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Eurasian worries in Kazakhstan


October 14, President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed off on an agreement bringing
Kazakstan into the Eurasian Economic Union.


union, which comes into being in January, will create closer economic ties
among the three current members – the others are Russia and Belarus. At a
summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States held in Minsk on October, a
fourth member, Armenia was admitted to the grouping. Kyrgyzstan is expected to
join next year.


has always been a loyal ally of Moscow and a committed member of the Customs
Union. However, Russia’s new assertiveness and its treatment of Ukraine has
rung alarm bells. The Kazak government has no wish to be tied exclusively to an
increasingly isolated and erratic Moscow. (See Economic Union Challenges Kazak
Foreign Policy.) Pronouncements by Russian nationalists laying claim to
northern Kazakstan because of its substantial Slav population have done nothing
to calm worries about Moscow’s intentions. (Unease at Focus on Language,
Identity in Kazakstan examines some of the issues.)


concern about against closer integration with Moscow has only been expressed on
a limited in scale so far, but is real nonetheless. So far, opposition has
taken the shape of a loose alliance, operating mainly on social media and led
by Kazak nationalists opposed to what they see as the encroachment of Russian


March, a movement called the Anti-Eurasian Union emerged, and in May,
protestors in the capital Astana were arrested at a demonstration against
accession to the Eurasian Economic Union.


recently, a group of some 30 activists held a press conference on October 6 at
which they called for a referendum on membership, warning that opening up
access for Russian businesses would threaten local producers.


Krivosheev, a financial journalist who was among the organisers of the October
6 press conference, said Kazakstan was now in direct competition with Russia,
as both countries relied on exports from their extractive industries.


“The existence of a border and independent
economic policies has hitherto allowed them them to coexist in international
he told
IWPR. “But now it’s more difficult to
mitigate the effects of competition.”


was at a clear disadvantage, he added.


“Russia has been hardened by trade wars and it
has the upper hand in everything, including population size and gross domestic
product, and it could easily swallow up the Kazak market, buying off or
destroying local businesses,”
he said.


also warned that being hitched to the now faltering Russian economy could lead
to further weakening of Kazakstan’s currency, the tenge, which has already
suffered a sharp devaluation this February as a result of a falling rouble.
(Anger as Kazak Currency Devalued.)


government in Astana was trying to convince people that it could always draw on
the national fund where oil export revenues are stored.


“But it [the fund] is not a bottomless pit,” he noted.


figures have highlighted the benefits of joining the Eurasian Economic Union.


on October 6, Talgatbek Abaidildin, a member of the upper house of parliament,
said bloc membership would produce “an increase of up to 20 per cent in GDP
growth rates” for all the states involved.


many economists are sceptical.


Akulbekov, an economist and businessman in Karagandy, central Kazakstan, agreed
that some sectors of the economy would benefit from joining the grouping, but
this would be unlikely to offset the damage done to other industries suffer.


“The country will lose in sectors linked to
external markets – banking, manufacturing and trade,”
he told IWPR.


And if
Russia is hit by more sanctions because of its behaviour towards Ukraine, this
will affect neighbours like Kazakstan, where “the government won’t be able to
compensate for losses incurred by businesses, and this will lead to stagnation
and inflation in the longer term”, according to Akulbekov.


also pointed to Russia’s current efforts to replace Western imports with goods
from other markets. Together with weak levels of competition in the Eurasian
bloc area, this could reduce the quality of goods and services reaching
Kazakstan. (See also Central Asia Keen to Feed Russian Market.)


Umbetalieva, director of the Central Asia Foundation for Democracy, noted that
Russia is already promoting its automotive industry in the Customs Union and
excluding outside imports. As she put it, Russian cars are “not always of high


Magazine’s Kazakstan edition reported earlier this month that Russian lobbying
had brought about the introduction, in January 2014, of additional regulations
for cars imported into the Customs Union, including anti-lock braking systems
and a locking mechanism for child safety seats.


website reported that the rules were mainly meant to stop Kazak imports of cars
assembled at a General Motors plant in Uzbekistan, which is not a Customs Union
member. Removing this competitor strengthened Russian car imports to Kazakstan
in the months that followed.


said the campaign against membership of Eurasian Economic Union had broadened
far beyond its initial support-base, nationalist-leaning Kazak intellectuals,
although it was still at an early stage.


“Now liberals who oppose Russia’s policy
towards Kiev are expressing support,”
Umbetalieva said


agreed that the protest movement, driven by “Facebook activists” was
increasingly appealing to people with a range of agendas.


As well
the likes of Krivosheev whose concerns focused on the economic implication,
Akulbekov noted the involvement of others like political activist Botagoz
Isaeva, who fears that the Kazak language will be suppressed within a
Russian-dominated union.


“What unites them all is that they are in
favour of a referendum,”
Akulbekov added.


Karajanov, an Almaty-based political analyst, agreed that a worsening economic
climate could encourage broader support for the anti-union movement.


argued that its principal powerbase was likely to be among people on lower
incomes who would be most vulnerable to price rises.


acknowledged that he and his fellow-campaigners needed to be realistic about
how far their movement could go.


“At the moment, it’s individual voices – some
of them more vocal, some less. It’s hardly a choir and it will probably never
become one. The wider population is busy with its own survival,”
he said.


“Those at the top are content with the status
quo…. The authorities will ignore such voices of criticism] until the point
where they become more persistent and start calling for radical change.”






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