THE automatic rifle fire crackling in the mountains of the Tajik-Afghan border, and the Russian artillery shells pounding Afghan villages, herald an unsavory prospect for Moscow - another war against Islamic guerrillas.
Less than five years ago, Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan, ending a bitter nine-year battle against Islamic mujahideen forces for control of that nation. Now, Russian soldiers are in Tajikistan, Afghanistan's northern neighbor, propping up the regime of Emomali Rakhmanov and trying to prevent the infiltration of militant Islam into former Soviet Central Asia.
Fighting along the Tajik-Afghan border has escalated since July 13, when Tajik Islamic guerrillas, allegedly supported by their Afghan brethren, wiped out a Russian border post, killing at least 20 Russian soldiers.
Russian officers claimed Sunday that more than 100 Islamic guerrillas were killed in a recent border clash. Meanwhile, the Islamic Afghan government in Kabul has complained that Russian cross-border artillery barrages on Afghan villages suspected of being guerrilla havens have claimed dozens of civilian lives.
As it quickly becomes embroiled in the fighting in the region, Russia says it desperately wants to prevent the situation from exploding into a "second Afghanistan." But Moscow officials say their task will be difficult, explaining that although stationing Russian troops in Tajikistan is undesirable, it is in Russia's best geopolitical interests to make a stand there.
"It is a test of maturity for us," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Kunadze told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper. "It is easy enough to descend into an Afghan scenario.... We must do everything we can to prevent it."
To this end Russia has opened a diplomatic blitz. Russian envoys secured pledges last weekend from Afghan and Pakistani officials to seek a peaceful resolution of the Tajik conflict. Pakistan was an important sponsor for the Afghan mujahideen in its fight against Moscow. Russian envoys are now in Tehran to discuss the Tajik situation.
In addition, Russia intends to host a summit of Central Asian leaders this Friday to formulate a regional stability plan. Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, said in a television interview that the summit participants were likely to discuss a proposal that United Nations observers monitor the Tajik-Afghan border.
"At the summit we must all support Tajikistan at this difficult moment, and at the same time we must tell the Tajik leadership that they must work with the opposition and the leaders of Afghanistan," the Kazakh leader added.
The Tajik government, however, appears to be the biggest stumbling block in the search for peace. Moscow has stressed that the Rakhmanov regime must stop persecuting the Islamic opposition and open a dialogue with them, but the Tajik hard-liners have failed to respond.
"The Tajik government must stop the torture, beating, and persecution of detainees for their political and religious beliefs," Russian human rights activist Alexander Sokolov said at a news conference.
According to a report prepared by the human rights group Helsinki Watch, 90,000 Tajiks fled to Afghanistan last year after the Tajik hard-liners emerged victorious in a civil war against the Islamic forces. Another 486,000 are classified as displaced persons within Tajikistan. Many refugees who have returned home, Helsinki Watch added, have faced government retribution and even execution.
In the absence of peace, Russia has made it clear it intends to fight. Thus, even as it intensifies diplomatic endeavors, Russia is hard at work reinforcing border troops and strengthening positions in Tajikistan.
"If we pull out, then we should be prepared to see Islamic extrem-ism, and the forces of instability in general, pass Tajikistan and enter Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan," Mr. Kunadze said. "These forces would start knocking at our own door so quickly that we'd never know what hit us."
Russia is also saddled with the Soviet Union's imperial legacy. Because it feels compelled to protect the interests of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians still living in Tajikistan, Russia is unable to pull back its border forces. Officials also say Moscow does not have the money to build new border defenses along the Russian-Kazakhstan boundary.
"The Russian-speaking population can't be left behind," political scientist Vitaly Naumkin wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. At the same time, "Moscow is unable to evacuate all Russians from Tajikistan."