Eurasian Integration: Pursuing Stability and Influence in an Uncertain World

Jonathan Trefz
MA Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies. He has spent over ten years living in Russia, China and Saudi Arabia and holds a BA in Mandarin and Russian. His research focuses on the politics of national identity in post-Soviet Central Asia.


In the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, all former member states experienced a cataclysmic decline in prosperity, demographics, social order and security as well as the interruption of investment, labour and trade flows. In the midst of this crisis, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed the reintegration of post-Soviet states to address these challenges. His concept, The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) came into being on January first, 2015. It is modelled on the European Union and member states currently include Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. The project faces complex challenges, not least the authoritarian nature of the governments involved and the viability of creating consensus among those governments and the people they ostensibly represent.

This study introduces the historical and theoretical background of Eurasian integration, an outline of its progression, and focuses on its impact on the migrant labour market as an indicator of success. We rely on journalistic sources to analyze what progress has been taken in the few months since the accession of the only major labour-exporting state, Kyrgyzstan. Do the economics of Eurasian integration engender a new ‘friendship of nations’ or resentment? Does integration have a sound economic basis or is it founded on a merely fanciful vision of a shared Soviet past and Russian neo-imperialism?

Post-Soviet Context of Eurasian Re-integration

Perestroika led to a scheme to reconstitute the Soviet Union along non-Marxist lines. A referendum on the adoption of the New Union Treaty was held in May 1991 in all Soviet Socialist Republics except the Baltics, Georgia and Moldova. All participating republics voted in favour, with the lowest approval rate Ukraine’s 71%. In all five Central Asian states approval was over 90% (Direct Democracy). Their economies were tightly integrated with Russia’s, and they were unprepared for independence. Nevertheless, the Soviet Coup of August 1991, which gave Yeltsin a pretext to usurp power from Gorbachev via abolishing the Soviet Union. He accomplished this in concert with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine by signing the Belavezha Accords in secret in December of that year. This radical step, compounded with the radical reform attempt of shock therapy, resulted in a decade of cataclysmic decline in prosperity, demographics, social order and state security as well as the interruption of investment, labour and trade flows.

The Belavezha Accords replaced the Soviet Union with the loose Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The thousands of CIS documents and resolutions passed are non-binding on member states (Leskova 2015, 232) and only 10% have been ratified by them (Krickovic 2014, 506). Described from the outset as “no commonwealth” but a “club of the customers of Russian gas,” (Ibid., 231, citing Khalip) the organization was impotent in facing the dire challenges member states faced in the 1990s. Therefore, speaking at Moscow State University in March, 1994, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed a stronger ‘Eurasian Union’ modelled on the EU.

Theoretical foundation: Classical Eurasianists and Gumilyov

The Eurasian Integration project is rooted in the theoretical work of a movement formed by staunchly patriotic Russian emigres contemporary to Stalin’s nation-engineering in the 1920s. The Eurasianists constituted a short-lived intellectual movement which called for precisely the sort of ‘friendship of nations’ and two-layered system of national identity which Stalin created.

Schnirlman summarizes the goals of the Eurasianists as being “to preserve the unity of the Russian Empire. Towards this end they tried to develop an ideology which could ensure the strong unity of all the peoples across the country.” They “opposed separatism and narrow ethnic nationalism, including the Russian kind” (Schnirelman 2001, 155). Although anti-Communist, the Eurasianists attempted to cope with Soviet power and some argued for cooperation with it (Ibid.) They broadly approved of Stalin’s nationalities policy, agreeing that every nation ought to have equal status, it’s own government and territory. Count Trubetskoy in particular advocated ‘unity in diversity’ through the establishment of an over-arching ‘Eurasian’ ethos similar to Stalin’s ‘Soviet Nation’ (Ibid, 157). They wished to avoid Great-Russian (Muscovite) Chauvinism while accepting that the Eurasian meta-culture would be largely based on pan-Russian core- denoting a combination of Muscovite Great-Russia, Belorus, and Little Russia- now more commonly called Ukraine (Ibid., 158). They emphasized that this pan-Russian culture was not essentially Slavic but a product of the close historical and cultural relationship between East Slavs, Finno-Ugric peoples and Turko-Mongols (Ibid., 155) and that the construction of Eurasian culture would be a joint effort of all nations involved (Ibid., 159), a process that had already started in the Russian Empire (Ibid., 161).

