Russians Flee War, Rising Intolerance

Tajikistan's Slavs once enjoyed the colonial lifestyle; now they feel persecuted by the Muslim majority

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

EACH afternoon dozens of people here converge on a first-floor apartment in a nondescript build-

ing near the city center, searching for a better life.

Those who show up are Slavs - mainly Russians, but also Ukrainians and Belarussians. Many have lived in Dushanbe for decades, if not their whole lives, but now feel it is no longer safe to do so.

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A desire to escape the increasingly violent civil war in Tajikistan is what draws them to the apartment, the headquarters of an organization called Migration. The group is dedicated to helping the hundreds of thousands of Slavic residents in Tajikistan to resettle in their native lands.

"Everyone has his bags packed," Migration leader Yuri Ognev says of the Slavic minority in Tajikistan. "We would all like to go, but the question is where?"

The Russian government, saddled with a severe economic crisis of its own, isn't doing much to help resettlement efforts, according to Mr. Ognev and other leaders of the Slavic community. Nevertheless, Migration leaders have managed to negotiate deals with officials of three Russian regions; Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea; and Voronezh and Kaluga, south of Moscow.

Under the agreements, the three regions have allocated rural areas on which the group can build housing for about 10,000 refugees from the Tajik violence. But Migration must come up with most of the money for housing construction, something Ognev says it will be hard-pressed to do. He estimated the construction costs would amount to about 500,000 rubles (roughly $20,000) per person.

"It will be at least five years before the housing is built - if at all," Ognev says. "There's no guarantee, but it's our only hope."

Living conditions in Tajikistan for Slavs are becoming increasingly severe, many say. Some, who gathered outside Migration headquarters one recent afternoon, said they are the frequent targets of discrimination and threats by Tajiks.

"The hostility is out in the open," says Irina Podoskaya, a physics teacher. "You go to a store and the Tajik clerks pretend you don't exist, or they give you the worst products."

During the Soviet era, the Slavs coming to Tajikistan settled mainly in Dushanbe, the capital, and enjoyed a colonial lifestyle. Many were industrial specialists or administrators and were used to privilege. For the vast majority, there was never a need to learn the Tajik language.

The Soviet Union's decade-long intervention in the Afghan civil war starting in 1979 provided the first jolt to the Slavic community's comfortable life in Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan. Fearful that the war would spread, some decided to return to Russia.

Slavic emigration picked up after the launch of perestroika, or restructuring, in the mid-1980s under former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The reforms unleashed pent-up nationalist sentiments among Tajiks, which led to anti-Russian riots in early 1990, followed by the slow slide to civil war.

As a result of the Tajik domestic chaos, the Slavic population has declined from about 500,000 a decade ago to roughly 320,000 today, says Valery Yushin, a leader of another mainly Russian organization in Dushanbe called Society.

Mr. Yushin's group opposes emigration, and is working instead to promote the peaceful coexistence of Slavs and Tajiks. Given the civil war, and the growing power of a nationalist democratic-Islamic political coalition in the republic, however, even the staunchest supporters of Society are rethinking their positions, he says.

Yushin says the outflow of Slavs will continue unless the Tajik government adopts a new constitution including guarantees of minority rights. But in the draft constitution now under consideration there are no such provisions.

The departure of the Slavs contributes to the increasing violence, Yushin says. "Before, Russians served as intermediaries in disputes among rival groups in Tajikistan," he says. "Now that Russians are leaving, everything is out of balance."

In addition, Ognev, Yushin, and others say Slavic emigration will bring on the collapse of Tajikistan's infrastructure. Tajiks do not have the expertise to keep the economy running, Ognev contended.

"If they all go," Yushin says, referring to Slavs, "Tajikistan will go back to feudalism."

For most Slavs, making the move back to their native lands will be a difficult step. Some, like Ms. Podoskaya, express concern that they will have trouble adapting to harsh Russian winters. But many would-be emigres worry most about their future living conditions. There is no space in crowded Russian cities, so most emigres from Tajikistan will be forced to live in rural regions and work on collective farms, Yushin says.

"The countryside is the only place that is open to us because there is a shortage of housing in all cities," he says. "It's a shame that some very highly qualified specialists will have to go to work on a farm." -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/92/sep/day30/30111.

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