Aviation authorities in Russia and Tajikistan are intensifying their battle of wills over which companies should be able to operate routes between the two countries, leaving hundreds of travelers stranded in the process.
In the latest turn of the screw, Russian authorities on April 2 announced they were halting 11 flights by the Tajik airlines Somon Air and Tajik Air to Russian cities. Later in the day, their Tajik colleagues responded by pulling permissions for 11 flights by five Russian carriers.
The spring is a popular time for Tajik laborers to head to Russia for seasonal work, so the sudden drying-up of available flights could have major implications. Those already holding tickets for halted flights have received apologies from air companies and invitations to reclaim their outlays, a minor consolation for the hassle caused.
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported on April 3 that an official delegation had flown out from Dushanbe earlier in the day for what will doubtless be panicky talks.
“Russia has its interests in this matter. We will fight for our interests. I think that during negotiations we will solve all our problems,” Aziz Nabizoda, deputy head of Tajikistan’s Civil Aviation Agency, told Radio Ozodi.
To the trained ear, this sounds like the language of imminent capitulation, but time will tell.
The dispute stems — on paper, at least — from Tajik unhappiness that Russian companies have an overly dominant position on the market. The Foreign Ministry reiterated this point in an April 3 statement in which it noted that 60 percent of the market share for carrying people between Russia and Tajikistan is controlled by Russian carriers.
To try and remedy this imbalance, the Tajik government last month ordered Ural Airlines to cut around one-third of its flights, triggering an escalating tit-for-tat.
Of course, the issue of flights parity is not simply an abstract argument about fairness. The implicit point here is that Russian competitors are able to offer more affordable tickets, a wider array of destinations and, often, considerably more reliable service. The Tajik government deems the protection of its carriers a fair price to pay for keeping those advantages within a limit.
This may be a side-point, but it is probably worth noting that while Tajik Air is ostensibly state-controlled, the precise ownership structure of Somon Air is a matter of profound and impenetrable mystery to all but its direct beneficiaries. What is known is that the company is, despite the patriotic-sounding name, not registered in Tajikistan and that its profits are beyond all doubt likewise salted away elsewhere. That being so, the argument that protectionism is designed to defend the interests of the Tajik people is somewhat unpersuasive.