Central Asia: Independent and Troubled Ex-Communists Fight Islamic Fundamentalists


February 28, 1993|By KATHY LALLY | KATHY LALLY,Kathy Lally is a Moscow correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.

Dushanbe, Tajikistan. -- Communism, which Russia imposed on an unwilling Central Asia, has taken on a brutal and bloody afterlife of its own here well after Moscow pronounced the system dead.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought independence to the Muslim countries on the politically sensitive perimeter of the collapsed Soviet empire, bordering Iran, Afghanistan and China. But independence hasn't brought freedom. It has brought repression, fear and death.

Here in Tajikistan, statehood was greeted with a civil war that is deadly and vicious enough to threaten all of Central Asia. The old Communists, now in control, found it useful to accuse the opposition of plotting an Islamic fundamentalist revolution that would engulf the region.

In neighboring Uzbekistan, the old Communist power structure has systematically jailed, beaten and harassed an already weakened political opposition. The Uzbeks have found the Tajik disaster convenient. Without a strong hand, they say, the chaos will spread.

In Turkmenistan, a neo-Stalinist personality cult has been created around President Sapurmurad Niyazov, even though little in the way of opposition has ever arisen.

Only in mountainous Kyrgyzstan is there a democratic government, under President Askar Akayev -- but pressures from within as well as from its authoritarian neighbors threaten change even there.

No one knows how many have died in Tajikistan since last spring -- surely thousands have been killed. No one knows how many have fled their homes -- but burned-out houses stretch endlessly across the countryside, testifying to a Tajik version of ethnic cleansing. Neighboring Afghanistan is swollen with refugees.

One thing is clear and palpable in Tajikistan, and that is fear. A chilling peace has been imposed for the moment by pro-communist forces -- Kalashnikov rifles are everywhere on the streets of the capital and countryside -- but no one really believes it will last.

"We are afraid to go out," says a 65-year-old Dushanbe woman who, like nearly everyone, was terrified at the idea of giving her name. "People go to work, and never come back. They find them later in the dump."

After the August, 1991, coup in Moscow, long-suppressed interests began to emerge in Tajikistan, where hard-line Communists remained accustomed to unquestioned authority.

For the liberal intellectuals and nationalists who had been slowly awakening during the years of perestroika, the coup was the signal to begin preparing their vision of the future -- and it didn't include communism.

Yet another long-repressed force was coalescing, one that had the power to attract the fears and hopes and prejudices of nations a world away, and held the potential to turn this remote territory into a battleground that could engulf neighbors from Iran to China. That was Islam.

The Tajik tragedy was ready to unfold.

"Independence caught our leadership by surprise," says Dust Dustov, a member of the democratic opposition who now is in hiding in Moscow. "They didn't know what to do with it."

From the first, the communist government threatened its citizens and the world with the specter of Islamic fundamentalism. The great majority of Tajiks are Muslims, and though they speak the Farsi language of Iran, most are Sunni Muslims rather than Shiites. But not even in Islam are the Tajiks united. The Tajiks of the eastern Pamir Mountains are Ismaelites, whose religious leader is the Europe-oriented Aga Khan.

Unable to govern, unwilling to retreat, the communist government was slowly engulfed by chaos. Region turned against region, clan against clan. Hundreds of burned-out villages bear witness to what can only be called ethnic cleansing.

"This is an ethnic war," says a frightened woman who fled to Moscow to escape it. "There is no ideology, but to justify it they say they are fighting Islamic fundamentalism."

The opposing coalition of liberals and Muslims asserted they were fighting a repressive, communist regime. Their goal, they said, was to set up a democratic, secular state.

Each side blames the other for the wasteland that now calls itself Tajikistan. The government plays and replays for any journalists who will watch a videotape of mutilated bodies, crimes it blames on Islamic fundamentalists.

Members of the Islamic and liberal opposition, all in hiding now, accuse the government of mass murder, kidnapping, torture and executions.

"Beginning December 16," says Mr. Dustov, "they started checking passports in Dushanbe. Anyone born in Kurgan-Tyube or other opposition strongholds was taken away and killed. This was an ethnic purge."

It's impossible to find any opposition supporters in Dushanbe now. They are heard only in the sporadic gunfire echoing throughout the city at night; others have taken up positions in the mountains. Government officials say they have neither hunted nor arrested any opposition sympathizers.

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