These ideas were corroborated and later expanded by the work of ethnologist Lev Gumilyov in the mid to late Soviet Period. He argued that the “black legend” of a tragic Mongol Yoke was imported to Russia from the west during the westernization campaign of Peter the Great. This view had come from crusader perceptions of the Middle East and Inner Asia, and was a symptom of Eurocentrism (Naarden 1996, 63). In fact, he argued, there had been no Mongol Yoke. Medieval Nomadic Turko-Mongol and agricultural East-Slavic societies had existed in hybrid and were supplementary, as the Eurasianists had argued (Beloglazov 2015, 177). Conflict was at least as common within each group as between them. Alliances and intermarriage were common (Naarden, 1996, 63). He asserted that primary sources displayed no resentment of Mongol power, rather they indicate that unlike the Catholic west, the Mongols only exacted tribute from their East Slavic vassals rather than appropriating land and instigating mass destruction. They were also highly tolerant of indigenous belief systems (Ibid., 64). As the Turko-Mongol Golden Horde gradually became more Islamic, many of them preferred to integrate into Orthodox Christian culture (Ibid., 66). At the battle of Kulikovo Pole, the decisive conflict leading to the fall of the Golden Horde, a large contingent of Turko-Mongol cavalry fought on the Russian side, while the Khan had to rely on a largely Caucasian force (Ibid.).

This narrative reflected the views of the earlier Eurasianists and reinforced their idea of Russians and Central Asians as co-agent in building a Eurasian civilization (Beloglazov 2015, 177). Eurasianism was and is highly flexible, blending Soviet ideas with traditional Imperial patriotism into a coherent narrative of Russian or Eurasian history (Schnirelman 2001, 155). It was therefore no accident that Eurasianism regained a certain amount of popularity in the ideological vacuum of perestroika and the 1990s, particularly among Central Asians (Beloglazov 2015, 178).

Sevim and Lapenko identify two main strands of Eurasianism, neo-Eurasianism (Sevim, 2013, 46) or right Eurasianism (Lapenko 2014, 122), a robust variety advanced by professor Alexander Dugin, and pragmatic or left Eurasianism — a less ardently anti-western strand promoted by members of the post-Soviet political elite. The gap between the two is illustrated by Dugin’s dismissal from his directorship at Moscow State University during the 2014 crisis, as reported by

Nazarbayev’s Eurasianist Revival and its Reception in Central Asia

Kazakh President Nazarbayev described the impetus for his 1994 speech proposing Post-Soviet Eurasian integration in these terms, It is no mere chance that I announced this idea in a lecture hall of the M.V. Lomonosov Moscow State University. I appealed directly to the intellectual elite of the entire Commonwealth with the firm resolve to rouse the process of multi-faceted integration out of the torpor in which it found itself two years after the creation of the CIS.

I said candidly that the CIS is not meeting the objective requirements of the day and is not providing for the integration of the new member states so sorely needed by our people. For that reason the need to establish a new interstate association that would operate on more clearly defined principles has come to a head. (Lapenko 2014, 123)

This desire for reintegration from a Post-Soviet Central Asian leader underlines the degree to which the project of Soviet civic nationhood was successful, while undermining the liberal western assumption of enthusiasm for national liberation from Russo-Soviet domination.

It is easy to assume that post-Soviet reintegration is simply the Kremlin asserting influence over its near abroad. However, the integration process following Nazarbayev’s proposal has very much been implemented in tandem by the two strongest Post-Soviet economies, Russia and Kazakhstan, and serves the interests of its Central Asian participants as much or more than it serves Moscow’s. As Lapenko notes, “Some experts in Belarus and Kazakhstan believe the countries are joining in this association for the very purpose of more efficiently defending their sovereignty” (2014, 127). Krickovic agrees, arguing that the “region’s smaller and weaker states are not simply an object of Russia’s power” (2014, 505), supported by Matveeva, who claims, “Politically, Russia’s interest in Central Asian economies matches the domestic needs of the governments” (2007, 48).

