Tajik Migrants Hostage to Ties With Moscow
As Tajikistan finalises a new security deal with Moscow, a threat to require the hundreds of thousands of Tajik labour migrants in Russia to obtain visas shows how this community is often used as a bargaining chip in high-level politics.
Analysts interviewed by IWPR say the Tajik authorities are partly to blame themselves for failing to ensure that their nationals can live and work in Russia on a sound legal footing, leaving them vulnerable to changes in the political climate.
The issue came to the fore again in the context of Tajik-Russian talks on securing the border with Afghanistan.
Russian forces patrolled the Tajik-Afghan border until 2005, when they were replaced by Tajiks. As negotiations took place for a new agreement due to be signed this September, there was considerable speculation that Moscow was so concerned about the security on the former Soviet frontier with Afghanistan that it wanted to put its own troops back there. But Tajik officials have resisted this and insist the current arrangements, under which Russia provides military advisers plus technical assistance, will remain substantially unchanged. (See Tajiks Seek Best Deal in Defence Talks With Moscow.)
Uncertainty over how the deal would shape up was enough to create new frictions, sparked by an article in the Russian newspaper Nezavismaya Gazeta on August 2 in which Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the State Duma and leader of the governing United Russia party, voiced concern at the rise in drug use in Russia.
Afghanistan is the world’s main source of heroin, and consignments heading for Russia often come via the porous, poorly-guarded border with Tajikistan.
Gryzlov suggested that if Tajikistan did not want Moscow to take care of the border, its citizens should no longer be able to come to Russia without visas.
His comments sparked an outcry in Tajikistan, with talk in the country’s media that Russia was using the migrant question as a form of blackmail to get what it wanted on the security front.
Analysts in Russia, however, said that even if Gryzlov’s views were shared by many in the country’s security ministries, the idea of ending visa-free travel for Tajikistan nationals did not have the Kremlin’s blessing, and looked more like populist rhetoric ahead of a December parliamentary election in Russia.
Nevertheless, the spat highlighted the tensions underlying Tajikistan’s relationship with Russia.
The migrant issue has been controversial over many years. Racist killings in Russia have caused outrage in Tajikistan, underlining the low status and lack of rights of labour migrants, especially the many who travel and work illegally. At the same time, the expatriate workers send home substantial sums of money that support many households in Tajikistan, and their absence from the country provides some relief to an otherwise the depressed labour market.
According to Karomat Sharipov, who runs the web resource Tajmigrant.com, unofficial estimates put the number of Tajik nationals in Russia at between 1.5 and two million.
Muhammad Egamzod, head of the Taj-Info media group, which is based in Russia, said Tajikistan was heavily reliant on the remittances the migrants sent home.
“I think there would be a social cataclysm if this flow [of money] were to stop,” he said. “Some of our [Tajik] politicians say we shouldn’t exaggerate the issue, but in reality we can see that almost every Tajik family has one or two members abroad as labour migrants, mostly in Russia.”
Like many in Tajikistan, Sharipov believes a serious deterioration in relations with Moscow would inevitably impact on the position of temporary migrants. He recalled how a diplomatic row in 2006 involving espionage allegations led to Georgian migrants being deported from Russia.
Aliakbar Abdullaev, who heads the Tajikistan office of Russia’s Anti-Corruption Centre, said political pressure was a normal part of international relations.
“Any country is going to use whatever trump cards it has in order to protect its interests – it’s within its rights to do so,” he said.
Like other analysts interviewed by IWPR, Abdullaev argued that it was up to the Tajik government to stand up for its own national interests, and specifically to protect the rights of its citizens abroad.
He said the authorities had behaved somewhat irresponsibly in the past – they were happy enough to see the unemployed go off to Russia, but failed to secure bilateral agreements governing how they should be treated.
“We have been sending our labour migrants there as if Russia is our own home, as we were still in the Soviet era. Yet we didn’t sign any legal documents or inter-state agreements,” he said.
A Tajik businessman who runs a construction company in Moscow and asked to remain anonymous said the only reason Russian politicians were able to exploit the migrant issue was because Tajikistan’s government was unable to stand up for itself. He blamed inconsistent policies and a lack of skilled negotiators.
“We have the weakest diplomats of all the Commonwealth of Independent States members. They’re incapable of defending their country’s interests, so Russia can expel all the Tajik labour migrants from Moscow at any moment,” he said.
Rahmon Ulmasov, a philosophy lecturer with the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe, takes a different view from most, arguing that if Moscow tightened its immigration rules, it would halt the flow of to illegal migrants and create a more orderly system.
Ulmasov points out that many Tajiks have taken out Russian citizenship and would not be affected by deportation orders, while if others were forced to go home, they would simply have to accept whatever jobs they could find even if they did not earn as much as they would in Russia.
Lola Olimova is IWPR editor in Tajikistan.