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.
Forget gas and coal and cotton. Labor migrants are Uzbekistan's number-one export. And new data show their earnings jumped in 2012.
Russia’s Central Bank says migrant labor remittances sent from Russia to Uzbekistan totaled $5.7 billion in 2012, up 32.6 percent over 2011, when the figure was $4.3 billion. With Uzbekistan's 2012 GDP worth $35 billion (that's the official sum figure converted on the black market), remittances from Russia alone account for the equivalent of 16.3 percent of the economy (if you’re using Tashkent’s official exchange rate, they’re equivalent to 12 percent of GDP).
The Russian Central Bank figures only include official transfers (wired to Uzbekistan via Western Union-type money transfer systems), not cash carried home by migrants. And the figures are only for Russia. So, overall, remittances probably play an even greater role in the Uzbek economy.
Gas and other energy exports earned Tashkent $5.03 billion in 2012, according to government statistics. (Cotton earned $1.25 billion.)
A lawmaker in Kyrgyzstan is pushing a resolution that would ban young women from leaving the country without their parents’ written consent.
Irgal Kadyralieva from the Social Democratic Party says the resolution, which would apply to girls under 23 years of age, is intended to "protect their honor and dignity” from trafficking or sex work. “Such measures are needed to increase morality and preserve the gene pool," Vechernii Bishkek quoted her as saying on March 4.
The ban would not prevent girls from studying abroad, Kadyralieva says, but is specifically designed to stop them from traveling abroad for work. Hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz women work abroad, mostly in Russia, often in unskilled jobs for low wages and sometimes in dangerous conditions.
Kadyralieva says she was specifically motivated by a series of reports last year about Kyrgyz women in Russia being beaten and raped by Kyrgyz men calling themselves “patriots.” The men were angry at the sight of Kyrgyz women socializing with non-Kyrgyz men.
"This proposal of mine protects national security, social security, moral security and [is an] economic issue," Kadyralieva said in an interview with Kloop.kg.
Tashkent’s efforts to prevent young men from leaving Uzbekistan to work abroad have largely failed. Authorities now seem to be adopting a different approach: state-run Uzbekistan Railways has cut ticket prices from major Russian cities to encourage Uzbek citizens to return home.
Between today and June, tickets from Moscow, St Petersburg, Saratov, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and a number of other cities will be discounted 20 percent.
This is a significant reduction: According to online ticket booking services, before the discount a second-class ("coupe") ticket from Moscow to Tashkent cost $376, and a third-class ("platzkart") ticket cost $224. Prices from Uzbekistan to Russia remain unchanged.
Last week multiple news agencies reported that Uzbek police were preventing young men suspected of going abroad to work from reaching the Uzbek-Kazakh border outside Tashkent. Observers speculated that the Interior Ministry was responding to President Islam Karimov's recent criticism that the ministry was doing little to create jobs for young men at home.
High unemployment in Uzbekistan prompts millions of Uzbek citizens to search for unskilled work abroad, mostly in Russia and Kazakhstan. Their families depend on the remittances these migrant workers send home.
Thousands of migrant workers, many from Central Asia and the Caucasus, are toiling in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to help stage the most expensive Olympic Games in history. Many are abused and exploited, working in miserable conditions for little or no pay, Human Rights Watch said today.
Released a year before the games kick off, the 67-page report, entitled “Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi,” documents gross violations of Russian and international law, as well as the Olympic spirit.
Tens of thousands of workers, including an estimated 16,000 workers from outside Russia, are helping prepare Sochi for the showcase games, which open next February 7. Human Rights Watch (HRW) focused on these migrant laborers because, compared with Russian workers, they are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Researchers interviewed 66 construction workers from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.
Migrant workers said employers subjected them to a range of abuses and exploitation, including: failing to pay full wages, excessively delaying payment of wages, and in some cases failing to pay any wages at all; withholding identity documents, such as passports and work permits; failing to provide employment contracts, or failure to respect terms of a contract; and requiring excessive working hours and providing little time off. […] In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, employers retaliated against foreign migrant workers who protested against abuses by denouncing them to the authorities, resulting in the workers’ expulsion from Russia.
Authorities and construction companies interviewed by HRW deny the allegations.
Each year hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of Uzbek citizens seek refuge from joblessness by heading abroad to look for work. As a side effect of that exodus, some fall victim to human traffickers.
Judging by the dearth of official statements, the scourge has never been a priority for Tashkent.
Now, however, a top migration official has acknowledged the problem of “modern slavery,” as he calls human trafficking. Yet instead of warning citizens how to avoid falling into the traffickers’ hands, he’s done what any self-respecting Uzbek official might do: He’s used the opportunity to praise his country’s policies and point out that, besides, Uzbeks are not the only victims.
In a commentary published in the government mouthpiece Narodnoye Slovo, Samariddin Mamashakirov of the State Agency for External Labor Migration, says that human trafficking is a problem that must be handled internationally and blames unemployment (don’t worry, they’re working on it) as the single biggest cause.