Reintegration is more popular in Central Asia than it is in Russia ( 2015, citing Eurasian Development Bank research). Beloglazov notes that Russia and Kazakhstan in particular share similar history, political approaches, and supplementary economies (2015, 176). They both see integration as improving their competitiveness and influence in the global arena (Ibid.; Lapenko 2014, 124). Russia is Kazakhstan’s route to the ocean, while Kazakhstan is Russia’s route to the rest of Central Asia, India and China (Ibid, 178).

The three nomadic hordes (named Lesser, Middle and Greater) that eventually became Kazakhstan joined the Russian Empire voluntarily through treaty agreement in the mid eighteenth century (Beloglazov 2015, 179; Esenova 2002, 15), weakening narratives of Russian colonialism and Kazakh victimhood. As Matveeva finds, “Largely, Central Asians do not tend to regard their history in the Russian/Soviet state as an experience of colonialism” (2007, 54). Some, according to Matveeva are thankful that the Soviet Union saved them from a fate similar to that of Afghanistan and prefer the current strongmen to the Islamism promoted by Gulf Arab states across the Muslim world (Ibid., 54, 55).

Nazarbayev saw the imperative that Eurasian integration must be based on economic pragmatism (Mansurov 2014, 133; Lapenko 2014, 123) and this has indeed been a foundational characteristic of the integration process (Krickovic 2014, 503). According to his vision, the future Eurasian Union’s bodies would function on the basis of consensus and possess real authority without member states surrendering their sovereignty (Lapenko 2014, 123; Sevim 2013, 53; Mansurov 2014, 113).

Membership would be based on referenda or parliamentary decision. There would be no associate membership and a four fifths majority would be required in decision making (Sevim 2013, 54).

Nazarbayev envisioned three stages of Eurasian integration, economic, humanitarian and security. He promotes the idea of Eurasia as a land bridge between Europe and Asia (Ibid., 52), an idea which is being realized in China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ or New Silk Road project. Sevim quotes Nazarbayev as outlining that “The Eurasian Union should be formed as a self-reliant regional financial grouping which would be a part of the global monetary and financial system,” while cautioning on expectations, “let us not forget that it took forty years to set up a single European market”(56).

Nazarbayev’s Vision Catches On

Unfortunately, the very crises of the post-Soviet world in social stability, order, state-security, governance and the economy which partly provided the imperative for Nazarbayev’s proposal prevented its implementation in the short-term, as did the self-serving short-sightedness of regional elites who hoped to enrich themselves through retention of full power (Stepanenko 2014, 46). Meanwhile, justly or not, “Many Russian leaders believed that the Russian nation (and not the “subject” nations of the Soviet Union) had been most exploited by the Soviet system,” and they were concerned that new “imperial” burdens would detract from the goal of domestic liberal reform (Krickovic 2014, 506; Matveeva 2007, 45).

However, Nazarbayev continued developing his ideas. He established the Gumilyov Eurasian University (Beloglazov 2015, 177) and continued promoting the Eurasian project through various articles, books and addresses (Lapenko 2014, 123). The premiership of Evgeny Primakov saw an end of neglect for Central Asia in Russian policy (Sevim 2013, 43) but Russia’s dismal economy and state weakness in the nineties prevented him from effecting much practical change (Ziegler 2014, 594). Support for Eurasian integration only took off with Putin’s rise to the presidency in 2000 (Beloglazov 2015, 178; Matveeva 2007, 44). He and Belarussian president Lukashenko both contributed a number of articles and addresses in support of Eurasian integration (Lapenko 2014, 124).

Matveeva outlines the reasons for this shift and its timing. Russian commercial, investment, military-security, natural resource and transit interests in Central Asia had all declined in the nineties. Suddenly experiencing economic strength thanks to energy revenues, Russia began searching for allies due to setbacks in its attempt to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Besides, the consolidation of decision-making power in the presidential administration helped overcome policy incoherence caused by competing factions and resulted in a richer, more diverse policy agenda. Russia’s priorities in integration are the extraction and transit of hydrocarbons, prevention of terrorism and drug trafficking, and control of migrant labour flows (Matveeva 2007, 44).

