Hopes for Russia-led EEU were “too high” says Kyrgyz president amid diplomatic spat with Astana

Hopes for Russia-led EEU were “too high” says Kyrgyz president amid diplomatic spat with Astana
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (second from left), Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (third from left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (fourth from left) seen together at a meeting last year of CIS heads of state.
By Kanat Shaku in Almaty October 30, 2017

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev said on October 27 hopes for the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Russia-led trade bloc of ex-Soviet countries, “were too high”. He spoke amid an ongoing border dispute and wider diplomatic spat between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU, which also includes Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, in August 2015. The border dispute arose after Kazakhstan tightened Kyrgyz border controls following accusations that Kazakhstan tried to meddle in Kyrgyzstan’s October 15 presidential election.

The border restrictions have supposedly almost halved the flow of trade between the two Central Asian countries since Kazakh border guards started singling out Kyrgyz cargoes for inspections on October 10. On October 24, Kyrgyzstan announced it would be cancelling $100mn in grant aid it had agreed to receive from Kazakhstan.  

"A union that depends on the whims of one person, no matter how great that person is, cannot be solid," Atambayev said, likely referring to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Atambayev also noted plans to order Kyrgyzstan to outline routes for exporting Kyrgz agricultural output to Uzbekistan and China away from Kazakhstan. He made sure to mention he was not criticising Moscow.  

"Brotherly Russia has been and will be Kyrgyzstan's reliable partner," Atambayev said. "I recommend that business people and the government from now on export industrial output to Russia by railway in sealed train cars. Because that is what we agreed on with the Russian president, the respected Vladimir Putin."

The tightening of border controls came after Atambayev, due to step down to make way for his successor Sooranbai Jeenbekov, publicly accused Kazakhstan of openly supporting ex-prime minister Omurbek Babanov in the October 15 race for the presidency. The accusation followed Nazarbayev meeting with Babanov on September 19. Babanov subsequently lost the election and Atambayev apologised for his remarks.

The popularity of the EEU is waning among the populations of its Central Asian members, a poll conducted by the Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) found earlier this year.

According to the survey, Kazakh support for the EEU declined to 74% in 2016 from 80% in 2015, while Kyrgyz support for the EEU fell from 86% in 2016 to 81% in 2015. While the accuracy of the portrayal of real public opinion across each country is unclear, the poll from Russia's EDB does serve as a recognition of the Russia-led free trade bloc’s weakening popularity, despite the poll demonstrating generally positive figures.

Kyrgyz difficulties with the EEU include customs duties that have crushed Kyrgyzstan’s car imports over the past two years. The Central Asian country imported 205 vehicles in the first half of 2016, far below the 2,583 cars imported in 2015 and 111,530 units in 2014.

Other woes related to the bloc have been experienced by the Dordoi bazaar in Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Dordoi has long been the symbol of Kyrgyzstan’s re-export economic model – cheap goods are imported from China and Turkey and resold to the whole of Central Asia and Russia, in a trade that involves thousands of traders and generates big flows of customs duties for the state. But the economic slowdown and the country’s entry into the EEU depressed trade and put in jeopardy hundreds of jobs.