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Parviz Mullojanov: Tajik-Uzbek relations – development dynamics and prospects

“Historical contradictions caused by the “Big Turkestan” project, unrealized in the 1920s, lie at the heart of today’s strained relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan”, wrote Parviz Mullojanov, a political analyst (Tajikistan, Dushanbe), in his article, written exclusively for cabar.asia.

The relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are not so good today. Many observers and experts in this regard use the term “Cold War”, “Rail war”, “Transport blockade” and so on. At the same time, relations between Tajiks and Uzbeks at the household and interpersonal level are still quite far from mutual intolerance and rejection, which is not surprising. Tajiks and a significant part of Uzbeks trace their origin from the ancient Iranian-speaking population of Central Asia, and therefore, they have a lot of similarities in customs, traditions, culture, national psychology and character.

Accordingly, many researchers are wondering why, despite the obvious historical closeness and the immediate neighborhood of both peoples, the relationship between the two countries remain difficult for such a long period of time?

Some experts explain this phenomenon by complex relationships between the two countries’ Presidents – Islam Karimov and Emomali Rahmon. However, in fact, during the Soviet period, the relations between the neighboring republics were also quite difficult and complex. Does this mean that there are a number of other objective of long-term factors, which adversely affect the Tajik-Uzbek relations? And if so, how will the relations between the two countries develop in the next decade, especially in light of deepening social and economic crisis and geopolitical shifts in the region?

In order to answer at least some of these questions, we should consider the dynamics of the relations between the two nations, since the period of the national territorial demarcation of Central Asia in the 1920s. According to most researchers, the origins and causes of the current geopolitical confrontation between the two neighboring countries should be sought in this historical period.

The dynamics of the Tajik-Uzbek relations

History of the Tajik-Uzbek relations in the 20th century and today can be tentatively divided into three main periods:

The first period begins with the February Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent establishment of Soviet power in Central Asia. Revolutionary changes in Russia caused a surge of enthusiasm and inspiration among the local supporters of the movement “Jadid” (renovators) or “Young Bukharians” whose main purpose was the modernization of Bukhara (since the center of that movement was in the capital of the Emirate of Bukhara) and Central Asian society. At the same time, the Jadid ideology was greatly influenced by the ideas of Tatar “modernists” who infiltrated in the emirate of Bukhara after the emirate’s entering into the Russian Empire, as well as by the views of the Young Turks. Propagandists were young Bukhara citizens from wealthy families who studied, according to the fashion of that time, in educational institutions in Istanbul. Striving to modernize and upgrade the Central Asian society, bringing it closer to the advanced achievements of Western society, the Jadid leaders believed in the unification of all Muslim peoples of Russia into one state, which would be able to resist the European powers. Central Asian Jadidism ideologists put forward the concept of the state of Turkestan or Turan, based not on the principles of “class” solidarity (as in Marxism), but on the principles of ethno-religious solidarity of the peoples of Turkic origin. [1]

Thus, the original Pan-Islamism of the Jadids was tranformed into Pan-Turkism (as the majority of Muslims in the region were Turkic speaking), which was originated in the region, paradoxically, by Tajik speaking intellectuals of Bukhara. However, not all Jadid leaders shared the ideology of Pan-Turkism. Right before the arrival of the Bolsheviks, the Jadid movement split into two warring groups: one was headed by Faizullo Khodzhaev, a millionaire (who later became one of the leaders of the Uzbek SSR) and was entirely on the positions of Pan-Turkism, while the group around a local merchant Ablulkodira Muhiddinov was more moderate, especially in the national question. However, the idea of ​​creating a powerful Muslim state was so attractive that during some time, it was supported by all factions in varying degrees, and all conflicting factors and considerations were simply swept aside for the sake of political expediency.

That is why, for the sake of the “Great Turkestan” idea, from the outset, ​​the Jadid leaders so fiercely resisted any attempts of national delimitation in Central Asia, trying to persuade Moscow in every way about the existence of a common Turkic nation and the need to preserve its territorial unity. It was stated that “the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Turkmens and other peoples, each of which is considered to be a separate nation, are actually part of one unified nation.” [2]

However, it soon became clear that Moscow had clearly made a decision on the national delimitation in the region. In May 1920, “Turk” delegation, consisting of the main ideologists of a united Turkestan, unsuccessfully tried to persuade Moscow leadership in the inadvisability of this decision. At the same time, Lenin instructed to examine the national situation in the region and to prepare final national delimitation, so that every nation in the region got the right to their own statehood.

