Tajikistan vulnerable due to remittance dependence

Tajikistan vulnerable due to remittance dependence

Tajikistan is possibly the most remittance-reliant country in the world, thanks in large part to the more than one million Tajiks who have migrated from the poorest nation in the former USSR to Russia.

This mass migration of approximately one-seventh of Tajikistan’s population to Russia (and, to a lesser extent, to Kazakhstan) has shaped the economic and social reality in both Russia and Tajikistan. The migrants have bound Tajikistan to Russian economic forces and political whims, while simultaneously shaping the Russian political scene due to rising racial tensions between ethnic Russians and Central Asian laborers.

The global financial crisis of 2008 demonstrated the instability created by the current Tajik-Russian relationship. For Tajikistan the crisis meant a sharp fall in remittances from Russia, which in turn led to an increase in child labor as Tajik families struggled to meet basic needs. In late 2009, the president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, even recommended that Tajiks store enough food for two years to prevent starvation.

In Russia, the crisis exacerbated the already tense relationship between ethnic Russians and the Central Asian labor force. Whereas earlier migrants found work with ease, migrants who arrived in Russia during the economic downturn often found themselves without work, making them targets for exploitative employment schemes. Tajik workers were often refused wages or forced to pay bribes in order to obtain work permits. Since 2008, Tajiks have been increasingly targeted by xenophobic Russian groups because of their language, religion and appearance. In 2009, Tajik migrants reported living in a state of hypervigilance because of the increase in murders of Tajiks by ultra-nationalist Russian groups.

At present, the worst impact of the global economic crisis seems to have passed in Tajikistan and Russia. However, the problems faced in each country in 2009 illustrate the instability of the current relationship between Tajikistan and Russia. The economic crisis raised the possibility that Tajik workers in Russia would be limited or expelled, which would have a devastating impact on the Tajik economy. In recent years, Tajikistan’s policy towards Russia has focused on maintaining a functional relationship to prevent changes in the laws regarding migration. This means that Tajikistan is not always free to follow its own interests, but instead must conform to Russian political interests.

The challenges of this situation became clear in 2011, when Tajik officials arrested a Russian and an Estonian pilot en route from Kabul, whom they accused of smuggling and illegally crossing the Afghan-Tajik border. After the two men were sentenced to more than eight years in Tajik prison, Russia began deporting large numbers of Tajik migrants, and Russian officials called for a temporary ban on labor migration. The deportations likely contributed to Tajikistan’s decision to release the pilots as part of an amnesty agreement only a week after the sentencing.

The costs of massive labor migration have been high for Tajikistan. It has created a political relationship in which Tajikistan is unable to contradict Russian political whims without endangering the livelihood of its citizens. It means that Tajiks regularly risk racially motivated violence and even murder to send relatively meagre wages back to their impoverished families. Finally, it means that Tajik families are often split between Russia and Tajikistan, with grandparents and older siblings carrying much of the burden of raising children when parents leave for Russia.

While the migration situation has proven unstable, Tajikistan does not currently have the resources to create local employment sectors which can compete with remittances from Russia. Instead, Tajikistan should focus on increasing legal protections for Tajik migrants and creating social programs that can mitigate the negative social impacts of migration on Tajik families and villages.

Tajikistan should work with Russia to clarify and strengthen laws that protect migrants from racial discrimination, and should appoint officials to act as observers in the Russian legal system, in order to ensure Tajik migrants are protected under the law. These steps could help protect Tajik migrants in Russia, and the expansion of social services in the most remittance-reliant regions of Tajikistan can help ensure that those Tajiks left behind overcome the negative social impacts of long separation from family members.

However, until Tajikistan develops local industries that provide both large scale employment and livable wages, the country will continue to be subject to Russian political decisions. One-seventh of Tajikistan’s citizens and a third of Tajikistan’s national income remain beholden to Russia’s willingness to tolerate and protect the migrant population. Until that changes, Tajikistan’s political moves will remain beholden to Russian approval.

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