Eurasianism Moves from Theory to Practice

The first concrete steps took place in 2000 with the signing of the treaty creating the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) involving Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (Beloglazov 2015, 181). The goal was the creation of a customs union and a common economic space “ensuring free movement of goods, services, capital and labour” (Mansurov 2014, 115).
This process has followed Nazarbayev’s idea of modelling Eurasian integration on the example of the European Union (Sevim 2013, 52; Mansurov 2014; 118). This involved the establishment of a commission based on that of the EU which can decide macro-economic policy and the establishment of a court of arbitration (Krickovic 2014, 508). The EurAsEC became an observer organization of the UN in 2003 (Stepanenko 2014, 48).

In 2006 the Eurasian Development Bank was founded and in 2007 a treaty was signed on a Customs Union between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan (Beloglazov 2015, 181). Customs controls on the respective borders of these three countries were removed in 2010 (Mansurov 2014, 121) creating a customs area with a market of 167 million people, a GDP of two trillion dollars and annual trade turnover of nine hundred billion (Krickovic 2014, 507). The agreement on a Single Economic Space was made in 2009, creating a single market not only in goods but also services such as power grids, transport and communications (Mansuro 2014, 122).

On January first, 2015 the functions and bodies of the EurAsEC, Customs Union and Common Economic Space were merged into the new Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The new union originally consisting of only Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, but expanded to include Armenia and Kyrgyzstan within the first half of 2015. Kazakhstan insisted on inserting the word ‘Economic’ in the name to emphasize member states’ retention of political sovereignty while implying a heightened level of economic integration. Though deeper political integration is planned, Kazakhstan has decided to postpone this until more members join and can jointly counterbalance Russia’s influence (Khabrieva 2015, 98; Lapenko 2014, 127; Krickovic 2014, 521). As Stepanenko notes, this is an example of how the speed of integration is a compromise between the three main member states (2014, 54).

The EAEU builds on the success of the EurAsEC, Customs Union and Common Economic Space particularly in increasing commodity turnover. The provisions of the EAEU are being gradually implemented between 2015 and 2018 (Leskova 2015, 232) in accordance with the UN Charter and the WTO (Mansurov 2014, 214; Stepanenko 2014, 51), with the goal of reaching a level of integration similar to that of the European Union (Khabrieva 2015, 95). However, Krickovic believes that the EAEU’s pragmatic, flexible approach where states can select their level of integration helps reduce sovereignty concerns and is more effective than EU’s ‘pooled sovereignty’ model, which many Russian experts believe has over-extended itself by giving too much power to Brussels (2014, 522).

The EAEU is also intended to strengthen members against external threats and challenges such as the 2008 financial crisis or world price fluctuations, prevent a repeat of the conflicts the post-Soviet space experienced after breakup and help them integrate into the global economy from a position of strength (Leskova 2015, 231, 232; Krickovic 2014, 515). Mansurov believes these goals can be met in the medium term (2014, 125) and hopes “Eurasian and European integration can effectively complement each other” (2014, 123).

The main bodies of the EAEU are a Supreme Council made up of the presidents of member states, an intergovernmental council formed by the prime ministers, a permanent body in the form of the Eurasian Commission, and a Eurasian Court (Ibid., 233). Stepanenko notes that “The removal of migration, border and other barriers and of “labor quotas” will mean that citizens of all member countries of the new integration project will be able to choose without any restrictions where to live, study and work” (2014, 53). All border controls were removed between member states, with some hiccoughs, over the course of 2015.

Challenges to Eurasian Integration

Eurasian integration faces some very serious challenges. Some of these are external and geopolitical. Sevim notes that former United States secretary of state Brzezinksi argued in the nineties that control of Eurasia should be the main geopolitical focus of US strategy as a continuation of the strategy of containment toward the Soviet Union (2013, 45). Krickovic points out secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s vow to thwart any reintegration in the Eurasian space, It’s going to be called a customs union; it will be called the Eurasian Union and all of that. But let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to find effective ways to slow it down or prevent it. (Financial Times, as quoted by Krickovic 2014, 504)

Nevertheless the main challenges are of course internal. As Leskova points out, while the EAEU is based on the EU, “The European Union unites the free nations of the civilized market economy and democratic political systems. Unfortunately, these characteristics do not fit into any of the Post-Soviet countries involved in the integration processes in the Post-Soviet space” (2015, 237). She also notes the problems of high-level corruption and that half of companies don’t report revenue statistics to the authorities. Companies have often quickly found ways to exploit the new framework, moving assets and capital to take advantage of the system (Ibid.).

