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.

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