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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Guise of Neutrality

LIEUTENANT COLONEL Grigory Dyumin monitored the radio telephones above his tousled office camp bed as reports spluttered in from the battlefield. Uzbek aircraft were attacking positions of Tajik opposition fighters. . . Russian tanks were struggling to cross a swollen river and catch the opposition fighters in a pincer movement . . .

So, on a clear day just 60 kilometers east of the capital Dushanbe, began the latest offensive in Tajikistan's 10-month-old civil war. The fighting began last May, leaving at least 270, 000 people homeless and an unknown number dead, although official estimates range as high as 30, 000. Listening to the radio telephones in Dyumin's office, it was clear that the war in Tajikistan was no longer a purely internal affair.

Dyumin is a Russian. He commands the Russian 201st division's tank battalion, which was out in the field struggling to cross a river where opposition fighters had blown up the bridge. The footsoldiers may have been Tajiks, loyal to the former Soviet Republic's reinstalled pro-communist government. But the firepower that has turned the tide came from Uzbekistan and Russia, the two historically dominant powers in the region.

Moscow has joined with the Uzbek government in Tashkent to intervene militarily in Tajikistan, securing the interests of the afflicted country's two larger neighbors. Foremost among those interests is to prevent a nightmare scenario of collapsing borders and ethnic strife in Central Asia.

"There are potential border disputes everywhere in Central Asia", said Oleg Pamfilov, a Russian ethnologist who recently fled Dushanbe and now works for the American Jewish Organization for Human Rights in Moscow.

"There are large Uzbek minorities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and large Tajik minorities in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan", he said. "Any of these borders could break up in ethnic conflicts".

According to recent reports from the Tajik government in Dushanbe, the opposition forces, who support a coalition government of democrats and Islamic revivalists ousted last December, have now been dislodged from two of their last three strongholds and pushed back into the mountains. Optimistically perhaps, the government of President Emomali Rakhmonov claims that the war is almost over.

But the cost of success has been high.

Tajikistan's independence, gained little more than a year ago, has become something of a fiction as the government no longer controls its airspace or its borders.

Tajik airspace and air defenses are now wholly under Uzbek control. As Dyumin explained, they were handed over a month ago, after the Russian Defense Minister, Pavel Grachev, issued an order coordinating the air defense systems of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Dyumin said that Uzbek bombers - contrary to denials last week by the Uzbek president Islam Karimov - fly regular missions from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, to opposition targets in the Tajik mountains. Shorter range Uzbek helicopter gunships, he added, are based closer to the front in Dushanbe.

An unusually young colonel at 34, Dyumin said the tanks of the 201st division do no more than "support" forces loyal to the Tajik government in their fight against the opposition. "We are peacekeepers", he said.

But he was open about his commitment to the conservative, pro-Russian government in Dushanbe. A more junior officer who preferred not to be named said that Dyumin's tanks are used "to shell opposition positions and to provide cover for the government troops".

Ostensibly neutral, the 201st division's involvement in the war is by now undeniable.

THE BORDERGUARD helicopter flies low and fast as it moves between posts along the wild frontier between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, hugging the mountainsides and zig-zagging in precautionary evasive action. On the south side, Afghan mujahideen sometimes take potshots - for old times sake perhaps, remembering the 10-year-long war here. North of the border the threat comes from opposition fighters, who consider Russian forces the enemy.

The border, especially as it rises through the Pamiri mountains and curves to split the region of Badakhshan, has become porous to gun runners and Tajik or mujahideen fighters. It is manned by Commonwealth guards, but they cannot stem the cross-border traffic in guns and drugs, which they claim are being run through the Pamiri mountains to Kyrgyzstan and shipped on from there to Western Europe.

These are the formidable mountains through which ambitious British and Russian officers passed on their way to play "the Great Game" in Central Asia during the early and mid-19th century, searching for passes through which a conquering army might be led to India or the rich markets of Samarkand and Bukhara.

Tajikistan did not exist then, except as the remote eastern reaches of the emirate. Neither was there an Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan or Turkmenistan.

Russian Bolsheviks drew the crazy jigsaw puzzle of hairpin borders that congest this part of Central Asia as late as 1929, the year that Tajikistan was formed. Though conceived on ethnic lines, the frontiers conform only in the most approximate way to the spread of populations.

Now the Russians colonizers, many of them skilled workers employed in the region's factories and research institutes, are leaving. Already half of the 388, 500 who lived in Tajikistan have fled the country, according to the acting Russian ambassador in Dushanbe, Felix Dovjenok.

For the first time, Central Asia's political leaders are having to define national identities for states that were created from Moscow as Soviet republics. It is a process fraught with risk.

Already there is an ethnic element to the Tajik civil war. A group of frightened men and women who were among 4, 500 Tajik refugees packed into the hotel Dushanbe in the capital blamed the government of Uzbekistan and the Uzbek minority in Tajikistan for all their misfortunes. Local Uzbeks had taken their homes in southwestern Tajikistan and were now living there. "The main reason for all the conflicts here is the Uzbeks, and especially Karimov", said one refugee, referring to the Uzbek president. None wished to be named for fear of reprisals.

That was a narrow view, since in large part the conflict has been fought between so-called clans rooted in historically disparate regions of Tajikistan. But the Tajik opposition in 1989 claimed that their country's border should be expanded to include Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan, giving the Uzbek president special cause for concern, according to Pamfilov. Although they later dropped the demand, Karimov has not forgotten the threat Pamfilov believes it was a primary motive for military intervention.

THE MODEL HERE for armageddon is not Yugoslavia, but Afghanistan, a country that has been mired in a complex of religious, clan and ethnic wars since the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989. Afghanistan's name is uttered as if it were a disease on this side of the border.

There lies Islamic fundamentalism, a war with no end in sight and 3 million ethnic Tajiks - many of whom fled there in the 1920s and still have relatives across the border. Some fear that Afghan warlords might join the Tajik opposition, especially with the 60, 000 refugees from the war now camped in Afghanistan, breaking down the borders altogether.

"We need for the international community to understand this - we could have another Afghanistan here soon", said Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Zhermyakov, the Russian deputy commander of the Pyandzh border post. The crump and thud of mortar fire being exchanged by mujahideen fighters could be heard over the Afghan border from Kunduz, stronghold of the radical Hezb-i-Islami warlord, Abdullatif.

Zhermyakov doubted that the 2, 000 troops promised by Commonwealth leaders in February to reinforce the border would materialize, although Russia sent 170 on Thursday. He acknowledged having difficulty in keeping enough personnel to man the frontier. Four guards were killed in 1992, and by now 50 percent of the complement are veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

"If we do not act, we could soon be meeting these fundamentalists near Kazan", said Dyumin, referring to the capital of the Moslem republic of Tatarstan, less than 800 kilometers from Moscow.

What he, Karimov and Tajik President Rakhmonov have in common is a belief that the chief threat to stability comes from Islamic fundamentalism. Few independent observers see fundamentalism as a real force in Central Asia, but more as a code word for changes that could open a pandora's box of disasters, including ethnic strife and border disputes.

Code word or not, the threat of fundamentalism has proved potent enough to enable both the Tajik and Uzbek governments to argue that the people will be better off without rapid changes - and with some success.

"We have no plans for elections", said Rakhmonov, who denied that he was a communist. "The people do not need parties right now. They are fed up with this. Everything began when we allowed democratic and Islamic parties to be created". - With Petya Yudin