Thus, the “Great Turkestan” project was blocked. Then, after returning from Moscow, Faizullo Khodzhaev and his supporters started implementing a project “Greater Uzbekistan” (or, in fact, the “Small Turkestan”), which would include, at least, the entire territory of the former Emirate of Bukhara (the territory of modern Tajikistan). [3]

Here, the main problem and obstacle to the creation of this project was the existence of significant Tajik speaking population in the territory of “Small Turkestan” that formed a majority not only in the mountainous eastern part of the former emirate, but also in its main cities, especially in Samarqand, Bukhara and Khujand. Iranian-speaking Tajiks did not fit into the overall picture, and their existence was ignored or denied. The statistics and official documents sent to the Centre did not mention about them. In the local press, the problem was mentioned in the following manner: “Historically, these people (Tajiks) were Uzbeks, but under the influence of Persian civilization and literature, they became Tajik-speaking. We will give their original language and nationality back to them. Uniformity is the condition of progress, by making Tajiks of Bukhara Uzbeks (here meaning the entire former Bukhara Emirate), we will do a favor to civilization” [4]” It is necessary for Tajiks to immediately move to the Uzbek language and renounce their own Tajik language, because the socialist tread of the history has prejudged its fate.”[5]

These slogans and appeals were accompanied by concrete actions of the authorities on the ground, and with such excesses that it caused outrage among some moderate Jadid and Tajik intellectuals united around the group of A. Mukhitdinov. As a result, Mukhitdinov and his supporters appealed to the Centre with the project of Tajikistan. However, the main role in the development and lobbying of a new project was played by young Tajik Bolsheviks Shirinsho Shotemur, Chinor Imamov and Nusratullo Makhsum. Natives of the mountainous regions of Eastern Bukhara and Pamir, they established Soviet power in the field and fought the Basmachi; and Jadids with their “bourgeois” origin and ideas about “united Muslim power” were a totally alien and hostile phenomenon for them.

Thus, in the early 1920s, two political projects, Tajik and Uzbek, clashed in Central Asia, and they were mutually exclusive. Indeed, the implementation of the “Small Turkestan” project did not give Tajiks any chance to statehood; and vice versa, creating borders of Tajikist within the spread of Iranian speaking population and Farsi (which would imply the transfer of Samarqand and Bukhara to the Tajiks) actually put an end to the project of “Greater Uzbekistan” from the Aral Sea to the Chinese border.

That is why, during the next few years, the confrontation between supporters of both projects took an extreme violent character. Actually, there was an information war, the purpose of which was to get the support of Moscow.

The main efforts of the Tajik side were designed to prove the very existence of the Tajik ethnic group in the area and their right to statehood. This was the so-called “war of historians”, probably, one of the first and most fierce on the Soviet space, when the history and culture of the region suddenly acquired an acute political significance. In this case, the history and culture were treated from absolutely opposite values ​​and civilizational positions. For example, M. Behbudi and A. Fitrat, famous Jadid leaders and ideologists of the united Turkestan, published the plays “Tamerlane” and “Genghis Khan”, in which both conquerors represented a source of pride for all of Central Asians. In turn, Sadriddin Aini, who is considered the founder of the Tajik Soviet literature, wrote research books “Temur Malik” and “Examples of the Tajik literature”, where heroes of anti-Mongolian uprisings were praised, and Tamerlane was a merciless tyrant, who built “minarets of the heads of Tajiks”.

Finally, Moscow authorities had drawn to that issue famous Russian Orientalists V.V. Bartold, A.A. Andreev and E. Bertels, whose conclusion would advance the Tajik project. So in 1924, there was created the Tajik Autonomous Republic within the Uzbek SSR. It took several more years of fierce confrontation before 1929, when residents in Khujand and its surrounding areas raised massive protests, as they were dissatisfied with the violent transfer of local secondary schools to the Uzbek language. As a result, Khujand (Leninabad) region was transferred to Tajikistan, whose population passed the 1 million mark. Man. This created a legal basis for the subsequent withdrawal from Uzbekistan as a separate Soviet Socialist Republic. However, Tajikistan failed to achieve the transfer of Samarqand and Bukhara, which remained part of Uzbekistan.

