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Qishloq Ovozi

Leaders of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) pose during a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Astana, Kazakhstan, in May of last year. (From left to right: Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev.)

Vladimir Putin makes a trip to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan on February 27-28. Two of the countries -- Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan -- are members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and Tajikistan is currently negotiating entry into the organization. The EEU is bound to be on the agenda when Putin meets with all three Central Asian leaders.

The EEU, which besides Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan also includes Armenia and Belarus, has seen mixed results since it was formally launched at the start of 2015. There have been complaints but there have also been some benefits.

To take a look at how the EEU has influenced the situation in the Central Asian states that are members, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss some of the successes and failures of the EEU so far, and the prospects for the organization going forward as Tajikistan prepares to become a member.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Bishkek, Edil Baisalov, a political analyst and chief of staff in former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva's administration joined the talk. Taking part from London was John MacLeod, a senior CIS analyst at Oxford Analytica. From RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, Assem Tokaeva participated. I had a few things to say also.

The idea of some sort of Eurasian union has been around for more than 20 years. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev first spoke of such an organization in 1994 and there have been several attempts at forming some sort of single economic space within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) since then.

Bad Timing

Putin resurrected the idea and has been pushing it since 2011. On January 1, 2015, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, which had been members of a predecessor economic bloc called the CIS Customs Union, launched the EEU. Armenia officially joined the next day and Kyrgyzstan became a member in August that year.

The EEU has thus far not provided the sort of economic boost to its members that member states expected. But MacLeod explained the launch came at a bad time.

"It started at a time when Russia's economy went into decline and Russia's relationship with the West deteriorated sharply," MacLeod noted.

As Tokaeva pointed out, in Kazakhstan's case "the balance of trade is unfavorable to Kazakhstan, according to [the] statistics, exports to the union countries in the last nine months of 2016 were about $3 billion, against $6.5 billion of imports, and actually the export numbers are… 31.6% lower than in 2015."

Baisalov said: "The shock to our [Kyrgyzstan's] economy was stronger than we expected and so far our losses have outweighed benefits." He mentioned, "In 2012, in the peak year of our garment industry, we produced [goods worth] $204 million, then last year we produced only around $9.6 million."

Baisalov said part of the problem was that "thanks to the devaluation of the Russian ruble, we believe that lots of our industry not only shut down but actually relocated to Russia."

Upside For Kyrgyz Migrants

Of course, there has been one very important benefit of EEU membership for Kyrgyzstan as Baisalov noted. "A positive result, if you want, comes with our labor migrants in Russia who are now different from migrants from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan," he said.

Remittances from Russia to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been falling drastically since 2013. There has been a decrease to Kyrgyzstan also, but according to Russia's Central Bank, during the first nine months of 2016, Kyrgyz migrant laborers in Russia sent back $1.286 billion, a 21% increase compared to 2015, and the number of migrant laborers going to Russia from Kyrgyzstan increased while for both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan the figures continued to show reductions.

That will likely make EEU membership more attractive to Tajikistan. About one in every eight citizens of Tajikistan works in Russia and Tajikistan has the dubious distinction of being the most remittance-dependent country in the world, according to the World Bank.

But in terms of trade within the bloc, the EEU is still far from fulfilling its promise, according to Tokaeva. "We observe a lot of evidence of [unresolved] issues among the members of this union and we still do not see this single market as it was declared," she said.

Russia is the dominant partner in the EEU and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbaev have expressed dissatisfaction in the past at Russia's habit of arbitrarily implementing new regulations without consulting EEU partners.

"We have a small number of economies here, we have one absolutely dominant economy, the Russian one," MacLeod said. But he went on to say that part of problem for the EEU is that the foreign policies of individual countries are at times significantly different and this complicates their economic cooperation.

"A structural defect of the Eurasian Union that differentiates it from the European Union is that it can't really operate as a kind of external player because the members don't genuinely have a common position on say, Ukraine," MacLeod said.

Other Complications

The brief Russian spat with Turkey in the wake of Ankara's downing of a Russian warplane along the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015 was another example of the problems the EEU faces.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have close trade ties to Turkey and Russia's temporary decision to close its borders to trade coming from or going to Turkey complicated the situation for Central Asia in general, but certainly made things difficult for the Central Asian EEU members.

Another complication for the Central Asian EEU members is their relationship with China. Beijing is a leading, if not the leading, investment and trade partner with all the Central Asian states. And now China is pushing its One Belt One Road (OBOR), a massive trade project that foresees linking dozens of countries by road, rail, and maritime routes.

EEU regulations present obstacles to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan's trade with its giant and rich neighbor but at the same time, as MacLeod said, the Chinese have shown "they can actually deliver when they decide to build something." The oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to China, the gas pipelines from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to China, the new railway from eastern Uzbekistan to a location near the capital, Tashkent, and newly paved roads in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are proof of this.

The Majlis discussed these issues in further detail and also looked at the some of the other aspects of EEU regulations and how they are forcing the Central Asian members to change their policies.

