Wednesday, 05 February 2014

Protests in Kyrgyzstan Against Customs Union Entry

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By Arslan Sabyrbekov (the 05/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Customs Union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus is a hot topic in Bishkek as the recently created political party Reforma, with the support of civil society activists, organized a protest against the country’s entry into the Union. According to the protest organizers and participants, in the Customs Union Kyrgyzstan will lose its sovereignty, face restrictions on its political freedom and the prices for all commodities will rise by 25-30 percent.

The protest “Free Kyrgyzstan against the Customs Union” took place on January 22 in the center of Bishkek, near the cinema Ala-Too. The organizers took a very creative approach in organizing this small rally and visually demonstrated to the public the rise of prices for commodities after Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Customs Union. According to one of the protest organizers and Reforma leader Mirbek Asangariev, “Kyrgyzstan will face severe economic difficulties after the entry, its economy is too import dependent, its entrepreneurs will not be able to compete with that of the member countries and this will negatively impact the purchasing power of our population.” He called on the political leadership to consider all these points seriously and make a thorough, politically independent decision.

The protest participants also jointly emphasized the fact that the socio-political situation and development of Kyrgyzstan is different from that of the Customs Union member countries. They underlined that all of Kyrgyzstan's achievements in terms of advancing democratic principles and greater political freedom might be put into jeopardy by joining the Union of authoritarian states. According to one of the protest participants and an independent opposition member of the Kyrgyz Parliament Ravshan Jeenbekov, the Customs Union is mostly a political project pushed forward by the Russian Federation to further advance its influence in its so called area of “privileged influence.” In his words, “Euromaidan” in Ukraine clearly demonstrates the validity of this formulation, where a massive protest advocating closer ties with the EU is facing Moscow's apparent reluctance to let Ukraine slip from its orbit of influence. To buy the loyalty of the Ukrainian leadership, Russia reduced gas prices and provided significant financial assistance and the same processes can be observed in Kyrgyzstan. 

On the contrary, Kyrgyzstan's political leadership continues to assert that the arguments of Customs Union opponents are not confirmed by any factual analysis. In the words of Oleg Pankratov, an advisor to Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev, the small scale protest mainly served as a PR opportunity for several politicians and public figures. According to the government representative, who also personally attended the protest, there might be a price increase for different commodities of around 4 percent and not 30 percent as opponents claim. Pankratov also dismissed the argument that Kyrgyzstan might have to pay compensation to the WTO member states after assuming full membership in the Customs Union. In his words “Kyrgyzstan can simultaneously uphold its WTO obligations and be a member of the Customs Union as well, which is also a case with the European Union member states.”

Nevertheless, the terms of Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Customs Union are still under negotiation. On November 19, 2013, during the Moscow meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission Council, representatives of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan jointly prepared and presented a road map for Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Union. Kyrgyz representatives did not participate in the drafting of the aforementioned Action Plan and continue to insist on creating special terms, mainly concerning the continued operation of its two largest markets that focus on re-exporting Chinese goods.

In a recent interview, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev also stated that the presented road map does not meet the country’s national interests and that Kyrgyzstan will join and support integration unions if the future partners meet the demands presented. It is also no coincidence that after this reaction of the Kyrgyz side, the head of the Russian Federal Customs Service Andrey Belyalinov paid a visit to Bishkek. A senior Kremlin emissary held a series of meetings with Kyrgyz officials and stated Russia's readiness to hold further talks and develop a joint Action Plan meeting the demands of all sides. This statement might indeed mean that Moscow is willing to compromise and allow Bishkek special conditions. The next action plan will be discussed during the upcoming March meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission Council.

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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