Thus, neither the “Tajik project” nor “Greater Uzbekistan” project were fully realized in practice. However, from an ideological point of view, all remained the same; Tajik historiography sees Samarqand and Bukhara as cultural and historical centers of the Tajik people and the cradle of the Iranian-speaking culture in the region. In turn, in Uzbekistan during the Soviet period, the approach to the “Tajik issue” is actually built on the basis of the ideology of the 1920s.

The second period took place during the next few decades of Soviet rule up to the perestroika period and the collapse of the USSR. They were quiet years in a united country. At the same time, the “war of historians” did not subside, it was constantly flaring up and took more and more confrontational forms. In fact, during this period, both in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the developments 1920s were successfully “refined”, and the mutually exclusive nature of the approaches to the history and culture of the region had only increased. The fight was for the cultural heritage of the region; the dispute was for every scientist/writer of the Middle Ages, from Biruni and Avicenna, and to lesser-known poets of the 18-19th centuries.

Moreover, the parties used completely different approaches: in the framework of the Uzbek historiography, they used the so-called territorial principle when all the poets and writers, who lived on the territory of the region and Uzbekistan were recognized as “Central Asiana” or Uzbeks, regardless of the language they used in their works. At the same time, “Tajik project” has taken as a basis and always emphasized language and ethnicity of a cultural figure or a historical figure.

Behind the scenes, the authorities of both republics supported and defended their historians, which again confirmed the political nature of the disputes which, at first glance, looked purely scientific. During the Soviet era, Tashkent was often called the unofficial capital of Central Asia: most of the Central Asian design institutes and departments of regional and union status were based there; funding for many regional and national projects also went through Tashkent.

Despite this, the latent rivalry continued, as the Tajik government stubbornly rejected all claims of Tashkent for regional leadership, by appealing directly to the Center if necessary. Apparently, the “war of historians” in these circumstances was used by the leadership of these republics as an additional leverage to prove their claim to leadership (in the case of Tashkent) or to maintain an independent position (in the case of Dushanbe). Thus, during the Soviet era, the struggle between the “Tajik” and “Uzbek” projects would continue, but in the form of tacit competition in the humanitarian sphere, in the form of a “war of historians” and so on.

However, the most important was the fact that in Soviet times, the Tajik-Uzbek differences and historical debate had gradually moved beyond the narrow circle of individual groups of intellectuals, involving the wider community. This was facilitated by an effective educational system and the propaganda machine of the Soviet period, when ideological tenets were brought in varying degrees to all groups and social strata of the population. As a result, completely contradictory approaches and vision of the region’s history were published in school books, magazines and newspaper articles; many of them, in a hidden or open form, contained mutual attacks and claims. This has led to the growth of nationalism, prejudice and stereotypes in relation to each other among the population of both republics.

The third period of the Tajik-Uzbek relations was in the 1990s, when, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a bloody civil war broke out in Tajikistan. From the outset of the Tajik conflict, Tashkent had chosen the policy of unequivocal support for the pro-Communist People’s Front (PF), the social base of which was the population of Kulyab and Leninabad regions, as well as local Uzbek minority. Support from Uzbekistan played a key role in the military and organizational “survival” of the PF during the most sensitive period of civil war (from May to October 1992), when Moscow was officially declaring its neutrality and non-interference in the Tajik conflict. During this period, Uzbekistan acted as an unofficial “springboard” for realizing a prototype of modern “hybrid warf” against the pro-opposition coalition government of Tajikistan that was in power.

The role of Tashkent in the future victory of the People’s Front cannot be overestimated. Suffice it to say that the elite 15th Brigade of Special Forces stationed in Chirchik, under the command of the notorious Colonel V. Kvachkov, participated in the fighting on the side of the PF in full force. [6] This Brigade has played a special role in the defeat of the main strongholds of the opposition in Dushanbe, Kofarnigan, Romit, Garm and Pamir regions in December 1992 – in March 1993. At the same time, in the battles against the Tajik opposition, Uzbek aviation was widely used, primarily military and transport helicopters. Virtually since June 1992, there operated a secret air bridge between Termez and Kulyab, with help of which to cargos of both humanitarian (food, medicine) and a military character were supplied. Later, the transit points were established on the border of Qurghonteppa Oblast, Regar (Tursunzade) district, through which the disposal squads of PF received weapons and ammunition. Tashkent played a significant role in organizing the historic 16th Session of the Parliament of the Republic of Tajikistan in October 1992, Khujand, which legalized the coming to power of the current leadership of the country. Suffice it to say that Kulyab delegates went to the session via Termez, where they were instructed personally by Sangak Safarov, the leader of the PF, in the presence of R.U. Akhmedov, the Minister of Defense of Uzbekistan. [7]