Leskovaalso decsribes certain tensions between member states. Belarus has complained that Russia was slow to abolish Customs Union tariffs, and that it has invited weak and unrecognised states to join the union (Ibid., 235). Key sectors of both the Kazakh and Belarussian economies have suffered from Russian subsidies to its competing domestic sectors (Ibid., 236). As Krickovic points out, the “project’s ability to reconcile growing economic integration with smaller states’ concerns about loss of sovereignty and Russian dominance will be of critical importance to its success or failure” (2014, 505).
Krickovic believes that there is low public support for Eurasian integration in Russia, and that most people would prefer it if the government focused on social welfare programs (2014, 510). However, Lapenko finds that the crisis in Ukraine has increased the popularity of the EAEU in Russia (2014, 134).


One major challenge and indicator of success will be the EAEU’s ability to integrate small, weak Kyrgyzstan which acceded to the union on August twelfth, 2015 (Relocate 2015). The process of Kyrgyz integration supports the argument that the EAEU is not merely an instrument of Russian hegemony, but also meets the needs of its weaker members.

Volovoj argues that the main benefit the EAEU brings Kyrgyzstan is stability (2015, 193). Kyrgyzstan was unprepared for independence from the Soviet Union and besides a dire socio-economic situation, has experienced extremely poor governance and waves of unrest (Ibid.). Kyrgyzstan struggles to balance a North-South clan division. The first president Akaev engaged in enrichment of himself and his immediate family, neglecting even his broader northern clan, and leading to apathy and lack of support from within the clan when he was deposed by the largely mafia-driven Tulip Revolution (Ibid.). Akaev was replaced by southerner Bakiev, who was overthrown for precisely the same reasons and in an extremely similar scenario in 2010. The Kyrgyz-Uzbek inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that year brought Kyrgyzstan to the brink of becoming a failed state. Kyrgyzstan experimented with becoming Central Asia’s “Island of Democracy”; a new, parliamentary constitution was drawn up, but powerful groups were not capable of compromises required by such a system. More chaos resulted and Kyrgyzstan remained on the brink of becoming a failed state. Therefore, under the leadership of Atambaev, Kyrgyzstan moved to a more presidential system characterized as ‘managed democracy’ or ‘soft authoritarianism’ (Ruget 2008, 131) like that of Kazakhstan and Russia, in which streamlined policy execution has allowed the establishment of a more or less stable social contract (Volovoj 2015, 193). Volovoj believes that this gives the Kyrgyz development path a choice between two models: the Kazakh model, in which Russian support for a strong president has resulted in relative prosperity, or the Tajik model, where Russian support for a strong president results in his consolidation of power and self-enrichment (Ibid., 194).

Atambaev brought Kyrgyzstan into the EAEU with a strong electoral mandate to do so, and accession took place mid-2015. Both the president and population of Kyrgyzstan see the promise of stability as the main imperative for joining the EAEU. The Union strengthens their hand in tense relations with Tajikstan and Uzbekistan while avoiding excess influence of China, widely viewed with suspicion in Central Asia (Ibid., 196). The EAEU assumes responsibility for security on Kyrgyzstan’s borders with these three neighbours. In exchange, Russia is happy that the lease of the Manas air base to the United States has not been renewed.

A Eurasian Schengen?

Kyrgyzstan is the first member state to rely heavily on remittances from Russia and Kazakhstan, labour migration is a central issue to Kyrgyz Eurasian Integration. Besides, migration reform is key to the success of the EAEU and its success or failure will be a good indicator of the viability of building a Eurasian civic identity, a “Eurasian idea,” in a multi-ethnic context.

