The “aeroplane affair” between Russia and Tajikistan, as I suspected, shows no sign of landing (excuse the pun) anytime soon. Konstantin Parshin has – again – written an excellent article summarising what’s happened over the last few days, so if you’re not following this story elsewhere (and even if you are), do read what he has to say. He’s based in Tajikistan and clearly has his ear to the ground.
Whilst my previous post about this incident took a somewhat sardonic look at the latest episode of post-Soviet squabbling, I have since been reflecting much more seriously about the repercussions this event could have for the political scene in Tajikistan.
Think about the following sentences as a chain of events, each magnifying the impact of the one before it. The first few hundred migrants have now been sent home from Russia and there are threats that more will follow. I hear reports from Moscow-based Tajiks that they are too afraid to leave their apartments due to anti-immigrant/nationalistic feeling amongst Russians. If this continues for a while, then they will probably lose their jobs for not turning up. If they lose their jobs, they lose their source of income. They may get sent home by the Russian government in any case. So the income from migrant workers’ wages that the Tajik economy is so dependent on starts to drop. Large numbers of mainly young men, mainly from rural areas, may come back to Tajikistan, and there certainly aren’t jobs for them to go to: that’s why they left in the first place. Then consider the altered social circumstances that these men will find when they return to their villages and see how the women/old men/children have been adapting without them.
All this leaves you with a a shrinking economy and more significantly, potentially a large group of unemployed young people with not much in the world going well for them.
And it’s not just this situation which could have longer lasting impact, as stories are circulating about a host of other issues that are making people in Tajikistan angry and frustrated:
- an incident on the north-west border with Uzbekistan, where shots were fired over an alleged illegal border crossing with a possible fatality on the Uzbek side
- allegations that a pensioner in the south of Tajikistan slapped the President in anger at the government initiative asking Tajiks to buy shares in the Rogun dam project when many people don’t even earn enough through salary or pension to provide basic food and shelter for themselves and their families
- ongoing frustrations in the Gorno Badakhshan Semi-Autonomous Region in the east of the country towards the national government, where the appetite for full independence appears to be on the rise again
Now set these events and feelings against what’s happening in two other Central Asian states. Whilst the recent presidential election in Kyrgyzstan wasn’t perfect, it was at least peaceful and led to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe saying they feel “cautiously optimistic about the future of democracy in Kyrgyzstan”. And in Kazakhstan, the President – not known for his overtly democratic tendencies – has today called a snap election for January 2012 in order to try and increase the number of parties in parliament (currently just one party is represented).
And then finally consider the impact that a lot of very angry and frustrated people in other parts of the world have had over the last year, notably North Africa. No one is yet talking about whether there will be a “Libya effect” in Tajikistan, but with increasing internet literacy and access, it can be expected that many Tajiks – particularly those in urban areas – may be very knowledgeable about the events of the Arab Spring.
Add all of these parts together and you see that there are already many straws loaded on the camel’s back. The question is, just how many more straws can it take before the load will become too heavy?
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…
Hello everyone. Rather than two posts in one day, today’s single post combines two quite different topics. Read on…
The first topic is about higher education in contemporary Russia. I’ve just come across the work of Daria Luchinskaya, a PhD student at the University of Warwick, who has some really interesting points to make about the modernisation of the system. Some of these are handily summarised in this article on University World News.
Having done a little research myself into the post-Soviet higher education system, I agree that Luchinskaya has covered the key points facing the Russian system:
- state funding levels
- rise (and future demise?) of private higher education providers
- the pressures of internationalisation, such as aligning the education system to the Bologna process, and staff and student mobility
- making the system more competitive e.g. through the creation of federal and national research universities
It would be interesting to see what Luchinskaya has to say about how the current system and its challenges are interepeted in Russia, both by students and by other ‘stakeholders’. For example, I have read that employers are sceptical about students coming out of university with Bologna-friendly degrees, wondering how a three year Bachelor’s degree could be equal to the former system of four or five years of undergraduate study.
The second ‘prong’ of the post is about communications. Can I ask for your help?
