Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Why Zhanaozen Should Have Been Discussed at the Atlantic Council Conference

The Atlantic Council, in conjunction with the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Chevron, hosted a conference on the occasion of the Twentieth Anniversary of Kazakhstan’s Independence and of U.S.-Kazakhstan Relations today, January 31st. The event was filled with Washington and Kazakh diplomatic heavyweights who were not only at the front rows of history, but were the very catalysts of change and innovators of policy that transformed world history. Among the notable speakers include current Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Republic of Kazakhstan Yerzhan Kazykhanov, Undersecretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake and former CEO of Chevron Corporation Kenneth Derr. Several former U.S. Ambassadors were also in the room including William Courtney, Richard Jones, Larry Napper and Jackson McDonald. While the conference shed light on some of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy accomplishments with a nostalgic, almost fraternity-like hubris, the event failed to address contentious foreign policy topics such as the development of Kazakhstan’s democracy, the Zhanaozen events and the succession issue.

The word “Zhanaozen” was rarely, if at all, mentioned. Foreign Minister Kazykhanov briefly referred to the government’s ability to bring order and security to the Magistrau region. He noted that the recent labor events in Magistrau did not compromise investments in the region. No American diplomats mentioned Zhanaozen.

As a side note, it is worth mentioning that the state of emergency in Zhanaozen was lifted today, as scheduled. To give credit where credit is due, Nazarbayev promised the state of emergency would last until January 31st and held his promise by not extending it.

Is the lack of reference to Zhanaozen surprising given that many of the individuals at the conference were part of the oil and gas industry? Not necessarily.

When abroad, many Kazakhs I met held high regard for American companies operating in Kazkahstan due to their emphasis on meritocracy and lack of corruption. American firms such as Chevron pay better than their Kazakh counterparts and offer good benefits. I remember meeting two engineers who worked at TengizChevroil (TCO), a public-private partnership between Chevron, KazMunaiGaz, ExxonMobil and LukArco. The two engineers split their time between Almaty and Atyrau. Reportedly, TCO transported cadres of engineers to Atyrau, subsidized everything from beer to housing and after several weeks of hard work in one of the most tedious environments on the earth, the engineers returned to Almaty. Both engineers enjoyed their work and the sense of camaraderie they felt working with their engineering “class” of individuals from around the world.

At the Fourth of July barbeque in Almaty, I spoke with a Kazkah businesswoman who began her career working at Chevron. Proficient in English, Russian and Kazakh, she enrolled in a Chevron training program where she learned about the oil industry, supply chaining and logistics. After several years at Chevron, she started her own logistics company.

During lunch, I conversed with a diplomat from a European embassy. The diplomat told me at the end of the day, the events in Zhanaozen did not significantly alter the opinion of investors interested in investing in Kazakhstan. The events in Zhanaozen, while unfortunate, do not appear to signify a larger issue to businessmen, foreign policy officials and even to many Kazakh citizens residing outside of Western Kazakhstan.

While it is important to acknowledge the positive externalities generated by the investment into the development of Kazakhstan’s oil and gas sector, it is equally relevant to note that the events in Zhanaozen mark the emergence of workers rights as a political issue that demands state attention. A conversation on the Zhanaozen events is desperately needed, not to point fingers and play the blame game, but to develop comprehensive policies with respect to private property, workers’ rights, labor movements, and investment.

As Central Asia’s leading economy flourishes under the conditions of free-market capitalism, whereby competition between private firms regulates market activity, it is only natural that there will be those who gain and those who gain less. The six-month long strike of Ozenmunaigaz employees in Zhanaozen, organized to demand increased wages and improved working conditions, reveals the increased consciousness among workers about the workings of an industrial economy. Think about it – U.S. history is filled with disputes between organized labor and industry management: revolts of factory workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, the Pullman strikes, the violent clashes between Pinkertons and striking workers at Carnegie steel mill in Pennsylvania, and the Coal Strike of 1902. As Kazakhstan’s per capita GDP skyrocketed from $700 at the time of independence to $11,000 in 2011, it is a natural consequence of modernization and industrialization, as history demonstrates, that there will be tensions between workers and management.

