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CENTRAL ASIA: A Kyrgyz-Kazakh Step Towards Regional Union

Meri Bekeshova

BISHKEK, May 24 2007 (IPS) - Surviving alone in the era of globalisation has become increasingly difficult for smaller countries with limited natural resources. Nations which were recently striving for independence are beginning to unite with others as a means to withstand economic hardships.

The early promoter of creating a Central Asian Union was Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The first real steps towards making the idea reality were taken quite recently, although this issue has been the subject of debate in this region over the last six years.

On Apr. 26, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement to create an “International Supreme Council” between the two states. This historic event took place during an official visit of the Kazakh president to the Kyrgyzstan capital, Bishkek.

Kyrgyz and Kazakh politicians see this as the first step towards creating the Central Asian Union, which would include at least five former Soviet countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

These countries are close in terms of their religion, culture and language. The main ethnic groups, including Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Turkmen, Tajik and Uzbek are Muslims. The five nations share common borders and history. Despite these commonalities, many obstacles stand in the way of unification.

Uzbekistan is seen as the main problem. President Islam Karimov keeps the country under strong authoritarian rule, and unification with partially liberalised countries would shake his power. Although his government has kept production plants and factories functioning since the collapse of the Soviet Union, 90 percent of its 27 million population lives in poverty.

Nor would most have considered unification with Turkmenistan under the regime of Saparmurat Niyazov, who died last year. And the current president, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, continues the way of his predecessor, with 20 million inhabitants still under an iron grip.

In the 1990s Tajikistan struggled under civil war and today most of its five million people are illiterate and live according to old customs and traditions. The country largely depends on donor organisations. It has joined the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative, which allows for writing off external debts under the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

A wealth of natural resources and petroleum made Kazakhstan, a country with 20 million people, one of the region’s leaders in the post-Soviet era.

Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan, which was once considered an island of democracy in Central Asia, could not stop the “bloodless coup” of Mar. 24, 2005, which overthrew the regime and demanded reforms. Today, demonstrations are an everyday event in this country of 5.2 million. The unification of these two economically and politically different countries has prompted some contrary opinions.

Civil society in Kyrgyzstan supports union with Kazakhstan, but more and more people fear becoming a “province” of the bigger and richer neighbour with a strong economy. Smaller Kyrgyzstan continues to experience economic and political crises, has more than two billion dollars in external debt and was included in last year’s World Bank/IMF list of Highly Indebted Poor Countries.

“There would be some economic dependence, but we won’t become a Kazakh province. Economic dependence is better than living in such a chaos,” said Parliamentarian Murat Juraev in an IPS interview. He believes Kyrgyzstan lives in economic dependence anyway.

In the opinion of Askat Beshimov, Kyrgyz deputy minister of foreign affairs, there must be specific mechanisms established for the functioning of such a union. “The foundation of an International High Soviet of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan will be a strong incentive to create a Central Asian Union, and it will depend on the presidents’ will and public opinion,” Beshimov said in a press conference.

“Kyrgyzstan is a leader in Central Asia in terms of the prevalence of democratic principles. There is a real stability in the country, in spite of mass protests,” Kyrgyz political scientist Zainidin Kyrmanov told journalists. Commenting on Nazarbaev’s visit to Kyrgyzstan, he said the Kazakh president was never a democratic leader.

Nazarbaev visited Kyrgyzstan in the wake of mass demonstrations organised by opposition groups, which lasted Apr. 11-19, 2007. The main demand of demonstrators was the president’s resignation. They said President Kyrmanbek Bakiev, who gained power with the help of people’s revolution, did not fulfil his campaign promises, he did not carry out the reforms expected from a new power.

Kazakh President Nazarbaev told the Kyrgyz press his own views about democratic principles during the press conference in Bishkek on Apr. 26: “Democracy can only be established where political stability and economic prosperity exist. Democracy must be built step by step. It cannot emerge in one day.”

There is great discontent in the business sector about the uneasy political situation. The government is trying to attract foreign investment while investors leave the country.

Nazarbaev said that 19 billion dollars were invested in Georgia. “If there was stability in Kyrgyzstan, half of this amount would have been invested in Kyrgyzstan. The most important requirements of foreign investors are peace and laws that can protect business people’s rights.”

During the last five years Kazakhstan invested about 400 million dollars in Kyrgyzstan and is considered the largest investor. Thirty-three percent of the total Kyrgyzstan bank’s equity belongs to Kazakh investors. There are about 2,000 enterprises functioning in Kyrgyzstan, and 500 belong to Kazakh entrepreneurs.

Central Asian unification is in the economic interests of both countries. However, every politician understands that economic unification will turn to political unification in the future, although Kyrgyz officials are not eager discuss it.

“I do not see any problem in unification with another country. In the future we should unite with this or another state, anyway. Unification with Kazakhstan will be a good accelerator for our economic development,” said lawmaker Juraev.

“The Union of our republics will not affect sovereignty of either Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan,” Umurzak Uzbekov, ambassador of Kazakhstan to the Kyrgyz Republic, told IPS. “The main goals of unification of Central Asian states are to form common economic space, customs union and common currency.”

At the beginning of this year the International Public Movement was founded for creating a “Euro-Asian Union”. Its constituent assembly will be held in Moscow Jun. 6. Kyrgyzstan’s Commonwealth political party made an appeal to civil society and the government to support the idea of the union.

“It is the right time to create a union of five republics including Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. It will help strengthen the borders, to create united economic space, to increase the strength of the economy, and effective use of transport corridors,” party chairman Arkadiy Gladilov told IPS.

The party maintains the position that this new union must be led by Russia and Kazakhstan, and is appealing to the Kyrgyz Parliament to take the initiative and turn to parliaments of the other republics to create a legislative base for the union.

“I support the idea of creating a Central Asian Union. Today we have the union of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. If our neighbours are ready for unification, they can join and be equal members of the union,” says President Bakiev.

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