In mid-March, as the novel coronavirus bloomed into a pandemic around the world Russia closed its borders to foreigners. Tajikistan, which until April 30 reported no cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19, also closed its borders. The spring timing was particularly painful for hundreds of thousands of Tajiks just then gearing up to make the annual trip to Russia for seasonal work.
It’s estimated that as many as a million Tajiks migrant to Russia for work each year. While migrants travel at all times of the year, the spring and summer witnesses a boom in movement as agricultural and construction opportunities open up with the warm weather. The Tajik Labor Ministry says that the number of Tajiks who traveled abroad for work so far in 2020 has decreased 57 percent over the 2019 numbers.
The initial cascade of border closures trapped Tajiks at various junctures such as the Kazakh-Uzbek border. Many more, who had rushed to purchase tickets on the final flights out, found themselves at the airport with cancelled flights and few alternatives to get home.
Months later, problems persist.
As RFE/RL’s Tajik Service and Tajik media outlet Asia-Plus report this week, on November 1 more than 200 Tajik citizens with tickets finally in hand for two charter flights were disappointed at the airport when the flights were cancelled.
Russia, which has recorded 1.6 million cases of COVID-19 and 28,264 deaths, began the process of selectively re-opening its borders in August. As of mid-October the list of countries whose citizens could travel as tourists to Russia included just 14 states (Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, the Maldives, Japan, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Switzerland, Tanzania, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.)
Of note, that list only includes Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan from among the five states of Central Asia.
While the borders are closed, and no regular flights are plying the airways between Dushanbe and Moscow, the only way out is via chartered special flights. The Tajik authorities announced in July that they were ready to resume flights with Russia, but Moscow has not taken up the offer.
So why was the November 1 flight cancelled? The reason remains unclear, with a source telling RFE/RL it had to do with a dispute over what airlines were running the charter flights. The source said that Russia insists that half the charter flights be on Russian airlines, and obviously Tajik airlines are hungry for the cash and customers, too.
According to Asia-Plus, Somon Air sold tickets to the flight in advance using a list provided by the embassy of citizens looking for flights — the actual flight schedule may not have been approved yet.
Between April and October, according to Tajik officials, 70,000 Tajik citizens have been returned to Tajikistan via charter flights with fewer waiting now than in the spring.