Could you pass on details of the blog to others that you think would be interested, and encourage them to sign up for email updates? I’ve just joined academia.edu in a bid to enhance my own network, but your assistance would be very much appreciated.
And please, please leave some comments! Some people have been kind enough to email/text me about the blog, but it would be great to get some discussion going here.
That’s all for today. Thanks for reading.
Sorry – I haven’t yet mentioned that some posts may be all or partly in Russian, but I’ll ensure there is always an English translation. In addition, as the blog develops I’m hoping to get a range of colleagues contributing and it may be that some people feel more comfortable writing in Russian.
But the quote in today’s title couldn’t really be in anything other than Russian. If you’re not from the former Soviet Union – or, like me, an avid watcher of all things (post-)Soviet – the title is the first line of the 1977 version of the Soviet national anthem.
It translates as ‘An unbreakable union of free republics’ and is a reflection of the force and imposed alliance that emanated from the Russian capital of the Soviet Union. (Just talk to anyone in Tajikistan who knows someone working as a migrant labourer in Russia and they will be quick to tell you that the ‘friendship of the people’ is long gone, if indeed it ever existed as more than a construct. But perhaps more on that another time).
The reason for the eyebrows-raised use of the anthem is in response to a story in today’s Moscow Times about everyone’s favourite quasi-President, Vladimir Putin. ‘Putin Calls for New “Euroasian Union” of Former Soviet Countries’ describes a Russian vision for a new (but most definitely not Soviet, we are assured) union involving Russia’s friends Belarus and Kazakhstan but also some of the Central Asian countries.
It’s certainly an interesting idea, but the article doesn’t talk about how the union would interact with pre-existing unions and networks, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (which also involves China) or the customs union between the aforementioned triangle of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Likewise, no opinion on the union from the proposed member countries is given. That said, I’d hazard a guess that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon would say yes (if they bothered to ask him) – the country is falling over itself to accept financial assistance from Russia, although it’s carefully packaged as strategic cooperation.
So what’s the aim of the union and why now? The offical line is that the union would be a ‘bridge’ between countries in Europe and Asia-Pacific, with a focus on Commonwealth of Independent States. That sounds like a way of Russia focussing on countries that it has former connections with where it might not be too hard to impose influence again.
Why now? Well, the Moscow Times points out that there’s a presidential election next year, so Putin may have one eye on some easy wins in his likely presidential campaign. But to be honest, Putin is as Putin does, so this may have come up simply because he felt like it. Just wait for the accompanying photoshoot…
By the way, the full glorious words to the Soviet national anthem are here – a wonderful journey into possibility and propaganda.
An interesting story from the Washington Post, reprinted here in the Seattle Times, focussing on the lifestyle of Tajik and Uzbek migrants working in Moscow.
Hello, and welcome to my blog!
All the advice I’ve read about starting a blog says you should focus on one area you’re particularly interested in. Well, I’ve got a lot of quite different interests so I’ve chosen to focus on two areas, which do sometimes overlap:
1. Central Asia and the post-Soviet world
One of the categories I’ve created for this blog is ‘bureaucratic madness’, which should give you a flavour of the way I see a lot of the post-Soviet world. Having personally experienced plenty of volokita (Russian for ‘red tape’) over the years, I now enjoy admiring the craziness from the comparatively genteel bureaucracy of the UK, where I currently live.
As well as observing inane laws and practices, I have a more serious interest in the development of the post-Soviet space, particularly in Central Asia, so I’ll plan to report on more sobering news and stories too.
2. Higher education
I’ve worked in this field for over a decade and completed an MBA in Higher Education Management in 2011, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that I take a keen interest in policy and developments in higher education.
I plan to post stories and comments on the things that get me most excited/worked up. I expect that this will be mainly UK-based but I also follow international systems, particularly in developing countries.
My main geographic focus internationally is, yes, you guessed it, Central Asian higher education. There is almost nothing written about this field so one of my aims in life (with my academic hat on) is to research this area and get more people around the world thinking about it.
I’ve already got a few stories to post about, so I’ll end the intro post here and move on. Enjoy the blog and do please let me know if you have suggestions or ideas for future posts or themes.