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Tajikistan: CIS Customs Union Admits Fifth Member

Prague, 1 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The CIS Customs Union admitted Tajikistan as its fifth member today but not without debate.

The expansion of the group, formed by Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus in March 1996, and joined by Kyrgyzstan the following year, comes at time of increasingly complicated ties among these four states, Kyrgyzstans admission into the World Trade Organization, and concern over the implications of the Russian-Belarusian union.

Tajikistan may benefit, but perhaps not so much economically as politically. After a five-year civil war, the country is still unstable and economically devastated. And it suffered a further setback last week when its President, Imomali Rakhmonov, was not invited to a meeting of the Central Asian Union.

The presidents of the countries participating in that union, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kyrgyzstan's Askar Akayev, and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, had said last year that Tajikistan would be admitted when the three gathered for the next union summit, but that did not happen.

Tajikistans economic hopes for the CIS Customs Union may be misplaced. The precise meaning of that economic space remains unclear, especially given the accords between Moscow and Minsk. But Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev, who was re-elected chairman of the union today, attempted to dispel these worries by saying the deepening of the union between Russia and Belarus is not a hindrance to the long-term integration of the union countries.

Nazarbayev noted that when the CIS was formed it was understood that integration processes between countries would proceed at different rates.

Kyrgyzstan's acceptance into the World Trade Organization last year may present a larger problem. WTO trade rules could possibly contradict certain regulations of the Customs Union. Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka raised the issue at the session today, saying Kyrgyzstan's admission to the WTO "will invariably lead to conflict."

Nazarbayev added that Kyrgyzstan's membership in the WTO "could, in particular, negatively influence the production of goods in Russia and Kazakhstan." He said WTO rules will keep Kyrgyzstan "out of step" with the other members.

But Kyrgyzstans President Akayev rejected these arguments noting that he saw no fundamental contradictions between the Customs Union and the WTO. And he pointed out that the Customs Union's other members are conducting negotiations on joining the WTO.

A further sign of the complications of the ties among Customs Union states has been the recent moves of Kazakhstan. Last month, Kazakhstan banned the import of most Russian foodstuffs and also placed a 200 percent tariff on some imports from Kyrgyzstan and from Uzbekistan, with which it has a separate free trade treaty.

For Tajikistan, meanwhile, its entry today in the Customs Union is almost certain to help the country's image in the region because it means that Dushanbe is now part of something more than the CIS collective security accord.