The reverberations caused by the crash of the Russian economy are shaking Tajikistan at its foundation. Russian officials in recent weeks have ordered drastic cutbacks in the number of guest workers in the country. These decisions stand to have a profound impact on Tajikistan, which is heavily dependent on the remittances sent home by migrant laborers.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said recently that the reduction in guest worker quotas was a natural response to the worsening economic picture in Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But since Putin's pronouncement, the outlook for migrant workers has only grown dimmer, underscored by the early December announcement by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov that the number of foreign laborers in the capital would need to be cut in half.
Russia hosts 1 million Tajik migrant workers, according to authorities there; unofficial figures are much higher. Any significant cut in the number of Tajiks allowed to work in Russia could have disastrous economic repercussions for the Tajik economy, as 98 percent of remittances currently sent home by Tajiks originate in Russia, according to Asian Development Bank figures. Last year, $1.8 billion was transferred into the country through official banking systems, more than twice the size of Dushanbe's national budget. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Unofficial estimates say migrant remittances are responsible for generating up to two-thirds of the country's GDP.
With the financial crisis, experts are cautioning that decreasing remittances -- and subsequent social pressures at home -- are inevitable, heaping more pain upon an already hard-pressed population. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Asia-Plus news agency reported that in November alone, the volume of remittance transfers through Tajik banks dropped between 15 and 25 percent over the previous month.
The deputy chairman of the Tajik National Bank, Jamshed Yusupov, told an audience in Dushanbe on December 15 that the economy must brace for a shock. A "second and more powerful wave of the financial crisis is brewing," he warned, and Tajikistan "will feel very strongly its aftermath."
The stagnant Tajik economy is unable to absorb a flood of returning workers, observers say. Already, more than 70 percent of Tajiks live in rural areas, where unemployment is already widespread. International financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank all note that the lack of work in rural areas is the main cause of labor migration.
Shokirjon Hakimov, department head at the Tajik Institute of International Relations, feels that a sudden influx of returning of labor migrants could lead to social tension in Tajikistan. "The situation is getting worse . . . and the government has not taken any effective measures so far to create the necessary conditions for their [migrant workers'] employment inside of the country," Hakimov told the Asia-Plus news agency. He predicts increasing social and political tension, including rising crime and a significant "fall in people's living standards."
Others caution that the situation is stoking a brain drain. Lidia Isamova, a journalist and expert on social issues told EurasiaNet that after several years of stability, some of Tajikistan's smartest professionals are now looking for work abroad due to plummeting need for their skills at home. "Among the migrants of the new wave, there are qualified specialists -- those who are always in demand. They can use labor quotas of the countries of 'the near abroad,' Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states," she said.
But some Russians say that migrants need not worry. It is unlikely, they say, that Russians will be eager to fill the menial jobs that Tajiks and other Central Asian citizens often performed. As politicians last week responded to Putin's calls for measures limiting foreign work permits, the Russian daily Vremya Novostei commented that such statements are merely lip service. "Statements by the leaders of the state on the necessity of reducing the labor quotas are nothing but reverence to trade unions and United Russia," read the paper's editorial page.
Even so, mass layoffs are occurring across the country. According to Russia's Ministry of Healthcare and Social Development, since the beginning of October almost 30,000 people have been laid off; and hundreds of thousands more have been forced to accept pay cuts.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe.