Along the Tajik Border

The war for which both Russian border guards and Tajikistan's Islamic opposition have been preparing all winter long began almost as soon as the snows on the Pamir Mountains started to melt. Already, there have been considerable casualties among the Russian troops.

The country's current ruling nomenklatura has done much to secure its position through the clever manipulation of both presidential and parliamentary elections. Likewise, the new constitution and the appointment of former Communist bureaucrats to key posts have further secured the regime's hold on power.

But the most impressive achievement of the present regime has been the creation of a defensive shield composed of Russian border guards and peacekeepers from a number of Central Asian countries. The Islamic opposition has had no choice but to forget about negotiations and begin fighting, since the comfortably installed regime has absolutely no incentive to talk.

Unlike Chechnya, where Russian forces were able to encircle Dzhokar Dudayev's forces fairly tightly, the Tajik-Afghan border is an open front for heavily armed mujahedin, who received sympathy and material support from a large segment of the local population. Although Afghanistan has entered into its own bloody civil war since the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, President Burhanuddin Rabbani has expressed support for the Islamic revival movement in Tajikistan and does nothing to prevent local commanders from using Afghan territory as a base for operations against Russian positions.

However, a recent incident in which Russian aircraft bombed a number of Afghan villages has produced a sharp reaction among officials in Kabul. In an effort to destroy bases used by Tajik opposition forces, Russian helicopter gunships destroyed a large number of homes and killed more than 40 Afghan civilians. Representatives of the Afghan Embassy in Moscow immediately warned Russia that if such incidents continues, the Afghan government will not be able to prevent local citizens from joining the ranks of the Tajik opposition.

Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev recently added fuel to the fire with his statement to the Tajik negotiating teams currently meeting in Moscow. His remarks were interpreted as a threat that if incidents continue along the border, Russian border guards will be forced to carry out decisive strikes against the opposition. As a result, leaders of the Tajik Islamic revival movement immediately walked out of the talks.

All this raises the question, will there be major military action along the border in the near future? It is indeed possible. If Russia deploys additional heavy equipment and new battalions of peacekeepers in the region, the mood among Afghan military leaders may well shift decisively in favor of actively defending the Tajik opposition.

Although Islam is clearly a factor unifying Afghanistan with the Tajik opposition against the Russian threat, it would be naive to think that it is the only reason why Afghan mujahedin would be willing to take up arms against the CIS peacekeepers. Without doubt, even in the economic disaster in which Tajikistan now finds itself, the country is attractive to the Afghans, who continue to live in almost medieval conditions of poverty and hunger on their side of the border.

Many observers have wondered why Russian politicians and military leaders have continued to support the ruling nomenklatura in Tajikistan instead of the democratic or Islamic oppositions. It is, after all, clear to everyone that power in Dushanbe has been monopolized by a single ethnic clan that has created a strict political regime to dominate the rest of the country. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Russia harbors no particular love for the current Tajik president, it has been willing to put its young men in the line of fire.

There are a number of explanations for Moscow's policy. As the Tajik civil war unfolded, two sides coalesced: one side was headed by both democratic and Islamic religious leaders and the other by communists. Moreover, the nomenklatura was supported by the local criminal underworld.

The communists and the mafia were clearly united by an emphasis on internationalism, which -- strangely enough -- the Islamic movement lacked. Moscow felt that the communists were more predictable and feared that primitive religious forces in Tajikistan represented a danger to the entire Central Asian region. As far as the democratic opposition is concerned, it was never able to emerge from the shadows of the Islamic movement and never had significant popular support. In short, Moscow's choice was clear, but it is a choice for which Russia continues to pay dearly.

Traditionally there have been several explanations for Russia's continued involvement in Tajikistan. Moscow, it is said, fears Islamic expansion on its own territory. Also, Russia seeks to protect the interests of ethnic Russians in Tajikistan and the two countries remain bound by close economic ties.

However, the latest summit of CIS leaders has given rise to new speculation. Clearly, many Russian politicians on both the left and the right continue to dream of the recreation of the Soviet Union. Recently, the leaders of several former republics have given support to this dream by emphasizing the expedience of close economic cooperation throughout the CIS.

But what about the human and material costs of such a vision? The Chechen crisis has demonstrated that Russian leaders are ready to pursue their strategic goals at any cost. Although tens of thousands have already died in that conflict, the majority of Russians regard Moscow's action as a necessary evil. At the same time, Russia's military presence in Georgia, Armenia and a number of other border regions is slowly being beefed up and consolidated. Nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. smolders on.

Mumin Shakirov is a reporter for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.