After a Tajik court this week found two pilots working for a Russian air-charter company guilty of arms smuggling, an irate Moscow has mulled an appropriate response to what it believes was a "politically motivated" decision.
Russian media and politicians suggested that Russia hit Tajikistan in the pocketbook by targeting the massive army of Tajik labor migrants in Russia, and there are signs that the authorities are moving in that direction, with the announcement of pending deportations and Tajik migrants reporting they were being rounded up by police.
Russian authorities are considering deporting some 100 Tajik migrants who have records of "committing various violations in Russia," Federal Migration Service (FMS) Director Konstantin Romodanovsky announced on November 11, adding that the migrants would most probably "be banned from entering Russia for three to five years."
Romodanovsky also said that another 134 Tajik citizens were arrested on November 10 in Moscow for allegedly "violating migration law," and "I do not rule out the possibility that they will be deported as well."
Some 1 million Tajik nationals -- nearly every seventh Tajik citizen -- are engaged in seasonal jobs in Russia, and the remittances they send back to their impoverished homeland contribute greatly to Tajikistan's economy.
The announcement came just days after a court in the southern Tajik city of Kurgon-Teppa sentenced two pilots -- Russian citizen Vladimir Sadovnichiy and Aleksei Rudenko, an ethnic Russian from Estonia -- to 10 1/2 years in prison for smuggling, illegal border crossing, and violating aviation regulations.
The sentences were immediately reduced by two years in keeping with a Tajik amnesty law.
A Flurry Of Diplomatic Activity
According to an unnamed diplomatic source, the sudden deportation of the Tajiks from Russia is the country’s response to the sentencing of the airmen.
The pilots were arrested and their cargo and aircraft seized when they made an unauthorized refueling stop in Kurgo-Teppa on March 12 en route from Afghanistan to Russia.
Initially, there had been little reaction from Russian authorities, but now there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity since the court ruling on November 8.
Russia's ambassador to Dushanbe, Yury Popov, who met with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon earlier this week to discuss the issue, reportedly left for Moscow on November 12 to consult with the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The announcement by FMS Director Romodanovsky on November 11 came after he reportedly met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on November 10 to discuss the issue of Tajik migrants, according to Russian news agencies.
On November 9, Medvedev was quoted as saying that "we will wait until we get a reaction from the Tajik authorities, with whom we are linked by bonds of allied relations, and then we will decide" what course of action to take in response to the Tajik ruling.
Russian media see the FMS announcement as a clear sign that Medvedev has decided that the large number of Tajik migrants on Russia territory will bear some of the brunt of the international spat.
"The idea about [targeting] Tajik migrants, as usual, came from the president," noted the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets." "In our country, even a toilet seat doesn't get repaired without an instruction from federal authorities."
Mikhail Vinogradov, chairman of the St. Petersburg Policy Fund, a Moscow-based political think tank, says Moscow is exhibiting resentment that "the president of Tajikistan -- not the strongest of leaders in the post-Soviet space -- has...essentially openly imposed political pressure on Russia."
Vinogradov suggests that politics is the main reason behind the Russian reaction, however, noting that parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for December 4, 2011, and March 4, 2012, respectively.
"The political leadership is not prepared to support anti-North Caucasus sentiment because the North Caucasus votes in favor of the authorities," Vinogradov says. "There is an attempt to replace this sentiment by exploiting a certain negativity toward migrants from Central Asia."
Migrants Pay The Price
In Dushanbe, some experts condemned the sentencing of the pilots, saying Tajikistan should not forget its migrants' situation in Russia.
"A recent poll in Tajikistan showed that more than 90 percent of our people support good relations between Dushanbe and Moscow, mostly because they depend on labor migration," says Ismoil Rahmatov, a professor at the Slavic University in Dushanbe.
Rahmatov says he hopes Moscow and Dushanbe find a way to resolve the crisis. In the meantime, Tajik migrants in Russia are anxious about the situation.
"We're paying the ultimate price for the row, and it's very regrettable," says Murod Kholiqov, a migrant laborer who works outside the Russian capital. "Russian police are rounding up Tajiks in huge numbers."
Kholiqov adds that he and his brother "went to places, where many Tajik migrants live and we advised them not to leave their homes unless it's absolutely necessary."
Tajikistan's prosecutor-general said on November 10 that Dushanbe would consider the extradition of the Russian pilot if Moscow sends such a request.
RFE/RL correspondents Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Mirzonabi Kholiqzod in Dushanbe contributed to this report, with agency reports