Customs Union popular in most post-Soviet states, EDB study finds

By bne IntelliNews October 18, 2013

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Substantial majorities in most of the potential Customs Union member states are in favour of joining the bloc, according to a study by the Eurasian Development Bank (EDB). This even includes Georgia, which despite a troubled relationship with Russia has seen the number supporting entry double in the last year.

The EDB Integration Barometer, compiled by the EDB's Centre for Integration Studies and the Eurasian Monitor research agency, finds that the highest level of support is in Central Asia. A full 77% of Uzbek respondents say they are in favour of joining the Customs Union and the Single Economic Space, the trade block Moscow is currently pushing so hard to fill with former Soviet states - especially those to the west that are flirting with the EU.

In Tajikistan, 75% of respondents would be happy to join. In Kyrgyzstan, where the government has said it plans to sign up by 2015, 72% of respondents would like to see the deal sealed. The figures are even higher than in the existing member states, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, where public support of the bloc stands at 65%, 67%, and 73% respectively.

Surprisingly, a majority of Georgians, 59%, are in favour of hooking up with the Russian-led bloc. The figure is twice as high as that recorded in the 2012 Integration Barometer. According to Eugeniy Vinokurov, director of the Centre for Integration Studies, the results demonstrate "a substantial change in Georgian public opinion towards the Customs Union in general and Russia in particular. This change is vivid not only in the public perception of the Customs Union but also in growing desire to attract Russian investments and tourists."

"We think that it creates a window of opportunity to normalise Russian-Georgian relations," he concludes.

Neighbouring Armenia is set to become the first state from the Caucasus region to become a Customs Union member after President Serzh Sargsyan surprisingly announced in early September that Armenia would join. Despite demonstrations in Yerevan against the decision - due to the fact that it will likely rule out closer association with the EU - 67% support the move, according to the survey, which was conducted in May, four months before the announcement.

Not-so enamoured

By way of contrast, just 37% of Azeris would like to see their country join the Customs Union - the lowest level of support in any country of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Over half, 53%, regard the club negatively. Negative opinions have also increased in Moldova and Ukraine, reaching 24% and 28% respectively. However, 50% of Ukrainian respondents and 54% of those in Moldova said they supported Customs Union entry.

Meanwhile, the research shows that many countries in the post-Soviet space still consider countries outside the region to be the most attractive sources of foreign capital. For example, 60% of Tajikistani respondents said China was the most attractive source of capital, Georgia looked to the US, Uzbekistan to Japan and Azerbaijan to Turkey. A majority of Moldavians and Ukrainians see the EU as the most attractive source of capital.

In the fields of science and education, respondents also plumped for outside the region. Vinokurov points out that prominent education centres within the CIS, such as Moscow, Kyiv and St Petersburg, are becoming less attractive compared to the cachet of an education in the EU or US. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, "the countries of the region experience difficulties building a new scientific and educational foundation," he says.

Politically, respondents from Central Asia, Armenia and Belarus were oriented towards the post-Soviet space, while those from Russia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine favoured the EU, and Azerbaijan identified more closely with Turkey.

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