Tajikistan: Russia Bullies Migrants amid Base Row
A familiar pattern has emerged in Russia’s relations with Tajikistan: Moscow doesn’t get what it wants, so it starts threatening Tajik migrants. Several comments from high-level Russian officials over the past two days suggest the Kremlin has run out of patience with Dushanbe’s attempts to re-re-negotiate the lease for a Russian military division in Tajikistan. The deal – which appeared to be done – was announced last October during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Dushanbe. But it has yet to be ratified by Tajikistan’s rubberstamp parliament. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, whose portfolio includes defense, ostentatiously toured a Moscow-bound Tajik train on April 14 and declared it unfit for transporting humans. Rogozin also suggested that Tajiks could be subject to new passport restrictions. On April 15, the Russian FSB, which manages the country’s borders, proposed suspending Tajik rail service to Russia altogether. The base deal in question would keep some 7,000 Russian troops, members of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division, stationed in Tajikistan through 2042. Their current lease expires next year. In exchange, Moscow has guaranteed it will accept Tajik labor migrants and abolished duties on oil products. In February, Russian daily Kommersant said Moscow had kept its end of the bargain and speculated that Dushanbe is looking for more military aid and investment in its hydropower projects. Relations between Moscow and Dushanbe often run hot and cold. And migrants are a powerful lever: Approximately one million Tajiks are thought to work abroad, mostly in Russia. Their remittances total the equivalent of 47 percent of Tajikistan’s economy, says the World Bank (that makes Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world). In 2011, for example, when Tajik authorities arrested two pilots working for a Russian company on dubious charges they were smuggling airplane parts, Moscow began deporting Tajik migrants. Dushanbe backed down posthaste. Strongman Emomali Rakhmon, who has served as Tajikistan’s president for two decades, is up for reelection this year. He has not said he will definitely run, but few expect any change of power. If he betrays Vladimir Putin, however – as ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from neighboring Kyrgyzstan can tell you – he could face a formidable opponent.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.