Naubet Bisenov in Astana -
"Euras-scepticism" is on the rise in Central Asia, as the Russian-led Customs Union prepares to transform into the Eurasian Economic Union, deepening ties and expanding membership.
Polls show that Kazakh support for closer integration with Russia and Belarus is falling, while prominent anti-Eurasian integration activists say they've been questioned by the Kazakh intelligence service ahead of the signing of a treaty that will transform the Russia-led Customs Union (CU) into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015. The treaty is due to be signed at a summit in Astana on May 29.
A panel on the public perception of Eurasian integration at the Astana Economic Forum on May 21 heard that Kazakh support for the CU has fallen steadily from 80% in 2012 to 73% last year, according to the Eurasian Development Bank's (EDB) Centre for Integration Studies. The Integration Barometer study also shows support in Russia fell by 5 percentage points to 67%. Meanwhile, the figure jumped by 5 percentage points to 65% in Belarus.
"This has taken place at the expense of an increase in the number of those polled who are indifferent to their countries' participation in the CU-EEU," the study said. The poll involved 14,000 people in CIS countries, plus Ukraine and Georgia, with up to 2,000 surveyed in each country. Ukraine said it would leave the CIS after Russia's "aggression and occupation of Ukrainian territory" on March 19.
"There will most likely be a further decrease in the support for membership of the Customs Union" in 2014, Vladimir Pereboyev, director of the EDB Centre for Integration Studies, told the panel. "It's hard to talk about specific numbers now" because the opinion poll is still under way, he said, "but we hope the decrease will not be significant".
Pereboyev said that the average support for Eurasian integration in the CU member states stood at 68% which was "significantly higher" than support for the EU in its member states which is slightly over 50%. "We can see that Euroscepticism in the European Union is so far not comparable to the so-called Euras-scepticism which we observe in our countries," he said.
He admitted, however, that "Euras-scepticism" is on the rise, adding that it doesn't necessarily concern a country's current or future membership of the CU but rather is about "economic issues". Impoverished Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are fast-track candidates to join the EEU, either at its establishment or soon afterwards.
Kazakhstan's membership of the Customs Union has led to numerous protests since the country joined as a co-founder in 2010. An anti-Eurasian forum was held in Almaty on April 12, while earlier in the year during the "panty protest" against a ban on cheap lacy underwear, female activists were fined for trying to place knickers on the Monument of Independence in the country's biggest city.
The opposition is widening across Central Asia. RFE/RL reported earlier this month that activists from Kyrgyz NGOs held a rally to protest government plans to take the country further into Russia's orbit. They claim Kyrgyzstan's membership in the union will "restrict its political and economic independence". The Kyrgyz protestors say they worry membership will damage trade with countries outside the club, increasing import tariffs, as happened in Kazakhstan.
Some Kazakhs believe membership has been disadvantageous, pointing to figures from the Kazakh Statistics Agency which show Russia's share of total exports from the country actually fell - from 8.2% to 7.0% - between 2009 and 2013, while the share of imports rose from 31.3% to 36.2%. That has seen the trade deficit with Russia more than doubled to $11.9bn since the establishment of the Customs Union. The trade gap with Belarus has moved similarly.
"Euras-scepticism … is a quite new phenomenon," Pereboyev noted, adding that its a "normal process". He suggested the EEU should learn from Brussels, which proactively promotes itself among its own citizens.
Pereboyev admitted that the crisis in Ukraine is helping to depress support for the Russian-led project. "It is impacting the perception of Eurasian integration, but here political issues should be separated from issues of economic integration," he insisted to bne. "The problem is that the situation is getting very politicised and everything is blamed exclusively on Russia, whereas all this is not true." He went on to claim Ukraine would "win" from CU accession, but lose "whole sectors of its industry" from integration with the EU.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is also seeking to quash criticism of the CU and EEU. The country's KNB intelligence service has reportedly questioned two prominent opponents of Eurasian integration recently. Inga Imanbay and Zhanbolat Mamay told RFE/RL the KNB wanted to head off any protest planned for the May 29 summit.
Mamay, Imanbay and other opponents claim - contrary to the Kazakh president and officials - that the project is a political union. "The Eurasian Economic Union is not just an economic bloc but a political organisation between states," Mamay told bne in April. "This is Putin's dream of recreating the former Soviet Union, bringing Ukraine back into the fold and uniting former Soviet states into the Russian Empire."
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