Overall, the conference was fascinating and give the Atlantic Council an enormous amount of credit in organizing the impressive list of panelists. However, other than blanket statements proclaiming the imperative for Kazakhstan to ensure increased religious, political and media freedoms and provide a safe outlet for the actualization of a vibrant civil society, the panelists at the Atlantic council event did not delve into a comprehensive discussion on the status of Kazakhstan’s domestic politics and mechanisms through which the state can act to ensure a sustainable and prosperous development of Kazakhstan’s entire population. A thorough conversation exploring these issues of governance, investment climate and the maximization of individual welfare in a transitioning market economy is necessary and should not be avoided. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

International Institutions: the Right Mechanism to Promote Human Rights?

Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) 2012 “World Report” was released yesterday, documenting extensive violations of human rights by regimes and individuals in every corner of the globe. Central Asian states were among the worst violators, according to HRW. The report labeled Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as some of the “most repressive governments, not only in the region but in the world.” Putin spearheads a form of “soft authoritarianism,” which is the same term applied to the Nazarbayev regime in Kazakhstan.

While the well-researched report thoroughly documents human rights abuses, it falls short in a few areas of policy recommendations.

In “After the Fall: Hopes and Lessons 20 Years After the Collapse of the Soviet Union,” Rachel Denber advocates the importance of international institutions in encouraging states to mobilize domestic reforms. Russia, Ukraine and the South Caucuses states, for example, were offered membership in the Council of Europe in exchange for domestic human rights reforms. In the economic sphere, Russia joined the World Trade Organization in December, after years of international negotiations and internal market reforms. Institutions can play an active role in transforming the distribution of powers within regimes, ensuring a commitment to transparency, the rule of law, economic freedoms and respect for individual human rights.

But there is a limit to institutions: sovereignty. Most of the examples in which institutions have a transformative effect on former soviet states apply to Eastern Europe. Central Asian states are members of various international organizations, but such groupings are usually regional associations through which states pursue their foreign policy objectives. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), for example, was created in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and continues to be a mechanism through which Russia exerts influence over its near abroad. At the CSTO’s December 2011 meeting, members passed an agreement prohibiting any individual CSTO member from hosting a foreign military base on its territory without the full consent of all other CSTO members. This agreement gives Russia the authority to prohibit the establishment of an American base (at Manas, Kyrgyzstan for example) under international law.

Throughout former-Soviet Central Asia, international and regional institutions have adopted an economic and security orientation, rather than a human rights-based approach. The most successful organizations in the region, in terms of organization (convening regular meetings and agendas), implementation of policies (SCO is committed to security and has opened up an anti-terrorism center in Tashkent) include the SCO, CSTO and EurAsEC. Regional organizations with a human-rights agenda and courts, such as the CIS, are rarely used for judicial purposes. The CIS Economic Court, for example, was used for the first time in several years in 2010 when Belarus sued Russia for levying export duties on oil products. Further, the recent expansion of the EurAsEC Customs Union provides a framework for the economic integration of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Despite Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010, the country did not undergo a significant change in domestic safeguards for human rights. Kazakhstan is certainly way ahead of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in terms of human rights protection. I certainly loved spending time in Kazakhstan and did not feel like I was in a “softly authoritarian” state. With that said, there are areas for improvement in Kazakhstan’s human rights record (as there are in all states), but institutions are not necessarily the way to go about mobilizing change. Even for Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s political and economic leader, there is a limit on the extent to which institutions can advance the protection of human rights.

While inter-governmental organizations provide institutional mechanisms whereby Central Asian states pursue their self-interests and increase their involvement in the global political economy, the expansion of these organizations do not guarantee human rights. Given their geographic distance from the EU and the influence of Russia and China in regional institutions, a different framework is required for promoting human rights in the Central Asian states.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dissecting Kazakhstan's Elections

One week ago, Kazakhstan held elections for the Mazhilis and Maslikats. From the Lower Level of the Georgetown University Library, I was glued to my computer, monitoring the Twitter feeds and news updates from politicians, bloggers and journalists. The tit-for-tat between western commentators, Kazakhstani bloggers and Kazakhstani government officials was quite entertaining. For example, AP reporter Pete Leonard commented that Kazakhstan would host an election during one of the coldest months of the year and only a few minutes later Ministry of Foreign Affairs Representative Roman Vasilenko responded that during the August 2009 elections, there were comments on how Kazakhstan hosted an election during the hottest months of the year. Touché.

