Russian-Tajik ‘Polio War’ Seen Having Broader Consequences


An outbreak of polio in Tajikistan has led Moscow to introduce a series of measures to prevent the spread of that disease into the Russian Federation as the result either of the importation of food products from that Central Asian republic or visits by Tajiks to their relatives working as migrant laborers in Russian cities.

So far, these measures appear to be successful: While 278 cases of polio were recorded in Tajikistan since last December, there have been only two in Russia, the first there since 1998 and involving Tajiks rather than Russians. But if the spread of the disease into Russia has in fact been stopped, the consequences of what Moscow media are calling “the polio war” have not.

On the one hand, the way in which Russian officials and media have been discussing this outbreak, focusing almost exclusively on Tajiks and Tajik Gastarbeiters, is fueling xenophobic attitudes among radical nationalist skinhead groups and xenophobic organizations like the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), thus increasing the likelihood of new clashes.

And on the other, as Tajik activists have pointed out, Moscow’s approach not only threatens the construction of the Rogun hydro-electric dam in Tajikistan, something on which Dushanbe had been counting, but also threatens to re-ignite the civil war which ravaged that Central Asian country in the 1990s.

Last Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Nesterenko said that the appearance of a polio-infected nine-month-old Tajik child in Irkutsk represented “by international standards an extraordinary situation” and that the Russian government had taken “additional measures” to block the spread of the virus (

Among these measures, Nesterenko said, were the introduction of supplemental vaccinations, testing at border points, temporary restrictions on visits to Russia by Tajik children under six years old, and a ban on imports of dried fruits and vegetables from Tajikistan until the danger has passed.

At the same time, however, the foreign ministry spokesman stressed that “there are no obstacles for the entrance of minor citizens of the Russian Federation from the Republic of Tajikistan to the Motherland,” although such people will have to undergo medical screening and be immunized.

Nesterenko’s statement came in the wake of one by Gennady Onishchenko, the chief public health doctor of the Russian Federation. He said last Wednesday that Moscow had asked Tajikistan to assist Russians living in Tajikistan and especially those under six to leave that republic and return home.

“But the Tajik side unilaterally took a decision not to release our children,” Onishchenko said in language that has been picked up and amplified by Russian nationalist and xenophobic websites. And, he added, “we assess this decision as not having any relationship to epidemiology,” a charge that in its consequences at least is almost certainly true.

On Friday, Onishchenko added that “the outbreak of polio in Tajikistan was first of all a serious defeat for the European Bureau of the World Health Organization” and that despite the two cases in Russia, his country “remains as before a country free from polio” and committed to “effectively extinguishing the spark” in Tajikistan (

At the end of last week, Russian media outlets nonetheless reported that “polio threatens 1.5 million Russians,” slightly more than one percent of the country’s population ( Perhaps as a result, Onishchenko tried to calm the situation by saying that things in Russia “are under control” (

But the Russian government doctor’s words may have just the opposite effect. He noted that Russia faces serious problems from Tajikistan where “there now are more than 1,000 children of Russian officers” who should return after immunization shots that Moscow has sent there are administered.

And one Tajik living in Russia pointed to two dangers he sees arising from “the polio war.” On the one hand, Izatullo Kholov, the head of the National Organization of Tajik Youth in Russia, suggested, such reporting about Tajikistan almost certainly will make Russians nervous about ethnic Tajiks living among them (

But on the other, he continued, Onishchenko’s comments have “a pre-history,” one connected with the desire of Tajikistan to build the Rogun Hydro-Electric Station with Russia’s help despite the opposition of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov and despite the failure of the project to make much progress in recent months.
According to Kholov, the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska has offered only “the imitation” of construction because he has an interest in trading gas found on the territory of Uzbekistan. And even Kazakhstan is opposed to the dam. Kholov said that Dushanbe “has not been able to show anyone the vital necessity of [the dam] for the country” and its neighbors.

Today, he continued, “Tajikistan is experiencing difficult times. Flooding in the south of the country has killed dozens of people. The country is blockaded by Uzbekistan, and thousands of railcars for Tajikistan are being held up by various invented pretexts by the Uzbekistan authorities.”

“And now, in advance of the Victory Holiday,” he said, “a hit is delivered to a major part of the Tajikistan economy, the trade in dried fruits and vegetables. The country is driven into ‘a corner, and its present goes to celebrate in Moscow” because “Tajikistan as a state cannot stand up for itself.”

Kholov said that he is especially worried by Onishchenko’s call last week for Russians now living in Tajikistan to “leave the country in the shortest possible time.” “We recall,” he said, “that at the start of the 1990s, many Russian-language residents left the republic and following on that in the country broke out a civil war.”

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *