Russian politicians and media are suggesting that Moscow should take serious steps of retaliation after a Tajik court issued lengthy sentences in connection with an international arms-smuggling case.
The case involving two pilots working for a Russian air charter company has been a source of discord between Tajikistan and Russia, and has drawn comparisons with the recent conviction of international arms dealer Viktor Bout in the United States.
On November 8, a Tajik court sentenced Russian citizen Vladimir Sadovnichy and Aleksei Rudenko, an ethnic Russian from Estonia — to 10 1/2 years in prison for arms smuggling, illegal border crossing, and violating international aviation regulations.
The sentences, in accordance with a recent Tajik amnesty, were immediately reduced by two years, to 8 1/2 years each. Both pilots had pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was asked about a possible government response while attending a meeting with Russian bloggers on November 8.
“We will wait until we get a reaction from the Tajik authorities, with whom we are linked by bonds of allied relations, and then we will decide,” he replied. “These decisions may be different, depending on the reply we receive — symmetrical or asymmetrical.”
Russia: ‘No Convincing Evidence’ Of Guilt
Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which responded almost immediately to the ruling, had a harsher reaction. Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich, said the decision was “politically motivated,” and warned that the sentences could have a negative impact on relations between Moscow and Dushanbe.
“Tajikistan is blatantly violating existing international norms,” he said. “It is also unclear what its plans are with regard to the seized airplanes. This verdict does not help strengthen our existing relationship as allied strategic partners. In fact it is damaging it seriously.”
The ministry spokesman said the prosecution was not able to provide any convincing evidence of the pilots’ guilt.
Rudenko and Sadovnichy were arrested in March, when the An-72 cargo planes they were piloting landed in the southern Tajik region of Khatlon for unscheduled refueling en route to Russia from Afghanistan.
The cargo of one of the planes included a disassembled aircraft engine that was not listed on the customs declaration. Both of the planes, owned by Rolkan Investment Ltd., a private company registered in the British Virgin Islands, were confiscated by Tajik authorities.
The Tajik case, dubbed “Russia’s Viktor Bout,” unfolded alongside the high-profile U.S. proceedings against the Tajik-born Russian citizen Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and was last month convicted on weapons-smuggling charges in the United States.
Following the Tajik ruling, there were immediate calls in Russian media for Moscow to put pressure on Dushanbe by different means.
Russia Could Put Squeeze On Tajik Remittances
“One of the most realistic and most effective measures could be introducing strict quotas and even a visa regime for Tajik citizens,” wrote “Moskovsky Komsomolets.”
Some 1 million Tajik nationals — nearly every seventh Tajik citizen — are engaged in seasonal jobs in Russia. Any restriction on labor migration would put Tajikistan under enormous financial and social strain as many households in the impoverished country depend heavily on remittances sent from Russia.
“Moskovsky Komsomolets” quotes Russian lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin as saying the Russian government could shut down “all the aid channels” to Tajikistan. Russia has “real leverage” to influence Tajikistan, said Zatulin, the deputy head of a parliamentary committee overseeing relations with countries from the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Russia is one of the main providers of humanitarian and military aid to Tajikistan. According to Russian official figures, Moscow allocated Dushanbe some $63 million in aid last year.
“It is simply horrible to issue such harsh verdicts. This is a slap to our government’s face,” Anatoliy Kucherena, a high-ranking member of Russia’s Public Chamber, told Interfax news agency. Kucherena said Russia should seek to free its citizen, Sadovnichy, from Tajik prison.
Estonian reaction to the sentencing of its citizen has been more subtle.
Sven Tolp, director of Consular Assistance Division at Estonia’s Foreign Ministry, stressed that Rudenko was appealing the verdict and is awaiting a decision.
“Right now we don’t have the final decision, and it is too early to talk about [our possible request for] extradition,” Tolp said. “We still hope that the [appeal] court will make a different decision.”
written by Farangis Najibullah, with contributions from RFE/RL’s Tajik Service