Russian politicians and state-controlled media outlets have been taking lots of potshots at Tajikistan lately. Some observers believe the barrage of verbal darts may be a precursor to retaliatory measures by the Kremlin for Dushanbe’s delay in ratifying a military basing agreement.
Two of Russia’s leading nationalist gadflies -- vice premier Dmitry Rogozin and the State Duma’s vice speaker and Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky – have led the chorus of criticism of Tajikistan. Both have played up the need for Russia to introduce a visa regime for Central Asian labor migrants, especially those from Tajikistan. A series of small demonstrations in cities on April 14 echoed the call for stricter migration controls for labor migrants.
In comments broadcast on the state television channel RTR on April 18, Zhirinovsky castigated Tajik authorities for delaying the ratification of the basing deal, hinting that President Imomali Rahmon’s administration was simply trying to wrangle money out of the Russian government. Zhirinovsky also warned Rahmon that in playing games with Russia, he was playing with fire. If Dushanbe lacked Russia’s backing, “Afghan Islamists would overrun Tajikistan, and they would hang him [Rahmon] in the center of Dushanbe, like they did it with [former Afghan communist-era leader] Najibullah,” Zhirinovsky stated.
An April 23 roundtable discussion, broadcast by the Rossiya channel, featured a mini-documentary called “Shaitan-train,” examining the operations of trains connecting Dushanbe and Moscow. Panelists then voiced critical views about existing labor migration practices and piled on with more calls for a stronger visa regime.
Already, according to some media reports, Moscow is pulling a “soft power” lever, namely city governments across Russia have reportedly stopped accepting shipments of Tajik fruits and vegetables.
Dushanbe remained silent for a couple of weeks, but on April 23, the Tajik Foreign Ministry finally responded, complaining that the Russian media jabs were “humiliating and dishonoring” Tajikistan. “It is surprising that public officials and well-known Russian [political] scientists participate in this information campaign,” the Tajik Foreign Ministry statement added.
Analysts in Moscow and Dushanbe are debating the implications of the media attacks. Some believe that the press campaign should be seen by Rahmon as a troubling omen, pointing out that a similar campaign against former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev back in 2010 was accompanied by a Kremlin hike in energy tariffs. Bakiyev’s regime collapsed shortly after Russia imposed its tariff hike.
These same analysts believe the Kremlin may be tempted to restrict Tajik migrants’ access to the Russian labor market in retaliation for the base-deal delay. They also note that Rahmon faces a presidential election later this year, a vote that could suddenly become competitive should the Kremlin decide to meddle.
But one Moscow-based analyst, who spoke to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity, suggested that Dushanbe was overreacting. “Sometimes, it looks ugly, but statements made by Russian nationalist politician are their own personal position, which has nothing to do with Russia’s external political vector, and with the opinion of the president [Vladimir Putin],” the analyst said.
In Dushanbe the focus is more on the potential impact of any Russian move to curtail Tajik labor migration. Reports in Tajik media have expressed concern that the return of hundreds of thousands of labor migrants could lead to increased economic instability at home, and possibly fuel Islamic militant activity.
At the very least, a Kremlin effort to shut Tajik laborers out of Russia could have devastating financial consequences for Tajikistan, said Oynihol Bobonazarova, a human rights activist and chair of the non-governmental organization Perspective Plus.
“The total volume of remittances from labor migrants amounted to $3.8 billion last year [almost double the state budget],” she noted. “Authorities are not prepared to tackle this problem – because the infrastructure is not in place, and migrants have no place to return to. For the time being, there are no alternative labor markets for Tajik workers. No doubt, the mass return would entail social strain.”
Meanwhile, Saifullo Safarov, the deputy director of the Strategic Research Center under the Tajik President, told the British Institute for War and Peace Reporting on April 23, that Tajikistan had little to fear from any Russian move to restrict labor migration. “The labor force will remain here, and they [migrants] will work in agriculture,” Safarov contended. “As for the introduction of visas, it is disadvantageous for Russia in the first turn, as illegal migration will disappear.”
An opinion expressed widely on social networks is that if Russia keeps up with its attacks, Tajikistan should simply reorient itself geopolitically toward the West.
Saimiddin Dustov, head of the Dushanbe-based think-tank Indem told EurasiaNet.org that while Russia would like the outside world to believe that Tajikistan is solely responsible for the strain in bilateral relations, Moscow deserves a fair share of responsibility for current problems.
“The Kremlin does not fulfill its promises, and the Tajik authorities are not capable of defending their national interests,” Dustov said. He added that Tajik authorities are annoyed that Moscow appears to treat Dushanbe as a second class citizen, even within the context of Central Asia, claiming that Kyrgyzstan has received [or stands to receive] assistance from Russia in the amount of $1 billion for the deployment of the Russian military base on its territory, while Tajikistan is offered an amount five times smaller [in technical assistance and equipment].”
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.