Russia attempts to draw Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan back into its orbit

According to the World Bank, Tajikistan is more dependent on remittances than any other country in the world. Last year migrant workers sent home the equivalent of 47% of Tajikistan’s GDP. Perhaps half of working-age males are abroad, most in Russia. Kyrgyzstan is third in the World Bank’s rankings, behind Liberia. One-fifth of its workforce are migrant workers.

The economic dependence of these two countries gives their former imperial master great influence. Whenever it is unable to wangle a favourable deal for a military base abroad, or it wants to play up nationalism at home, Russia threatens to introduce visas for Central Asians. And though Russia needs cheap labour, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan need jobs much more.

In addition, President Vladimir Putin has made reasserting Russian influence over countries once in the Soviet empire a big part of his foreign policy. One result of this is the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, set up in 2010. Last year the union liberalised the three-way movement of goods, services, labour and capital. Mr Putin has made no secret of the fact that he would like more members, especially Ukraine, but also Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He hopes for a supranational club, the Eurasian Union, modelled on the European Union, by 2015.

The motivation behind such a block combines the emotional and the practical—but with no sense that the two actually mix. Its backers include Russian lawmakers intent on resurrecting empire, and hard-nosed types out to control the region’s mineral resources and markets. For the pragmatists, one consideration is staving off China, now the main economic partner for all the Central Asian republics bar Uzbekistan, often by a large margin.

Kyrgyzstan, which has seen two presidents overthrown in the past decade, most recently with the Kremlin’s nudging, says it has no choice but to join the customs union, even though its businessmen complain. It was the first post-Soviet country to join the WTO and has a robust re-export trade, moving Chinese goods to post-Soviet markets, notably Russia and Kazakhstan. Joining the customs union would devastate that trade. With China accounting for half of all Kyrgyzstan’s trade, compared with Russia’s 17% share, the economic advantages to Kyrgyzstan are by no means obvious.

Kyrgyzstani businessmen, says Ms Kassenova, should beware of what happened to businesses in Kazakhstan, their vast northerly neighbour. Its membership of the customs union has actually made trade less liberal, as Russian businesses have been protected and Kazakhstani entrepreneurs have been tied into a “stagnant” Russian economy.

Yet still the migrants keep coming. A young Tajik at a bazaar near Dushanbe shuddered when describing his three years as a taxi driver in St Petersburg. There, he preferred working nights so that police would not notice his darker skin. Yet he was home only briefly, to find a wife, and will soon leave his bride for more work. “Without Russia, we’d die.”

Full article: Russia attempts to draw Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan back into its orbit (The Economist)

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