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Wednesday, 07 January 2015

Bishkek Signs EEU Deal Amid Rising Tensions in the Union

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By Arslan Sabyrbekov (01/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On December 23, Kyrgyzstan signed an accession agreement to become a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The new union is an expansion of the Customs Union grouping together Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and now also Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

Upon signing the new accord, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev expressed his hope that Bishkek will become a full-fledged member of the EEU by May 2015 and thanked his colleagues for fairly determining accession conditions. The treaty will now fully enter into force after its ratification by the member countries’ parliaments. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin welcomed Bishkek’s decision and noted that the new union will now have a combined economic output of US$ 4.5 trillion, bringing together more than 170 million people.

In the meantime, Bishkek-based civil society activists have issued a statement criticizing the political leadership’s quick decision to enter the EEU. According to them, the government has failed to engage in comprehensive public debate on the subject matter and made the decision behind closed doors. According to MP Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, an outspoken critic of Bishkek’s integration with Moscow, “no one has probably seen the text of the treaty except the country’s key political leadership. The Parliament was supposed to take a decision approving the initiative of the president to enter the Union, but the procedure was not observed. The text of an agreement consequential to the nation’s sovereignty was approved in half an hour.”

Bishkek’s EEU deal comes in the midst of the financial crisis in Russia. Over the last couple of months, the Russian currency has lost between 40 and 55 percent of its value against the Dollar and for the first time in history has even lost ground against the Kyrgyz Som. The ongoing depreciation of the Ruble means that millions of Central Asian migrant workers in Russia can send home less money. The Kyrgyz government is preparing for windfalls from abroad to fall by approximately US$ 1 billion. The decline in remittances, accompanied by massive government spending to keep the currency closer to the dollar, clearly poses a problem to the country’s already troubled budget. In addition, the ongoing financial crisis in Russia along with tougher regulations is already forcing a number of labor migrants to return home and join the pool of unemployed. According to Bishkek based economist Azamat Akeleev, “Kyrgyzstan lacks capacity to accommodate its returning work force and this will definitely lead to various social tensions in the future.”

The decline of the Russian currency is not only a concern for the dependent economies of the Central Asian states but risks undermining the overall stability of the EEU. In light of the ongoing crisis, the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has demanded trade in the Union to be denominated in Dollars or Euros and not in Rubles. He has also sharply criticized Moscow over its trade dispute with Minsk. In response to Western sanctions, Moscow has recently banned imports of foodstuffs from the European Union and in order to prevent Minsk from reselling EU products to Russia, has halted imports of Belarusian milk and meat products through its territory, referring to alleged sanitary reasons. “Contrary to all international norms, we are being denied the right to transit goods from the territory of Belarus and all of this has been imposed unilaterally, without any consultations,” Lukashenko said.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has also suggested that Russia’s isolation from the West over the crisis in Ukraine is creating tensions between Moscow and its closest partners. “The instability of world markets and the policy of sanctions will impact the process of building the Eurasian Economic Union,” said the Kazakh leader during his state visit to Ukraine. Contrary to the Kremlin’s position, the Kazakh President also spoke in support of the country’s territorial integrity and offered financial and energy based aid to the struggling government in Kiev.

These stark differences in positions is proof that Moscow’s capacity for influence might be shrinking. The Kremlin was able to draw two small states into the Union, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, but its ability to transform the union into a broader alliance extending to the political and diplomatic arenas is unlikely to be realized, at least for the time being.

The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.

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