On November 22, a court in Tajikistan released two foreign pilots, including a Russian citizen, whose imprisonment on questionable charges two weeks earlier had infuriated the authorities in Russia and prompted them to respond in a way that threatened to ruin Tajikistan’s economy. Moscow’s harsh reaction to the incident appears to have been motivated mainly by the ruling party’s calculations ahead of the elections. Although Russia’s punitive action that focused on Tajik migrant workers was mainly designed for domestic consumption, it angered a large part of Tajikistan’s population and the political elite.
BACKGROUND: The pilots – Vladimir Sadovnichy, a Russian citizen, and Alexei Rudenko, an Estonian citizen – were detained in March after landing two cargo planes at a Tajik airport without permission. Several months later, they were charged with smuggling, illegal border crossing, and violating international aviation regulations. On November 8, a Tajik court found the pilots guilty on all three charges and sentenced them to eight and a half years in prison. The pilots alleged that the charges brought against them had been trumped up by Tajik security agencies as a justification for confiscating the aircrafts.
The conviction of the Russian pilot caused uproar in Moscow, with President Dmitry Medvedev announcing that Russia’s reaction would be “asymmetric.” Shortly afterwards, Russian authorities detained about 300 Tajik migrant workers and expelled 60 of them, allegedly for incorrect paperwork. This was followed by public announcements that Tajik nationals commit more crimes per capita and have higher rates of HIV and tuberculosis than workers from other countries. Hence, Russian officials and parliamentarians proposed that the Kremlin introduce a temporary ban on migrant workers from Tajikistan and visas for Tajik citizens. The backlash from Russia prompted Dushanbe to free the pilots on November 22 (see 11/30/2011 issue of the CACI Analyst).
Analysts have explained Moscow’s harsh reaction to Sadovnichy’s imprisonment as part of an election strategy designed to mobilize public support for the ruling party, United Russia, ahead of the December 4 parliamentary elections. Taking a tough stance against migrant workers has traditionally been popular with Russian voters, particularly those with a nationalist bent. Therefore, state-controlled media extensively covered the Kremlin’s tough measures against Tajik workers, fomenting strong anti-migrant sentiments in Russia.
The Kremlin also had to act decisively in order to reassure domestic audiences of Russia’s continued international relevance. The ability of Moscow to protect its citizens abroad was questioned at home after Russian diplomats failed to secure the release of Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been imprisoned in the U.S. earlier in the year. Bout, who had been described as the world’s leading illicit arms dealer, was detained in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the U.S.. On November 2, he was convicted of conspiring to kill American citizens by selling weapons to Colombian rebels. Bout is now facing between 25 years and life in prison. Yaroshenko was detained in Liberia in an international drug bust in 2010 and brought to the U.S. for trial. In September, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail for conspiring to smuggle narcotics to the U.S.
Russia has denounced the detention of its citizens by American security agents in third countries and demanded that Bout and Yaroshenko be freed. However, Washington ignored Moscow’s criticism, prompting many Russians to interpret this as a sign of their country’s weakness. Therefore, by resorting to strong rhetoric and harsh punitive actions directed at Dushanbe, the Kremlin aimed to restore public confidence in its international strength.
IMPLICATIONS: To many people in Tajikistan, the incident with foreign pilots has demonstrated the country’s vulnerability to Russian pressures and their country’s lack of real independence from Moscow. Since the 1990s, Russia has been the main destination for labor migrants from Tajikistan. The cash that an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Tajik workers in Russia send home is critical to the country’s economy. In 2010, Tajikistan received US$ 2.1 billion in officially recorded remittances, which was equivalent to about one-third of its GDP. The World Bank estimates that this year, remittance inflows will total US$ 2.7 billion, making Tajikistan the world’s most remittance-dependent economy for the third consecutive year.
Tajikistan’s dependence on migrant remittances, about 98 percent of which originate in Russia, is at the root of Moscow’s leverage over Dushanbe. As the main destination for migrant workers from Tajikistan, Russia holds considerable potential to wield influence, cajole, and bully. The authorities in Dushanbe recognize that any significant cut in the number of Tajiks permitted to work in Russia could have disastrous repercussions for Tajikistan’s economy and the stability of President Emomali Rahmon’s regime. If Moscow begins to deport Tajik workers en masse, as it had previously done with labor migrants from Georgia, the stagnant Tajik economy will be unable to absorb a flood of returning workers. This will also undermine the country’s progress in poverty alleviation as remittances provide the most basic needs of about half of the country’s population. A rapid drop in remittances will also trigger a severe fiscal crisis, which – by eroding the ruling group’s capacity to distribute patronage and to pay salaries of civil servants and security personnel – might seriously threaten regime survival.
Tajik experts suggest that Moscow’s aggressive reaction to Sadovnichy’s verdict will cause Dushanbe to seek alternative destinations for its surplus labor more intensively. Following the recent deportation of about 60 Tajiks from Russia, Tajikistan’s top migration official Safialloh Devonaev suggested that the deported individuals would be sent to work in Belarus under a bilateral agreement signed in October. It is highly unlikely, however, that Belarus or any other country would be able to provide jobs for a significant number of Tajik nationals in the near future. Dushanbe’s previous attempts to find additional major destinations for its migrant workers have been largely unsuccessful.
The recent incident has also resulted in growing anti-Russian sentiment in Tajikistan. Prominent Tajik journalist Umed Babakhanov suggests that the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior vis-à-vis migrant workers angered many people in Tajikistan. “As a result of this incident, the Tajik public and the ruling elite have become convinced that the country traditionally perceived as a ‘strategic partner’ will not hesitate to utilize [excessive pressure] in its relations with Tajikistan,” said Babakhanov. The increasing disillusionment with Russia among Tajiks is evident in articles published in independent Tajik newspapers and bitter comments in social media. Babakhanov suggests that the changing public perception of Russia might cause Dushanbe to distance itself from Moscow. According to the journalist, such an outcome is likely to prompt the Kremlin to attempt to replace the Tajik president with a more loyal figure.
CONCLUSIONS: Moscow’s harsh reaction to the conviction of its citizen in Tajikistan was part of an election strategy aiming to mobilize additional public support for the United Russia party and reassure the population of Russia’s continued international strength. In pursuing this short term gain, Moscow has harmed its relations with Dushanbe, which had traditionally been its most loyal ally in Central Asia. Tajik authorities released the Russian pilot along with his Estonian colleague, but this appears to have come with a significant drawback for bilateral ties. Infuriated by the massive detention of Tajik migrant workers and their continued abuse by authorities, employers, and ultranationalist groups in Russia, a growing number of Tajiks suggest that the government revisit its “strategic partnership” with Moscow.
(By Alexander Sodiqov, December 14, 2011 issue of the CACI Analyst)