ASTANA, April 26 – Experts discussed the prospects and problems of the process of Eurasian integration at the Eurasian Media Forum in Astana today with Vice Prime Minister Kairat Kelimbetov repeatedly stressing the economic nature of this process.
The existing Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus is gradually moving towards the goal of creating a Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), envisaged for 2015, thanks to an agreement signed on November 18, 2011, by the three countries’ presidents at that time: Dmitry Medvedev, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Alexander Lukashenko. The agreement included a roadmap for the future integration and establishment of the Eurasian Commission (modeled on the European Commission) and the Eurasian Economic Space, which started its work on January 1, 2012.
President Nazarbayev in his welcoming address to the forum said that the three countries are “working productively on the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union” and that he was glad that this theme found its way onto the agenda of the day’s event. Speaking of change and issues of security, including the so-called “X-hour” in Afghanistan in 2014, when coalition troops are set to withdraw, President Nazarbayev said that “Central Asia is no longer a ‘godforsaken periphery’, or ‘no-man’s land,’ but a new dynamic sub-region of Eurasia and the world. Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states have proved their ability to develop decently and independently.”
The continuation of development, including regional integration, was of key interest to the experts at today’s panel discussion. Vice Prime Minister Kelimbetov, the only official representative of one of the three countries in the Customs Union on the panel, outlined the position of the Kazakhstan government in actively supporting and fostering the Eurasian Economic Union. Vice Prime Minister Kelimbetov stated that “the discussions with our colleagues are very honest and nothing is left untouched.”
The Eurasian Economic Union is in large part based on the experience of the European Union, so it was very apt that the former deputy prime minister of Greece, Theodoros Pangolos, came to share the experience of Europe. “The lesson is not Greek,” he said, but admitted that “we were the worst in the class.” The main premise of his contribution was that the European Union was the first organisation of its kind that voluntarily united member states under a supra-national umbrella. He also pointed out that the euro gave states the ability to fight domestic problems without the use of a domestic currency. Whether that is good or bad is open for debate.
Also on the panel was Yuri Moseikin, director of the Institute of Global Economics and Business in Russia, who pointed out that “whether we like it or not, all the decisions are made by politicians” and that before making any decisions, the responsible people will “need to look at the new problems” faced by Europe and the local region.
That the EEU will have both economic and political dimensions was noted by all the panelists. The degree to which it is each, however, was harder to determine. Panelist Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy of the Washington, DC-based Heritage Foundation, claimed that for Russia, the EEU is “more of an instrument rather than a goal.”
Arkady Dubnov of the Moskovskie Novosti newspaper, saying the forum provided an excellent opportunity for expressions on the brink of political correctness, warned of speedy decisions regarding the EEU. While the expansion of the EEU is likely, it will be difficult. Having been in Bishkek to follow the discussion of the Russian delegation with Kyrgyz officials recently, he expressed the very honest message given to the Kyrgyz side. “It will be very difficult at first.” It will be difficult for Kazakhstan as well.
But Vice Prime Minister Kelimbetov assured everybody that Kazakhstan is not simply being pushed around by geographical factors and repeatedly stressed the economic nature of the integration, as indeed was mentioned by President Nazarbayev a day earlier who said Kazakhstan will leave any integration initiative the moment it senses its political sovereignty can be compromised.
“Potential benefits outweigh difficulties,” Kelimbetov said stressing that “there is no alternative for Kazakhstan but to engage in Eurasian economic integration.” He explained that a treaty to create the EEU had to be prepared for signature by May 1, 2014, prior to which there would be a half year period of public debates over the treaty in parliaments of the three countries. The EEU is due to enter into force on January 1, 2015.
“We adhere to the principle of multi-vectoralism, and will continue to do so,” Kelimbetov said, adding that by about 2030 “China will be the number one economy in the world. Ignoring this factor is senseless.”
If the EEU becomes a powerful enough force, it could provide a sort of counterbalance, along with India, Japan and other Asia-Pacific countries, to a government whose first premier, Zhou Enlai, was quoted multiple times throughout the discussion. “What do you think of the French revolution?” Zhou was once asked. His reply? “It is too early to tell.”