What Repercussions Are Tajiks Facing After the Moscow Terror Attack?

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While Tajiks in Russia have and will likely continue to face mistreatment and repression, this is not their first time weathering such a storm. 

On March 22, Russia suffered its worst terrorist attack since the Beslan school siege of 2004 in Chechnya. The four alleged perpetrators, all of whom are citizens of Tajikistan, killed over 140 people and left many more injured in an attack on a popular concert venue, Crocus City Hall, on the outskirts of Moscow. As the dust settles after the brutal assault, Tajiks in both Russia and Tajikistan are anxiously wondering what repercussions they might face after the attack.

Terrorism in Russia; Radicalization and Exploitation of Central Asians by Terrorist Groups

The Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan and Moscow’s role in combating the Islamic State by intervening in Syria in 2015 have made Russia a target for the Islamic State and its offshoots. However, terror attacks at the hands of radical Islamists long predate the formation of the Islamic State in 2013.

During the First and Second Chechen Wars, acts of terrorism were prevalent in Russia as a form of warfare waged by Chechen separatists. Such terrorism has served as a “weapon of the weak,” as perpetrators lack the firepower and personnel to challenge governments on the conventional battlefield. Since the Chechen wars, Moscow has maintained a strong security presence and often repressive approach to its largely Muslim-populated republics, including Dagestan and Chechnya.

Citizens of Central Asian countries have been targets of radicalization by terrorist groups like the Afghanistan-based Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) for many years. The onset of the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East provoked an increase in the number of Central Asians participating in extremist violence beyond their home countries. Between 2012 and 2018, more than 2,000 Tajik citizens reportedly joined terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, making Tajikistan the third-highest sender of foreign fighters to the war on a per capita basis.

Harsh conditions plaguing poor Central Asian countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan make them fertile environments in which terrorists have recruited fighters. According to Dr. Edward Lemon, ISKP has particularly leveraged both the low standard of living and repression imposed by authoritarian governments in countries like Tajikistan to recruit rebels into their ranks. On top of this, participation in terrorist groups, including ISKP, offers struggling Central Asian laborers “solidarity, a sense of belonging, and an explanation for economic hardship and discrimination that they experience.”

Central Asian participants in terrorist groups are typically severely punished upon repatriation to their home countries, where they face arrest and imprisonment. Additionally, countries like Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have previously amended legislation to revoke the citizenship of those convicted of being members of terrorist organizations. Yet, while deterrence measures may dissuade some from fighting for terrorist groups abroad, they can also backfire by making high-target groups, particularly young Muslim men, feel victimized and provide fuel to extremist recruiters.           

Tajik participation has persisted. In earl March, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon said that in the last three years, 24 Tajiks have committed or planned terrorist attacks in 10 countries.

The Crocus City Hall attack is only the latest large-scale attempt for Islamic State-affiliated terrorists to carry out attacks globally. Similar to the March 22 massacre, the Islamic State was implicated in the 2017 Saint Petersburg metro bombing, in which the suspected perpetrator, an ethnic Uzbek with Kyrgyz citizenship, killed 15 people, excluding himself.

Tajiks in Russia Will Continue to Face Many Difficulties

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to connect the Crocus City Hall attack to Ukraine, the Tajik population living in Russia is bracing itself. Central Asians, particularly Tajiks, have persevered through challenging circumstances in Russia in recent years. Tajiks uniquely suffered the impact of COVID-19 in Russia as many struggled to pay for housing, with a study showing that 91 percent of Tajik respondents did not receive financial assistance during the onset of the pandemic.

Central Asians also dealt with a brutal crackdown by Russian authorities after the 2017 Saint Petersburg metro bombing. Currently, the Tajik migrant community in Russia is suffering in a similar fashion through harassment by police at their workplaces, including construction sites, cafes, and warehouses. Xenophobic attitudes in Russia have also proliferated in major cities, where there have been repots of Russians refusing Tajik taxi drivers. Additionally, several news reports have demonstrated that Tajiks are also being subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

Furthermore, following the attack in Moscow, hundreds of Tajik migrants are facing the threat of deportation; others are reportedly fleeing the country due to increased mistreatment spurred by xenophobia. Whether these numbers will significantly increase is unclear. The deportation of Central Asian migrants climbed to 15,000 in 2023.

Yet at the same time, Russia heavily relies on Tajik migrant labor in various industries, and the ongoing war in Ukraine gives Central Asian migrants a variety of employment opportunities. For Moscow, a balance has to be struck between the xenophobic backlash and continued demand for the inexpensive labor provided by Central Asian migrants.

Russia-Tajikistan Relations Will Remain Stable

Tajikistan understands that it cannot address issues related to terrorism alone. Russia is Dushanbe’s most significant security partner. Dushanbe relies on the Russian military to secure its southern border, though the Russian war in Ukraine has led to Moscow decreasing its presence in Tajikistan. Tajikistan and Russia have maintained a security partnership through the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and Tajikistan hosts a Russian military base within its territory.

Irrespective of the latest terrorist attack, Russian-Tajikistani security cooperation will likely not be affected. In addition to Rahmon’s condemnation of the terrorists, both Rahmon and Putin have pledged to deepen security ties. Whether this implies a redeployment of Russian troops to Central Asia remains to be seen and will be difficult to achieve given the constraints imposed by the war in Ukraine. Increased security cooperation between Russia and Tajikistan could serve as an opportunity to revive the CSTO’s prestige, especially as Armenia freezes its cooperation within the alliance.

Moreover, the influx of Tajik migrants to Russia is unlikely to change radically as Tajik migrants have few other options. The migration system between Russia and Central Asia has been in place for decades; generations of Central Asians have traveled to Russia for work. Alternatives like South Korea, with its relatively high wages compared to Central Asian countries, have been an increasingly attractive destination for Central Asians. However, South Korea cannot accommodate the number of migrants that Russia does, and the networks that facilitate such migration are not as well established. Comparatively speaking, the Russia-Central Asia migration system is more straightforward for Central Asian migrants to navigate for several reasons, including Russian being a common mutual language for many.

There are other factors that contribute to the resilience of the Tajik migrant community in Russia. Tajiks have become an integral part of Russian society, and family ties may motivate many to stay despite mistreatment. Also, given the opportunity to earn higher wages in Russia compared to Tajikistan, most rural households in Tajikistan rely almost entirely on remittances from relatives working in Russia. There are few other options. Lastly, Russia offers citizenship to Tajiks and in recent years the numbers taking up Russian citizenship have grown. 174,000 Tajiks became citizens of Russia in 2022, an increase from 104,000 the year before. Holding Russian citizenship neutralizes many issues that Tajiks may face and allows them to receive Russian pensions, which are more than 10 times the minimum monthly pension in Tajikistan. Holding dual citizenship, which Tajikistan and Russia both recognize, enables Tajiks to move more freely between the two countries.

While Tajiks in Russia have and will likely continue to face mistreatment and repression, this is not their first time weathering such a storm. Throughout the aftermath of the brutal terror attack in Russia, radical change appears unlikely. 

Source: The Diplomat