Central Asia and Russia After the Crocus Attack

May 6, 2024
  • Temur Umarov
    Fellow at Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center (Berlin)

Carnegie Center expert Temur Umarov looks at the political fallout from the recent terrorist attack in Moscow. The serious snag in relations between Moscow and Dushanbe is further prompting other Central Asian governments to rethink their approach to Russia and their own security.

The March 22 terrorist attack in Moscow, the latest in a string of tragic incidents in recent years, has altered Russia’s relationship with the Central Asian countries. Russian security forces have apprehended 12 Tajik nationals so far, accusing them of orchestrating the attack at Crocus City Hall, in which at least 145 people died.

Though this is not the first time Russia has been targeted by terrorists who had migrated from Central Asia, it is certainly the most significant one to date. Yet in its attempt to respond to the threat of terrorism, this time Russia risks destabilizing relations with its few allies in Central Asia.

The chain of events has already led to a diplomatic scandal between Russia and Tajikistan, which are closely allied. Indeed, their bilateral relations have not seen such headwinds in many years.
Emomali Rahmon, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Vladimir Putin and other post-Soviet leaders at the 2023 Moscow Victory Day Parade. Source: Wiki Commons
Uncontrolled reaction

Immediately following the attack, it appeared that Moscow and Dushanbe would seek to depoliticize the incident and prevent it from affecting the official relationship between Russia and Tajikistan.

Dushanbe, keen to assist Russia in the investigation, permitted Russian investigators to come to Tajikistan and question the suspects’ relatives.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon promptly reached out to Vladimir Putin to condemn the attack, stating, “terrorists do not have a nationality, homeland or religion.” Essentially, he gave Moscow carte blanche to deal with Tajik suspects as it saw fit.

And Moscow saw fit to arrest the suspected terrorists brutally and interrogate them publicly, with disturbing videos of the torture circulating widely on Russian Telegram channels. The well-known propagandist Margarita Simonyan, the head of the state-affiliated news network RT, considered it appropriate to mock (the linked videos contain disturbing scenes of violence) the “Tajik accent” in a Telegram post featuring the brutal arrest.

This situation has only added fuel to the already burning fire of xenophobia among ordinary Russians. The media is rife with reported incidents, numbering in the dozens, where Russians discriminated against migrants or even physically attacked them.
According to available data from Levada Center, a nongovernment pollster, in 2022 38% of respondents agreed that ethnic Russians should be more privileged in Russia than non-Russians, while 26% said that Russia should ban Central Asian migrants from entering the country.

The war in Ukraine has helped Russian neo-Nazis (see Russia.Post about ultranationalism in Russia here), pro-war journalists and Z-patriots to gain popularity, making it even more dangerous to speak out against discrimination of non-Russians. NGOs like the Civic Assistance Committee and activists like Manizha, a Tajik-born Russian singer, have come under investigation for their statements on discrimination, seen by Russian authorities as “justifying terrorism.”

Russian officials have also manipulated nationalist ideas to gain political advantages. Patriarch Kirill responded to allegations of xenophobia by stating that “Russian nationalism does not exist,” and in his view, the problem lies in the “unwillingness of some migrants to respect the culture [of Russia].” President Putin has also showed his support for this view on several occasions, stating that “migrants should respect the cultures and traditions of the Russian Federation” and that “the interests of Russians should be of higher priority than migration flows.”

Though this rhetoric is embraced by the nationalist-leaning segment of society, it also dangerously encourages other, ordinary Russians to discriminate against migrants, as they feel state backing for such actions. Recognizing the rising wave of xenophobia in Russian society, Moscow and Dushanbe initiated a series of visibly coordinated video addresses by prominent Tajik opinion leaders. In these videos, they publicly apologized for the involvement of Tajik citizens in the attack. Simultaneously, singers and opinion makers from Russia posted similar videos, emphasizing that not all Tajiks are terrorists.
“In Tajikistan, however, society has begun to question whether their government’s strategy of total silence and cooperation with Russia’s de-facto discrimination is a sound strategy.”
Moreover, amid reports of thousands of Tajik nationals being held at Russian airports, Tajikistan had no choice but to respond: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Russian ambassador Semyon Grigoryev to protest the discrimination of its citizens and advised them to temporarily avoid traveling to Russia.
Tajiks not being allowed into Russia through the Sagarchin border crossing between Kazakhstan and Russia. April 2024. Source: VK
Migration policy in crisis

The chaotic response and lack of a coordinated approach to migration policy are not flaws in the Russian government’s system, but rather its defining features. There is not a single institution that handles migration; instead, different aspects of migration are handled by different ministries within the Russian government.