The transformations that are taking place in our country are becoming the foundation of socioeconomic stability. […] A growth in GDP, industrial production and agricultural output and the development of the trade and services sphere has improved the quality of people's lives. Issues of improving the social sphere and increasing the population’s income are the focus of state policy. […]
Nobody seems to know where he came from, but over the last day or so, a man calling himself Tolibjon Kurbankhanov has become an online sensation in Russia.
Kurbankhanov, supposedly a Tajik migrant worker living in Moscow, is the star of a music video called “VVP” -- short for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin -- which extols the virtues of Russia’s former, and, likely, future president, as no other before it. The song suggests Prime Minister Putin was sent to Russia by God, and at just the right time.
“Let’s sit and remember together those years / When he wasn’t here, we had just fear / A nation in peril, a suffering people / And at this time, God sent him to us,” the song begins. It eventually breaks into a jubilant refrain:
VVP – he saved the country
VVP – he protects us
VVP – raised up Russia
And development just keeps on going.
One YouTube commentator called the apparent propaganda “so thick, it’s refined.” But Russian bloggers were quick to point out the song is so ridiculous, it could, in fact, be a play to discredit Putin, whose initials happen to be the Russian abbreviation for Gross Domestic Product. (The video was posted by YouTube user SergeiRaevskii, who appears to have no other YouTube activity, and went viral when opposition presidential candidate Aleksei Navalny called attention to it on his blog.)
The steady stream of comments reflects – at best – Russians’ ambivalence toward migrant workers. Some, however, suggest the singer is either a drug dealer or is somehow in Moscow illegally.
Tajik migrants working in Russia sent home almost $3 billion last year, an increase of 33.6 percent over 2010, reports the National Bank of Tajikistan.
The $2.96 billion accounted for 45.4 percent of Tajikistan’s official GDP, the bank’s deputy chairwoman Malokhat Kholikzoda said on January 19.
The real amount is probably higher since many migrants carry cash home with them. In December, the World Bank said Tajikistan's 2010 remittances accounted for 31 percent of the economy, placing Tajikistan first in an international ranking of most remittance-dependent countries.
Tajikistan is thus deeply reliant on Russia to keep its struggling economy afloat, ensuring any diplomatic argument, no matter how ostensibly trivial, is an issue of national concern. Last November, when a Tajik court sentenced two ethnic Russian pilots flying for a Russian company to 8.5 years in prison for smuggling spare airplane parts, Moscow protested by recalling its ambassador and rounding up Tajiks for deportation. The response prompted panic in Tajikistan and unusually harsh criticism of President Emomali Rakhmon. His administration backed down and released the pilots.
Even if relations remain smooth, however, Tajikistan is also especially vulnerable to shocks in Russia’s hydrocarbon-dependent economy.
As if labor migrants in Russia didn’t already have enough trouble contending with xenophobia and violent harassment, a recent study shows that a significant number of guest workers from Central Asia can’t speak Russian.
Citing research by the Center for Migration Studies, an official from the Federal Migration Service said that more than 20 percent of migrants from Central Asia do not speak Russian and 50 percent cannot independently fill out a simple form in the language, the state-run Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported last month. The official said a lack of language skills leaves the migrants vulnerable to exploitation.
Underscoring Russia’s dependence on foreign laborers, regional governments across the country have sponsored programs aimed at teaching the migrants Russian.
But “the guests are in no hurry to take advantage of the opportunity,” Rossiiskaya Gazeta laments, noting only about 5,000 have enrolled this year. (Over 6.7 million foreigners registered with the migration services between January and August, of whom more than 80 percent are from the former Soviet Union.) Migrants are overworked and their employers lack interest in seeing them learn Russian, the migration official said, adding that many gastarbeiters are exploited by members of their own diaspora communities.
After independence, most states in Central Asia and the Caucasus sought to replace colonial Russian influence by emphasizing national languages and culture. As a result, knowledge of the lingua franca has diminished, especially among those born since 1991.
Russian government data shows there were 9.9 million foreign nationals living in Russia as of July 8, the Rossii'skaia Gazeta newspaper reported on August 2.
Most newcomers arrived from former Soviet republics and fell into the category of labor migrants. Not surprisingly, the Moscow Region was the most popular destination for labor migrants. The largest overall share of foreigners (21.8 percent) came from Ukraine, while Uzbek citizens comprised 15.6 percent. Other shares of Central Asian nationals were as follows: Kazakhstan, 9.6 percent; Tajikistan, 7.6 percent; and Kyrgyzstan, 3.67 percent
More than 83.2 billion rubles (roughly $2.83 billion) were transferred abroad from Russia during the first four months of 2011, according to a July 11 report in Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti. That figure represented 34 percent increase in remittances in comparison with the same period in 2010. Labor migrants from former Soviet republics were responsible for making the majority of money transfers.
On the receiving end of the cash flow, Kyrgyz National Bank statistics showed that in 2010 Kyrgyz labor migrants in Russia sent the equivalent of $1.6 billion back home, Nezavisimaia Gazeta reported on July 29. The amount of remittances increased between roughly 30 percent during the first half of 2011, compared with the same period the previous year.