Kyrgyzstan, Russia ties tested by differences on trade, language

Kyrgyzstan, Russia ties tested by differences on trade, language
Russia has banned dairy products from Kyrgyzstan. / Govt handout.
By Eurasianet April 23, 2023

Russian agricultural regulators have struck again.

Last month, they ordered a halt on the import of dairy products from Armenia. This time, it is another ostensibly close ally, Kyrgyzstan, that is getting the same treatment.

By order of Rosselkhoznadzor, all dairy goods from the country were to be barred from Russia as of April 21. The regulator says it was compelled to adopt the decision following a weeklong inspection of dairy production and distribution facilities in Kyrgyzstan earlier this month. 

Rosselkhoznadzor said in its statement that Kyrgyz health and safety officials were failing to adequately monitor the health of livestock and the quality of the milk that they were producing.

“There is no traceability system at Kyrgyz companies. It is impossible to trace the origin of raw materials. Companies use milk lacking proper documentation and store products without labelling,” the regulator said.

Lifting of the ban will only be possible if a subsequent inspection determines that all issues have been resolved, it said.

Dairy producers are not the only Kyrgyz enterprises dealing in the export of foodstuffs to have ended up in Rosselkhoznadzor’s crosshairs in recent times.

In February, Moscow instructed Kyrgyzstan’s state veterinary service to cease issuing certification for trout and trout eggs destined for export to Russia, citing longstanding concerns that the fish contained potentially hazardous quantities of harmful substances. 

Earlier this week, media in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk reported that Russian authorities halted what they described as the unlawful importation of 21 tonnes of Chinese walnuts, macadamia nuts, dried fruit and pumpkin seeds that had been forwarded from Kyrgyzstan. Customs officials reportedly found that the volume of wares being transported differed from what was listed on the manifest. 

That such ad hoc bans and seizures of Kyrgyzstan-sourced goods are routinely carried out by Russia, as well as Kazakhstan, has fuelled frustration at the perceived shortcomings of the Eurasian Economic Union, or EEU, a trade bloc that was conceived specifically to avoid such occurrences. 

On April 19, before the latest Rosselkhoznadzor ban was announced, Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Bakyt Torobayev spoke at a government meeting about the need to address the upholding of standards compliance as required by EEU membership. Tackling this matter is necessary to create the conditions for increasing the quantity of fish, poultry and dairy goods that Kyrgyzstan delivers to Russia, he said.

While this kind of remark suggests that Bishkek acknowledges that it has work to do, other Kyrgyz officials want to make it clear that they feel that the Russian-dominated and directed EEU has not helped either. In an interview published on April 21 in Russian state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament, Nurlanbek Shakiyev, was candid in his views on the bloc.

“To be honest, we expected a lot of positive things [from the EEU]. We thought it would be good for our migrants, entrepreneurs, that there would be freedom of trade,” Shakiyev said. “Unfortunately, we have found that artificial barriers are almost constantly being created within the union. At the same time, some countries that are not members of the EEU have received benefits and opportunities that we do not have.”

Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU in 2015 in something of a rush as Russia scrambled to fold as many pliant members as it could into the fledgling bloc. Accession was greenlit in the absence of a credible mechanism for enforcing trading standards compliance – and the routine persistence of bans on imports, almost invariably by Russia, indicates that progress on fixing this shortfall has been weak in the eight years that have elapsed.  

Shakiyev, who is eager in his interview to impress that he is a great friend to Russia, does not spell it out, but the general tenor of his comments indicate that he senses that a political rather than a technical problem is in play. Indeed, critics of Russia’s often suspiciously timed use of import regulations to keep friends and foes alike in line are wondering if there may be more to the Kyrgyz dairy ban than meets the eye. 

The ban on milk from Armenia, another EEU member, arrived just as many people in that country were openly pondering the usefulness of their military alliance with Moscow. This scepticism has been heightened by the failure of Russian peacekeeping troops inside Nagorno-Karabakh to end Azerbaijan’s ongoing blockade of ethnic Armenians living there. Locals also accuse the Russian soldiers of profiting off the months-long blockade by charging several thousand dollars per truckload of essential goods.

Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, is causing bellyaching among champions of Russia’s ability to project its cultural influence abroad with its intent to adopt government-authored legislation designed to enhance the standing of the Kyrgyz language. The concern is that this is being done at the detriment to Russian, which is understood or used by an estimated 44% of the Kyrgyz population. 

Proponents of the bill, which requires a third and final reading in parliament before being sent to President Sadyr Japarov for signing, say the idea is simply to promote the use of Kyrgyz. Critics maintain that it stands to undermine the rights of Russian speakers. Although this provision is not envisioned in the legislation, there has also been talk of Kyrgyz shedding the Cyrillic alphabet, as is being done in neighboring Kazakhstan.  

These kinds of cultural developments are seen by advocates for Russian power projection as the thin end of the wedge. Where language goes, so does politics, they believe.

Isolated bans on food products may not make a major impact on trade relations, though. 

As even Shakiyev, the parliament speaker, points out, Kyrgyz-Russian trade is enjoying a healthy period. 

“Trade turnover increased by 40.8 percent last year and exceeded $3.2 billion,” he said. “Russia has been and remains for us not only a close strategic partner, but also a country that occupies a special place in our foreign trade structure.” 

Russia provides indispensable fuel, medical, chemical, and industrial supplies, while Kyrgyzstan tries, until the regulators step in, to send back fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat. If Moscow feels like Bishkek is being an insufficiently loyal friend, it has plenty of other ways to apply pressure.

This article originally appeared on Eurasianet here.