For the last few weeks, I haven’t had any interesting stories to report under my favourite ‘bureaucratic madness’ category. Central Asia seems to have been a pretty sensible place of late.
However, I’m pleased to report that the Tajik government is back on form with a new episode of red tape craziness. As I’ve suggested in the title, this episode could be subtitled “How to lose friends and alienate people”, paraphrasing a hugely popular book called “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie, first published back in 1936.
Back in March 2011, two ethnic Russian pilots (by nationality, one is Russian and the other Estonian, although no news stories seem to know or care what the Estonian government thinks) were arrested for supposedly crossing the Tajik border illegally and smuggling aircraft parts into Tajikistan, and possibly on some other charges too. A few days ago, a Tajik court jailed them for 8 1/2 years.
Both pilots, whose day job is to fly humanitarian missions to Afghanistan, claim that they had been given verbal permission to make an emergency landing as their fuel supplies were running short. Under international norms, this request should be granted.
Moscow’s reaction has been quick and uncompromising, as reported for example by Russia Today in its story “Moscow outrage at Tajik sentence for Russian pilots“. In essence: release the pilots or else we will throw out several hundred Tajik migrant workers.
Around a million Tajiks – mostly men – work in Russia and the remittances they send back home basically ensure that the cogs maintaining the country’s economy don’t totally grind to a halt. So the Russian government knows exactly how to hit Tajikistan where it hurts the most.
A Russian woman holds a poster aimed at Tajiks. It says “If you don’t want to be friends, then we won’t let you pump money out of Russia.” Awww, how sweet…
Image (c) Novaya Gazeta
An indication that this story is not yet over comes from an article on Pravda.ru published just a few hours before I started this blog post. “Tajikistan has promised to solve the problem of the Russian pilot” (in Russian) claims that the Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has personally undertaken to sort this issue out. Tellingly, a quote from a high-ranking Tajik diplomat notes the importance of observing “союзнические отношения” (hard to translate, but akin to union-like relations, “union” here as in Soviet Union not trade union) with Russia.
This point suggests to me that the Tajik government has realised that “messing with Russia usually backfires”. This quote comes from a great article called “Dushanbe’s plane caper not flying with the Kremlin” by Konstantin Parshin for Eurasia.net, where the site’s usual dry humour comes out best with stories like this.
On a more serious note, Novaya Gazeta’s “We are all Tajiks now” (in Russian) reflects more broadly on the situation, examining it through a political/racial perspective. It’s a genuinely interesting article, though the comments at the end are disappointing.
So what have we learned from this episode, which is still rumbling on?
Well, the Soviet Union might be 20 years dead, but Russia still holds significant influence over (some of) its former Union-cousins, particularly those that are poor and not rich in natural resources.
Tajikistan has made some tentative move towards partnerships with other powers – in particular China, Iran, and the USA – but the “special relationship” with Russia still seems to hold sway. I suspect that whilst 1/7 of the population resides in Russia, the Motherland will continue to remain Tajikistan’s most strategic partner, although it’s certainly not an equal partnership.
And finally, someone really should translate “How to win friends and influence people” into Tajik…