Kazakhstan welcomes Putin's Eurasian Union concept

By James Kilner

Governments in the West may have read with alarm that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wanted to build a Eurasian Union out of the former Soviet bloc but in Kazakhstan the news was welcomed.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev first mentioned the concept of a Eurasian Union during a speech at a Moscow University in May 1994, less than three years after the breakup of the Soviet.

Since then Kazakhstan has transformed itself from a Central Asian backwater with aging Soviet infrastructure into a confident, global energy supplier complete with a new capital city full of glass and steel towers designed by some of the world leading architects.

But despite massive investment from the West and more recently China, the old ties to Russia remain strong as Roman Vassilenko, head of press and information at the Kazakh foreign ministry, explained.

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"Kazakhstan and President Nazarbayev personally have always stood for closer economic integration with Russia and other countries of the former USSR," he told the Daily Telegraph.

"The Eurasian Union that President Nazarbayev first proposed in 1994 is envisaged as a mutually beneficial union of mutually respectful partners."

Kazakhstan is already an enthusiastic member of the customs union with Russia and Belarus that Mr Putin sees as the launch pad for a more integrated Eurasian Union.

In his article for the Russian newspaper Izvestia, Mr Putin wrote that a Eurasian Union would not be a return to the Soviet Union. Instead he described a modern economic and currency union that would stretch further into Central Asia and include both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Businesses in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have faced higher tariffs trading with Kazakhstan and Russia since the customs union came into force this year putting pressure on their political leaders to join the union. Kyrgyzstan has since officially applied to join and Tajikistan is thinking about applying.

Most analysts, though, don't expect Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which are both rich in natural resources, to join a Russia-lead economic union.

Dosym Satpayev, an Almaty-based analyst, said he thought that Mr Putin's real motive behind creating the customs union and potentially the Eurasian Union was political.

"The Eurasian Union is important for Russia at it will let them remain strong in international affairs," he said.

In contrast he said that Mr Nazarbayev's aims were driven by a desire for access to the Russian market and to give Kazakhstan more options.

"This will show everybody that he is able to pick from a lot of partners," Mr Satpayev said. "This is a position of strength."
The Telegraph