Kazakhstan: Not Everyone is Happy about the Eurasian Economic Union

Valeriya Melnichuk. Graduate of the University of Cambridge Development Studies Program.

There have been several unsuccessful efforts to reintegrate former Soviet Union space since its breakup. For example, such initiatives as the Union State of Russia and Belarus in the 1990s, the CIS, and the Eurasian Economic Community created in 2000 have spurred neither political nor meaningful economic integration. However, in 2006 Russia, Kazakhstan (RK) and Belarus established the Customs Union (CU) which is seemingly a more potent integration attempt. The presidents of the three countries signed a treaty in May, 2014 to transform the Customs Union into Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)[i] by the 1st of January, 2015.

The idea of the Eurasian Union emerged in the 1990s and was first expressed by the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev; later, Vladimir Putin, thrilled by the possibility of asserting his influence and counterbalancing the global powers, took up the trajectory of Eurasian integration as one of his foreign policy priorities. The Putin’s vision of the Eurasian Union in his article in Izvestiya (2011) [ii] presented the Union not only as a trade facilitation and economic integration project, but as a geopolitical bloc as well.

The possibilities of joining the initiative have been discussed by the governments of Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The latter has not allowed much public discussion of the matter; whereas, both Kyrgyzstan and Armenia has seen anti Customs / Eurasian Union protests and public concerns over possible negative economic and political consequences of such an endeavor.

As Kazakhstan is moving towards deeper economic integration with the Russian Federation (RF) the president of the RK states that this is the will of the people while the official media praises the opportunities for improved economic performance, boosted economic and, consequently, social development and generally increased welfare of the people that the union opens. Whereas most people believe the official media and prefer to think that the Eurasian Economic Union will bring the RK benefits, there are civil activists who fear that further integration with the RF will hurt the economy of Kazakhstan and, potentially, threaten its independence and sovereignty. These activists unite into movements like Anti-Eurasian Union, Antigeptil, and other networks of, mostly, young people who share deep concerns over their country’s future.

So far, the official reaction to the anti EEU movements and demonstrations consisted of detentions, intimidation, and persecution of activists[iii] and enhancement of propaganda to form positive public opinion about the Union. The anti Eurasian Union activists are marginalized; their voices are silenced[iv] and their activities are ridiculed by the local media.

As freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Kazakhstan are compromised, it is ever more important to understand what marginalized groups are fighting for and why. In this article the author brings in the voices of four activists in the anti Eurasian union movement who represent different organizations and have participated in different capacities in opposing the Kazakhstan’s membership in the EEU: Max Bokayev the head of a Kazakh NGO Arlan, Ulan Shamshet and Askar Seitov activists of Antigeptil movement, and Galym Ageleuov the director of human rights organization Liberty. They provided answers on why they and their colleagues oppose the EEU, how they see power interplay between Kazakhstan and Russia, and how they assess the social moods with regards to the EEU.

The first reason moving the anti EEU rhetoric, named by all four activists, is questionable economic benefits for Kazakhstan from the Union. Specifically, the loss of economic independence and further aggravation of the negative consequences brought about by the Customs Union are seen as threats from the EEU. As Max Bokayev says there can be no equal union between the countries with unequally developed economies. Both Kazakhstan and Russia are commodity and import dependent economies[v] producing similar exports[vi] and therefore competing for consumer markets. As a result of the CU Kazakh market was flooded by Russian goods while the Kazakh producers’ access to the Russian market was restricted[vii]; all four interviewed activists noted that the prices of consumer goods and cars grew;  devaluation, also believed to be facilitated by the CU and Russia’s monetary policies[viii], hit common Kazakhstanis with unexpected real prices jump. Furthermore, in the context of the current “cold war” revival, cooperation with Russia does not appear particularly attractive, as its economy is technologically retarded and cannot promise any modernization boost[ix]. In this situation, western sanctions may indirectly hurt Kazakhstan if tighter integration with Russia is pursued. Also, both Askar Seitov and Max Bokayev raise the question of the integration process credibility. In particular, such decisions as joining the Customs Union or the Economic Union have direct impact on the lives of the country’s citizens and must be discussed publically and possibly made in consultation with the nation (e.g. referendum), whereas current procedures involve no public discussion whatsoever. Finally, activists, opposing the EEU, realize that economic cooperation with Russia is inevitable just by the fate of geography and they do not propose to turn away from the northern neighbor completely; however, increased economic integration, especially in the context of the current geopolitical crisis, imperial character of the Russia’s current government[x] and the history of Kazakh land takeovers, threatens to become political.

