Central Asia Stands to Gain as Russia Bans Western Food
As Moscow’s ties with the West continue to deteriorate, Central Asian farmers may be saying prayers for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin slapped restrictions on imports of meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables from the US, EU, Norway, Canada and Australia on August 7, in response to progressively heavier Western sanctions designed to punish Moscow for supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine.
While that is bad news for Russians who like Camembert and thousands of American and European producers supplying Russia, there is an obvious beneficiary from the fallout: Central Asia, which already supplies Russia with much of its produce.
On August 7 the New York Times detailed the size of the gap in the Russian market that must now be filled:
According to figures compiled by the [World Bank] and other agencies, Russia imports about 25 percent of its food, worth some $43 billion annually. Of that, about 75 percent, or $30 billion, comes mainly from Europe and the United States. The other 25 percent is mainly from former Soviet republics.
Russia has already turned to its partners in the Eurasian Economic Union, Belarus and Kazakhstan, to help pick up the slack, Agriculture Minister Nikolai Fyodorov said on August 7.
After Putin called Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev on August 7, RIA Novosti reported:
Russia is going to rely on its economic partners outside the European Union for agricultural imports. At present, it is seeking to replace essential EU deliveries by products from blocs that Russia is a member of, including the fledgling Eurasian Economic Union (EAU) and the BRICS group of emerging economies.
This is not the first time Astana has benefitted as events in Ukraine have turned south: As Kiev moved toward an association agreement with the European Union a year ago, Russia kicked popular Ukrainian chocolatier Roshen out of its domestic market, opening the door for more exports from Kazakhstan-based confectioners.
Further south, in fruit-rich Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, there is also cause for celebration.
“A huge market is opening. It is necessary to prepare as many quality products as possible to be ready to export them to Russia,” Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister said on August 8.
Kyrgyzstan’s deputy economics minister, Danilar Ibraev, told Kloop.kg that his office has already appealed to the Eurasian Economic Union to allow in Kyrgyz meat and milk. That reference to the EEU is noteworthy. Moscow has been pushing to expand its union south into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan is dragging its feet, Tajikistan says it is waiting for Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan shows no interest at all. Moscow can now add the lure of broader access to its market to advance its integration agenda.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.