In 2011, ten percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population and a third of its workforce had migrated to Russia or Kazakhstan (Ruget 2011, 49) and remittances accounted for around twenty-nine percent of GDP, and provided funds for sixteen percent of Kyrgyz households, the highest post-Soviet figure (Ibid., 51). Leskova believes that increased labour mobility alleviates social tensions in Central Asian states (Leskova 2015, 235), a view shared by labour migrants themselves (Ruget 2008, 133). Ruget notes that migrant worker remittances support families and relieve strained social programs in Kyrgyzstan (2011, 48). Gostovtseva points out that in time of high unemployment, labour emigration is sort of a release valve alleviating social pressures (2012, 384). The average annual salary for migrants in Kazakhstan rose from US$5503 in 2009 to US$8570 in 2013 (Alpysbaeva 2015, 513). Migrants transfer about forty-four percent of their earnings home (Ibid.), and occasionally aid their communities by pooling money for weddings, deaths, or recovery from crises like the 2010 ethnic riots. They rarely engage in long-term investment (Ruget 2011, 55), and unlike Mexico or Haiti Kyrgyzstan has failed to set up institutions to take advantage of remittances (Ibid., 52). This is exacerbated by the high proportion of remittances from undocumented migrant labourers- the proportion is two to three times higher than official transfers (Gostovtseva 2012, 384; Alpysbaeva 2105, 513), and is a crucial source of funds for the economies of Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states (Ibid., 383). Official remittances amount to forty-eight percent of GDP in Tajikstan, thirty-one percent of GDP in Kyrgyzstan, lower than capital flows from foreign direct investment but higher than foreign aid (Alpyzbaeva 2015, 510).

Gostovsteva finds that despite popular perception migrants don’t adversely effect the labour market in the receiving countries- migrant workers perform jobs that the local residents would rather turn to the social security system than do (Ibid.). The President of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, in expressing optimism on Eurasian integration, particularly praised the provision of host-state social insurance for migrant workers (Leskova 2015, 236).

Migration in the lead up to the establishment of the EAEU was already influencing the self-identification of migrants. The Customs Union, despite not allowing for the free flow of labour, still led to an increase in labour migration (Alpysbaeva 2015, 510). Many labour migrants follow kinship networks and settle with relatives and others from the same village, region or clan (Ruget 2011, 50). While Ruget observes that the experience of labour migration increases Kyrgyz migrants’ sense of national identity, as is common world wide, she also notes that given the chance, few if any get socially or politically involved in Kyrgyz affairs (Ruget 2008, 136), partially because they lack time and resources (Ruget 2011, 50). Prior to EAEU accession, given the chance, migrants were eager to obtain citizenship in their host country although it meant loss of Kyrgyz citizenship. Kazakhstan has naturalized thousands of Kyrgyz migrants (Ruget 2008, 132) leading to fears that the Kyrgyz nation would disappear (Ruget 2008, 138). Up to fifteen percent of Kyrgyz labour migrants in Russia had obtained citizenship there by 2011 (Ruget 2011, 50). Few return home and take pride in their ability to integrate (Ruget 2008, 137).

Challenges facing Kyrgyz Labour Migrants

Migrants face serious difficulties in integrating into their host countries. As open borders are a fundamental principle of Eurasian integration these difficulties challenge the viability of Eurasian unity and a shared Eurasian identity. The context in which migrants choose to leave their homes is one of dire hardship. Post-Soviet reforms left Kyrgyzstan mired in clan politics, corruption, political instability, criminality, and a forty percent poverty rate (Ruget 2008, 130).

However, migrants to the relative stability and prosperity of Kazakhstan and Russia have faced unscrupulous police, extortionate customs officers, (Ibid.) have often been alienated and brutalized by the local population (Matveeva 2007, 54) and have felt that they have no rights in their host country (Ruget 2008, 133). Ruget notes that migrants avoid attention and rarely protest, but on February first 2010, about a hundred gathered in Bishkek to protest abuse by Kazakh police and exploitation by Kazakh employers (2011, 56). They have faced a nightmare of corruption and bureaucracy in which it was impossible to get a residence permit without citizenship and impossible to get citizenship without a residence permit, hindering their access to health care and education (Ibid., 133). They have often restricted their own freedom of movement in order to avoid police harassment (Ibid.). Zanca notes,
hardly a week or so passes that we don’t read about the abuse of some migrant at the hands of authorities — bribery, at the hands of landowners or building site managers —  (withholding of wages, confiscation of official documents, virtual enslavement), and the inter-ethnic gang fights, horrible housing conditions and the tragedies associated therewith, and racist murders. (2013, 289)

