BACKGROUND: In October 2012, Moscow and Dushanbe seemed to have resolved most problems on their bilateral agenda. Dushanbe agreed to keep a Russian military base in the country free of charge in exchange for Russia’s implicit protection of Rakhmon’s regime and considerable economic and military aid. Yet, soon after accepting Moscow’s demands, Rakhmon stated that he does not see any true benefits for Tajikistan from integrating with regional military organizations sponsored by Russia and demanded a dramatic increase in Russian investments in Tajikistan’s hydroelectric project, along with other demands.
By March 2013, tensions rose rapidly between Dushanbe and Moscow. On March 15, the Chief of the Russian General Staff and Tajikistan’s Minister of Defense discussed the October agreement between Putin and Rakhmon, but the negotiations apparently led nowhere, causing Igor Shuvalov, First Deputy Premier of Russia, to cancel his visit to Tajikistan. The political observer Leonid Savin noted that if Rakhmon would create problems for Moscow, he could well be replaced by a “more reasonable” person, which could be justified to the West as “promoting democracy.”
Moscow has not only engaged in talks but also in actions aimed at destabilizing Rakhmon’s regime, most prominently by threatening to deport Tajik migrant workers, which would imply serious economic and political problems for Tajikistan. This threat was first discussed in March 2013 when a Russian observer noted that Tajikistan, more than any other country in Central Asia, should stay on good terms with Russia since “around one million Tajiks, one eighth of the county’s entire population, is in Russia.”
The threat became more pronounced in April 2013, when nationalist Duma member Vladimir Zhirinovsky stated that if Russia would deport Tajik labor migrants, Tajikistan would be in the hands of Islamists. Moscow also sent the signal that it was seriously contemplating deportations. The Russian public was prepared for a possible action against Tajik migrants as Russian authorities provided a variety of justifications for its approach, claiming that Tajikistan is a hotbed for terrorists who then move to Russia. The information was widely accepted by the Russian public, among which anti-migrant opinions, especially against Caucasians and Central Asians, are quite popular. A series of demonstrations took place in Russian cities on April 14, echoing the call for stricter migration controls for labor migrants.
IMPLICATIONS: Moscow also sought to employ carrots in its relations with Tajikistan. During a May 2013 meeting between Rakhmon and Putin, the latter hinted that trade between Russia and Tajikistan could be increased. Yet, the meeting brought no visible results despite Putin’s call on Rakhmon to speed up the ratification of the October 2012 treaty, which stipulated the conditions for Russia’s military presence in Tajikistan. The Kremlin’s displeasure was conveyed by articles published in the Russian press, implying that Rakhmon’s regime is extremely unstable and could easily be overturned. The potential problem of Tajik migrants being deported from Russia would be devastating for Dushanbe and Moscow seems ready to take a step in this direction.
Dushanbe has responded by seeking to upgrade its relations with China, Iran and the West, foreign policy moves that clearly irritated Putin, who invited Rakhmon to visit Moscow on August 1, 2013. The negotiations were inconclusive and Russia’s response to Rakhmon’s visit was rather skeptical. Centrist Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted that Rakhmon came to Moscow empty-handed and should understand that a “multi-vector” foreign policy is for “clever and strong” leaders and he definitely does not fall into this category. The Kremlin implicitly warned that Tajikistan’s attempt to engage with NATO and the U.S. on the one hand, and China and Iran on the other, could lead to not only a foreign policy debacle but to the collapse of the regime, which Moscow would facilitate by deporting Tajik migrant workers.
Russian observers noted that Dushanbe is wrong to assume that Tajik migrants are of any importance to Russia. Pro-government Regnum also noted that former Soviet countries who encourage their citizens to go to Russia should remember that Russia is under no obligation to accept them and that the right to be in Russia is a privilege. Moreover, the number of migrants that Russia is ready to accept will decline and only countries who are members of the Eurasian Union, or are at least on good terms with Russia, will enjoy privileges of sending their migrants to Russia. Another Russian observer noted ominously that “Rakhmon is aware that if Russia would lose patience and would send back several planes with deported Tajik migrants, it would lead to chaos in Dushanbe.”
In early August 2013, soon after Putin’s meeting with Rakhmon, the Russian authorities seemingly decided to tackle the problem in earnest. There is a plan to build 83 camps for illegal migrants in Russia, where they can be detained awaiting deportation. One such camp is already built in Moscow. While the camps and arrests of thousands of immigrants are not designated only to target Tajiks, the authorities clearly regard the new policy as a means for pressuring Tajikistan and making credible the assertion that limiting Tajik migration to Russia, or even expelling a considerable number of Tajiks, is indeed on the table. By extension, this demonstration has implications also for other countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus – some observers believe that Moscow could start to deport Azerbaijanis if Baku does not follow Moscow’s bidding.
CONCLUSIONS: Limitations to Tajik labor migration to Russia would be a serious problem for Rakhmon’s regime, and could indeed trigger social upheaval resembling the recent unrest in Kyrgyzstan. The results of such unrest would be manifold and unpredictable. While Moscow’s designs could indeed prove successful and the Kremlin would be able to install a less problematic counterpart in Dushanbe, there is also a risk of the Kremlin’s assertions about Islamism in Tajikistan becoming a self-fulfilled prophecy. Such a development would have profound implications not only for Tajikistan but also Uzbekistan, and would by extension create a serious problem for Moscow itself. This possibility is understood by Kremlin officials, who also likely grasp the extremely negative impact that mass deportations of migrant workers, regardless of ethnicity, would have for Russia’s image across Central Asia, and that this would damage the prospects for establishing the Eurasian Union. Finally, mass deportations would hurt the Russian economy.
The variety of problems which mass deportations could create not just for Dushanbe but also for Russia itself will likely prevent the Kremlin from full implementation of its threat. Still, the prospect of selectively limiting migration and deportations in a smaller scale is clearly becoming a tool of Russian foreign policy toward former Soviet states and possibly beyond.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.