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Moscow’s Customs Union Pitch Falls Flat with Bishkek Students

The Kremlin wheeled out its soft power machine this week to make the pitch for Kyrgyzstan to join its Customs Union trade bloc. But if a recent talk by Kremlin evangelists at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek was anything to go by, the machine could use some grease.

The main speaker at the February 19 event was Semyon Uralov, editor of a website close to United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party. While Putin has tried to assure potential members that the Customs Union – Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – is not a Soviet Union redux, Uralov seemed to do the opposite. Quoting Engels, Marx and Lenin during a forthright speech in which he extolled the virtues of state-sponsored industry, Uralov responded to a complaint about his tone: “I don’t hide it. I am an imperialist.”

And like Customs Union officials, he did little to address economic questions. 

Moral and social degradation was a key theme in Uralov’s presentation. He described seeing people bribe a customs official at Bishkek’s airport for the privilege of flouting the building’s non-smoking policy. “Now tell me,” Uralov asked, “would it be possible to reach that kind of an agreement with a Belarusian customs official? A Russian customs official?” The assembled students murmured that it probably would be. “Well, clearly not for 20-30 soms [40 to 60 cents],” Uralov retorted. (Curiously, Belarus, with its highly inefficient command economy centered on manufacturing stood as something of a role model for the Russia-born, Ukraine-educated Uralov. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, Belarus ranks 123th, Russia 127th and Kyrgyzstan 150th out of 177 countries.)  

Uralov cited privatization of state assets in Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Ukraine – the three countries the Kremlin is pushing hardest to join its Union – as key to their economic failures. He derided Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on a significant re-export trade – one of the reasons Bishkek is thought to be stalling on entry – as something which kept Kyrgyzstanis back mentally as well as economically.  

Instead of describing benefits of Customs Union membership (the body is scheduled to become the Eurasian Union next year), Uralov painted a bleaker and menacing alternative: “Does Kyrgyzstan have the strength to preserve its own statehood? If not then I fear the corporations will arrive. Perhaps British corporations, perhaps American corporations, I don’t know.” Apparently unaware that Kyrgyzstan’s political instability and corruption is driving a downturn in foreign investment, Uralov warned that the country could face the fate of “our black brothers in Africa,” where he said foreign companies had taken over the functions of governments. 

The talk produced a series of questions from students. What did Uralov think about Russian xenophobia? Wouldn’t consumer goods suffer in an alliance dominated by resource-driven economies? How might the Customs Union, dominated by authoritarian states, affect freedom of speech in a fledgling democracy like Kyrgyzstan?

Uralov provided ambiguous responses to most of the questions. Freedom of speech, for example, is a “European” principle, he said. “In Eurasia we have another principle: be true to your word. When I read Ukrainian and Kyrgyz news websites I don’t see freedom of speech. I see chaos and provocative articles.”

The talk was part of a series of events organized by the Moscow-based Gorchakov Foundation for Public Diplomacy. Set up in 2010 on instructions from then-President Dmitry Medvedev, the foundation describes itself as a “unique mechanism for state-society partnerships in the sphere of foreign policy,” conducting research, leading public discussions and “providing support for media outlets and information resources oriented toward the stated goals of the fund.” 

In her concluding remarks, the Foundation’s program director, Natalia Burlinova, expressed hope for more engagement with Kyrgyz students, partly to “change some of the stereotypes about Russia we have heard today.” But Gulnara Nurieva, an assistant professor of economics at the university expressed disappointment. 

“This presentation was billed as ‘Kyrgyzstan’s Place in the Customs Union,’ but we heard almost nothing about the economic side of things. Most of the students here are from the Economics Department and all they heard was that the world is changing fast and Kyrgyzstan needs to find its place on the political map. All of our questions about the economics of the Customs Union remain unanswered,” Nurieva said. 

Moscow’s Customs Union Pitch Falls Flat with Bishkek Students

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