Uzbek Leaders Clamp Down to Keep Peace Critics Say Official Policy of Isolation Is Not the Way to Avoid the Kind of Ethnic Conflict That Engulfs Neighboring Tajikistan. MANAGING CHANGE IN CENTRAL ASIA

Article excerpt

STANDING in the shadows of the disused and decaying Grand Mosque, the bazaar thrives with life, conjuring up images of this city's grandeur during the Silk Road era.

Merchants at one end hawk live fowl. Not far away skull-capped and stooped old men offer aromatic spices, while others squat next to their mounds of melons. The traders come from many ethnic backgrounds - mainly Uzbek and Tajik - but they are all united in the common pursuit of commerce.

The centuries-old scene appears light-years removed from the present-day violence in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, about a hundred miles to the southeast. Few at the Samarkand bazaar - Uzbeks and Tajiks alike - believe the merchants' come-ons could one day be replaced by automatic weapons fire in a Tajik-style conflict.

"Everyone lives like brothers so there's no possibility of another Tajikistan here," says Amir Saidov, a Tajik fruit merchant.

But the Uzbek government of President Islam Karimov apparently believes the spread of the Tajik violence is a possibility. And if unrest rocks Uzbekistan, the stability of Central Asia in general is threatened, government officials say.

In an effort to preserve Uzbek stability, Mr. Karimov has tried to seal off his country's borders from neighboring Tajikistan and has clamped down on all political opposition. The war next door

The Tajik civil war essentially pits pro-communist loyalists against Islamic forces. But there are indications that the sizable ethnic Uzbek minority, which comprises roughly 20 percent of Tajikistan's population, has gotten caught up in the fighting, mostly in support of the pro-communist forces.

The conflict, in which thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands more have become refugees, has engulfed Dushanbe. Opposing forces battle in the streets with heavy weapons including tanks. Pro-communist forces have gained control of most of the city, but still battle Islamic partisans in the suburbs.

Given the Tajik situation, keeping things calm in Samarkand is of particular interest for Uzbek authorities. The city contains a large concentration of ethnic Tajiks - who by some estimates comprise up to half the area's population - and, thus, is considered one of the most likely flash points if ethnic violence were to break out.

Local political activists, who oppose the government policies, say Karimov is wrong in believing ethnic harmony in Samarkand, as in all of Uzbekistan, can be best maintained by trying to isolate Tajikistan. …