Russian authorities have launched a round-up of Tajik labor migrants with the apparent intent of deporting them. The move is widely seen as retribution for the sentencing of two ethnic Russian pilots in Tajikistan to lengthy prison terms on tenuous smuggling charges.
According to a November 15 report in the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow is threatening to kick as many as 10,000 Tajik labor migrants out of the country. Already, hundreds of Tajiks reportedly have been detained. Legislators also have called for visa restrictions on citizens of Tajikistan, while Russia’s chief doctor has suggested Tajik migrants should be barred from entering Russia due to concerns they are carriers of infectious diseases.
Any move to restrict the number of Tajik labor migrants in Russia is capable of delivering a gut punch that would cause the Tajik economy to double over in pain. Some estimates put the number of Tajiks working abroad at 1 million, with the overwhelming majority in Russia. Remittances from labor migrants account for as much as 40 percent of Tajik GDP.
The crisis in bilateral relations goes back to the early November convictions by a Tajik court of two ethnic Russian pilots to 8 1/2-year prison terms for smuggling and illegally crossing the border. They had made an emergency landing in March with two Antonov-72 cargo planes. On board was a disassembled airplane engine that Tajik authorities say was brought into the country illegally. Moscow immediately called the November 8 sentence “politically motivated.”
Even before the pilots’ trial, relations between Moscow and Dushanbe had been dicey. Russian officials have long complained that Tajikistan is incapable of stemming the flow of drugs coming out of Afghanistan. Tajik leaders, meanwhile, grumble about Russia’s on-again, off-again assistance to complete the Rogun dam project, and quietly voice displeasure that Moscow isn't paying rent for its military facilities in Tajikistan.
Moscow’s push-back on the pilot issue is by no means a surprise. President Dmitry Medvedev telegraphed the Russian response soon after the pilots’ sentencing with a warning that Moscow could act “asymmetrically” to the incident. Medvedev issued a cryptic update on November 14, when, during a visit to Hawaii, he told Russian media “this situation looks very odious.”
“I really hope that our Tajik friends will hear or have already heard us and in their final decision will be guided not only by abstract considerations, but the general level of relations,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Medvedev as saying.
It is unclear what prompted Tajik authorities to prosecute the pilots, and hand down long sentences. Observers have suggested everything from President Imomali Rahmon feeling slighted he wasn’t getting enough Russian attention to his security services’ desire to keep the valuable airplanes. Some tabloids have speculated that Rahmon is using the pilots as hostages to secure the release of a close relative, Rustam Khukumov, who is said to be imprisoned in Russia on a heroin trafficking conviction.
In any case, attention from state-controlled Russian media has fueled a surge anti-Central Asian sentiment in Russia. Youth groups have picketed outside Tajikistan Embassy in Moscow in recent days, throwing paper airplanes at the building. More ominously, Tajik labor migrant representatives say they are facing increasingly targeted harassment.
Karomat Sharipov of Tajik Labor Migrants, a non-governmental organization, told Gazeta.ru that Tajiks are afraid to come out of their homes and believe police have been ordered “to show no mercy to Tajiks.”
Reports of spontaneous raids on construction sites and dormitories have helped stoke those fears. On November 12, REN TV aired a report showing Russian nationalists breaking into buildings and “smoking out” people of Central-Asian appearance. Police are filmed standing by doing nothing.
Stoking the anger, in early November, Federal Migration Service head Konstantin Romodanovsky said Tajik migrants commit more crimes per capita than workers from other Central Asian states.
Just as questions surround the pilots’ prosecutions in Tajikistan, the ferocity of the Russian response has surprised Central Asia watchers. Fergananews.com Editor Daniil Kislov wrote in a November 15 commentary that if the Kremlin is so upset with Rakhmon, it should target “outlaw millionaires from Tajikistan who arrive in Moscow to spend money made on heroin,” rather than hard-working, “half-beggar” Tajik laborers.
“Taking revenge on the powerless migrants who have come to Russia for a piece of bread is totally shameless and low,” Kislov opined. Instead, Moscow should blacklist corrupt officials who have made their fortunes thanks to their connections with Rahmon.
The Tajik president himself has been mostly silent in recent days. On November 12, he took personal control of the case, announcing, "We have to solve this matter through diplomatic means and within the constitutional laws of Tajikistan, so as not to spoil the alliance and strategic relation with Russia," local media quoted him as saying. But that has done little to calm fears in Dushanbe that Moscow’s response will have long-term consequences.
Human rights activist Oynihol Bobonazarova, head of Perspective Plus, a legal support center, told EurasiaNet.org she fears Moscow has given a “green light” to Russian nationalist groups to grow more violent.
“It’s like throwing chestnuts into the fire,” she said of the Russian media coverage. “Public figures and opposition leaders should restrain from acute comments fomenting the tension even further. The best option for the time being, in my opinion, is to call a time-out.”
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.