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 Tajikistan. Indeed, the opposition leaders say Karimov's actions are doing more to create a conflict than to defuse one.
"There's no real material or political reasons at the present time that would cause Uzbeks to start fighting Tajiks here. It would have to be an artificial creation," says Alibai Yulyakhshiev, head of the Samarkand branch of the banned Birlik movement.
Both Mr. Yulyakhshiev and Suleiman Muradov, the local head of the Erk opposition party, say the continued presence in Uzbekistan of the former Soviet Army increases the risk of conflict. Karimov has encouraged the mainly Russian Army to stay, they add, in hopes that Moscow's military presence would help prop up his conservative government if upheaval threatened.
"But the Russian Army has its own plans," Mr. Muradov says. "Russian interests would be best served if they made trouble here, just like in Tajikistan. The Army does its best to set the people against each other. That way they are easier to control." Russian interference
Muradov points to the role of the Russian 201st motorized rifle division in the Tajik conflict to support his argument. The division is supposed to be impartial in the civil war; its mission is to guard strategic installations, such as power-generating facilities. But Tajik television once accused Russian commanders of aiding the pro-communist forces, providing tanks and other armored vehicles.
Philip Sidorsky, Russia's newly appointed ambassador to Uzbekistan, denies the Army is trying to fan a conflict in Uzbekistan, countering the military was "taking measures designed to prevent what has occurred in Tajikistan." In addition, both Mr. Sidorsky, and Uzbek Foreign Minister Ubaidullah Abdurazakov insist former Soviet military units in Uzbekistan were under the control of the Uzbek government.
More serious than the Army question, says Birlik activist Yulyakhshiev, is the country's struggling economy. The Uzbek government's preoccupation with preventing an ethnic conflict is hindering economic development, he says.
"The economy, if it continues to deteriorate, could cause unrest," he says. "Karimov should worry about the economy, but he doesn't take any action."
At the Samarkand bazaar, there are a few shoppers who share his sentiments. "I think there is a possibility for conflict," says Raya Nigmatova, an ethnic Tajik factory worker with four children in tow. "Life is already so difficult that people may start looking for scapegoats soon."