In Kazakhstan and Russia, where the majority of migrants are from Central Asia (Alpysbaeva 2015, 512; Ruget 2011, 56), migrants are looked down on as inferior and blamed for local social problems (Gorenburg 2014, 4). Zanca finds poor language skills a source of friction particularly in Russia (2013, 290), where 25% of Central Asian migrants don’t know the language well (Ruget 2011, 56). Zanca underlines that “resources and time must be devoted to basic, effective, and practical courses in Russian with particular emphasis on job-specific language training” as developed in other countries (2013, 290). This has been attempted on a limited scale. The city of Saint Petersburg started running integration programs in 2006 focused on fighting negative ethnic stereotypes, but were unsuccessful. A second attempt started in 2011 promotes multiculturalism and light assimilation through education, but success is still uncertain (Gorenburg 2014, 6).

Eflova looks at the unique case of attitudes to migrants in Tatarstan, a subject republic of the Russian Federation whose titular people, making up just over half of the population, share close religious, linguistic, cultural and historic ties to the peoples of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. She finds that crimes committed by migrants receive disproportionate attention, leading the local community to scapegoat migrants for local social problems. When an eight year old girl was raped by a an Uzbek migrant in 2013, there were popular calls for a public execution (Eflova 2014, 468). Eflova finds such phenomena have led to half the population of Tatarstan being “wary” of migrants and a fifth favouring a prohibition of immigration (Ibid., 467).

At home, migration has caused a brain-drain effect, a lack of state income to support social programs, and left migrants concerned about Uzbek and Chinese encroachment into their home villages (Ruget, 2008, 135).

Initiatives to Address the Challenges of Labour Migration

The ability to address the serious challenges facing migrants within the EAEU will have a strong effect on the viability of the union, and of the viability of developing a Eurasian civil identity. Resolution of these problems is also in the pragmatic economic interests of the member states. In Kazakhstan, the level of illegal migration is “an order of magnitude” higher than official statistic data show (Alpysbaeva 2015, 513), seriously distorting perceptions of the domestic labour market and the ability to enact effective planning and policy. Therefore the EAEU framework is necessary for Kazakhstan to strengthen legislation, simplify permit procedure and reduce administrative barriers to migrant registration (Ibid.). While little to no academic work has been done on the effect on migrants of Kyrgyz accession to the EAEU, some preliminary results can be taken from journalistic sources.

Re:locate reported positively in September on the removal of the requirement for work patents for Kyrgyz migrants in Russia, one of the arduous bureaucratic requirements which left them vulnerable to corruption and abuse. The article notes that while migration procedures are being simplified within the EAEU, procedures for citizens of non-member states to work in Russia are becoming more difficult. This is likely intended to pressure other Central Asian states to join. reported in late November that, Employment procedures have been simplified and social conditions for migrant workers and their families have improved. All restrictions on the admission to the general labour market have been lifted and mandatory quotas abolished. Kyrgyz labor migrants no longer have to obtain work permits or patents and take exams on Russian history and law.

Also, “Kyrgyz university degrees are now recognized in Russia,” formally at least (Ibid.). Furthermore, reported in mid-November that a law was submitted to the Russian parliament on November twenty-forth on the abolition of compulsory registration of citizens for a stay of thirty days or less. In terms of Russian Ministry of Immigration regulation, this is quite a privilege, as even Russian citizens must register their residence with the authorities. VestnikKavkaza reported on November twenty-first that as part of this migration liberalization, twelve thousand migrants banned from Russia for a period of three years had their bans lifted in August, with another forty thousand bans to be lifted by the end of November. For its part, Kazakhstan, as reported by on November thirteenth, is abolishing the requirement to submit migration cards at the border for EAEU citizens.

