Saturday, July 10, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Polio Outbreak Continues to Cast a Shadow on Russian-Tajik Relations

Paul Goble

Staunton, July 10 – Russia has ended the restrictions it imposed on Tajikistan to prevent the spread of polio from that Central Asian country, but relations between Moscow and Dushanbe remain in a deep chill as a result of “the polio war,” with some Tajiks now calling for a wholesale review of their country’s relationship with the Russian Federation.
That is because, Moscow analyst Aleksandr Shustov says, Russian officials claim their actions were designed to protect public health but Tajiks insist Russian actions were driven by” purely political considerations” rather than by the epidemiological situation in either country (
And these views, he argues, continue to affect relations between the two countries even though Moscow on June 17 lifted the ban on the importation of Tajik dried fruits and on July 5 ended its prohibition on the entrance onto Russian territory of any child from Tajikistan six years old or younger.
The polio outbreak in Tajikistan this past spring was both large and unexpected. The World Health Organization in May had registered 431 cases of polio paralysis and ten deaths there, something that shocked Tajiks because their country had not had any reported cases since 1997 and had conducted a massive vaccination campaign,
Because there are approximately a million Tajiks working as Gastarbeiters in the Russian Federation, Moscow reacted “quite sharply to this deterioration of the epidemiological situation” in Tajikistan clearly out of fears that the disease could quickly spread into the Russian Federation via these immigrants and their families.
On May 5, Russia banned the import of dried fruit from Tajikistan, a step it took because such fruit is seldom washed or cooked before being consumed. As a result, Shustov says, “approximately 1300 tons” of dried fruit was stopped at the Russian border, and another 1500 tons taken off the shelves of Russian stores.
Two days later, Moscow blocked the admission to Russian territory of any children from Tajikistan six years old or later, and several Russian officials called for the immediate evacuation of all Russian children – approximately 1,000 in all – then living in Tajikistan, a step they said was necessary because Dushanbe was trying to prevent them from leaving.
As Shustov relates, Tajik officials denied that they were preventing anyone from leaving but did say they were conducting “the vaccination of all children who were leaving the country.” That declaration was sufficient to put off plans for the evacuation of the Russian children from Tajikistan.
But if that dustup ended more or less quickly, the entire situation clearly angered the Tajiks. They viewed the introduction of restrictions on trade and migration as “an attempt at political pressure on the republic.” And one foreign ministry official called Russia’s actions “’absurd.’”
Davlatali Nazriyev, press spokesman for the Tajikistan foreign ministry, even said publicly that “certain circles in Russia are overly dramatizing the situation [regarding the outbreak of polio] in Tajikistan.” And his institution delivered a protest note to the Russian Federation ambassador in Dushanbe.
But if the Tajiks were angry, the Russians felt they had every reason to act as they did: During May, Shustov notes, there were several cases of polio diagnosed among Tajikistan citizens resident in the Russian Federation, including two relatively widely covered incidents in Moscow and Yekaterinburg.
To be sure, Shustov points out, the polio scare is hardly the only problem in relations. Tajiks were angry at Moscow for refusing to help build a hydro-electric dam, and Russians were angry about Tajikistan’s decisions to lower the status of Russian and Russian media, to demand payment for Russia’s base there, and to block the deployment of Russian planes to the base.
The Russian ban on the import of dried fruit from Tajikistan struck a particular nerve not only because it cost the Tajik economy significant sums but also because it was imposed on the heels of a visit to Moscow by Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, no friend of Tajikistan, and thus appeared to be a “warning” to Dushanbe that worse might follow.
That possibility was further suggested to many in Dushanbe by the events in Kyrgyzstan which many Tajik analysts believe Russia had a hand in. And some of these analysts, including political scientist Parviz Mulladzhanov, in a Deutsche Welle interview, said Moscow might do the same thing in Tajikistan.
Shokirdzhon Khakimov, the head of Tajikistan’s Social Democratic Party, agreed. He noted that there is a chance, if Moscow works with certain “centers of force” in Dushanbe, for the Russians to set in train events “approximately identical to the events in Kyrgyzstan” which led to a revolutionary situation.
And many Tajiks in and outside the government were outraged by the outrageous statements of Russian LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky who propose blocking all trade, transport and communication with Tajikistan and even creating out of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan “the Ninth Central Asian Federal District” inside the Russian Federation.”
As a result of all this, there have been increasing calls to “review” Tajikistan’s relations with Russia and with Russian-led institutions like the CIS, the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty and the Eurasian Economic Community and to push instead for joining the World Trade Organization.
Moreover, Tajikistan has sought to use closer ties with Iran to counterbalance Russia. But, as Shustov notes, “the limited effect of all these measures is understood by the Tajik powers that be,” and consequently they “prefer for the time being to act carefully and not to get involved in an open conflict with Russia.”

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