Therefore, it is natural that Tashkent seriously believed that the new Tajik government would select a geopolitical orientation to Uzbekistan, and representatives of the political lobby loyal to Tashkent will occupy key positions in it. Thus, the confrontation between the two projects would have finally ended in favor of the “Greater Uzbekistan” project, and the post-war Tajikistan would be a part of it, in one form or another. And there were reasons for that, as soon after the military defeat of the opposition, the ideas of a possible merger with Uzbekistan, about the Tajik state insolvency and so on were often heard in the environment of warlords and political lobby associated with Tashkent. Warlords of Hissar area (west of Dushanbe) refused to obey the Tajik government, openly focusing on the Tashkent. When the Tajik government required them to disarm, Ibod Boymatov, a criminal authority and the Mayor of Tursunzade, stated “the Tajik government did not give us this weapon, and it will not take it from us.”

Under these conditions, the new Tajik government turned for support to Moscow, who was interested in the prospect of the project “Big Uzbekistan” not to a greater extent than in the 1920s. With the support of the Russian Federation, the Government of Tajikistan, during quite a short time, managed to disarm or to isolate key commanders and leaders directly associated with Tashkent. Almost by the end of 1993, Uzbekistan was driven out to a secondary role in the Tajik conflict, gradually losing the opportunity to influence its course and dynamics, as well as the political landscape inside Tajikistan.

New period of development of the Tajik-Uzbek relations

From that moment, a new period of cooling in the Tajik-Uzbek relations has begun and is continuing to the present day. Tashkent almost immediately undertook a series of attempts first of political and then of force character, in order to return their control of the “Tajik project”. The stake was made on “Non-Kulyab” part of the People’s Front that considered itself “deprived” in the division of power and resources.

During the presidential election of 1994, Tashkent supported Abdumalik Abdullodzhanov, former Prime Minister of the Republic of Tajikistan; however, Russia supported Emomali Rahmon, the current head of the republic, who eventually became the President. A. Abdullodzhanov took refuge in Uzbekistan, where he announced the creation of a “third force” or “new opposition”, designed to “protect the interests of the Uzbek minority and the northern Tajiks”. “The new opposition” demanded to be represented in the inter-Tajik peace talks as a separate party.

Shortly thereafter, there happened a series of anti-government riots among warlords, identifying themselves as a “third force”. In 1996, Colonel Mahmoud Hudoberdyev, a commander of the elite brigade MDRT, raised revolt; in 1997, a new rebellion under his command was supported by Ibod Boymatov, former mayor of Tursunzade, who broke in with a group of supporters from the Uzbek territory. After the defeat of the rebellion, Ibod Boymatov was killed, and Hudoberdyev took refuge in Uzbekistan. In 1998, this rebel colonel leading a large armed group again broke through the Tajik-Uzbek border, attempting to capture the northern Leninabad (Sogd) region. His attempt failed, and the Colonel returned to Uzbekistan, where, according to unofficial sources, he was promoted to the title of General and commander of a separate brigade of special forces consisting largely of former fighters from Tajik PF [8]

After the methods of power and political pressure had not justified themselves, the Tajik-Uzbek opposition shifted to the economic and geopolitical plane. The period of “cold” economic war that is either calming down or flaring up continues to the present.

In this economic war, the main purpose of Tashkent is to refute the “Tajik project,” to prove the impossibility of its independent existence outside the “Uzbek project”, “Uzbek world” or Uzbek zone of influence. The main method of influence is torpedoing all the key macro-economic programs and projects of the Tajik leadership, which are implemented without the consent or equity of Tashkent.

Most political observers is considering today’s Tajik-Uzbek opposition as disagreements over specific economic problems and projects. They primarily include a problem of distribution of regional water and energy resources and related questions of Rogun hydropower plant, Tajik aluminum plant, infrastructure and transport projects.

