Memo to leaders of Central Asian nations that lack abundant energy resources: messing with Moscow usually backfires.
That’s become apparent again this week in Tajikistan. Since a Tajik court sentenced two ethnic Russian pilots to 8 ½-year prison terms on flimsy charges of smuggling spare airplane parts, Dushanbe is feeling Moscow’s wrath. Russian leaders have assailed President Imomali Rahmon’s administration for trying to blackmail the Kremlin, and they are threatening to cripple Tajikistan’s economy by retaliating against Tajik migrant laborers in Russia.
The trouble began November 8, when a Tajik court found Vladimir Sadovnichy, a Russian citizen, and Alexei Rudenko, a citizen of Estonia, guilty of illegally crossing the border and smuggling when they landed their two Antonov-72 cargo planes in the southern town of Kurgan-Tyube in March. They say they had repeatedly requested permission to refuel while ferrying the planes to Russia from Afghanistan, where they had been delivering humanitarian cargo. Though air traffic control refused, they landed to avert a crash.
Their mistake: not declaring a disassembled aircraft engine on board.
The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately slammed the “extremely severe” sentences as “politically motivated.” The charges “are groundless, far-fetched, and lacking in any serious legal justification," ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said at a briefing on November 9. “This verdict does not help strengthen our existing relationship as allied strategic partners. In fact it is damaging it seriously."
The day after the verdict, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a veiled threat on television. Demanding an explanation, he said Moscow’s response “may be different, depending on the reply we receive—symmetrical or asymmetrical."
Russian-Tajik relations have been prickly for the past couple of years, with the biggest bilateral sore point being the on-again, off-again efforts to finish the Rogun Dam. When it comes to the pilot prosecution, Tajik officials deny any political motives. Instead, Prosecutor-General Sherkhon Salimzoda explained on November 10 that Kabul asked Tajik officials to detain the planes – registered to a mysterious British Virgin Islands-based company, Rolkan Investments Ltd. – because they were operating without a license.
Russian media outlets dismiss the late explanation, instead asserting that Dushanbe is “blackmailing” Moscow over the future of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division’s continued presence in Tajikistan. Russia has more troops in Tajikistan than any other foreign country. In September, Medvedev and Rahmon agreed they would sign an agreement early next year for another 49 years rent-free. But Rahmon is rumored to be deeply unhappy about the deal. Tajik officials have occasionally suggested that the Russians should pay rent to station their troops on Tajik soil—an idea that makes Moscow recoil.
“There are some aspects in Russia’s current policy which some Tajik politicians don’t quite like,” Andrei Grozin of the CIS Institute told the Voice of Russia. “Or, probably, Tajikistan wants some economic privileges from Russia. This case is probably a pretext for Tajik authorities to offer Russia some bargain: you do this and that, and we’ll release your pilot.”
Many Tajiks are horrified by the risk this spat poses to their livelihoods. Around a million Tajiks – one-seventh the population – work abroad, mostly in Russia. Some estimates say their remittances comprise up to 40 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. On November 11, Moscow threatened to deport over 200 Tajik guest workers, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
"One of the most realistic and most effective measures could be introducing strict quotas and even a visa regime for Tajik citizens," declared a commentary in the Moskovskii Komsomolets newspaper.
Tajik opposition politician Hajji Akbar Turajonzoda, a long-time political enemy of Rahmon’s, told the Interfax news agency that he fears the “hasty” court decision will complicate the lives of Tajik migrants working in Russia. "I think that this decision was made at the highest level and I personally do not understand what goals the authorities intended by this," he said.
The case also may stoke rising xenophobic sentiments in both countries, worries Dushanbe-based political analyst Parviz Mullojanov. “The incident can be seen in the context of two growing waves of nationalism—in Russia and in Tajikistan. In both countries, opposition political parties use nationalist statements to attract attention.”
One Russian gadfly-nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has already started stirring up muck with the help of Kremlin-financed media. “Tajik authorities’ real purpose was to seize aircraft that would later be used for drug trafficking,” Russia Today quoted Zhirinovsky as saying on November 9. Moscow should introduce a visa regime for Tajik migrant workers as a retaliatory measure, he added.
“Such comments are very serious and dangerous for relations between Dushanbe and Moscow,” responded Nuriddin Karshibaev, director of the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT), a watchdog group in Dushanbe. “There is a growing threat of information and ideological attacks from both sides, which could be used by destructive political forces in their intrigues.”
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.