On a more serious note, the elections were conducted smoothly and professionally, without any major outbreaks of violence or major violations, as noted by most international observers such as the SCO and CSTO. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) acknowledged that the elections were technically well administered and produced a multi-party parliament, but concluded that they were not “genuinely pluralistic elections.”  In its statement of preliminary findings and conclusions released on January 16th, the OSCE declared that the elections “did not meet [the] fundamental principles of democratic elections.” The OSCE report notes how several parties were prevented from registering or deregistered by the Central Election Commission (CEC). In October 2011, a Kazakh court placed a six-month ban on the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, thereby preventing the party from participating in the January elections. On December 26, the CEC deregistered the Rukhaniyat party for alleged problems with registering party candidates. Since independence, Kazakhstan has not conducted an election deemed “free and fair” by the OSCE.

On Election Day in Zhanaozen, there was reportedly a huge security presence. While this must have contributed to a tense and uncomfortable environment, no violence broke out in the region. In Magistau region, voter turnout was relatively high at 74.2%. On Caspionet, check out a video of some U.S. commentators on the elections.

It is worth noting that there are two “communist parties” in Kazakhstan: the banned Communist Party of Kazakhstan and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (KKKhP).

The official election results are presented bellow. To no surprise, the Nur Otan won the majority of the votes and will be the dominant party in Parliament.

-       People’s Democratic Party “Nur Otan” - 80.74 %
-       Democratic Party of Kazakhstan “Ak Zhol” – 7.46 %
-       Communist Peoples’ Party of Kazakhstan (KKKhP) – 7.2 %
-       All-National Social Democratic Party – 1.59 %
-       Kazakhstani Social-Democratic Party “Aul” – 1.46 %
-       Party of Patriots of Kazakhstan – 0.89 %
-       Democratic Party “Adilet” – 0.66 %

But the real story is voter turnout – listed below by oblast (plus Almaty and Astana).

-       Astana city – 53.32 %
-       Almaty city – 41.38 %
-       Akmola oblast – 78.01 %
-       Aktobe oblast – 78.4 %
-       Almaty oblast – 92.6 %
-       Atyrau oblast – 83.55 %
-       East-Kazakhstan oblasts – 80.21 %
-       Zhambyl oblast – 80.83 %
-       West-Kazakhstan oblast – 71.9 %
-       Karagandy oblast – 75.2 %
-       Kostanay oblast – 84.83 %
-       Kyzylorda oblast – 80.95 %
-       Mangystau oblast – 74.2 %
-       Pavlodar oblast – 71%
-       North-Kazakhstan oblast – 80.7 %
-       South-Kazakhstan oblast – 78.76 %

What explains the low voter turnout in Almaty and Astana? I initially hypothesized that the low turnout was due to the substantial youth populations. Even in America, younger people vote in fewer numbers than their elder counterparts. I asked my friends in Almaty and Astana if they voted and received a variety of responses. One friend (age 22) commented, “why vote when you know who will win?” Another young Almaty professional who works in the PR and magazine industry (age 23) told me that neither she nor any of her friends voted. In fact, she confessed to never having participated in an election.  

Why do young Kazakhstani citizens not vote? One explanation is because people are simply not interested in politics. My friend in the PR industry said that she is so far from politics. Also, candidates usually “promise too much.” Young people are turned off by candidates who make grand proposals and create high expectations only to institute policies that fall short of campaign promises. Are politicians who make unrealistic campaign promises a sufficient reason for not voting? I argue no. As an American citizen and voter, I’m accustomed to this and I think it is fair to say that most, if not all, candidates never fulfill their campaign promises once elected to office. But that is the way things work in a democratic republic like the U.S. – or most modern democracies for that matter.

For most young people, the elections were simply not important. Several of my friends reflected this apathetic view of politics. They did not see their participation in the electoral process as a mechanism for change. Unlike their elder counterparts who grew up during the Soviet Union and participated en masse in “symbolic elections,” young people do not feel the same sense of obligation to at least go to the poll even if they know their ballot is useless. Based on my personal communications and observation of Kazakhstani and post-Soviet politics, to most young people, politics is a fixed phenomenon that operates remotely, out of touch with their day-to-day lives.

