Tajikistan says it may release Russian pilot

Tajikistan has suggested it could free a Russian pilot sentenced to eight and a half years in jail after an extraordinary backlash from Moscow threatened to ruin the Central Asian country's entire economy.

Authorities in Russia have begun rounding up Tajik workers, increased police checks, and even threatened to ban Tajik migrants altogether, claiming that they spread disease.

Ostensibly, the moves are part of a broader crackdown on illegal immigration. But few doubt that the campaign, which has singled out Tajik migrants in particular, is anything other than a concerted response to the jailing of Vladimir Sadovnichy earlier this month. The Russian pilot and his Estonian co-pilot were jailed by a Tajik court on charges of smuggling. The two men landed in Tajikistan for a scheduled refuelling stop on the way to Moscow from Afghanistan in March and were arrested on the tarmac. They deny the charges and Russia has described the case as "politically motivated".

Life got harder for Tajik migrants in Russia as soon as the verdict against the pilots was delivered. Officially, there are about 560,000 Tajik citizens living in Russia, but according to rights groups, the real figure is over a million. The majority of the Tajik population relies on the remittance money from workers in Russia to keep afloat. And according to unofficial estimates, remittances amount to more each year than the entire state budget.

After an initial bullish stance on the jail sentences, Tajikistan appears to have backed down completely, aware of the disastrous effect a ban on migration to Russia would have on its economy. After a meeting with his Russian counterpart on Thursday, the Tajik Defence Minister Sherali Khairulloyev said he had been ordered by his president "to resolve the issue positively". But he stopped short of guaranteeing that the pilots would be freed.

For the hundreds of thousands of Tajiks in Russia, it is an anxious wait. Many of them work as street sweepers and snow shovellers for the authorities in Moscow and other cities, but thousands more work illegally or semi-legally on construction sites. Russian migration authorities said they had rounded up over 300 Tajik migrants over the past week and planned to deport them immediately. Rights groups said that the real figure was much higher. Once deported from Russia, migrants cannot return for another five years.

All the usual aspects of a Kremlin campaign have been present in the backlash against the sentencing. A pro-Kremlin youth group gathered outside the Tajik Embassy in Moscow, chanting slogans and throwing paper aeroplanes at the building. Russia's chief doctor, Gennady Onishchenko, stepped into the row to suggest a temporary ban on labour migration from Tajikistan, citing high rates of HIV and tuberculosis among Tajik citizens. But the Tajik Ministry of Health said Tajikistan has the lowest rate of HIV infection among all the post-Soviet countries.