Kyrgyzstan officially joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EES) on August 12.
The process of Kyrgyzstan joining an economic union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan started several years ago when that troika were the sole members in the CIS Customs Union. Membership has been a topic of hot debate inside Kyrgyzstan ever since.
Supporters and critics had their arguments for and against entry into such a union, and as Kyrgyzstan officially joined there was still great division inside the country as to the wisdom of becoming the EES’s fifth member (Armenia joined at the start of this year).
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to look at Kyrgyzstan’s decision to join the EES and consider some of the pros and cons of the move.
Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating were Emil Joroev, a professor at the American University of Central Asia, located in Bishkek, and Peter Leonard, who covered Central Asia for the Associated Press from 2007 to 2013 and recently returned to Kyrgyzstan (after covering Ukraine for AP), where he is again covering Central Asia, now for EurasiaNet. I made a few comments as well. (Listen to the entire roundtable by clicking the link below.)
Joroev opened, saying, “People have been excited especially about the possibilities of exporting certain goods, mostly in agriculture and food products from Kyrgyzstan to these other economies, thinking of it as a much greater market, much higher prices and so on, but…people are at the same time worried about the possibilities of inflation, of consumer prices catching up with those of Kazakhstan and Russia."
Joroev also mentioned that for Kyrgyzstan’s migrant laborers, EES membership eases regulations for working in Russia and Kazakhstan, which helps guarantee those laborers will continue to send back remittances, “a major factor in [Kyrgyzstan’s] economy.”
However, many in Kyrgyzstan were still reluctant to tie the country’s fortunes closer to a Russian-dominated organization and according to Leonard, some of Kyrgyzstan’s officials still do not seem to have fully grasped what EES membership entails. Leonard recounted that just some two weeks ago a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council, “the watchdog of the union,” took place in Kyrgyzstan.
“This particular panel was to deal specifically with the kind of macroeconomic data that will be going on in the years to come and…the questions [from officials of Kyrgyzstan’s Finance Ministry and central bank] were sort of, 'How will you do it? How will you collect information? How will this happen?’”
“This really kind of told me about the lack of preparedness that a lot of officials have really encountered this whole situation with,” Leonard said.
As discussions of Kyrgyzstan’s entry into an economic union went on, some had the feeling Russia was pushing Kyrgyzstan to join and that Bishkek really did not have much of a choice.
Tahir said that Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the EES seemed more a political rather than an economic or trade decision.
Joroev explained, “When you say political decision, obviously it's very hard for Kyrgyzstan to distinguish its political and economic interests, especially when it comes to relations with Russia."
That is because few countries, and notably very few Western countries, have shown much of an economic interest in Kyrgyzstan. China has been making great economic inroads across Central Asia in recent years and Kyrgyzstan is no exception.
But Leonard pointed out that “Russia is offering [Kyrgyzstan] large amounts of money."
"Something in the area of $1.2 billion has been promised as part of a package to assist Kyrgyzstan into being eased into the Eurasian Economic Union. Already $200 million of that money has been disbursed and so it's not very difficult to see why Kyrgyzstan decided to make that decision [to join the EES] in the end,” he said.
And Joroev noted, “Current geopolitical tensions on the world stage, especially between the West and Russia over Ukraine and much else” have left Kyrgyzstan and other some other countries “caught in this fault line, as it were, and it's very difficult for these smaller countries to maneuver between the two sides."
“When Kyrgyzstan is faced or perceives itself to be in a position of a zero-sum choice between Russia or the West...of course for Kyrgyzstan the safest bet is to stay close with Russia,” he said.
The panel delved much deeper into Kyrgyzstan’s ties with Russia and the West and what EES membership would mean for those relationships, the prospects for Kyrgyzstan as an EES member in the years to come, and more.
NOTE: Starting in September our panel discussions will appear on the RFE/RL website under "Majlis." Qishloq Ovozi will continue to announce the posting of the discussions but will no longer produce a text to accompany the podcast.