NIZHNY PYANJ, TAJIKISTAN — Abdulhamid Gurukov is happy to be back home, even if it means living just six miles from the Afghan border. Six years ago the cotton farmer and his extended family of 17 fled Tajikistan's civil war, crossing the Pyanj River to Afghanistan with a tractor balanced on a rickety pontoon bridge. They made a living plowing crops for others.
Mr. Gurukov, along with 10,000 other Tajik refugees, was repatriated last year in the framework of the fragile 1997 peace agreement ending a five-year civil war between the government of President Imomali Rakhmonov and the Islamic-leaning opposition. Now, as Islamist Taliban forces in Afghanistan push back their last foes to the Tajik frontier, they threaten to send streams of refugees and possibly their fundamentalist ideology across a border already known for drug- and arms-smuggling.
Despite the general expectation that Taliban forces will not violate the border, their recent victories in Afghanistan provide Moscow with a rare opportunity to reassert its influence in Central Asia.
While Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the two other former Soviet republics bordering Afghanistan, are busily constructing defiant national identities, war-ravaged Tajikistan is split into factions and depends in large part on Russia as a guarantor of its uneasy peace.
Five years ago Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared, "Everyone must realize that [the Afghan frontier] is effectively Russia's border, not Tajikistan's."
"They were here before, they're here now, and they will be here in the future," says Gurukov, referring to the Russian border troops posted a few miles down a desolate road. "To us it makes no difference who stands there, Tajiks or Russians."
Moscow has stationed some 25,000 troops along the 800-mile Tajik-Afghan border under an agreement of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose alliance of 12 former Soviet republics. Earlier this month, a high-ranking Russian delegation arrived in the capital, Dushanbe, to discuss border security with President Rakhmonov, and a large scale Russian-Tajik military exercise began in southern Tajikistan Sept. 3.
The Russian military in Tajikistan is hostile to reporters in part, a press spokesman suggests, because of poor conditions and low morale among the rank and file. In contrast, Tajik soldiers in the border region are relatively open. At a barracks overlooking the Pyanj River, barefoot Tajik border troops can be seen hoeing the hard, cracked earth.
One young soldier, wearing fatigues and a cap with Soviet insignia, says he volunteered to be stationed at the lonely outpost four years ago. "If we were afraid, we wouldn't be working here," he says. "I'm not bored, I'm already used to life here."
With the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Kremlin fears that radical Islam will infiltrate Central Asia and spill over to Russia's Muslim population.
"There is no natural wellspring for fundamentalism here," says a Western diplomat in Dushanbe. "Orthodox Christians in Russia are searching for their roots, but so are people here. They are often forced into a corner [by the authorities], pushed toward fundamentalism."
For people living along the border, however, the desire for a life in peace appears stronger than any one political or religious preference.
"I'd rather go hungry in my own country than be a refugee again," says Atokhodzha Khodzhiev, who fled to Afghanistan during the Tajik civil war. "If I had the money, I'd move far from the border. The fear remains anyway."