My friend in Astana gave me particularly insightful commentary. While he lives in Astana, he is registered to vote in his hometown. Kazakhstan’s law stipulates that individuals may vote in the towns they are registered to vote for but individuals who are not registered to vote in the cities they inhabit may not vote. This is not atypical – I go to school in Washington DC but am registered to vote in New Jersey. In Astana, over half of the city’s residents are from other cities. Many residents are young professionals who recently returned from completing their Bolashak scholarship at a foreign university. Many others are in the city to work. While people can complete the necessary paperwork for an out-of-city vote (absentee ballot), most people simply do not go through the hassle of doing so. While it is unclear whether the voter turnout numbers represent the percentage of total people registered to vote or are based on the cities’ populations, in any event, the lack of youth vote certainly contributed to an overall low voter turnout. The Government of Kazakhstan should make the out-of-city registration more accessible by working through universities and civil society groups, such as Toastmaster Clubs (yes, there is a civil society in the FSU). Reforms should also be implemented that reduce the amount of bureaucratic paperwork necessary to register out-of-city.
Interestingly, over half of Kazakhstanis living overseas participated in the elections according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Out of the 9,000 Kazakhs abroad, some 4,521 voted.

Elections Happened – now what?

On January 20, the CEC announced the official distribution of seats: eighty-three Nur Otan, eight Ak Zhol and seven KKKhP. The President appoints the remaining nine seats.
The January 20th session also marked the first meeting of the Mazhilis in Astana. Current Prime Minister Karim Massimov was reappointed to the post and Kairat Kelimbetov will be deputy prime minister.

The President also announced changes to the Ministries.

While it was expected that Ak Zhol and Nur Otan would be elected, the KKKhP’s victory was not widely predicted. It will certainly be interesting to monitor the legislative activity of the Mazhilis. I do not predict that there will be a major change in the country’s politics, despite the presence of three parties, due to the similarity of the three parties’ political agendas and the levels of bureaucracy, corruption and personal patronage networks deeply entrenched in the Government of Kazakhstan’s administrative apparatus. Further, individual personalities more so than political parties define the workings of Kazakhstan’s politics. One Kazakh friend noted that the KKKhP’s leader, Vladislav Kossarev, a 74-year old veteran of Kazakhstan’s politics and a loyal foe of the President, is one explanation for the Party’s success.

With elections over and a new parliament in power, all eyes are on Kazakhstan to see whether the country will truly make progress in its democratic development.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

History in the Making

Comrades --

I have spent the past twenty four hours essentially glued to my computer watching Twitter feeds and news updates. The Mazhilis and Maslikats elections took place in Kazakhstan on January 15th and the election exit polls show that there may be three parties in the Mazhilis -- an unprecedented situation! Under the new constitutional code, parties must obtain the minimum 7% threshold to be represented in Parliament.

According to Tengrinews, Nur Otan has obtained 81.3% of the vote, Ak Zhol 7.2% and the Communist People's Party of Kazakshtan (KNPK) 7.1%.

The Central Election Commission will host a press conference on Monday, January 16th at noon to reveal official election results.

More commentary to follow. Until then, check out the article I wrote for Central Asia Newswire on Friday on Kazakhstan's Democratic Evolution.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Guide to Political Parties, Observers

Comrades -- I put together a guide on the political parties and some of the observers participating in the mazhilis and maskilats election in Kazakhstan on Sunday for Central Asia Newswire. Read it here! I hope it is helpful. Stay tuned for more updates as the election nears!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Game Changer: Elections to be held in Zhanaozen


Breaking news. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has decided to hold parliamentary elections in Zhanaozen on January 15th. I'm still digesting this and will have more commentary later. Meanwhile, I recommend reading Joanna Lillis' article on Eurasianet about the recent change of events.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Barring Elections in Zhanaozen is a Blow to Democracy in Kazakhstan


We are a little under a week away until Kazakhstan's elections for the Mazhilis and Maslikats scheduled for January 15th. A lot has happened in Kazakhstan since December 16th -- the deregistration of the Rukhaniyat party on December 29th, the banning of elections in Zhanaozen and the extension of the state of emergency until January 31st, and the banning of 10 Adilet candidates from running for maslikats for the city of Almaty, just to name a few. During the next week, all eyes are on Kazakhstan. Who knows what to expect? 

In the middle of the Russian Orthodox Christmas, President Nursultan Nazarbayev extended the state of emergency in Zhanaozen, a setback for the apparent transparency by the regime. On January 6th, a Kazakh government official announced that parliamentary elections scheduled for January 15th would not occur in Zhanaozen due to the state of emergency. 

There are wrong-doers on both sides of the December 16th events – the police should not have shot innocent people, as Youtube video demonstrates, and protesters should not have stormed the stage, set buildings on fire and loot ATMs. With that said, the cancelation of parliamentary elections in Zhanaozen deprives Kazakhstani citizens of their constitutional right to vote and is a negation of all of the Government’s claims to transparency, democratic governance and electoral processes.