An audio recording of the Majlis podcast can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast -- Central Asia And Putin's Eurasian Economic Union
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

Members of Turkmenistan's Council of Elders attend a meeting in Ashgabat in September 2016.

Turkmenistan's rubberstamp parliament is about to lose its rubber stamp, again.

In his inauguration address on February 17, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said he would raise the status of the country's Council of Elders above that of parliament.

That means this group of "white beards," as they would be termed locally, all of them over 70 years old, are about to officially become the legislative branch of government.

This is the second time Turkmenistan's parliament has been demoted.

There was a body called the People's Assembly (Halk Maslahaty) that, like the Council of Elders, had existed since the early days of Turkmenistan's independence in late 1991. Under Turkmenistan's first post-independence president, Saparmurat Niyazov, the People's Assembly was a group that composed a cross-section of Turkmenistan's society -- state officials and employees, businessmen, famers, social organizations, and others.

The assembly proposed changes, ostensibly on behalf of the groups and people it represented: ideas like making Niyazov president for life, which it started proposing in 1995 and eventually achieved on December 28, 1999, when the People's Assembly finally "convinced" Niyazov that he should bow to the will of people and stay in power for the rest of his life.

'Assassination Attempt'

In the wake of a reported assassination attempt on Niyazov in late November 2002, Niyazov turned to the People's Assembly, not parliament, to act.

Former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who had declared himself in opposition to Niyazov's government in November 2001 while serving as Turkmenistan's ambassador to China, was apprehended inside Turkmenistan shortly after the purported assassination attempt. He was identified as the alleged leader of the plot.

On December 30, 2002, Niyazov showed the People's Assembly a video of what some outside Turkmenistan believe was a coerced confession in which Shikhmuradov said, "I really wanted to kill the Turkmen president and undermine the constitutional system."

Former Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died suddenly in 2006.
Former Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died suddenly in 2006.

Not long after that, Niyazov asked the assembly to define "high treason" and punishments for such an offense (in the end, the assembly chose life imprisonment). At the end of an August 14-15, 2003, session of the People's Assembly in Turkmenbashi City, the assembly was named the country's highest legislative body and its membership -- which had ranged from 2,000 to 3,000 over the years -- was set at 2,507. Elections were conducted to fill those seats on April 6, 2003.

One of the new People's Assembly's first acts was to award Niyazov the "international" Makhtumkuly prize -- named in honor of Magtumguly Pyragy, a famous 18th-century Turkmen poet -- for his books Blessed Be The Turkmen People and Five Epochs Of The Spirituality Of The Turkmen People.

Hastily Approved Document

In its time, the People's Assembly not only made Niyazov president for life but, in its capacity as Turkmenistan's highest legislative body, it continually blocked half-hearted proposals, usually from Niyazov, to conduct a new presidential election.

The People's Assembly approved Niyazov's proposal to change the names of the days of the week and the months of the year. It also adopted regulations requiring state officials to have their ancestry checked back six generations to ensure they were suitable to serve in the government.

Current Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (file photo)
Current Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (file photo)

And, in late December 2006 after Niyazov's death, the People's Assembly hastily approved a document that stripped parliamentary speaker Ovezgeldy Ataev of his immunity so he could be arrested, clearing the way for Health Minister Berdymukhammedov to become acting president. At that same time, the People's Assembly voted to remove the constitutional prohibition against an acting president running for the presidency.

The People's Assembly was abolished when Berdymukhammedov introduced constitutional changes in September 2008, and its theoretical powers were redistributed to the parliament and the executive branch.

Filling The Void

The Council of Elders quickly filled the void, and it now appears to have followed the same path as the People's Assembly.

The council proposed the constitutional changes that were adopted in September, lifting the age limit (of 70) for a candidate to run for president and extending the presidential term from five to seven years. The council has also proposed ending state subsidies that gave the country's citizens allotments of electricity, gas, and water for free.

The Elders Council has also voted to give Berdymukhammedov awards, such as "Hero of Turkmenistan" in 2011 and called his rule "paradise on earth."

The council has not publicly floated the idea of naming Berdymukhammedov president for life, but such a proposal -- sometime in the future -- cannot be discounted.

Like so much of what happens in Turkmenistan, the reasons for subordinating parliament to the Council of Elders are unclear -- all the more, since Turkmenistan is going through difficult economic times and it is hard to see how a group of people who spent two-thirds of their lives in the Soviet Union can come up with a plan to extract Turkmenistan from its current crisis.

Members of the Council of Elders are selected, not elected. The qualifications for being on the council are a bit clearer. Qishloq Ovozi, working with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, heard from a former member of the council not so long ago, and his story is probably similar to many of the 600 elders (100 from each of the five provinces and 100 from the capital, Ashgabat).

Making the Council of Elders the highest legislative body in Turkmenistan is still only a proposal. But that proposal comes from President Berdymukhammedov, so the clock just might be ticking for parliament.

The director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Farruh Yusupov, contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



Majlis Podcast: Kyrgyzstan’s Kings Of Corruption
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Majlis Podcast: Kyrgyzstan’s Kings Of Corruption
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