The activists unanimously see Putin’s imperialism and the need for domestic popularity boost as one of the main motives behind his drive for the Eurasian integration. Other complementing reasons are outlined by the activists: Mr. Shamshet stresses the need for Russia to control Baikonur and several military bases on the territory of the RK as well as to exploit Kazakhstan’s natural resources; Mr. Bokayev sees the possibility for Russia to retaliate for western sanctions by taking over or influencing western firms working in the RK; Mr. Seitov is confident that the EEU will only benefit Putin’s political power and economic welfare of a small group of oligarchs, while Russia as a whole will lose from such integration.

Nazarbayev’s at first successfully multivectoral foreign policy skewed towards Russia and the activists see different reasons for such trajectory change. GalymAgueulov and Ulan Shamshet point out the closeness of the political regimes nature in the RK and in the RF – authoritarian and corrupt – as one of the pulling factors. Mr. Agueulov also points out existing cooperation in the area of military security, information dependency and dependency on Russian pipes for Kazakh oil exports as “integrating” conditions. Max Bokayev does not exclude the huge pressure from Putin as one of the influencing aspects for rapid integration and suggests that Nazarbayev may see guarantee of stability for his successor in Putin and Russia’s strong political regime. Askar Seitov reminds about the origin of the Eurasianism. “Nazarbayev initiated the integration process and became the hostage to his own idea”: he is not keen on creating a political union with Russia[xi]. In addition, Mr.Seitov points out the issue of Russian ethnic majority in the North and Russia’s influence there; Russian politicians remind from time to time that these regions were “historically” Russian and Nazarbayev does not want to stir up the problems by rejecting already initiated integration project.

Despite all the arguments against integration, the activists do not see anti EEU moods becoming mainstream in any near future, their hopes lie with the change of generations and waning of the soviet mentality. “There is no civil society in the RK” is the succinct explanation of why other RK residents do not support the activists in their endeavors against the EEU. Mr. Shamshet points out that the danger of the economic integration with Russia is in the air; however, it is not clearly understood or perceived, the heated discussions take place in the kitchens and university rooms with no political dissent taken to the streets. Resources curse which made people well off but apolitical and powerful media brainwashing campaign weaken civil society says Mr.Bokayev. Russian media influence and apolitical nature of the Kazakh society are pronounced by Mr. Agueulov as reasons for the majority of the RK residents’ inactivity. Soviet mentality, absence of critical thinking, propaganda and repressive regime generating fear to protest and disagree create favorable conditions for the integration project to pick up its pace.

Thus, the activists fighting against Kazakhstan’s economic and political dependency from Russia remain marginalized. The treaty creating the EEU has already been signed; however the activists purport to continue highlighting the negative effects of Eurasian economic integration and to attract attention of the society and the authorities to the issue.

[i] Deeper integration project. Investopedia, Eurasian Economic Union, http://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/eurasian-economic-union-eeu.asp.

[ii] Carol Matlack, Putin’s Eurasian Union Looks Like a Bad Deal, Even for Russia, May 2014, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-05-29/putins-eurasian-union-looks-like-a-bad-deal-even-for-russia.

[iii] Galym Ageleuov, interview, October 12, 2014; RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, POlitce in Kazakhstan Detain Anti-Eurasian Union Activists, May 2014, http://www.rferl.org/content/police-in-kazakhstan-detain-anti-eurasian-union-activists/25400536.html.

[iv] Ulan Shamshet, interview, October 9, 2014; Galym Ageleuov; Askar Seitov, interview, October 9, 2014.

[v]Ulan Shamshet.

[vi]Galym Ageleuov.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii]Max Bokayev, interview, October 9, 2014.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Carol Matlack.

[xi] Askar Seitov; Nikolas Gvosdev, Russia’s Eurasian Union: Part of a Master Plan, June 2014, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/russias-eurasian-union-part-master-plan-10619?page=2.