Banning elections in Zhanaozen will have long-term consequences, as citizens are not able to decide their elected representatives. Their elected government officials will not represent them, thereby fostering further distrust of the regime. Instead, Presidential Nazarbayev will appoint officials who will be responsive to his interests, rather than to the will of the people. Assuming that no early elections are called and elected representatives are able to fulfill their five-year term, depriving Zhanaozen citizens their right to vote now results in no government representation at least until 2016. Further, while the regime has no intention of intensifying the Zhanaozen conflict, over time, anti-government, pro-democracy forces will cite the government action as a rallying cry for group mobilization.

In a democratic state, voting is one of the primary mechanisms through which citizens articulate their interests. Eliminating this peaceful and democratic channel of communication between elected officials and the polity will prompt citizens to adopt other mechanisms of voicing their interests – such as violence. From the Arab Spring revolutions, the regime has learned how to maximize the appearance of transparency through social media networks and has created a fabulous new website for young bloggers to virtually engage with civil society. However, the government failed to learn a key lesson: do not mess with elections.

It is important to remember that the January 15th elections were organized after President Nazarbayev dissolved the Mazhilis and signed a declaration for early elections on November 16th. The elections were previously scheduled for August 2012. The decision to dissolve the Mazhilis and elect a new body was defended by President Nazarbayev in order to elect at least two political parties to parliament in accordance with the 2009 amendments to the National Constitutional Law on elections and to establish firm, national leadership in the wake of global financial instability. Prime Minister Karim Massimov asserted that new elections present “an excellent opportunity to once again demonstrate the democratic development of our country.”

The government’s interjection of elections in Zhanaozen delegitimizes its claim of commitment to a democratic transition. Eliminating the votes of the industrial laborers makes a mockery of the entire election.

Constitutional Council President Igor Rogov asserted on behalf of the Government that elections can only occur “in an environment of stable public security and order, in the presence of a number of necessary conditions, including proper implementation of citizens' rights to freedom of movement, association, meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches, picket lines to receive and impart information.” While Rogov’s point is valid, elections have occurred in conflict-afflicted regions such as Sudan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Nigeria and Pakistan. The 1984 elections in Nicaragua occurred while the country was under a state of emergency, which had been implemented two years earlier.  It is not impossible to carry out electoral processes in regions recovering from war or currently in the midst of civil strife. Doing so requires increased allotment of resources into security and ensuring the transparent and efficient administration of elections by international observers.

Banning elections in a region under a state of emergency during a national parliamentary election is a unique policy option that is virtually unprecedented in the modern history of states.

There is precedent for leaders postponing elections after a state of emergency. Pervez Musharraf postponed Pakistani parliamentary elections in Pakistan after a two-month state of emergency in 2007. But Musharraf did not cancel elections. In Kyrgyzstan, in response to the June 2010 violence in Jalalabad, Rosa Otunbayeva cancelled elections for the country. Elections for the president occurred in October 2011, when the entire country was able to participate.

One state in which certain regions were restricted from carrying out elections was Nigeria. In April 2011, gubernatorial elections in the Nigerian states of Bauchi and Kaduna were postponed due to administrative problems and violence in the aftermath of the Presidential election. At the time, President Goodluck Jonathan contemplated implementing a state of emergency if there was no cessation of violence. Ultimately, elections in Bauchi and Kaduna were delayed by two days.

The Government of Kazakhstan should have followed Nigeria’s example and postpone elections in Zhanaozen, rather than canceling them. Or, the regime should have taken measures to ensure the successful conduct of elections during the state of emergency or postponed the elections until February or even as late as August, when the elections were originally scheduled to occur. There are clearly policy alternatives to barring elections.

Conducting parliamentary elections whereby the entire nation can participate would render them more legitimate to domestic and international observers and be a decisive step forward for Kazakhstan’s democratic development. Sadly, the Kazakhstan regime violated the basic tenant of democracy by closing the electoral channel for citizen participation in the state.

As always, comments are welcomed. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A New Year, a New Eurasian Union

Happy New Year Comrades!

