US Brings about Thaw in Tajik-Uzbek Relations

A common interest in promulgating the war on terrorism has brought two previously hostile neighbours together, if only for the time being.

US Brings about Thaw in Tajik-Uzbek Relations

A common interest in promulgating the war on terrorism has brought two previously hostile neighbours together, if only for the time being.

The struggle against international terrorism, conducted under the aegis of the US and its allies for the last few months, has brought Tajikistan and Uzbekistan closer together, even if only temporarily.

The signs of a thaw come despite the fact that serious issues continue to divide the two Central Asian countries.

After years of hostility following their independence from the Soviet Union at the beginning of 1990s, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have ceased throwing accusations at each other, while the two countries' leaders have signed important agreements aimed at strengthening political and economic links.

The main explanation for this almost miraculous thaw in relations is a perceived need in Dushanbe and Tashkent to jointly combat international terrorism, against a background of recent events in Afghanistan where the American military campaign continues.

As neighbours of Afghanistan and as participants in the international anti-terrorist coalition, the two states have discovered they can play a key part in the Central Asian region.

"The US played a major role in the thaw in relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan," said Rashid Gani, a Tajik political analyst. "It is in America's interest that they get along and collaborate. If that happens, Washington can carry out the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan more easily."

Recent milestones in the rapprochement include a visit by Tajik president Emomali Rakhmonov to Uzbekistan late last year, the first such official visit in the history of the two states. The presidents agreed to collaborate in the struggle against international terrorism, crime and the drugs trade. Early this year, the Tajik prime minister also visited Tashkent for talks on the economy with his counterpart.

The roots of the quarrel between the two countries date back to the years following independence, when Uzbekistan, which had previously dominated Tajikistan, became unhappy with the Tajiks' pro-Moscow outlook and their attempts to be self-sufficient.

The two countries regularly traded accusations, claiming each was harbouring wanted criminals. They both erected economic, trade and travel barriers against each other.

Uzbekistan continually maintained that Tajikistan had offered sanctuary to Juma Namangani, leader of an armed fundamentalist group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was blamed for armed attacks on Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Dushanbe, in turn, accused its neighbour of harbouring Makhmud Khudoiberdyev, a Tajik colonel behind two attempted coups in Tajikistan.

The path to better relations has been helped by the fact that both men are reported to have died. Khudoiberdyev was allegedly killed in a brawl near Tashkent, while Namangani was reported to have perished in an American rocket attack on Afghanistan, where he had been based recently.

The question is whether Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have moved into a new era of cooperation, or whether recent events are a temporary blip. Some local experts suspect that as the Afghan crisis subsides and America ceases to focus on Central Asia, hostility between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will rear its ugly head.

One Tajik official pointed out that substantial issues still separate them. "We still haven't resolved border and water disputes, while Uzbekistan still has not removed its mines from the border, which means that civilian Tajiks continue to die," he said. "Our trains are still forbidden to pass through Uzbek territory in transit."

More than 40 Tajik civilians have died since August of 2000 as the result of Uzbek minefields laid on the border to prevent IMU fighters from crossing into Uzbekistan from Tajikistan.

Dushanbe also complains that Tashkent has not dismantled a fierce visa regime on Tajik visitors. It argues this is unfair, as it doesn't impose such restrictions on Uzbeks coming to Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan insists that an open border would create more problems than it would solve. "We always find drugs couriers on Tajik trains and hundreds of illegal migrants trying to settle in Uzbekistan," one Uzbek diplomatic source said.

Tashkent remains unconvinced that the IMU is a spent force and still fears its fighters may again attempt to enter Uzbekistan from Tajikistan. In fact, this is quite possible, as the US campaign has eliminated the group's bases in Afghanistan, leaving Tajikistan as their only escape route.

"Both countries are still establishing their independence," remarked Rashid Gani, "and this cannot happen without difficulties and problems." Relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it seems, look set to remain complex and thorny for years to come.

Vladimir Davlatov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan

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