DUSHANBE -- Russian authorities are increasing pressure on Dushanbe to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), insinuating that if it does so, the Kremlin would create favourable conditions for Tajik migrant workers.
But such a deal is a double-edged sword, observers and neighbouring states warn.
Tajik migrant workers in Russia already face difficulties, and bureaucratic barriers to employment, which always have been high in Russia, are set to rise.
At the same time, membership in the Russian-dominated trading bloc has proved a disappointment to both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Dependence on remittances
Labour migration and remittances from abroad are some of the factors keeping the Tajik economy afloat.
Remittances accounted for significant shares of Central Asian countries' gross domestic product (GDP) last year, according to World Bank data from October: 25% in Kyrgyzstan, 26% in Tajikistan and almost 6% in Uzbekistan.
Remittances were even greater in pre-pandemic 2019.
Transfers from Russia to Tajikistan in the first three quarters of 2020 amounted to $1.2 billion (13.7 billion TJS), which was 37% less than in the same period in the previous year, according to the Bank of Russia.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia closed transport links with a number ex-Soviet states. Flights with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus have resumed -- but not those with Tajikistan.
Russia has periodically enforced a visa regime with Central Asian countries that are not EEU members, particularly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, said Farhad Tolipov of Tashkent, director of the think-tank Caravan of Knowledge.
"Thus, Russia is actually dividing Central Asian countries into 'ours' and 'theirs'," he said, referring to EEU members versus non-EEU members.
Russia pressuring Tajikistan
By limiting labour migration, observers say, the Russian regime is putting pressure on Tajikistan to join the EEU. Meanwhile, Russian state media is sending direct, undisguised signals to Dushanbe.
Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik Tajikistan on February 11 interviewed Yuri Shurygin, director of the Russian Association of Small and Medium Exporters and director general of the Russian International Export Promotion Agency.
Shurygin stressed that Tajikistan should choose the EEU over China, pointing to "a temporary pause" in trade amid the pandemic, during which "China nearly sealed the border".
"Tajikistan's hopes for economic ties [with China] did not come true, and the country's leadership and business community may see this window of opportunity in joining the EEU," he said.
Russian authorities have let Dushanbe know that if it joins the EEU, they will create favourable working conditions for Tajik migrant workers.
But observers with insider knowledge of the situation are sceptical.
Moscow is stepping up attempts to drag Tajikistan into the EEU, promising favourable prospects that will not materialise, said Valentina Chupik of Moscow, chair of the NGO Utro Mira (Sunrise of the World).
"Russian authorities are using labour migration, which Tajikistan depends on, to further their geopolitical interests," she said. "But after Tajikistan becomes a member of the EEU, things will become even worse for migrants."
Migrant workers have faced harsh conditions and discrimination in Russia, and many were left stranded, without work or support, when flights were closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Migrants from the EEU member states should not expect tax breaks, Chupik said, pointing out that the Russian parliament is drafting a law that will make such obligations even more burdensome.
'We need to be careful'
The possibility of Tajikistan joining the EEU is stoking public criticism.
"What kind of rubbish is this where small impoverished states are dragged about forcibly without any criteria or obligations?!" Dushanbe activist Muzaffar Imomdod wrote on Facebook in February. "I am totally against it!"
The Russian regime may resort to provocations, so "we need to be extremely careful", he said.
"It is time for our authorities to think about the national interest and the interests of our country as a whole. Otherwise, with Russian propaganda and provocations, we could lose much more than we imagine."
Bolot Kalmyrzayev of Bishkek, a professor at the American University of Central Asia, responded to Imomdod in Facebook comments, saying Kyrgyzstan, an EEU member since 2015, has gone through a similar ordeal already.
"The Customs Union [the EEU's old name] did not bring us anything good," he said. "Domestic businesses suffered the most."
Dushanbe appears to be in no hurry to enter the Russian-co-ordinated trade bloc, fearing negative consequences for economic relations with Beijing.
Tajik political scientist Parviz Mullojanov, who lives in Sweden, said he doubted whether Tajikistan would join the EEU in 2021.
"Big business in Tajikistan works closely with China, so it won't support the idea of joining the [EEU]," he said.
Negative impact of labour migration
In a January report published by the World Bank, researchers analysed the negative impact of remittances on the economies of Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
According to the report, remittances to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, mainly from Russia, negatively impact these countries' economies.
They reduce economic competitiveness, increase inflation, repel investors and hinder the manufacturing sector and the creation of new jobs, research shows.
In Tajikistan, for example, up to 40% of families live on remittances.
The influx of foreign currency to countries in the region also boosts the exchange rate of local currencies, working against exports and growth in the real economy.
This trend reduces the competitiveness of local manufacturers' goods, not only domestically but in foreign markets too, as local companies are faced with rising labour costs, according to the report.
In Central Asia, only resource-rich Kazakhstan, which hires migrant labour rather than exporting it, is free of dependence on migrant remittances.
It will be tough to survive on their own for countries like Tajikistan. But Russia is closer to our people than China, for example. That's why it is better with Russia. There are a great many problems and injustices in Tajikistan; if only the provincialism.Reply
The EEU is not beneficial for the Tajik the bourgeoisie. The Chinese market is big. It is beneficial for ordinary folks. China has plenty of its own workforce.Reply
Yes, it's much more scary than we think.Reply
If Tajikistan is so independent and robust, why do you come to Russia and Kazakhstan for work? Work in your country and help boost your own economies.Reply
TAJIKISTAN IS AN INDEPENDENT, RULE-OF-LAW STATE, AND WE TAJIKS DON'T FREAKING NEED THIS UNION WITH RUSSIA IN THE FORM OF THE EAEU.Reply
Our President EMOMALI RAKHMON is doing a good job!! Long live Our President EMOMALI RAKHMON!Reply
That's right! No one freaking needs you here! Go to China. Work for the Chinese.Reply
They will swallow you up fast.
To the best of my recollection, in 2014 or 2015, I don't remember the year exactly... They needed to extend the Russian military base agreement with Tajikistan. Then [Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor] Shuvalov personally went on live TV in Tajikistan. He PROMISED that starting in April, exclusively for Tajik citizens, Russia would process their residence permits would be processed without their having to leave Russian territory. I don't remember well what else Russia promised. As soon as Tajikistan extended the military base agreement for chicken feed, it immediately forgot about the [Russian] promises. Our government didn't even try to remind Mr. Shuvalov about his loudly voiced promises ... that's why I'm against joining the EEU! (Only hollow promises all the time.)Reply
The European Union just crossed itself.Reply
Russia needs to fence itself off from migrants, including labor migrants, and from this hatred by its former Soviet compatriots. May they live independently and happily.Reply
That's exactly right! You wanted freedom; so now enjoy shoving it down your throat.Reply
Not only is this union bullshit, but the authorities in Tajikistan are bullshit as well.Reply
Don't criticize when you don't know the genuine achievements of the authorities [the rest is not in Russian].Reply
This Union is complete baloney. But our migrants, not understanding the essence of this Union, are all for it. Don't forget that when we (the migrants especially) join the Union, we're not going to win. On the contrary, migrants will become even more vulnerable and depending on your employers. Long story short, by signing the Union agreement, we are driving ourselves into slavery.Reply
Give a simpler explanation, pleaseReply
If any Tajik lawmaker or official is reading this comment, read it carefully: we have lost $44 billion because of this union. To put it briefly, not a single clause in the treaty is complied with in keeping with the way it is written. It's a card game where the three players each have an extra deck of cards up their sleeves.Reply
You should pay attention to your figures as wellReply
The EEU only means benefits for Russia.Reply
Of course we don't need this Customs Union.Reply