2011 was a year to remember for Central Asia with Presidential Elections in Kazakhstan (April) and Kyrgyzstan (October), the deterioration of U.S.-Pakistani relations leading to an increased U.S. dependence on the NDN, and the December 16th events in Zhanaozen – just to name a few events. The New Year appears no less interesting with Parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan (January 15) and Presidential elections in Turkmenistan (February 12). In Kazakhstan, the joint Government – UN investigation into the Zhanaozen events will reveal the regime’s true commitment to transparency and accountability. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Atambayev continues to attempt to lead a country plagued by a corrupt government, ethnic division and few resources. In Foreign Policy Magazine, President of International Crisis Group Louise Arbour ranks Central Asia as number six on the list of wars in 2012. The preconditions for conflict are present in Central Asia, which if catalyzed, could whirlwind into a major conflict. So in 2012, watch this space.


Today, January 01, 2012, the Eurasian Union comes into effect. Based on the European Union, the Eurasian Union is an upgraded version of the EurAsEc customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan established in 2007 granting privileged trading rights and reduced trade barriers. Between the three economies, the EurAsEc customs union includes 170 million people and represents an area with a combined annual output of some $2 trillion. In November 2011, the three countries signed a declaration creating the Eurasian Economic Union, which lays out a roadmap for integrating the economies into a common economic space under the leadership of the Eurasian Customs Commission. Both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have articulated their intentions to fully realize the Eurasian Economic Union by 2015. Putin has even suggested the creation of a single currency in the future.

President Rahmon of Tajikistan and President Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan have both expressed their desire to join the Eurasian Union.  Given the deplorable state of Tajikistan’s economy, it is highly unlikely it will gain membership. Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the World Trade Organization, until Russia’s December 16th accession into the international organization, was a technical barrier to harmonizing the country’s trade policies with those of its counterparts in the Eurasian Union. Now that Russia is a WTO member, Kazakhstan is accelerating its domestic reforms with the intention of joining the WTO by the end of 2012. Given that Russia is Kyrgyzstan's primary export market, Atambayev desperately wants the country to join the Eurasian Union. President Atambayev is known for his ability to charm Putin -- after all, he did name a mountain peak after the Russian Prime Minister in 2011. Over the next year, I predict that Atambayev will continue to appeal to Putin for monetary assistance and Russian support of Kyrgyzstan's admission into the Eurasian Union. I also predict that Kazakhstan will join the WTO, if not by the end of 2012, then certainly within the next three to five years. 

Not to exclude Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but neither will join the Eurasian Union in 2012. President Karimov has criticized the regional institution as a Russian political attempt to recreate the Soviet Union. President Berdimuhamedov in Turkmenistan, on the other hand, continues the “positive neutrality” policy of his predecessor and has kept the country out of most regional organizations.  Berdimuhamedov’s primary foreign policy objective in the new year will be the construction of the TAPI pipeline.

While I doubt the Eurasian Union will create a single currency, given the troubles of the euro (happy tenth anniversary today J) and the economic turmoil of the 1990s after the collapse of the ruble, increased economic integration and the relaxation of trade barriers will benefit Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Creating a harmonized system of bureaucratic practices and procedures as well as a uniform nomenclature of tariff classifications will streamline the regional movement of goods while promoting increased investment and trade. For the five CARs, Russia remains the largest market for selling goods. Russia is also a primary destination for Central Asian migrant workers to labor in low-skilled industries, sending remittances to their families. Given the existing levels of economic integration between Russia and the CARs and the economic potential for future growth, the Eurasian Union has the potential to generate an enormous amount of prosperity to the three economies. This requires effective management, transparency and high levels of trust between individual leaders and government institutions.

On the one hand, I doubt the Eurasian Union will be as successful as it could be due to the history of failed attempts of regional institution building in the region. There is an entire alphabet soup of acronyms for weak attempts at regional integration including Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova (GUUAM), the Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC), Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Central Asia (CICA) and the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO).  In 2005, the CACO was absorbed by the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc). And, let us not forget the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Chinese-lead Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Since 1991, the pattern of institutional formation and deterioration in Central Asia reveals that the most successful regional organizations -- the SCO, followed by EurAsEc and the CSTO -- include Russia. Intra-Central Asian integration excluding Russia is not feasible due to weak institutions, a scarcity of resources and high levels of mutual trust between Central Asian regimes. Yet, with the resources and political power of Russia and increasingly China, as visible with the success of the SCO, regional integration in the economic and security realms occurs. In 2012, I predict that the Eurasian Union, with Russian leadership, will work to further integrate the economies of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and consider allowing Kyrgyzstan to gain full membership. 

In a region that confronts significant threats to security and stability, I hope the Eurasian Union brings prosperity to the people and governments of Central Asia in 2012. We shall see.