described relations with Uzbekistan:

"Through all the difficulties our countries have experienced during the years of independence, Tajik-Uzbek relations have survived serious tests and now have reached a qualitatively new level."

As for Karimov, he had equally kind words about the two countries' relations. He even began a sentence by saying, in Tajik, "Look here, my friend," and finished it, in Uzbek, by asking: "Are you Tajik or are you Uzbek?"

For the peoples of the two countries, the meaning of both leaders' remarks was clear: Uzbeks and Tajiks have lived together peaceably for centuries and there are few major differences between them.

In fact, until the Soviet Union was created, there was never a formal border dividing Uzbek from Tajik lands. And even after they became parts of the Soviet empire, the two republics' borders remained loose, designed largely for administrative purposes and not taken too seriously by any of the peoples of Central Asia.

In 1991, with independence, all that began to change. The old Soviet borders gradually became real frontiers. And soon no relationship in Central Asia was more complicated than that of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Only months after Tajikistan became independent, civil war broke out, pitting former communists against groups said to be Islamic extremists. During most of the five years of subsequent bloody civil strife, Uzbek leader Karimov showed his clear displeasure with Rakhmonov in a number of ways.

To begin with, leaders of the opposition fighting Rakhmonov's forces were invited to Uzbekistan to meet with Karimov. Then, Uzbekistan turned off gas supplies to Tajikistan. Next, when an end to hostilities finally was at hand -- and it became clear the Islamic opposition would be included in the new Tajik government -- Uzbekistan refused to join other countries as a guarantor of the peace. And when peace came in June 1997, Uzbek-Tajik relations promptly worsened quickly.

The greatest problem today between the two governments is one they seldom speak about directly in public. But yesterday Karimov obliquely referred to it at the Dushanbe press conference:

"There are certain groups, so-called non-integrated bandit formations. I know their names. I know where they are located. I know what their plans are."

Few in Central Asia would mistake the reference. Some militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, fought alongside Tajik Islamic groups during the civil war. Others crossed into Tajikistan after a series of murders in eastern Uzbekistan in 1997, and still others arrived after an attempt on Karimov's life last year.

The IMU's leader, Juma Namangani, is known to have been in eastern Tajikistan recently and may still be there. After the IMU tried to force its way through southern Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan last summer, Uzbekistan sealed its borders with both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

For its part, Tajikistan says that a renegade colonel from the Tajik army, Mahmud Khudaiberdiyev, is now in Uzbekistan. Khudaiberdiyev was a paramilitary commander who sought to dictate to Rakhmonov how Tajikistan should be run during the last years of the war. High-ranking officials lost their jobs at Khudaiberdiyev's demands, which were often backed by arms. But Khudaiberdiyev refused to accept the 1997 peace accord and was chased out of Tajikistan in the interests of preserving a fragile peace.

In November 1998, Khudaiberdiyev returned to northern Tajikistan and attempted to take over the region. He was thwarted, but his most logical route of entry -- and later escape -- would have been through neighboring Uzbekistan. The Tajik government said as much publicly after Khudaiberdiyev's rebellion was put down. The Uzbek government denied it.

Today's sudden new warmth between Karimov and Rakhmonov comes at a moment when both their countries face security threats from Islamic extremists. It also reflects continuing pressure from Russian President Putin, who -- with Moscow's continuing war in Chechnya -- is anxious to underline the threat of what he calls international terrorism. And since he took over in the Kremlin, Putin has particularly urged the Central Asian nations to cooperate in their efforts to combat Islamic militancy.

(Abbas Djavadi, Salimjon Aioubov, and Iskander Aliyev of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)