The new member of the Customs Union: Kyrgyzstan

Hasan Kanbolat

Kyrgyzstan is preparing to join the Russia-led Customs Union in early 2014. Armenia announced it will join the Customs Union as well.The European Union saw Kyrgyzstan's choice to participate as normal, while it expressed concern over Armenia's decision as it sees the country as a natural part of the EU.

There are groups in the Kyrgyz parliament that are against the Customs Union. Some
people believe that the Customs Union will bring inflation and high living costs to
Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation. Wages in Kyrgyzstan are
lower. The monthly average wage is around $100. It is feared that harmonizing the
prices of goods with those in the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan may trigger new
economic and political instabilities in Kyrgyzstan. It seems unlikely that hydrocarbon-
rich members of the Customs Union will accept Kyrgyzstan's membership on equal
terms. In 2013, there were more than 1,000 public demonstrations over economic and
social issues in Kyrgyzstan. Hard living conditions and the bleak future of the country
in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union are pushing the Kyrgyz people
into the streets to protest.
One million Kyrgyz people are working in the Russian Federation. One hundred
thousand are working in Kazakhstan, 50,000 in South Korea, 10,000 in Turkey and
about 3,000 in Dubai. In other words, about 25 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population --
about 5 million people -- and about half of Kyrgyzstan's employable population is
working abroad. The yearly sum of remittances sent by these workers in Russia is
around $3 billion. As wages in Russia are higher than those in Turkey and Dubai,
Russia is the preferred destination despite rising racism in metropolitan cities. Russian
media networks do not nurture sympathy for Central Asia. Instead, they portray this
region as a bad place and publish ill-intentioned news stories about dictators, radical
religious groups, terror, chaotic revolutionary movements, etc.
This amplifies racism in the country as well as the negative image of Central Asia and
the Caucasus. As intellectuals in Central Asia continue to use Russian as their primary
language, this black propaganda is spread to the Russian-speaking urban intellectuals
of Central Asia as well. This leads to the emergence of a new generation of young
intellectuals who belittle their own nations and are alienated from them.
The countries near Kyrgyzstan -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and China -- are
military, geographic, political, economic and demographic giants. Kyrgyzstan sees its
ties with Turkey as a counterweight to its relations with its powerful neighbors, the Russian Federation and China. As Turkish-Russian relations improve and normalize, ties between Central Asia and Turkey are improving as well. This enables Central Asian countries to develop ties with Turkey more easily. Among South Caucasian and Central Asian countries there are only two that have transitioned to parliamentary democracy: Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is the second Turkic country that has transitioned to a parliamentary regime, after Turkey. It is a young democracy. This has earned it Turkey's sympathy. In 2013, Ankara exhibited its affinity with Bishkek by sending aid amounting to $150 million. Like Turkey, the EU approves of Kyrgyzstan's transition to parliamentary democracy, but it does not lend the same support it does to Georgia to Kyrgyzstan. Georgia's location within Europe's political borders, its historic proximity to Germany, its Christian roots and its anti-Russian stance are the main factors in the EU's deeper sympathy for Tbilisi.