Tajiks strain under Uzbek rule: The nationalities are living together in peace if not in harmony, Hugh Pope reports from Samarkand

The deep voice of the Tajik poet rose powerfully over the chattering throng at a wedding feast, singing of the pain and estrangement he felt in his native Central Asian city of Samarkand.

Listening intensely to the Persian stanzas were leaders of the Tajiks in this ancient city, whose rulers are now marking their first year of relatively successful freedom from the old Soviet Union as part of the independent republic of Uzbekistan.

Fired up with toasts to the bride and bridegroom, nationalists among the revellers were in no mood to hide their feelings. 'We are ruled by fascists. They want to eliminate us or drive us out to Tajikistan,' said one of their leaders. A lesser activist hissed that Uzbeks were 'barbarian Turks, worse than the Mongols'.

Taken at face value, such statements might indicate that Samarkand could become Central Asia's next ethnic flashpoint as the six- month-old civil war in neighbouring Tajikistan spins out of control. But, luckily, most people in Samarkand believe that Uzbek-Tajik conflict is unlikely any time soon.

The Tajiks are so far only demanding greater political rights, more autonomous schools, official status for their language and a proper census of their Persian- speaking people, who claim descent from the victims of Tamerlane, the Turkic Mongol conqueror now being built up as the hero of the Uzbeks.

A Tajik activist, Jemal Mir- Saidov, said a Soviet practice of classifying them as Uzbeks meant that Tajiks numbered far more than the 1989 census figure of one- third of Samarkand's population. He also claimed Tajiks numbered up to a quarter of the 20 million people in Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous state.

This seems far-fetched since the Tajiks officially number less than 4 per cent, but the authorities in Samarkand believe there is a threat. They have cut out flights to Tajikistan, closed Uzbekistan's borders to Tajik refugees and keep a strict police watch on all Tajik nationalist activities.

'I'm worried about the situation in Tajikistan, it should be stabilised,' said Aziz Nazirov, the mayor of the city of half a million people. 'We have found some guns coming in here, so far only going to mafia types. We will do our best not to allow Tajikistan's problems to transfer here.'

So far there have only been rumours of clashes. The problem is mainly psychological and geographic. Most of Uzbekistan's Tajiks live in the south, mainly in the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, while Uzbeks make up 20 per cent of Tajikistan's 5 million people, concentrated in the northern province of Leninabad. Leninabad is, however, isolated from southern Tajikistan by forbidding mountains and is also currently ruled by the deposed former president of Tajikistan, whose ex-Communist policies are quite palatable to the Uzbek authorities.

Some young Tajiks talk darkly of the need for Samarkand and Bukhara to merge into a greater Tajikistan, an area that would correspond to that ruled by the emirate of Bukhara before Samarkand fell to the Russian empire in 1868. But most Tajiks seem proud that more than 100 nationalities live side by side in Samarkand. 'We share the same religion. We intermarry. We have Tajik schools. We even wear the same caps (a black four-cornered hat embroidered with white threads). The only difference is the language. What is there to fight about?' said a Tajik restaurant owner.

There are differences. Uzbeks can have distinctly Mongolian features and generally live in the countryside or are new arrivals in the suburbs. But after centuries of intermixture the cultures have become confused - both claim the characteristic suzani embroidered wall-hangings as their own, for example. For their part, Samarkand's Russians, eager to leave and always nervous about anything Islamic, take the view that it is more likely that Uzbeks and Tajiks will gang up together against them than fight with each other.

An Iranian-style Islamic fundamentalist uprising hardly seems imminent after decades of atheist education. But a tougher group of Islamists is beginning to emerge in Samarkand, just as in Tajikistan. Islamic authorities have taken control of Samarkand's beautiful Shah-e-Zinda shrine. The old Soviet museum tickets are no longer sold and a young bearded Islamist asks for open-ended contributions from tourists and devout pilgrims.

'We have left religion free, on condition it does not interfere with politics. The people don't want to go backwards. They want progress, not fundamentalism,' said Mr Nazirov, who hopes that his municipality's relative efficiency and privatisation of collective farms will keep the city on a peaceful track.

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
tech
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates his goal
sport
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
Life & Style
Infant child breast-feeding with eyes closed
healthTo stop mummy having any more babies, according to scientists
News
news
Arts & Entertainment
film
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Arts & Entertainment
Homer meets Lego Marge in the 25th anniversary episode of The Simpsons, set to air on 4 May
tv
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal