The inevitability of Kyrgyzstan caving in and joining the Russia-dominated Customs Union is looming ever larger on the horizon.Speaking in Brussels this week, President Roza Otunbayeva may have issued her most explicit position on the issue to date. Joining the Customs Union “is highly important to us. Or rather, you could say that they are pulling us in, because everything produced in Kyrgyzstan is aimed at the markets of Kazakhstan and Russia. Moreover, our labor and capital is oriented in exactly that direction.” Kyrgyzstan has until now thrived on being a transit nation through which cheap Chinese goods could be re-exported. Since both Kyrgyzstan and China are members of the World Trade Organization, the former benefitted to an extent, according to Otunbayeva. As she then ruefully notes, with the appearance of the fenced-off Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, there is no longer anywhere to send these goods: “With the existence of the Customs Union, the door to Kazakhstan is closing firmly and so membership for us has become an issue. It would be good if Russia could also join the WTO as soon as possible.” Curiously, this puts opponents to Russia’s WTO membership in a key position to affect the fate of struggling nations, like Kyrgyzstan and another potential Customs Union aspirant, Tajikistan.The consensus that joining the Customs Union is a must has become common among Kyrgyz politicians, although some experts have warned against it.Earlier this year, Esengul Omuraliyev, who negotiated Kyrgyzstan’s entry to the WTO under former President Askar Akayev in 1998, said Customs Union membership could lead to a worrisome spike in food prices. While under Customs Union regulations, a 10 percent levy is slapped on food imports, Kyrgyzstan currently imports food at zero percent. For a country that imports up to 70 percent of food, that would be disastrous, Omuraliyev said. Central Asia analyst Alexander Knyazev of the Russian Academy of Sciences even suggested in a recent interview with Azerbaijan news agency Trend that entrance into the Customs Union was far from guaranteed: "If Kyrgyzstan enters the CU, it will become a gate for the Chinese goods to enter the Russian-Kazakh market … [The] CU was created in order to close this gate."True. Though the Customs Union may be as much about creating a barrier as a way to extend Russian influence in the region.
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