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The Eurasian Economic Union: Power, Politics and Trade
The Eurasian Economic Union: Power, Politics and Trade
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Thousands from Central Asia joining ‘Islamic State’
Thousands from Central Asia joining ‘Islamic State’
Kyrgyzstan's President Atambayev, Russia's President Putin, Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev, Belarus' President Lukashenko and Armenian's President Sargsyan stand for a photograph before a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union in Astana, 29 May 2014. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
Report 240 / Europe & Central Asia

The Eurasian Economic Union: Power, Politics and Trade

Since its creation in 2015, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has kept only a few of its promises. Its limited economic success cannot mask the many tensions between Russia and its neighbours. Much of the EEU’s future success will depend on its members’ will to shift away from geopolitics a​nd focus on international cooperation, governance, social welfare and migration.

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Executive Summary

The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), created in 2015 by Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz­stan, Belarus and Armenia, claims to be the first successful post-Soviet initiative to overcome trade barriers and promote integration in a fragmented, under-developed region. Supporters argue that it could be a mechanism for dialogue with the European Union (EU) and other international partners. Critics portray a destabilising project that increases Russia’s domination of the region and limits its other members’ relations with the West. The EU views the project as a challenge to sovereign choices in its Eastern neighbourhood. Positions hardened after Armenia’s 2013 departure from the Association Agreement with the EU, including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade area, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

On paper, the EEU is an economic, technocratic project that offers some benefits to members, particularly in easing cross-border trade and facilitating labour migration, but also poses economic risks by raising external tariffs and potentially orienting economies away from global markets. So far it has had little economic success, though access to Russia’s labour market has been an important motivator and, on balance, a positive outcome for struggling post-Soviet economies. Beset by trade disputes, sanctions regimes and a regional economic crisis, trade inside the EEU fell by 26 per cent in 2015. But optimists argue that the legal status of labour migrants within the bloc has improved, and there will be long-term gains from harmonising customs and trade rules.

The main political tensions around the EEU, however, stem from its role in regional politics. Russia views it not only as an economic grouping, but also as a mechanism to institutionalise influence over its neighbours and as a building block in a new international order. This raises tensions with members and has led to a clash with other integration drivers in the EU’s and Russia’s shared neighbourhood, specifically the EU’s Association Agreements, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade area (AA/DCFTA). Moscow views these EU initiatives as encroachment into its sphere of influence. This clash between different regional projects contributed to the tensions and conflict in Ukraine in 2014, and while Moscow argued the AA/DCFTA was harmful for its economy, EU officials saw the concern as political, stressing that EU standards are not a burden even for EU companies when exporting to Russia or cooperating with Russian companies. Both sides view the other as a rival, but EEU member states other than Russia have sought to deepen their relationships with the EU where they can.

Closer economic integration within the EEU should make conflicts between members (for instance, between Russia and Kazakhstan) less likely. Easier cross-border trade and movement could reduce tensions in Central Asia. Yet, if Russia uses the EEU to dominate the region politically and as a platform for confrontation with the West, other members are likely to view the organisation as a threat to their independence. Rival economic partnerships – whether with the EU or China – would then look more attractive, potentially creating tensions in relations between EEU members and Moscow.

The EEU’s uncertain role and future and the standoff with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, make it difficult for the EU to develop a coherent policy toward it. Some Brussels officials and member states are opposed to any talks, fearing they would legitimise Russia’s policies toward its neighbours and cut across bilateral relations between the EU and Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus – all of which have experienced new momentum in the past year and a half. Others argue that EU engagement with the EEU is a possible channel for a breakthrough in relations with Russia, or at least that it could help build bridges, or even take pressure off countries in the Eastern neighbourhood and Central Asia, some of whom have complained about being trapped between Moscow and Brussels.

Political engagement between the two blocs is hardly realistic at present, in particular until conditions such as implementation of the Minsk Agreement on the Ukraine conflict are met. While Moscow has repeatedly expressed an interest in formalising relations, many in the EU have concerns that such a step would produce a substantively empty process with an appearance of normal relations but minimal substantive gains.

If approached with full awareness of the above risks, low-level technical talks between EU and EEU officials could, however, help inform future strategies and offer some pragmatic short-term gains, at least in terms of defining substance for future discussions.

Higher-level engagement, however, should only follow serious shifts in Russian policy, both in Ukraine and in relation to other regional states, and this is highly unlikely in the short-to-medium term. The EU would also have to consider whether recognition of the EEU would enhance or undermine the ability of smaller EEU member states to define their bilateral relationship with Brussels.

Moscow/Astana/Bishkek/Dushanbe/Brussels, 20 July 2016

Mosque in Astana, Kazakhstan, 2 February 2013. FLICKR/ Erman Akdogan

Thousands from Central Asia joining ‘Islamic State’

Originally published in Deutsche Welle

In this interview, Crisis Group’s Central Asia Project Director, Deirdre Tynan, speaks about the main findings of Crisis Group’s report, Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia, and explains that the Islamic State is fostering new links among radicals within the region.