Of course not all reports are positive. reports that availability of information on the reforms and occasional continued application of old regulations by local authorities as hang-ups in an otherwise effectively implemented integration process (2015). In another report, found that less than two months after Kyrgyz accession, Kyrgyz migrants’ complaints of non-compliance with the new regulations led a Kyrgyz state delegation to visit a number of cities in Siberia to press for adherence to EAEU norms. This resulted in the ban on residence on 2-3 thousand migrants being lifted (2015).
One of the most serious challenges facing EAEU integration is the substantial level of often belligerent Russian xenophobia. reports (seemingly anecdotal evidence) that at least seventy percent of the population of Moscow have a negative attitude toward Kyrgyz migrants. The article, from November nineteenth, also notes migrants’ continued lack of access to health care (2015). Other articles suggest that Russia is beginning to address the problem of xenophobia and racist violence. RT reported in March, 2014 that the leader of extremist racist group ‘Slavic Union’ Dmitry Demushkin was convicted of organizing a criminal organization and on October twenty-eighth, 2015 that extremist nationalist group ‘Ethno-Political Union of Russians’ had been banned. Finally, on the same day RT reported that the leader of Russia’s far-right Liberal Democratic Party announced the abandonment of ethno-nationalist rhetoric. These reports coincide with Arnold’s description of a state crackdown on racist violence in recent years (Arnold 2015, 243).

Popular Support

Big News Network report on October fifth that in all parties elected to the Kyrgyz parliament in October, 2015 have a pro-Russian, pro-EAEU orientation. Furthermore, cites research from the Eurasian Development bank finding that EAEU integration is supported by 86% of Kyrgyz, 80% of Kazakhs, 78% of Russians, 60% of Belarussians and 58% of Armenians. Support for joining was in the majority in non-member states Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Moldova (2015). Support also comes from abroad, as TASS reported on December fourth. “China supports a model proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Eurasian Integration involving Beijing’s initiative, the Silk Road Economic Belt, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunyin said.”


Available academic work on Eurasian integration is overwhelmingly positive and supportive. To some degree this indicates a high level of state dedication and commitment to the project. Lack of English-language media coverage and incongruence with liberal development narratives has likely led potentially critical voices to ignore the issue. The EAEU is an authoritarian club, but the argument that the project is thereby inherently unviable is a non sequitur. As noted above the project retains high levels of popular support. Lacking the social-stabilizing mechanisms of electoral democracy, the success of the project will rely on its ability to offer economic growth and political stability. Boris Kagarlitsky, speaking in Toronto on October first, 2015, noted that Russia has enjoyed much greater political stability than Ukraine only because hydrocarbons offer the former a much larger pool of revenue than enjoyed by the latter to divide amongst and placate elites. To succeed the Eurasian project must offer elites and the general population sufficient economic benefits. Kagarlitsky’s observation raises the question of whether prosperity is the result of sound institutions or sound institutions the result of prosperity. After all, the American and Australian continents were not conquered and the maritime European empires not built on the universal application of natural law.

Nevertheless, the Eurasian project aims to built prosperity and sound institutions simultaneously by applying the European model to an alien authoritarian context in an environment of foreign animosity and global economic uncertainty.

Though the future remains dark and uncertain, progress so far is promising. Eurasian integration is a process of compromise and consensus among the ruling elites of its member states. If Russia is to meet its goals of geopolitical security, Russia will have to rely on the cooperation of its Eurasian partners and share some power with them. Meanwhile, for weaker members, Russia is the devil they know and which they can to some degree exploit in order to maintain stability and integrate into the global economy gradually from a position of relative strength and through a business and administrative culture that isn’t too foreign and jarring. Hang-ups in implementing migration reform in the first few months of Kyrgyz accession have not exceeded reasonable expectation and early indications are that these hang-ups are being effectively addressed. Although popular in Central Asia, the original Eurasianist goal of creating a supra-national Eurasian identity faces complex challenges, particularly widespread xenophobia in Russia and economic shocks like the current collapse in oil prices and thereby the currency values of oil and gas producers Russia and Kazakhstan. Success in all these projects will be vital to preventing the flare up of the various frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space and repeats of the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Kyrgyzstan particularly sees EAEU integration as vital in this regard. The creation of shared supra-national identity in a network of nation-states has not been definitely successful in either the EU or USSR precedents. It will, however, be vital if the post-Soviet space is to avoid the fate of the post-Ottoman: think Syria, Iraq, the Balkans, Yemen, and Libya. If it achieves lasting stability, even at the cost of democracy, Eurasian integration will benefit not only its participants but the wider global community.

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