Putin to Central Asia: Join Customs Union, Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink
President Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation address today is being parsed for details on how he proposes to protect Russia’s "national and spiritual identity," boost the economy and military, and what, if anything, he plans to do about Russia’s runaway corruption.
But two comments in particular will interest Central Asia watchers.
There will be no more crossing from former Soviet republics into Russia without an international passport, Putin declared about halfway through the speech:
We still have a practice that the citizens of CIS states enter the Russian Federation using their domestic passports. […] In such circumstances, when the citizens of other countries enter using their domestic passports, it is almost impossible to ensure effective immigration control. I believe that no later than 2015 entry to Russia should be allowed only with the use of foreign-travel [passports], not the domestic passports of other countries.
("Domestic passports" are the main form of internal ID used in most former Soviet republics.)
So, by 2015 the millions of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus traveling to Russia for work will have a new hurdle to jump over.
But a few minutes later, Putin flags an exception:
However, without a doubt, within the framework of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space the ... current system will continue to apply – maximally simplified rules for crossing the border and staying on the territory of member countries of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space.
The Customs Union, founded by Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia in 2010, has been described as a “Soviet Union-lite” designed to push members toward a new “Eurasian Union,” wherein they would relinquish unspecified aspects of their sovereignty. As the Customs Union’s largest economy, all this will be led, of course, by Moscow. Other large post-Soviet countries – such as Ukraine and Uzbekistan – have shown little interest in the project.
Then where better to start expanding than among the poorest post-Soviet statelets, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan? Both are deeply dependent on cash remittances from their migrant laborers working in Russia. In Tajikistan last year those remittances totaled the equivalent of 47 percent of the country’s GDP; in Kyrgyzstan they equaled 29 percent of GDP.
In other words, neither has a choice.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have expressed interest in membership, though integrating further with Russia will likely come at the expense of trade with other countries. That makes the Customs Union especially controversial in Bishkek, which has a thriving exchange with China.
With this not-so-subtle hint, Putin has made it clear that Central Asia’s choices are limited.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.
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