However, in fact, it is not so much about the economic problems, but also about instruments of political pressure. Most of these issues are secondary and seem unsolvable only at first glance. Technically, they are not so difficult to solve. For example, the position of Tashkent about the construction of the Rogun HPP and the cascade of hydropower plants on rivers is unlikely to last long, if the Uzbek is allowed to participate in construction and control over the allocation of water resources of Tajikistan. However, to reach this, Tajik leadership will have to sacrifice a part of its sovereignty – at least, that’s how the official Dushanbe most likely sees this situation.

Possible prospects of the Tajik-Uzbek relations

It turns out from all the foregoing that the basic and long-term problem of the Tajik-Uzbek relations is essentially as follows: whether Dushanbe will accept Tashkent’s claims to leadership and dominance in the bilateral relations. In other words, the key question remains the same for all these decades, beginning with the period of national-territorial demarcation – whether the “Tajik project” is historically justifiable or it appeared only due to the “whims of Moscow”, as Jadid leaders claimed. We are talking again about the contradictions between the Tajik project and the “Greater Uzbekistan” project, each of which, as mentioned above, has not been fully realized.

In my opinion, the current relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are in many respects similar to the relations between Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, the official concept “Tajiks and Uzbeks are one people speaking two languages” adopted in Uzbekistan (which is actually an adapted version of the old slogan of Jadids in the 1920s) is very similar to the concept of the “All-Russian nation”, the actual foundation of the ideological theory of the “Russian world”. [9] In Uzbekistan, the national-territorial delimitation is often seen as a “conspiracy of Russian imperialists” aimed at the separation of a single nation, ostensibly against the will of Tajiks and Uzbeks.” [10] This is very similar to the concept of a “western conspiracy”, officially adopted in Russia, which allegedly artificially split a single Russian people into three parts. And just like in Russia where the question of consistency of the Ukrainian statehood is often raised, very similar statements can be heard in Uzbekistan about the “Tajik project.” [11]

Of course, it is unlikely that the Tajik-Uzbek relations in the foreseeable future will evolve like the Russian-Ukrainian, moving from “cold” to “hot” phase. Anyway, the project of “Greater Uzbekistan” is unlikely to ever be accepted by the Russian Federation, whose zone of influence includes Tajikistan, just like it was not supported by Russia in the 1920s or in the 1990s.

Most likely, in the coming years, we should not expect any radical warming or radical degrading of the Tajik-Uzbek relations. The status quo is likely to continue, although some progress in opening communications and visa exemptions are quite possible. However, a certain level of tension will remain long enough, unless they find any mutually acceptable form of compromise between the Tajik and Uzbek national projects.

Parviz Mullojanov, a political scientist

Opinion of the author may not necessarily represent those of CABAR

[1] Arslan Taksanov. Uzbekistan. Ideas of ​​statehood, http://www.proza.ru/2008/01/26/407

[2] Rahbari Donish Journal, N11-12, 1928 pp.15-18

[3] S. Abashin – Origin and current state of the Central Asian nationalisms, http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1115585040

[4] “Rahbari Donish» Journal, N11-12, 1928 pp.15-18

[5] “Turkestan” journal, January 2, 1924, p.34

[6] Dmitry Belyakov, Special Forces Colonel, Russian Reporter, October 19, 2010 N41 (169) Now Colonel Kvachkov is serving a prison sentence on charges of anti-government insurgency of nationalistic nature

[7] Khairullo Tabarov. I was very offended by the administrative apparatus of the republic, Asia-Plus, 20.09.11. http://news.tj/ru/newspaper/interview/khabibullo-tabarov-ya-silno-obizhen-na-apparat-upravleniya-respubliki

[8] “Photos of Mahmoud Hudoberdyeva filmed in Uzbekistan” Radio Ozodi 22/01/2013

[9] Triune Russian nation (also, United Russian people, great Russian people, single people of Russia, etc.) – A concept which implies Russian nation as a single community of great Russians, little Rus and belorussians.

[10] S.N.Abashin Origin and current state of the Central Asian nationalisms, Origin and the current state of the Central Asian nationalisms

[11]. “, R. Abdullaev,” Natsionalnaya idea dlya respublili Tajikistan “, (National Idea for the Republic of Tajikistan), web-site 12news.us, 19 June, 2013, http://www.12news.uz/ news /

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