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Friday, November 7, 1997 Published at 11:47 GMT

World: Analysis

Tajiks row with Uzbeks over ancient empire

The uneasy relationhip between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has taken on a new dimension, through a row over Dushanbe's plan to hold celebrations in honour of the 10th century Samanid empire next year. The Uzbeks want the commemoration to be toned down, and have petitioned the United Nations agency for culture, UNESCO, with their objections. Both sides have met at the UNESCO General Conference, in Paris, where members decide which projects to support. Our Central Asia correspondent, Monica Whitlock, explains why the Samanid issue is so politically loaded:

The Samanids spread their empire around five great cities -- Samarkand, Herat, Fergana, Tashkent -- and Bukhara, seat of the royal court. On the modern map that means Uzbekistan, plus a slice of Afghanistan, and the lands of the Turkmen tribes as far as the Caspian sea.

But it is the Tajiks, the Persians of Central Asia -- who feel they are the true heirs of the Samanids. The Samanid poets, Rudaki and Ferdowsi, are revered among Tajiks as the fathers of their modern language and many people trace their roots to Bukhara and Samarkand, from which they were severed in Soviet times when Moscow drew borders between the Central Asian peoples.
[ image: Many of the Samanids came from Samarkand]
Many of the Samanids came from Samarkand

The mass of mountains we now call Tajikistan was mostly peripheral to the Samanid empire. Its quarrelling war-lords probably offered fealty to Bukhara in exchange for being left alone to run their domains -- a relationship not unfamiliar to Tajiks nowadays.

But the fact that most Tajiks speak modern, or Samanid Persian suggests that the empire reached in some form to all but the most remote valleys.

President Rahmonov's government has made much of the Samanid legacy, and plans to hold commemorative celebrations of the empire, which it describes as a state.

The Uzbeks did much the same thing by reviving the medieval conqueror, Amir Timur, amid enormous festivities last year. Purists who shudder at the historical doubtfulness of the Uzbek-Timur connection may also cavil at the Tajiks' claims. But historical precision is not really the point.

Both Dushanbe and Tashkent need badly to build national pride -- and history provides a useful and romantic rallying point.

The current row has blown up because the Uzbeks object to the word "state" in Tajikistan's proposals to UNESCO. They say that to commemorate Samanid civilisation would be acceptable, but to celebrate a state which encompassed the most famous cities in what's now Uzbekistan would tread on sensitive nerves.

Lurking behind the quarrel is the idea that one day, Tajikistan may lay claim to Samarkand and Bukhara, which have large Tajik populations. In real life, Dushanbe, which struggles to control territory just outside the city limits, could not possibly unite with a huge slice of a foreign country.

What is more, it is inconceivable that the Uzbeks would agree to the decimation of their country. But to open the issue of the status of Samarkand and Bukhara is still to court a very serious rift.

Annoyed by what they see as Uzbek attempts to sabotage their plans, the Tajiks have retaliated with their own petition to UNESCO, while Iranian radio, broadcasting from Mashhad has weighed in on the Tajiks' side.

The Samanid debate has become the most public forum of a deep row between Tashkent and Dushanbe which has been simmering ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. Ethnic Uzbeks in Tajikistan joined in the civil war of 1992, on what became the winning side -- and many were bitterly disappointed not to get a share of power in Dushanbe in return.

Ever since, they have rallied behind local leaders like Mahmoud Khudoberdiev and Ibod Boymatov, who were driven out by forces loyal to President Rahmonov earlier this year.

While the military scene has currently calm, politically, nothing has been settled. President Karimov startled everyone with a speech, in which he said he had partly Tajik blood. On the cultural level it was a remarkable and conciliatory gesture.

But in the same address, Mr Karimov also belittled the Tajik leadership, which he said was playing the Uzbek card to distract attention from its internal differences. He slighted President Rahmonov, saying he seemed unable to deal with armed rebel factions.

Many people are aware how catastrophic this quarrel could become, but there's little sign of it subsiding, as the Samanid debate shows. UNESCO members have to judge the arguments and make a decision by November 12th when their General Conference ends. Whatever they decide, either the Tajiks or the Uzbeks may leave Paris unhappy.

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