A Tajik court today released two ethnic Russian pilots whose case had paralyzed relations with Moscow and threatened to send Tajikistan’s economy into a nosedive.
On November 8, the court in Kurgan-Tyube sentenced Vladimir Sadovnichy, a Russian citizen, and Alexei Rudenko, an ethnic Russian citizen of Estonia, to 8 ½ years for illegally crossing the border and smuggling airplane engine parts. The two had landed to refuel a pair of Antonov-72 cargo planes en route from Afghanistan to Russia, on a previously scheduled stop that Tajik air-traffic controllers canceled at the last moment.
Moscow swiftly denounced the ruling, calling it “politically motivated,” and threatening an “asymmetric” response. Within days, hundreds of Tajik migrant workers were targeted for deportation. The country’s top doctor, Gennadiy Onishchenko, said Tajiks should be barred because they carry HIV and tuberculosis. Agriculture officials said they were considering a general ban on imports of Tajik produce. Russian state-controlled media went on a nationalist offensive and one official was cited as threatening to expel 10,000 Tajiks.
Up to half of Tajikistan’s GDP is produced by over a million Tajik migrant laborers abroad, mostly in Russia.
So Moscow’s fury had Tajiks fearing economic implosion. In a country where little happens without direct orders from above, many see President Emomali Rakhmon as responsible for the souring in relations. Certainly -- popular sentiment has it -- he carries the fate of the million-plus migrant workers, and their families, in his hands. Now Moscow has shown just how far it is willing to go to bully its former satellite.
Certainly, Rakhmon's backpedaling looks like a turning point. In recent years, he has attempted to squeeze concessions out of the Kremlin, such as rent for Russian military bases in the country, while doing little for migrants' rights. While Russian officials warn they could play the migrant card, his government has consistently rebuffed Moscow’s efforts to return solders to Tajikistan’s porous border with Afghanistan.
“The case demonstrated once again Russia's attempts to retain its one-time domination over former Soviet republics by using political and economic levers,” said the Kremlin-controlled RIA Novosti news agency.
The court did not acquit the pilots, instead reducing their sentences to 2 ½ years and releasing them under a recent amnesty law. It also banned them from flying for four years, though that ruling carries dubious international muscle. Still, they may not be able to fly if their company, a shady outfit called Rolkan Investments Ltd, keeps finding its planes impounded. The court ruled it would not release the two Antonovs, FerganaNews reported. Last week, moreover, officials in Kabul seized another, claiming its tail number was a fake.