Politics

Russian pilots and Tajik workers, or How to lose friends and alienate people

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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…

A meeting with Hillary Clinton

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Clinton in Dushanbe
Hillary Clinton at the town hall meeting in Dushanbe

When I entered the Social Hall at the Ismaili Centre Dushanbe [the location for Clinton’s talk], it was full. There was no place to sit, even though I thought that I came early. There were school pupils, students, media, representatives from different NGOs and others.

We waited for about an hour and finally she came and everyone clapped. She said she was very glad to be here and have an opportunity to talk to young people.

She also said that she was surprised to see men and women gathering together – perhaps she thought that it would be like Afghanistan as she had visited it a few days before.

After she spoke for a while, she then asked us to ask questions. Mostly the questions were about the future collaboration of US and Tajikistan, about studies and work in US, even about the Roghun hydropower station. Someone asked whether, as she would be visiting Uzbekistan, she could discuss energy issues with the Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Uzbekistan has been trying to block the construction of Roghun as it would reduce the amount of energy Tajikistan needs to buy from Uzbekistan. Clinton answered that she wasn’t in a position to discuss it with President Karimov, suggesting that it was the responsibility of the main funders of the project.

There were other questions about religion and about women’s role in society and politics. She supports women always to be involved in government, in politics, and she thinks that women should always be given a chance too. She gave some examples of women who are prime ministers in different countries, mostly in Muslim societies.

In general, it was very interesting and yet curious to see Hillary Clinton.

You can find more information about Clinton’s visit here.

By Ramila Mukairshoeva

Ramila is Resource Centre Manager for the University of Central Asia-Aga Khan Humanities Project, and is based in Tajikistan. She was recently awarded a US government scholarship and will be heading to Indiana University Bloomington in 2012.

Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

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A slightly light-hearted post today as I’ve spent the last few days unwell and my mind is not in serious analysis mode right now!

As anyone in Central Asia will know, the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a short visit to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over the weekend. This post is a round-up of some of the stories about the visit, which offered a rare occasion for Central Asia to get an airing in the international press. I think the opportunity was a missed one judging by the quality of the articles I chose…

Ahead of her arrival, ABC News published a handy pronunciation guide for anyone struggling to work out just where the stress goes in ‘Tashkent’. No, seriously.

Further help came from the American Washington Post, who described the two countries as ‘Afghanistan’s neighbours’. I’m not sure that’s an appellation most people would feel overly excited about.

Avesta.tj has several reports about the visit, including one entitled “Рогун и саксофон” (Rogun – a huge dam construction project that is always short of funds – and saxophone). With high hopes for a good local view on events, I was quickly disappointed. Clearly the journalist had become distracted by the novelty of a senior female politician.

Here are two short extracts: “Hillary is a good-looking woman. A strong woman. She was able to swallow the insult following the scandal of Bill and Monica’s saxophone lessons.” And just in case you didn’t think that was bad enough: “Hillary is a beautiful woman, but she came here as a politician, not a woman.” What a shame that trashy British tabloid News of the World has closed down, as the journalist could have had a great career with them.

Finally, over to CNN’s report on the visit. Two things about it made me laugh out loud. Firstly, the title’s focus on human rights discussions. Seriously? Just refer to my earlier post about forms of violence in the region to dispel any optimism on that front. And secondly – with apologies for my childishness – if you watch the short film on the webpage of Clinton being shown around the Botanic Garden in Dushanbe by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, look out for the gesture Rahmon makes with his hands about three quarters of the way through and Clinton’s bemused laugh in response.

A friend of mine was due to be present at a speech given by Clinton in Dushanbe, and I’m hoping she will post a more balanced first-hand account of the visit – watch this space!

To end today, a postscript that speaks volumes about where power lies in the post-imperial Western world…

With all the talk about Clinton’s visit, almost everyone has overlooked the fact that the UK sent its first ever government minister to Tajikistan. Follow that link for the only article I saw on this event. I’ll leave you with a quote from minister Alan Duncan – the word IF in sentence three should be up in huge letters:

“The future could be bright for Tajikistan. There are decision makers here we can work with. If they can attract international investors to their agricultural businesses, and encourage a better environment for entrepreneurs, Tajikistan could be a Central Asian success story.”