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Alexander Yevgrafov. Central Asia and Eurasian Economic Union: Auction for friendship is underway

Even though there is less than a week left till the date when Kyrgyzstan is supposed to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), it is still a question if the Eurasian four will turn into a five - as from Bishkek, where the president and the parliament are busy forming a new Cabinet, we are receiving quite controversial statements.

Eurasian guess-work

For the first time the idea to make Kyrgyzstan part of the Customs Union was mentioned in 2009. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was Kyrgyz president at that time, supported the initiative but was taking time. In Apr 2010, he was deposed and fled from the country. His successors followed suit but practical steps were first taken no earlier than last year. By that time, the Customs Union had transformed into the Eurasian Economic Union. Consequently, the question if Kyrgyzstan would join the EEU or not had transformed into the question if it would be able to do all it had to do by the deadline.

The change of the Cabinet has made things even worse. According to new Kyrgyz Prime Minister Temir Sariyev, there were two moot points. First of all, Kyrgyzstan insisted on further preferential customs duties for goods imported under infrastructure projects, particularly, the goods to be supplied under a contract with China. And also the Kyrgyzs wanted to avoid veterinary checks so as to be able to freely trade in agricultural products. Both points were controversial as, in the former case, the EEU members were concerned that “infrastructure” projects would become just a cover for Chinese re-exports, while, in the latter case, they were simply afraid to get infected products.

As result, Sariyev said that Kyrgyzstan would hardly be able to join the EEU by May 8. Later he said that they would sign two protocols and would open their border with Kazakhstan by the end of May. Time will show if these plans will come true or not. Armenia, for example, is already a full member to the Union even though it joined this project later than Kyrgyzstan.

Gone with the disappointment

Meanwhile, the campaign launched by the Kyrgyz Government with a view to show to the people the good and bad aspects of the EEU has proved to be ineffective. Most of the Kyrgyzs are either misinformed of the Union or expect too much from it. As a rule, too high expectations result in disappointment. And this fact is already being used by many pro-western NGOs. In fact, they are actively struggling against any attempts to make Kyrgyzstan closer to Russia. This struggle is being encouraged by the United States - no surprise that one of the last statements by former US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Pamela Spratlen was that growing Kyrgyz-Russian partnership was a problem for the United States’ efforts to support democracy in Kyrgyzstan.

Once having run short of economic arguments against the EEU, the pro-western Kyrgyz NGOs are now openly misleading their people, scaring them with possible loss of independence and kindling hatred for the Russians. Many of those anti-Russian activists live outside Kyrgyzstan – in Turkey, the United States, Europe and even Russia. In the meantime, the same people welcome the West’s calls to raise energy costs or pension age for their population.

To be fair, such activists are not many but they are very active and have a big role in causing instability in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, as a whole. As a result, today the threat of orange revolutions in that region is much more real than the threat of the ISIL.

Once Kyrgyzstan joins the EEU, prices will go up. This will be a painful blow for such a poor country. The fall of the myth that with the help of Russia, the Kyrgyzs will quickly restore their industry, will get higher wages and pensions as well as Russian passports will inevitably affect their attitude towards the concept of Eurasian integration and towards Russia, in particular. Any new national disputes will lead to new propaganda campaigns. After each new dispute with Belarus, Kyrgyz mass media appear with articles like “The EEU is falling apart,” “Belarus has betrayed its allies” or “Russia is deceiving its partners.”

Nobody says that the EEU has no risks for Kyrgyzstan. One of the key risks is that Kyrgyzstan has no demarcated border in the south. The other risks are drug trafficking from Tajikistan to Kazakhstan and Russia, re-export and smuggling of Chinese goods, infiltration of extremists. So, disputes are inevitable.

Neighbors suggest considering

Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are attentively following the country’s accession process. In 2012 the Tajiks expressed serious commitment to intensify their integration, but later they said they needed time for consideration. After the Russian President’s visit to Tashkent, the Uzbeks said they might consider joining the EEU free trade zone. But in reality both nations are taking time to see how things will go in Kyrgyzstan and also to count how much more they can get from the Russians for their loyalty.

During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tashkent in Dec 2014 Russia and Uzbekistan signed an agreement on settlement of mutual financial obligations. Under that deal, the Russians forgave the Kyrgyzs a debt of $860mn.

In Mar 2015, Putin ratified an agreement settling Kyrgyzstan’s financial obligations worth $500mn. Russia and Kyrgyzstan have also established a joint fund with an authorized capital of $500mn. Russia has already contributed $150mn in it. This year it is planning to invest $200mn, in 2016 $150mn.

In Apr 2015, Russia promised Tajikistan military-technical assistance worth 70bn RUR. Similar assistance has been promised to Kyrgyzstan. This is in addition to economic support programs, efforts against drug trafficking, preferences for labor migrants and big energy projects.

There is one more obstacle to cooperation – a water power plant project. For Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it is a strategic initiative, but Uzbekistan is afraid that it may give it water supply problems. So, for many years already Russia has been forced to maneuver between the disputing sides.

The next candidate to join the EEU is Tajikistan. That country already has a road map for this but it is a question how much time it will need to carry it out. Much here depends on Russia’s readiness to support the candidates. The auction for friendship is underway – but this is the reality of international relations, where everything can be bought and sold.

Alexander Yevgrafov, EADaily ’s analyst for Central Asia 

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