This story began in March 2011, when the crews of two Antonov An-72 planes owned by the airliner Rolkan Investmens [sic] Ltd were arrested in Qurghonteppa, Tajikistan. The planes had arrived from Kabul, Afghanistan. Both planes and their crews were inspected without incident by the customs and border services of Tajikistan. However, later all eight members of the crews were detained by representatives of the republic's Committee on National Security and placed under arrest.
One month later, the captains of the aircraft were indicted and the remaining members of the crews were released. The trial of the pilots began in mid-October, 2011.
Sentencing the Russian pilots
On November 8, 2011, both pilots, Vladimir Sadovnichy (a Russian) and Aleksei Rudenko (a citizen of Estonia) were found guilty of smuggling contraband airplane parts, violating the norms of international air travel, and illegally crossing the border. The court sentenced them each to 10.5 years in a maximum security facility. The sentence was reduced to 8.5 years for each pilot on the basis of a law on amnesties for those convicted. Both Antonov An-72s and a jet engine were confiscated for government use.
According to [ru] a representative of Rolkan Invesmens Ltd, Viktor Pfefer, “a half disassembled engine, which was located amongst the pilots’ belongings and was declared [by Tajikistan] to be contraband, could be considered such if it was unloaded on the territory of Tajikistan, but it was not”.
Tajiks: Russia's new enemies?
The reaction from Russia's side was immediately forthcoming. After the Ministry of Internal Affairs failed to solve the problem through unofficial channels, the authorities decided to change tactics. As the website of [the pro-Kremlin Youth Group] “Molodaya Gvardiya” reports [ru], on November 12, activists from the group picketed the embassy and consulate of Tajikstan in Moscow.
Moreover, two days after the guilty verdict, representatives of the Federal Migration Service announced [ru] the arrests of 300 illegal Tajiks whom they planned to deport. However President Dmitri Medvedev refuted claims that a “revenge campaign” was being carried out, stating [ru] that “citizens who break the law must be deported from the country”. Many raised the question of why this hadn't been done earlier. After all, it's not as if illegal immigrants only became a problem yesterday.
Whats more, the Russian authorities justified the deportation of the Tajiks by declaring [ru] the common incidence of Tuberculosis and HIV in migrants from Tajikistan. In total 300 Tajiks were detained in Moscow over the course of three days. The Internet community discussed the massive campaign against immigrants from Tajikistan. Internet users let touches of xenophobia slip in their commentary, such as proposals to introduce a visa regime with Tajikistan, or to indiscriminately deport all Tajiks. All the same, there was criticism [ru] directed at Russia.
Какая “молодчина” Россия – выгораживает своих. Но, когда так же поступили в Узбекистане в Корепановым, в США с Бутом – душонки не хватило их защищать? […] Стало очевидно: Москва боится сильных стран, и предпочитает не замечать проблему.
Россия ведет себя как истеричная женщина. То все ок, то все из рук вон плохо. Эти горе пилоты сидели шесть месяцев, никого это не волновало, и вдруг такая шумиха.
Good on you Russia, for looking after your own. But when the same thing happened in Uzbekistan with [Yuri] Korepanov or in the US with [Viktor] Bout did you lack the spirit to defend them?[…] It's become obvious: Moscow fears powerful countries and prefers not to draw attention to the problem.
Russia is behaving like a hysterical woman. One second everything is fine and the next everything is hellishly bad. These poor pilots were in prison for six months and no one carred, but now suddenly there's all this commotion
Some bloggers say Russia is using the same problem-solving methods it once used with Georgia or with Ukraine during the Yushchenko period: firstly the indignity of “the blatant disregard for international norms” and then the undertaking of “disproportionate” measures.
There is a connection to be found in these events with the upcoming elections. The editor of Ferghana, Daniil Kislov commented on the action of the action on his personal blog on radio station Ekho Moskvy's site [ru]:
Еще отвратительнее то, что отчеты о массовой депортации подозрительно смахивают на заигрывание с ксенофобски настроенной публикой в рамках начавшейся предвыборной кампании.
Inter-user Dilshod went even further in his observations and wrote that he wouldn't be surprised if “Rahmonid [President of Tajikistan Emomalii Rahmon] turned out to be the co-director of this farce, entitled “Saving Private Sadovnichy”.
Economic analyst Boris Grozovsky doesn't agree that the deportations of Tajiks are somehow connected with the pre-election campaign, but reckons [ru] that the Russian authorities have used one of the most amoral means of responding to Tajikistan's actions, despite the existence in world politics of “a wide arsenal of responding to stupid actions undertaken by another state”.
There are at least two other supposed reasons for the scandal around the pilots and the deportation of the Tajiks. According to the first version, proposed by the analyst Innokent Adyasov, by sentencing the pilots Tajikistan is attempting to “make Russia reconsider its position on the construction of the Rogun Dam, a pet project of Emomalii Rahmon”.
According to the second version, published in Izvestiya [ru], “the pilots became the hostages of ‘international raiders’ and shady deals, which the owners of the airline used for tax evasion”.
As things stand, the real reasons behind the scandal can only be guessed at by most of society. However, the uproar around the “pilots’ affair” has played into the hands of these same pilots: on November 16, a press release [ru] was issued in which the procurator of Tajikistan's Khatlon Province criticised the sentence handed down to the pilots, calling it disproportionately severe. And once again there appeared signs of interference from forces within: firstly the state prosecutor asked the court to increase the sentence to 13 years and then the procurator adopted the position of his coworker.
It is still not yet clear how this story will end. Never-the-less, one would like to hope that it will not end up impacting on either imprisoned pilots or the disenfranchised Tajik immigrants.