AT last count the former Soviet Union has fragmented into 15 internationally recognized states. Along Russia's southern tier the breakup has been bloody. Ethnic fighting continues between Russians and Moldovans, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Georgians and Abkhazians. Until recently, widespread violence has been largely confined to Moldova and the Caucasus. Now there is a civil war brewing in the impoverished Central Asian republic of Tajikistan.
Why should we care about a country slightly smaller than Iowa in a remote corner of the former Soviet Union? Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan and China, shows what can happen when a potent mix of political, ethnic, clan, and regional rivalries is added to a cultural and religious Islamic revival taking place in both a former Soviet republic and a neighboring country. What makes Tajikistan unique, apart from being the most violent Central Asian republic, is the role of Afghanistan and Islam. Unfortun ately, the strife tearing Tajikistan apart could spread throughout the region.
On Sept. 7 President Rakhman Nabiev, a hard-line communist elected by popular vote in November 1991, was forced to resign after more than a week of armed protest. The protesters demanded Mr. Nabiev's resignation, greater religious and political freedom, and government action to end clan and ethnic warfare.
But Tajikistan's troubles are far from over. Nabiev's removal, assuming that no strong leader replaces him, could splinter the country further. During last year's elections he depicted himself as the last barrier to an Islamic revolution and won 57 percent of the vote on a platform of "without me, chaos."
Last month's episode is the latest battle in a conflict that has been simmering for two years between Tajikistan's communist elite and an opposition made up of Islamic and democratic groups. Last May, after months of street demonstrations and violence, Nabiev was forced to share power with a coalition of opposition parties that included the Western-oriented Democratic Party and the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP).
Turmoil has spread throughout the republic. Competing groups have taken over local governments, and regional and ethnic rivalries are raging. Tajikistan's 5.3 million inhabitants are a mix of mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks with some Russians, Tatars, and Kyrgyz.
In Tajikistan, political loyalties tend to follow regional ones. Support of Nabiev and his communist apparatchiks is strong in the relatively rich and industrialized north and in the southern Kulyab region. Islamic and democratic support is strong in the Pamir mountains in the east and Kurgan Tyube region in the south along the Afghan border. In the last four months more than 1,000 people reportedly have been killed.
Meanwhile the fragile coalition government's writ runs barely beyond the capital of Dushanbe. Until a new national legislature is elected in December the republic is being run by the Cabinet of Ministers and the Supreme Soviet Presidium, headed by Akbarsho Iskandarov, the acting president. It is likely that the opposition groups that ousted Nabiev will follow the path of broad-based opposition movements in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia, which eventually splintered into smaller factions.
Events in Tajikistan first appeared to be following a pattern established in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan, where legally elected but unpopular presidents have been overthrown by armed insurrections. But the opposition in Tajikistan may also be inspired by the success of Islamic rebels in neighboring Afghanistan.
Apparently Nabiev's supporters are arming themselves with weapons from the Tajik Army garrison, while his opponents are said to be receiving support from Tajiks in Afghanistan. In the first half of this year Russian border troops under commonwealth command have captured some 600 Tajiks crossing the Afghan border with rockets, rifles, and ammunition. In addition, Tajiks reportedly are receiving military training and presumably instruction in Muslim fundamentalism, in camps just over the border.
The IRP is the leading force of political Islam in Central Asia, and the Tajik branch has strong support in rural areas where the majority of Tajiks live. The Tajik IRP says that its long-term goal is an Islamic revolution but that this should come through nonviolent and parliamentary measures. In short, its leaders claim they want an "Islamic democracy," not a "Khomeini-style" revolution.
It is important to note that while Tajiks are ethnically Iranian and their language very close to Persian, they are Sunni Muslims, not Shiites like their Iranian brethren.
The resurgence of Islam, combined with ethnic and economic pressures (Tajikistan consistently had the lowest per capita income and the highest infant-mortality rate in the Soviet Union), have created an exploitable situation. Tajikistan is willing to accept any economic aid, regardless of strings attached.
Islam has become a compelling political factor throughout Central Asia, particularly in the Fergana valley, which runs through Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Extremists have a captive audience among disillusioned young people, many of whom were sent to fight in Afghanistan in the Soviet Army.
Unlesas Tajikistan's violence is contained, it seems sure to spread. Most of the 1 million Tajiks who live in other Central Asian republics reside in neighboring Uzbekistan, which includes two major cities of Tajik culture: Bukhara and Samarkand. Fearing that unrest might spread, Uzbekistan's hard-line leader, Islam Karimov, has cracked down on his opposition, closed the border with Tajikistan, and asked for United Nations peace-keeping troops.
In addition, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan announced in early September that they would send troops to prevent the smuggling of arms across the border from Afghanistan. So far approximately 1,200 reinforcements have arrived.
Strife may be inevitable since the old-guard communists in the north are likely to use force to stop the Islamic opposition in the south from taking control of the government.
With a large Uzbek minority in northern Tajikistan and the southern regions receiving arms from Afghanistan, where nearly 4 million Tajiks live, both Uzbekistan and Afghanistan may be drawn into Tajikistan's simmering civil war.