Only some panicked, last-minute diplomacy has prevented Tajikistan being plunged into almost total isolation after Russia backed away from threats to suspend flights between the two countries.
In more positive aviation news, Uzbekistan’s plans to reopen air links with Tajikistan as of next year portends new possibilities in much-needed regional cooperation.
Russia last week dangled the threat of unilaterally closing air traffic with Tajikistan after the latter dragged its feet granting permission for flights to Dushanbe and the northern city of Khujand from Moscow region’s recently completed Zhukovsky International Airport.
That prospect would have been nothing short of cataclysmic for Tajikistan. Flights to and from Russia account for 95 percent of the totality of Tajikistan’s international air traffic. Passengers are in the main the labor migrants that keep the economy afloat. The remaining 5 percent of routes are accounted for by flights to Istanbul, Bishkek and Dubai and are, according to industry insiders, not nearly as profitable as those to Russia.
Last week, while Tajikistan was still sticking to its guns, the head of the aviation department at the ministry of transportation, Mahmadyusuf Rahmonov, explained that under a bilateral agreement, Russia and Tajikistan were automatically entitled to have two airlines each service routes between the countries’ capitals.
Dushanbe objects to flights coming out of Zhukovsky in part as this airport is, in their view, not yet fully functional and could cause airlines to lose money. Since the airlines in question would presumably be Russian, it is not immediately clear why this should have been of concern to Tajikistan. One suspicion is that Tajikistan is unwilling to see more competition for its own airlines, state-owned Tajik Air and privately run Somon Air.
Tajikistan also objected to Zhukovsky on the grounds that it is technically in the Moscow region, whereas it insists that bilateral agreements on flights pertain only to airports within the metropolitan area of Moscow.
Russia’s Transportation Ministry bristled at such pedantry, which it described as a violation of Russian sovereignty over its own territory. Moscow did mince its words over the dispute and reminded Tajikistan that airlines are indispensable to the hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers in Russia whose remittances account for anything up to half of Tajikistan’s economy.
Authorities in Moscow threatened to suspend flights as soon as November 8, but a last gasp, face-saving compromising has been reached.
A representative of the Tajik Embassy in Russia, Sarvar Bahti, announced on November that Dushanbe had climbed down and agreed to allow Yekaterinburg-based Ural Airlines to fly out of Zhukovsky — twice a week to Dushanbe and twice a week to Khujand.
“During the negotiations we reached an agreement allowing Tajik carriers to fly to new destinations in Ufa, Chelyabinsk and Barnaul,” Bahti was cited as saying by TASS news agency. “Earlier these destinations were closed to Tajik carriers.”
It is currently possible to fly to Tajikistan from 15 cities in Russia. Meanwhile, four Tajik airport support flights to Russia: Dushanbe (to 13 Russian cities), Khujand (to 15 Russian cities), Qurghonteppa and Kulob (only Moscow). Aside from the two Tajik carriers, those flights are serviced by Russia’s UTair, Ural Airlines, Rossiya and S7.
Russian aviation authorities in August granted permission to VIM-Avia, Yamal and Ural Airlines to begin flying to Dushanbe from Zhukovsky, but Tajikistan unilaterally blocked the move, precipitating this row.
In more heartening news for the development of neighborly relations in Central Asia, Uzbekistan Airlines general director on November 5 announced that flights to Tajikistan could resume in the first half of 2017.
“It is possible that this flight could happen even earlier — there is every precondition for this,” Valery Tyan told Sputnik news agency.
There has been no air link between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan since 1992, so this cannot but be read as a major breakthrough for bilateral relations.