At least 2,000 Central Asians are believed to have joined the Islamic State. Marked by poverty and radicalization, the region has become a growing source of foreign fighters.

Deutsche Welle: Where do these “Islamic State” supporters come from?

Deirdre Tynan: Official Central Asian governments’ estimates of several hundred fighters are conservative. Western officials suggest the number is 2,000, and it may be as many as 4,000.

The largest single group is reportedly Uzbek, both citizens of Uzbekistan and ethnic Uzbeks from the Ferghana Valley, including Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern city. The number of the former in Syria is not the estimated 500 or so cited by Tashkent and may exceed 2,500.

Perhaps 1,000 men and women, including 500 ethnic Kyrgyz and others from Osh, have left the Ferghana Valley to fight for or provide humanitarian assistance to IS.

How would you describe a typical “IS” supporter from this region?

There is no single profile of an “IS” supporter. Central Asian governments often fail to recognise that “IS” appeals to a cross-section of citizens. There are seventeen-year-old hairdressers, established businessmen, women abandoned by their husbands, families who believe their children will have better prospects in a caliphate, young men, school dropouts and university students.

All are inspired by the belief that an Islamic state is a meaningful alternative to post-Soviet life. It is easier for “IS” to gain recruits in Central Asia than in nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What are their reasons for leaving their countries behind and supporting “IS?”

They are prompted in part by marginalization and bleak economic prospects. “IS” appeals not only to those who seek combat experience, but also to those who envision a more devout, purposeful, fundamentalist religious life.

The radicalization of women is often a response to the lack of social, religious, economic and political opportunities afforded to them in Central Asia. Economic reward is not a motivation for those drawn to “IS”-controlled territory. For some, it is a personal adventure; for others it is a call to arms.

“IS” sympathizers in Central Asia are motivated by an extremist religious ideology. The growth of radical tendencies is exacerbated by poor religious education and grievances against the region’s secular governments. Even though socio-economic factors play a role, ideological commitment to jihad – the idea of holy struggle to advance Islam – is for many the main reason Central Asians are drawn to “IS.”

How are these supporters being recruited?

Recruitment to the extremist cause is happening in mosques and namazkhana (prayer rooms) across the region. The Internet and social media play a critical but not definitive role.
Some are recruited at home; others are radicalized abroad, often as migrant workers. Recruitment happens mainly in Central Asia, Russia and Turkey, but also from among young men who travel to religious schools in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh.

In Russia, migrants who are marginalized – often doing illegal and badly paid jobs – seek solace, a sense of identity and community in religion. They may fall in with Caucasian networks, Dagestani or Chechen, that blur the lines between religion and organized crime, while offering a degree of protection against other criminal groups and difficulties.

Word of mouth is one of the most powerful tools of recruitment in Central Asia; one family member or friend leaves for “IS”-controlled territory, then several more follow. Social media maintains communication between those in Syria and those at home thinking about joining. Recruitment cells in Central Asia are small, secretive and sometimes extensions of prayer groups.

In which ways do these recruits support “IS?”

Some fight, others provide support services to more experienced fighters from the Caucasus or Arab states. “IS” says it wants teachers, nurses and engineers, not just fighters – this appeals to educated men and women.

What problems does this pose to Central Asian governments and the region as a whole?

The number of Central Asians receiving combat training and progressing through “IS” command structures is increasing, as are the jihadi networks of which they are a part. Although most Central Asians find themselves in jamaats (factions) organized loosely along ethnic and linguistic lines, these form larger regional battalions of cooperating fighters from across the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang region.

The risk is rising that these connections will gather pace and purpose in Central Asia, and governments are ill-prepared to respond to a security threat of this type.

What are Central Asian governments doing about this?

Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have introduced laws criminalizing fighting abroad, the former coming into effect in July 2014, the latter on January 2015. Uzbekistan banned terrorism training without reference to location in January 2014, but the law was widely interpreted as directed against foreign-trained fighters.

The Kyrgyz parliament approved criminal code amendments suggesting sentences of 8 to 15 years for taking part in conflicts, military operations or terrorist- or extremist training in a foreign state in September 2014, but these have yet to be signed into law.

Rehabilitation programs could have potential, but Central Asian governments lack the resources and apparently the political will to implement them. The governments, though, aware of the dangers fighters could pose upon return from Syria, have done little to address the reasons why such a diverse cross-section of their citizens seek to participate in IS.

Prevention of extremism and rehabilitation of jihadis are not yet high on the agenda, and female radicalization is largely ignored by religious leaders, while the lack of economic and political opportunities for young people compounds radicalism. Poorly educated imams struggle to compete with the Islamic State’s glamorization of jihad.

This interview with Crisis Group’s Central Asia Program Director, Deirdre Tynan, was republished with permission from Deutsche Welle.