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