By Arslan Sabyrbekov (06/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 12, after many rounds of negotiations, the Kyrgyz government has approved the road map to join the Russia-led Customs Union. According to Kyrgyzstan’s Minster for Economy, Temir Sariev, the document was submitted to the parliament to be thoroughly reviewed and debated by its committee on international affairs and fiscal policies. In the meantime, the Kyrgyz public is still engaged in heavy discussions with some approving the decision and others disapproving it.
Indeed, over the past couple of years, there has been a fierce debate on Kyrgyzstan joining the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, with which Kyrgyzstan conducts more than 40 percent of its external trade. The terms of the country’s accession to the Union was negotiated at numerous occasions and none of the road maps presented earlier satisfied Bishkek’s preferences. This time, the sides have managed to reach an agreement and the Kyrgyz government approved the presented terms of entry into the Union.
According to state officials, the approval of the road map does not mean that Kyrgyzstan is already a member of the Customs Union. The recently nominated Kyrgyz Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev stated that “the road map forms a legal basis for harmonizing the country’s legislation in accordance with the terms of the Customs Union. Within its framework, parliamentarians should adopt around 100 new legislative acts and only then a special treaty indicating concrete terms of entry with all the preferences will be developed.” The Kyrgyz Prime Minister did not exclude the possibility of asking for extra time for preparations before assuming full membership in the Union. According to local analyst Azamat Akeleev, Moscow might support this request, “due to its heavy geopolitical interest in expanding the Customs Union but might not find full support among its other members.” In one of his interviews, Kazakh Vice-Prime Minister Bakytjan Sagyntaev stated that Bishkek is asking for too many preferences, which according to him “are not in the competency of the Customs Union” and suggested that Kyrgyzstan should instead join the Eurasian Economic Union directly.
On May 29, upon the invitation of his Kazakh colleague, President Atambayev took part in the Astana meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council. The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus have signed an agreement on forming the Eurasian Economic Union. The Russian side expressed its readiness to assist the Kyrgyz Republic in carrying out all the preparatory procedures necessary to join the Customs Union and later the EEU as well. For these purposes, the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Russia reached an agreement to form a joint “Development Fund,” with a capital of US$ 1 billion. Additionally, Russia has promised to transfer US$ 200 million on a grant basis. This money, according to Minister for Economy Sariev, will be used “to implement the recently approved road map.”
After the approval of the road map, heavy discussions started in the parliament, with its factions making varying remarks. The Social Democrats welcomed the government’s decision to approve the road map and prepare to join the Customs Union, which they consider to be in line with the country’s economic as well as geopolitical interests. According to them, Kyrgyzstan cannot abstain from integration processes taking place among its geopolitical and strategic partners. Yet opponents of the Customs Union, the independent MPs Ravshan Jeenbekov and Omurbek Abdrakhmanov have once again warned the government of the negative consequences of this decision, naming high inflation rates, price increases for many commodities, as well as the loss of sovereignty for Kyrgyzstan. The MPs described the government’s decision as “unconstitutional,” meaning that discussions in the country’s legislature is taking place only after the road map was approved, in conflict with the principles that “underlines the very core of the parliamentarian republic.”
In the meantime, civil activists and prominent members of the Supervisory Councils under a number of ministries have issued a joint statement criticizing the government’s failure to launch a wide public discussion on the matter. Activists called on the country’s authorities to adhere to democratic principles, carry out public dialogue, and to undertake a thorough analysis of the presented road map and its concrete impact on various sectors of Kyrgyzstan’s socio-economic life.
Indeed, the question of joining the Russia-led Customs Union has divided the Kyrgyz public. Lacking detailed information on the consequences of joining the Customs Union, people have come to perceive the matter as a question of being pro or anti-Russia. The Kyrgyz public TV channels tend to feature experts delivering one-sided pro-Customs Union views. Thus, at this stage, the call from civil society activists is justified and the government should do a better job at explaining to the public of what awaits them in the future.