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Putin's Unlikeliest Supporters: Tajik Migrant Workers

Migrant workers line up in front of the Tajik Embassy in Moscow for documents to return home. There are said to be some 2 million Tajik migrants in Russia.
MOSCOW -- From police harassment to labor exploitation to skinhead attacks, Karomat Sharipov knows better than most the problems ethnic Tajiks face in Russia.

As the head of a Moscow-based support group that assists them with everything from finding a job to battling fabricated criminal cases, he hears their tales of woe on a daily basis.

And as somebody who has lived in Russia since 1996, he also understands how the problems facing the Tajik and other Central Asian communities in Russia have metastasized under Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule, a period where nationalist sentiment has thrived.

But despite this, the mustachioed and charismatic Sharipov strongly supports Putin's bid to return to the Kremlin for a third term -- and is lobbying other Tajiks in Russia to do the same.

Sitting in his office in the Russian capital, he points to a portrait of the prime minister on the wall behind his desk and says: "He is a man of words and action! Look, it's written here. What do I think of Putin? He's a man of words and action. Simple as that."

Sharipov's support for Putin may appear counterintuitive at first glance, but analysts say it also reflects and reinforces the attitudes of much of the country's Tajik community, whether they be migrant workers or Russian citizens.

Russia deported 12 Tajik migrants during the November dispute with Dushanbe, underlining the precariousness of their situation.
Russia deported 12 Tajik migrants during the November dispute with Dushanbe, underlining the precariousness of their situation.
Reclining behind a desk adorned with Tajik paraphernalia, Sharipov says as many as 90 percent of Tajik migrant workers in Russia support Putin. There are no polls on the political attitudes of Tajiks in Russia, making Sharipov's claims impossible to verify. But anecdotal evidence does indeed suggest pervasive support for Russia's most powerful figure.

In an effort to galvanize this backing, Sharipov organized a congress of the Tajik diaspora on February 11 in which he called for those holding Russian passports to vote for Putin in the March 4 election.

Not Rocking The Boat

According to some official estimates, 700,000 Tajik citizens are legally registered to work in Russia, but rights workers say for every legal worker there are two more working illegally. Sharipov estimates there are 2 million Tajik citizens living in Russia in total.

Their fealty to Putin has several sources, analysts say. Part of it stems from the fact that the prime minister and presidential candidate has cultivated a strongman image similar to that of many Central Asian rulers.

Moreover, with so many Tajik migrant workers in Russia illegally, members of the community understand that their compatriots' well-being is largely dependent on the Kremlin's goodwill, and are thus reluctant to rock the boat. Community leaders, therefore, are vigilant about doing the authorities' bidding.
A family of Tajik migrant workers are seen in their house outside Moscow. (file photo)
A family of Tajik migrant workers are seen in their house outside Moscow. (file photo)

The Tajik community's precarious situation in Russia was highlighted last November when Russian authorities rounded up hundreds of Tajik migrants after the arrest in Tajikistan of two pilots -- one of then a Russian citizen -- on smuggling charges.

Andrei Grozin, director of the Moscow-based CIS Institute for Central Asia and the Caucasus, says support for Putin is "widespread" among the Tajik diaspora in Russia, adding that this stems from several factors, but the main one is their vulnerability, which leaves them "100 percent dependent on the authorities."

At the time of the pilot scandal, there were widespread fears in the community of mass deportations of Tajiks. And although this never happened, such a move would have been catastrophic for Tajikistan, where remittances from Russia account for around half of the country's GDP.

'Putin's Our Man'

The support for Putin has manifested itself in some curious ways. Journalists have noted, for example, the disproportionate presence of Tajik migrants at pro-Putin rallies recently.

Tolibjon Kurbonkhonov sang Putin's praises in a popular video.
Tolibjon Kurbonkhonov sang Putin's praises in a popular video.
And earlier this month, an online video of a man calling himself "Tolibjon Kurbankhanov from Tajikistan" singing a heartfelt ode to Putin -- calling him a "godsend" who saved Russia -- went viral.

Gavkhar Dzhurayeva, an ethnic Tajik attorney who heads the Moscow-based support group Migration and Law, says she personally supports Putin -- as do many of her colleagues. She adds that it's largely pragmatism that drives many Tajiks to back him.

That certainly appears to be the case for Sirojiddin, a 33-year-old undocumented migrant who has been working on Moscow construction sites for several years.

"I don't need a visa to work. I've been working here for so many years without even having a work permit, so many years," he says. "Out of all the parties and politicians I think that Putin is the most worthy candidate for us."

The other candidates running for president on March 4, like Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have done little to win the support of Central Asians in Russia. And billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who is running as a liberal alternative to Putin, has said he would impose a visa regime on Tajik migrants.

Alisher Usmanov, a 42-year old former soldier who arrived in Moscow earlier this month, says only Putin can avert crises in Russia and the surrounding region.

"If not him, then who can understand Russia and pull it out of the ditch?" he asks. "Russia is the locomotive of the post-Soviet space. As long as it is not good in Tajikistan, we will continue coming to Russia and ask our Russian brothers for help and work."

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report