Yeltsin urges Central Asian leaders to help defend Tajik-Afghan border

August 08, 1993|By New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- At an unusual meeting yesterday, President Boris N. Yeltsin appealed to Central Asian leaders to help defend the old Soviet border with Afghanistan against incursions stemming from the civil war in Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic.

Russian soldiers have been dying again in battles with Afghans on the mountainous border of Tajikistan, which has brought back some old nightmares to Moscow.

Some 15,000 Soviet troops died in the Soviet war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 in a vain effort to defeat an Islamic insurgency. Not only did the intervention fail to preserve a Communist government in Kabul, but it also did much to undermine the one in Moscow.

Now Russian troops are trying to defend a weak, formerly Communist government in Tajikistan against Islamic insurgents who have found refuge and support from their Tajik brethren in Afghanistan.

After 25 Russians died in a crossborder raid by the insurgents last month, Mr. Yeltsin dismissed their commander and the Russian security minister, Viktor P. Barannikov. Mr. Yeltsin declared that the Tajik border was effectively Russia's, a crucial bulwark against the spread of "Islamic fundamentalism" through the region and into Russia itself.

No Western government publicly criticized Mr. Yeltsin's claim, acknowledging that Tajikistan has become a client state of Russia and Uzbekistan. Uzbek troops also fight in Tajikistan, and Uzbek President Islam A. Karimov has used the threat of Islamic fundamentalism there to justify suppressing his democratic political opposition.

Mr. Yeltsin, aware of the political unpopularity of having Russians fighting Afghans, asked Central Asian leaders to help defend the border. The leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan signed a statement on the inviolability of borders, which they would all help to patrol. Turkmenistan, whose leader did not attend the meeting, refused.

But Mr. Yeltsin also urged the Tajik government to negotiate with the opposition.

"Military measures are not our choice, but in this situation, it is hard to avoid them," Mr. Yeltsin told the meeting in the Grand Kremlin Palace. "But political steps are also required to regulate this crisis."

He urged the acting Tajik head of state, Emomali Rakhmonov, "to establish direct dialogue with the opposition, with all its elements," and said the Tajik government should be reorganized to reflect all ethnic and clan interests.

A similar appeal last month from Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev was rejected by Tajik Foreign Minister Rashid Olimov, who said it was impossible to talk with "people whose hands are covered with blood."

But Mr. Yeltsin, who called yesterday for "measures of reconciliation, not suppression," is harder to ignore. His call was supported in a statement from the Tajik opposition, which urged peace talks and a "neutral government."

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