SOLDIERS in flak jackets with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders stand outside the gate of the headquarters of Russia's 201st Division. Inside myna birds chatter in the trees above armored cars and tents draped in camouflage netting, while garrulous soldiers line up for lunch.
For all practical purposes, this is the most powerful place in this mountainous Central Asian republic. A senior Tajik official casually refers to the Russian commander as their ``real master.''
Ever since Russian troops intervened in the bloody Tajik civil war in late 1992, Russia has enjoyed a predominant role in this former Soviet republic. ``They control the country militarily,'' says a veteran Western observer here. ``They control part, if not all, of the country economically.''
To some, Tajikistan is the premier example of Russia's renewed drive for an empire. But the Russians see themselves in a different light: as the only force that preserves even the modicum of peace that Tajikistan now enjoys.
``We need to bring peace and stability back to this region so people can toil peacefully,'' says the newly arrived Russian commander, Col. Gen. Valery Patrikeyev, a tall man with a jutting nose.
Even those who are skeptical of Russian motives acknowledge that only Moscow is willing to take on the burden that the fractured state of Tajikistan embodies. ``The international community wants to push the Tajik nose into the Russian trough,'' a well-informed diplomat here says. ``They don't want to worry about the economic and political situation here.''
General Patrikeyev is freshly transferred from commanding Russian troops in the other hot spot in the former Soviet Union, the Transcaucasus.
``Each side turned to me for help,'' he says of his former command, dealing with a civil war in Georgia and a war between neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia. ``It was very difficult to stay neutral.''
Many observers say the Russians here have failed to stay neutral. Russian troops, along with forces from the neighboring former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, are widely accused of giving decisive aid to the victors in the civil war in late 1992, a coalition of former Communist officials from two key regions.
The losers, a regionally based alliance of Islamic and anti-Communist forces, are now in exile, carrying out guerrilla attacks from across the border in Afghanistan with the aid of Arab and Afghan Islamic militants. Some 25,000 Russian troops - including about 15,000 border troops - patrol that frontier, engaging in small, but daily, firefights with the opposition forces.
Still the Russians are widely credited with restoring order after a civil war that killed more than 20,000, and by their presence, helping end the most serious abuses of human rights that followed and aiding the return of more than half a million displaced persons and tens of thousands of refugees to their homes.
``The Russian presence here is, for the time being, somewhat stabilizing,'' says George Adams of the International Rescue Committee, a refugee assistance agency.
After a long delay, talks were held last month in Moscow for the first time between the exiled opposition and the Tajik regime, under the auspices of the United Nations and Russia. While little concrete progress was made, with the exception of the creation of a joint commission to deal with the refugee problem, the very fact of the talks was seen as a positive step.
Opposition leader Akbar Turajonzoda, leader of the Islamic Revival party, praises the Russian Foreign Ministry for organizing the talks. But he accuses the Russian military of having a different attitude. ``There is a struggle of interests between the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry,'' he said in an interview in Moscow.
Last October the Russian forces were reorganized as ``peacekeeping forces'' of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the 12-nation grouping of former Soviet republics. Small contingents of Uzbek, Kirghiz, and Kazakh troops are present to bolster the case that this is not a solely Russian venture.
Russian military officials formally support a political solution but they do not see this as an imminent prospect.
``One has to be a realist,'' says Col. Ivan Malevich, the spokesman for the CIS command. ``If the border troops and the peacekeeping forces withdraw, it will mean a second round of civil war.''
THE Russians are eager to assume the mantle of peacekeepers. At the command headquarters, officers wear blue United Nations-style patches bearing the Russian acronym for peacekeeping forces, while vehicles are adorned with blue license plates and symbols. Despite rejection by UN officials, the Russian command continues to seek UN status for its forces. ``We are accused of putting our jackboots on this land. If we get UN status,'' Colonel Malevich says, ``then nobody will accuse us of pursuing our own goals.''
But in more candid moments, Russian officers admit that their presence here has less to do with traditional UN ideas of conflict resolution than the long-term strategic interests of Russia. If Russia fails to defend this border, they argue, it will have to construct a new and costly barrier against the advancing tide of radical political Islam closer to home.
At his base in Kurgan-Tyube, close to the Afghan border, regiment commander Col. Yevgeny Merkulov is a proud Russian professional soldier. In place of the blue patches of the headquarters units, the double-headed Russian eagle is prominently pinned on his breast. ``We are here because the interests of Russia are above everything,'' he declares, pausing to add, with a smile at the corner of his lips, ``in light, of course, of the interests of Tajikistan.''