On November 22, a court in Tajikistan released two foreign pilots, including a Russian citizen, who two weeks earlier had been sentenced to lengthy terms in jail. The release of Vladimir Sadovnichy, a Russian citizen, and Alexei Rudenko, an Estonian citizen, has been prompted by an unusually strong backlash from Moscow that threatened to ruin Tajikistan’s economy.
Sadovnichy and Rudenko were flying their Antonov-72 cargo planes from Afghanistan to Russia on March 12 when Tajik air traffic controllers denied them permission to land for refueling at the Qurghonteppa (Kurgan-Tube) Airport in southern Tajikistan. The pilots landed their aircrafts anyway, claiming that they did not have enough fuel to return to Kabul. After the landing, the crews of the two planes were placed by State Committee for National Security (GKNB) forces in a hotel where they were held for about two months. In May, Tajik authorities formally arrested Sadovnichy and Rudenko, but released the rest of the crew. Following a trial that had been kept mostly low-profile, the two pilots were on November 8 found guilty of smuggling, violating international aviation regulations, and illegally crossing Tajikistan’s border. They were each sentenced to eight and a half years in prison and the planes were confiscated as “physical evidence”.
It remains unclear what prompted Tajik authorities to arrest the pilots and hand out such unusually harsh sentences. The most plausible explanation so far has been proposed by Sadovnichy and the management of Rolkan Investments Limited (RIL), the company that owns the planes. Sadovnichy holds that Tajik security agencies wanted to keep the valuable Antonov-72 aircrafts. According to the pilot, he and Rudenko were kept in Tajikistan as hostages, while Tajik security agencies negotiated with the head of RIL, Sergey Poluyanov, forcing him to donate the two planes to Tajikistan or sell them at a “symbolic price.” Poluyanov insists that the Antonov-72 aircrafts, which were designed for the Soviet military, were the Tajik authorities’ real target because of the planes’ unique ability to operate from unpaved strips in the harshest conditions. Because the RIL is registered in the British Virgin Islands, the authorities in Dushanbe allegedly believed they could appropriate the company’s aircraft without significant international repercussions.
It appears that Afghan authorities were also eying the aircrafts that had worked in Afghanistan since 2008. On November 10, Tajikistan’s Prosecutor General, Sherkhon Salimzoda, announced that Dushanbe impounded the two planes following a request from Afghanistan’s Transport Ministry. According to Salimzoda, the RIL operated three cargo aircraft in Afghanistan for almost three years without proper paperwork. Anticipating problems with the Afghan authorities, the RIL allegedly ordered that its planes leave Kabul. The hasty departure from Afghanistan might be the reason why the pilots landed the aircrafts in Tajikistan without permission. The Afghan connection became particularly apparent following the report on November 16 that another freight plane belonging to the RIL was impounded in Kabul.
In addition to this explanation, there has been media speculation that President Emomali Rahmon wanted to swap the Russian pilot for a close relative, Rustam Khukumov, who is imprisoned in Russia on a drug trafficking conviction. Other observers have interpreted the jailing of the foreign pilots in Tajikistan as a sign of Rahmon’s geopolitical bravado, aiming to demonstrate his independence from Moscow to potential partners in the West.
The conviction of the Russian pilot infuriated politicians in Moscow. On November 9, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that the incident raised “multiple questions” and that Russia’s reaction might involve “asymmetric” means. The speaker of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, Valentina Matvienko, demanded that Sadovnichy be freed, warning that “if our voice is not heard [in Tajikistan]… Russia reserves the right to use a variety of sanctions.”
Following these announcements, Russian migration authorities began rounding up Tajik migrant workers. Within a week after the verdict, more than 300 Tajik migrants were detained and over 60 of them were deported from Russia, allegedly for incorrect paperwork. Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS) reportedly stopped issuing work permits to Tajik citizens. FMS chief Konstantin Romdodanovsky told Medvedev during a televised meeting that Tajik migrants are leaders in crimes per capita among the nationals of other Central Asian countries working in Russia. Russia’s chief public health official, Gennady Onishchenko, announced that Tajik nationals also have higher rates of HIV and tuberculosis, suggesting a temporary ban on labor migration from Tajikistan. Some Russian parliamentarians proposed that Moscow introduce visas for Tajik citizens.
Tajikistan had few means to withstand Russia’s “asymmetric” response. Remittances sent home by an estimated one million Tajik labor migrants in Russia account for about 40 percent of the country’s GDP, keeping hundreds of thousands of Tajik families out of extreme poverty. Therefore, Dushanbe had no other choice but to bow to the pressure. On November 12, Tajik media reported that President Rahmon “took personal control” of the jailed pilots’ case. Ten days later, a court used the national amnesty announced by Rahmon earlier in the year to reduce the initial sentences to Sadovnichy and Rudenko to two and a half years, and to free both individuals. While the release of the pilots has been welcomed by most in Tajikistan as a critical condition for the normalization of bilateral ties with Moscow, some analysts condemned the move as demonstrating Tajikistan’s vulnerability to Russian pressures.
(By Alexander Sodiqov, originally published in the CACI Analyst, on November 30, 2011)