The Kyrgyz government has approved a draft roadmap for the country's accession to the Russia-led Customs Union, it said on May 12. The announcement comes less than a week after the prime minister suggested Bishkek was seeking to postpone its entry.
Economy Minister Temir Sariev told reporters that the document will be submitted to lawmakers to be debated in the parliamentary committees on international affairs and fiscal policies, according to RFE/RL. It will also be sent to the Customs Union member states - Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Claiming that Kyrgyzstan would seek to delay accession by a year or more, Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev pledged on May 7 that after his government finalises the roadmap it would be offered up for public for discussion. However, the PM has since been held talks in Moscow over the issue, according to 24.kg.
In the face of growing opposition to accession, Bishkek has had cold feet for some time, with senior officials insisting that it wants more say on the roadmap, accusing Russia of dictating terms. However, in the latest announcement, Sariev appears not to have mentioned putting the roadmap in front of the populace.
Instead, he noted that it is not the same as joining the club. "The adoption of the roadmap will not mean accession to the Customs Union. A treaty should still be signed and ratified," he said.
The economy minister also added that the government is considering ways to fund measures stipulated in the roadmap and to adapt the Kyrgyz economy for entry to the Customs Union. Only last month, Bishkek insisted it would not move on the accession process without financial support for preparatory measures.
The swift completion and cabinet approval of the draft roadmap is a surprise. Bishkek had appeared to be moving steadily in the opposite direction. Enthusiasm for the Russian-led project has particularly waned this year, even amongst existing members such as Kazakhstan, with countries clearly rattled by Moscow's attempts to strong arm Ukraine into the club.
On May 7, Otorbayev offered the strongest suggestion yet that membership is anything but imminent for Kyrgyzstan. "There are two or three issues remaining to be resolved in the roadmap," the PM said according to Kabar news agency. "In late May, at the forthcoming summit in Astana, we should make a statement. Kyrgyzstan is a democratic country and we should take into account public opinion."
RFE/RL reported on May 5 that dozens of activists from the NGOs opposing accession held a rally to protest government plans to take the country further into Russian orbit. They claim Kyrgyzstan's membership of the union will "restrict its political and economic independence".
Unlike Kazakhstan, which did not hold public hearings on the country's membership, Kyrgyzstan cannot afford to ignore public opinion. While Kazakhstan has a strong authoritarian system, Kyrgyzstan has seen two governments violently ousted in the past nine years.
At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz labour migrants to Russia and Kazakhstan would gain from the country's entry to the bloc, Otorbayev has pointed out. "The issue of improving the state of labour migrants is a priority," he said. According to the UNDP, remittances from Kyrgyz working abroad exceed $2bn a year, accounting for 31% of the country's GDP. However, Russia has spent the last couple of years clamping down on workers from Central Asia.
Bishkek is looking leverage such issues as it accelerates efforts to persuade the population of the benefits of accession. "Risks of non-accession to the union are much greater than those associated with the membership," Sariyev said. "Without the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Space we will not be able to solve issues of migrants."
Otorbaev also recently brought up problems at two of Kyrgyzstan's biggest bazaars. Merchants claim business has dropped off alarmingly due to the strict rules policing the re-export of the Chinese goods that fill the markets to Customs Union member Kazakhstan, which accounts for 70% of sales.
Although indicating that membership is still months away, the PM stressed the importance of the two bazaars, where "tens of thousands of people are working," and said his government is considering measures to keep them functioning.
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