DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) — Russia began deporting Tajik migrants Tuesday, the first in a wave of expulsions in apparent retaliation for the jailing of a Russian pilot in the Central Asian nation, officials in Tajikistan said.
The spat threatens to imperil the livelihood of thousands of Tajik laborers and stir discontent in a country struggling to protect its border with Afghanistan. The former Soviet nation's economy relies heavily on the remittances provided by the many hundreds of thousands of Tajiks working in Russia.
Over the past year, Moscow has been attempting to strong-arm Tajikistan into permitting Russian border troops to resume patrols of the rugged 1,350-kilometer (840-mile) frontier with Afghanistan.
Tajik authorities have responded testily to such overtures, which they view as an attempt by the Kremlin to dilute their country's sovereignty. Russia, meanwhile, grumbles that Tajik troops are not up to stemming the huge flow of heroin streaming north from Afghanistan.
This latest tit-for-tat dispute will likely undermine efforts to deepen cooperation on enhancing regional security.
Tajikistan's migration service said 11 Tajiks were set to fly out from Moscow on Tuesday after authorities ruled they had violated migration rules. They were among about 300 Tajiks detained in recent days.
Vladimir Lobanov, acting head of a detention center in Moscow, confirmed that some of the detained Tajiks have been deported and preparations were being made to deport the others.
The detentions immediately followed the convictions last week of pilots Vladimir Sadovnichy and Estonian citizen Alexei Rudenko, who were arrested in Tajikistan in March after landing two cargo planes for refueling while flying from Afghanistan to Moscow.
A Tajik court found them guilty of illegally flying into Tajikistan and smuggling aircraft parts, and sentenced them to 8 1/2 years in prison. Their two An-72 aircraft were seized.
The case has provoked a xenophobia-tinged uproar in Russia.
"The decision to deport several hundred Tajik migrants is an utterly inept and illegal move," said Arkady Dubnov, who writes on Central Asia affairs for Russian daily newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti. "This looks like an attempt to appeal to chauvinistic sentiments" ahead of Russia's parliamentary elections in December.
President Dmitry Medvedev has denied the deportation of Tajik workers is linked to the pilots' conviction, but has hinted at more possible expulsions. Russian chief sanitary inspector Gennady Onishchenko on Monday proposed banning Tajik migrants because he said they are often carriers of tuberculosis and AIDS.
Tajikistan, a mountainous largely Muslim nation of 7 million people that won independence in 1991, has been battling to restore its economy since a brutal civil war in the 1990s that claimed more than 60,000 lives. The World Bank says about half of Tajikistan's people live in poverty.
The anemic pace of recovery has over the years generated a vast exodus of workers, likely counting more than 1 million — most now living in Russia.
Karomat Sharipov, who represents Tajik migrant workers in Moscow, said he worried that if the dispute was not resolved as many as 1 million citizens of Tajikistan and also Uzbekistan could be sent home to uncertain futures. He warned that some could turn to terrorism.
"In three months they won't have flour, sugar or butter," Sharipov said at a news conference in Moscow. "They will go to the mountains. They will go and join the Taliban."
While no big economic prize, Tajikistan holds strategic importance for Russia.
Russia's 201st Motorized Rifle Division, comprising roughly 7,500 servicemen, is based in three garrisons in Tajikistan, and the Russian military also has a space-tracking facility in the Pamir mountains.
In March, Medvedev announced that a deal is be signed in 2012 for Russia to extend the presence of those troops by 49 more years.
Souring ties could derail that plan. Some fear an escalation in the row could compel Russia to adopt even more punitive measures, such as increasing fuel export duties or limiting the flow of cash transfers.
Leonard reported from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Associated Press writers Sofia Javed and Varya Kudryavtseva in Moscow contributed to this report.