In essence, the institutions responsible for migration policy in Russia can be divided into two main groups: the economic agencies and the security agencies. Whereas the former is keen to attract migrant workers, the latter sees potential threats from migration. These institutions have their own Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are not coordinated with one another and sometimes even conflict.

For instance, the KPIs of the ministries of economy and labor include bringing to Russia at least 300,000 labor migrants annually, as per the decree signed by the president. For this specific reason, the Moscow city government has opened branches of its migration centers in Tashkent and Dushanbe, while various state-affiliated business associations have signed international agreements to attract more migrants through special programs.

However, the Russian security agencies do not even consider this issue – they have their own KPIs. Broadly speaking, their main goal is to preempt security crises. In practice, this often means demonstrating their importance by reporting successful “terrorism prevention operations” or initiated criminal cases.

Generally, it’s not quality but quantity that the Russian security agencies are eager to present in their reports to the Kremlin. Russian independent media regularly carry stories of random migrants being apprehended for minor acts of hooliganism before having their cases blown up into alleged terror plots.

The reaction to the attack on Crocus City Hall follows the same pattern: the Russian security apparatus is scapegoating migrants so that no one will blame security officials for failing to do their job.
The China-Central Asia Summit. May 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
Structural dependency

The situation may seem destined to spiral downward, with Russian security forces intensifying their efforts to complicate the lives of Central Asian citizens in Russia and countries like Tajikistan being forced to react to their actions. However, this may not last long.

Russia has a structural need for migrants to keep its economy afloat, just as it is crucial for Tajikistan to keep the migration pipeline to Russia open. With Russia’s labor market facing unprecedented shortages amid the war in Ukraine (due to a combination of demographic factors, hybrid mobilization into the army and the mass emigration of Russians), the Russian economy is short some 4-5 million workers. Russia is not in a position to be selective about the type of migrants it wants, especially since the number of people seeking employment in Russia as labor migrants declined in 2023, even before the latest terror attack.

Tajikistan is also not in a position to prevent its citizens from seeking jobs in Russia. Unlike other Central Asian states, like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan,Tajikistan has not had the opportunity to benefit from sanctions-related reexportation to Russia: unlike Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Tajikistan is not a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, which complicates trade with Russia. Additionally, Tajikistan’s geography (no border with Russia and a mountainous border with China) makes it difficult and expensive for the country to serve as a hub for reexportation. Yet the war-related economic crisis hit Tajikistan just as hard as its neighbors. The level of poverty remains high (around 26%), even according to the official data.

Given these circumstances, Tajikistan cannot afford to halt migration, as it is a key source of income for hundreds of thousands of households. The International Labor Organization estimates that up to 80% of remittances in Tajikistan are spent on basic necessities. Thus, cutting them off would make life very hard, potentially leading to a political crisis.

But in terms of the Russia-Tajikistan relationship, the fallout from the Crocus attack looks set to outweigh the abovementioned factors.

Firstly, rising xenophobia in Russia is likely to create more friction between Russians and Central Asian migrants.

Secondly, by pointing fingers and looking for scapegoats, the Russian security apparatus is overlooking the very serious problem of radicalization among migrant communities.

A new, unpredictable era

Incidents like the Crocus City Hall attack, which occurred after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have created a new reality for Central Asian leaders in their dealings with Russia. Unpredictability has emerged as a new feature of relations. The Russian leadership is making decisions, even on matters crucial to its Central Asian allies, without consulting those allies, leading to mistrust.

Although Central Asia is accustomed to being not at the top of Moscow’s foreign policy priority list, the unpredictability of the Kremlin’s actions, along with Russia’s internal instability, is unprecedented. There have now been multiple events exposing Russia’s fragility, contrary to its own assertions of strength. Among the biggest is Russia’s failure to prevent the recent terrorist attack, even after it had been warned by the US, as well as countries like Iran that Russia calls “friendly.” Another was the unexpected mutiny of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had been considered close to Vladimir Putin. These events raise many questions in Central Asia about whether Russia, seemingly unable to ensure its own security and stability, can still be relied on.

The chain of events has demonstrated to the Central Asian states that their time-tested multi-vector foreign policy is the right way to maintain their stability and, more importantly, that they should rely on themselves. Indeed, in recent years they have revised their security strategies and allocated more financial resources to security than ever before.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy