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Analysis: Labor Migration and Tajik-Russian Relations

  • Daniel Kimmage

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov (file photo) Labor migration is not just about impoverished people leaving their homelands for the greener pastures of countries where they can earn higher wages. Increasingly, the phenomenon serves as the focal point for a welter of issues that go beyond the economic realm to fuel ethnic and cultural tensions, set the stage for xenophobic politics, and even alter the dynamics of international relations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Tajikistan and Russia.

Prosecutors in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg recently opened a criminal case against the leaders of the City Without Narcotics foundation (GBN), "Vremya novostei" reported on 7 June. GBN President Andrei Kabanov, co-founder Andrei Sannovnikov, and State Duma Deputy Yevgenii Roizman face charges of inciting interethnic conflict. The charges stem from a complaint filed by Farukh Mirzoev, head of the Tajik cultural association Somon, in connection with a demonstration that GBN organized on 10 May.

The demonstration took place in a small town called Shirokaya Rechka (Broad River) on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg. Local news agency Novyi region reported on 11 May that the 1,500 marchers gathered to put "psychological pressure" on Tajik migrants in the area. The report quotes GBN President Kabanov as saying: "The Tajiks arrived in this settlement, became firmly established here, and began to drive out Russians. They sell heroin, attack, rob, rape, and kill local residents. We can't tolerate this any longer. The police don't want to fight them. That's why we -- ordinary people -- have decided to take the initiative into our own hands." Speakers also claimed that Tajik migrants include Muslims fundamentalist "holy warriors" and terrorists. Demonstrators read an open letter to Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel and Yekaterinburg Mayor Arkadii Chernetskii demanding the "rapid deportation of all 150,000 Tajik illegal immigrants [in Yekaterinburg] back to Tajikistan" and the introduction of mandatory visas for Tajik travelers to Russia, "Inostranets" reported on 17 May. (Under existing agreements, Tajik and Russian citizens can travel to each other's countries without visas.) The protestors warned that if their demands are not met, they will form vigilante brigades to "defend city residents against illegal immigrant violators of the law."

Sources in the Tajik community disputed GBN's claims that over 1,000 people demonstrated in Shirokaya Rechka, saying that the march drew only 50-100 people, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported in its 10-16 May review of Tajikistan-related events. Nevertheless, the "psychological pressure" proved effective. Shamsiddin Nuriddinov, head of the Sverdlovsk Oblast-based human rights organization Payvand (Union), told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 12 May that Tajik builders fled Shirokaya Rechka after the demonstration. Meanwhile, GBN representatives promised that they "will not leave the Tajiks in peace no matter where they are."

Duma Deputy Yevgenii Roizman has made the issue of Tajik immigration to Russia a veritable calling card. A harshly anti-Tajik article appeared in Russia's "Literaturnaya gazeta" on 14 April in which the author, Sergei Gromov, allows Roizman to expound on his views at some length. Roizman suggests that the United States and Tajikistan are conniving to inundate Russia with heroin. The United States turns a blind eye to drug laboratories in Afghanistan. As for Tajikistan, Roizman charges, "I believe that many people in [Tajik] law enforcement and government, including the president's inner circle, are involved in this criminal business...." In a recent appeal to fellow lawmakers, Roizman wrote: "Data published by experts indicate that in 2003, 70,000 people in Russia died as a result of narcotics use. This is more than in all the wars and conflicts after 1945." Roizman sees a clear role for Tajik migrants in this grand scheme: "They come in, and most of them are transporting drugs. And nobody knows how to kick them out." The measures Roizman calls for include the deportation of illegal immigrants, the introduction of visas between Tajikistan and Russia, and the death penalty for drug smugglers.

Observers have questioned both the accuracy of Roizman's claims and the purity of his motives. Qurbonali Halimov, a representative of the Sverdlovsk Oblast Tajik community, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service, "Of course, there are always a few bad apples in the barrel, and there are compatriots of ours who are engaged in these things, but you can't accuse all Tajiks of this." Farukh Mirzoev told ITAR-TASS on 11 May, "There are drug smugglers among Tajiks, but no more than among other nations." The news agency went on to cite data from Sverdlovsk Oblast law-enforcement officials, who said that they registered 2,500 drug-related crimes in 2003 and arrested 140 foreigners for drug smuggling, half of whom were Tajiks.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 12 May that Tajiks in Yekaterinburg feel that Roizman and his supporters are exploiting the presence of Tajiks in the city to advance their own political ambitions. Shamsiddin Nuriddinov went farther, telling RFE/RL's Tajik Service, "In their speeches, this group describes Tajiks as drug dealers and the cause of sickness, unemployment, and economic ruin among the local population...." In fact, Nuriddinov went on to assert, "GBN is not a charitable organization, but rather a criminal organization, and Roizman's election as a Duma deputy created numerous opportunities for this group." Nuriddinov is not alone in his doubts about Roizman's probity. In a 4 June interview with "Vechernii Dushanbe," Sverdlovsk Oblast-based journalist Sergei Plotnikov said: "I've known about Roizman since I began to investigate the history of the company Uralmash, the best-known criminal organization in the Urals.... At first, he was in the jewelry business. He had an icon museum. He had a conviction for fraud and he served time in prison. When he first started his career [as a public figure], he wasn't shy about boasting about how 'we criminals chase the cops around.'"

Whatever their motives, Roizman and GBN have a canny feel for populist politics. A poll conducted by the Yekaterinburg-based Center for Monitoring and Strategic Studies found that 80 percent of city residents want a visa requirement for Tajik citizens to travel to Russia, and 60 percent support the deportation of Tajiks, "Vremya novostei" reported on 7 June. And Roizman and his supporters continue to press their case. On 15 June, a photo exhibit entitled "Strength Lies in the Truth" will open in Yekaterinburg, Novyi region reported on 11 June. Sponsored by GBN and dedicated to the organization's fifth anniversary, the exhibit focuses on Russia's drug problem. The organizers told the news agency that the exhibit "testifies to the catastrophe, the war that is taking place in Russia." Not insignificantly, perhaps, the exhibit's title conveys a whiff of xenophobia-laced populism. When Danila, the shoot-from-the-hip hero of the wildly popular 2000 action film "Brat-2," confronts a craven American who deceived his friend, he tells him: "Strength lies in the truth. Whoever has the truth is stronger," before blowing the bad guy away. Liberal critics dismissed "Brat-2" as jingoistic pap, but ordinary moviegoers loved it, and elevated the phrase "Strength lies in the truth" to the pop-culture heights of Dirty Harry's "Go ahead, make my day."

If the phenomenon of labor migration is the stuff of populist politics in Russia, for Tajikistan it is a matter of economic survival. There is a lack of accurate statistics on the exact number of Tajik migrant laborers in Russia, but even the contradictory information available in press reports suggests that remittances from migrant laborers are vitally important to the Tajik economy. Maksim Peshkov, Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 31 May that Tajiks working in Russia send $280 million home each year through official channels alone, an impressive total for a country with a national budget of some $250 million. "Vremya novostei" put the total annual contribution of Tajik migrant laborers to their home country's economy at a staggering $1.2 billion. "Gudok" provided a more conservative estimate, writing on 1 June that 500,000 Tajik seasonal construction workers in Russia send back $800 million in wages each year.

With many ordinary Russians clearly irked at the presence of Tajik migrant laborers in their midst, and Tajikistan's economy heavily dependent on remittances, could an increasingly assertive Russia use the issue to influence Tajikistan in bilateral negotiations over important issues? In May, with talks between the two countries on the establishment of a permanent Russian military base and control over the Tajik-Afghan border seemingly deadlocked, RFE/RL's Tajik Service had the following exchange with Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer:

RFE/RL's Tajik Service: Ordinary people in Tajikistan are afraid that Russia could turn the issue of Tajik migrants, who come to Russia each year in search of their daily bread, into another means of putting pressure on border and military negotiations with Dushanbe?

Felgenhauer: I don't think that they'll turn this issue into a major, serious [negotiating] instrument.... These people are necessary and they do work that, for the same wages, Russia's own people won't touch. Just now when I went out to buy bread, I saw Tajik immigrants who are taking care of the hardest work at a construction site next to my house. We need these people; giving them work in Russia is not a sign of our charity. Besides, it would be very difficult to take this hard work away from them and deport them. Of course, every once in a while there will be some action against them, but, on the other hand, the economic imperative that attracts this workforce is also very great.

Not long after the preceding discussion took place, Russia and Tajikistan resolved their long-standing differences over a Russian military base and control of the Tajik-Afghan border. The agreement that resulted from a 4 June face-to-face meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in Sochi appeared to be very much in Moscow's favor. Russia will retain control over the border for at least another year, turn the temporary deployment of its 201st Motorized Infantry Division into a permanent military base, and gain ownership of the space-surveillance facility at Nurek. In return, Moscow will trade up to $299 million of Tajik debt for assets in Tajikistan's power industry, most likely the Sangtuda hydropower station. As RFE/RL's Tajik Service commented in its 31 May-6 June review, "In point of fact, only the concessions of the Tajik side emerged. It remains unclear what Dushanbe will actually receive from Russia aside from the promise that 'Russia considers Tajikistan an important partner and strategic ally.'"

Did Russia "play the migrant card" in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Tajikistan? "Kommersant-Vlast" suggested such a ploy might be in the offing in an article that appeared on 4 June, the day of the Sochi summit. In all likelihood, Russian negotiators had little need to enhance their offer of a debt-for-assets swap with the threat of new visa regulations to limit the influx of Tajik migrant laborers, who are, after all, firmly embedded in the structure of the Russian economy. The mere fact that the possibility is beginning to draw speculation, however, indicates that it may not have been far from the minds of Russian and Tajik negotiators in Sochi.

Meanwhile, the pot continues to boil, with migrants hard at work on construction sites and elsewhere throughout Russia, their families eagerly awaiting the remittances on which they depend, and many Russians increasingly resentful of the outsiders among them from the formerly fraternal Soviet peoples. Moreover, Russia's agenda in Tajikistan does not end with a permanent military base for the 201st Division. As Anatolii Chubais, CEO of Russia's state-run Unified Energy Systems electricity monopoly, indicated in Dushanbe last week at the 25th Session of the CIS Energy Council, the next item of business will likely be increased cooperation between Russia and Tajikistan in the generation and export of electrical power. If Russia was content to keep the "labor migration" card in its hand during negotiations over military and border issues, it can still play it in the future when the discussion turns to the revitalization of Tajikistan's power industry. Tajik Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov told the CIS Energy Council on 10 June that his country will need $2 billion to boost energy production to competitive and profitable levels. Should Russia decide to lend a helping hand, tough negotiations will surely ensue to determine who gets what and for how much.

Of course, the issue of labor migration need not raise its head in the form of a negotiating ploy. As Pavel Felgenhauer suggests, migrant laborers might already be too deeply ingrained in the Russian economy for any quick reversals. Russia's Migration Service records at least 5 million foreigners currently residing in Russia, "Ekonomicheskaya novosti Rossii i sodruzhestva" reported on 28 May; and according to Russia's Central Bank, they transfer $6 billion-$8 billion a year out of Russia. Thus, while the issue is obviously acute in relations between Russia and Tajikistan, it is, in fact, a far larger phenomenon, and one that shows every sign of growing in importance.
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