Despite gaining global prominence for its participation in the anti-terrorism coalition, Tajikistan is struggling to overcome regional isolation. Kazakhstan has severed rail traffic between Tajikistan and Russia, cutting Tajik migrant workers off from crucial sources of income. The disruption could have serious economic repercussions in Tajikistan, one of the world's poorest countries.
Trains on the Dushanbe-Moscow route stopped running on September 29. Kazakhstani officials cited "security reasons" for their decision, expressing concern that Afghan refugees could use the train route to enter Kazakhstan. Those concerns were rooted in a September 20 incident, in which border guards detained about 100 of the 700 passengers on the Dushanbe-Moscow train after determining they were Afghan citizens traveling on forged Tajik passports. Since the start of the anti-terrorism campaign, Astana has steered a cautious diplomatic course, seeking to keep risk associated with the fighting in Afghanistan to a minimum.
Tajikistan is still struggling to recover from its 1992-97 civil war. United Nations estimates show that 83 percent of Tajiks live in poverty. The domestic unemployment rate runs around 30 percent. The lack of economic opportunities at home have forced a growing number of Tajiks in recent years to seek employment elsewhere in the CIS, and many have thus come to rely on the Dushanbe-Moscow rail connection to gain access to foreign jobs.
The Kazakhstani action leaves Tajikistan more isolated than ever. Some observers warn that an economic crisis could develop if the cut-off lasts through the winter, as many families are dependent on money earned abroad. According to unofficial data, up to 700,000 Tajik citizens -roughly one-sixth of the population - travel to Russia and other CIS countries each year for seasonal work. Most of this work is performed on an unofficial basis and the income earned is not subject to taxation.
In Kazakhstan's case, up to 12,000 Tajik citizens are now residing illegally in Almaty alone, according to one estimate. Since the mid-1990s, many Tajiks have worked as traders in markets, selling fruit and vegetables. Others have organized themselves into farming cooperatives.
Kazakhstan's uneasy relationship with Tajik migrant workers has been evident for months, and in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Astana has embraced protectionist policies. In August, a Kazakhstani newspaper complained that up to 80 percent of all construction jobs went to undocumented Tajik and Uzbek migrants. Shortly thereafter Kazakhstani officials announced plans to restrict the number of Tajiks permitted to enter the country. On November 12, the two states agreed to limit passport holders' travel to five days.
Earlier in November, Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry released a statement that said over 8,500 illegal aliens had been detained under "Operation Migrant." Of those detained, 536 were described as foreign nationals, and the rest were classified as citizens of the former Soviet Union, the bulk of them Tajiks. The Interior Ministry reported that many detainees had already been deported.
The rail cut-off left about 1,500 Tajik seasonal workers stranded in the Russian Volga River city of Astrakhan for almost one month. They were finally permitted to complete their trip home on November 1. The stranding of such a large number of Tajiks had prompted local officials in Astrakhan to express concern about social disorder. Russian railway officials have also voiced dissatisfaction with the Kazakhstani cut-off, and they have threatened to retaliate economically to make up for lost traffic.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.