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TASHKENT (TCA) — Most people in Uzbekistan support their country’s possible membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, which unites Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. Joining the bloc promises economic advantages for Uzbekistan and its citizens, but political implications of the move are uncertain. We are republishing the following article on the issue, written by Umida Hashimova:

A respected economic policy think tank in Uzbekistan released the results of a recent poll on the attitudes of both public- and private-sector professionals inside the country about Uzbekistan’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) (Review.uz, May 20). According to the survey, respondents’ views are nearly equally favorable regarding Uzbekistan joining the WTO (78 percent) as well as the EEU (74 percent).

The Center for Economic Research and Reforms (CERR) polled 1,300 people as the country’s observer status to the Moscow-led EEU awaits the signature of Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The parliament’s Legislative Chamber (lower house) approved the proposal on April 28, and the Senate (upper house) adopted the legislation on May 11 (Kun.uz, April 28, May 11). The majority of those polled by the CERR were college students and private-sector representatives (64 percent); while the remainder were public servants, teachers and research scientists. The poll was conducted in all 12 regions of Uzbekistan, the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, as well as Tashkent city.

The think tank had previously led a study of the economic effects membership in the EEU would have on the country, at the request of President Mirziyoyev (Review.uz, February 5). The analysis reviewed Uzbekistan’s top ten economic sectors. Based on the CERR’s conclusions, membership in the Russian-dominated regional economic bloc would result in economic gains and only marginal losses in all of the surveyed domestic sectors. Moreover, according to the report, the EEU would open up access to larger markets and facilitate cheaper and faster movement of products from Uzbekistan.

President Mirziyoyev is likely to listen closely to the conclusions presented by the CERR given that the organization effectively acts as the only economic policy body under the presidential administration. Indeed, the CERR’s current head, Obid Hakimov, additionally serves as the deputy to the president’s advisor and, in the past, led the administration’s office for the protection of citizens’ rights (Kun.uz, October 24, 2019; Review.uz, January 9, 2020).

Half of those polled by the aforementioned CERR survey believe that Uzbekistan’s membership in the EEU would lower prices on consumer goods and services as well as improve the quality of available products. The second-most-chosen category for why joining the bloc would allegedly be beneficial was the expansion of export markets for domestic producers; and the third-highest-cited reason was the improvement of conditions of labor migrants in Russia.

According to the polled Uzbekistani professionals, the main advantages of WTO accession were almost evenly split between expected lower prices on products and services (along with their higher quality) and closer trade relations with a more diverse group of countries. Also named by some were the growth of the domestic job market thanks to greater volumes of foreign investments as well as increased exports.

Support for joining the EEU is particularly high in Uzbekistan for at least three main reasons. First of all, President Mirziyoyev himself spoke of the need for domestic products to obtain easier access to the EEU market and has repeatedly presented the organization as, overall, advantageous to Uzbekistan (Kun.uz, June 21, 2019). To date, he has said nothing negative about the regional bloc. Given that the president remains highly trusted and revered among both the elites and the ordinary population of Uzbekistan, his decisions enjoy widespread and robust acceptance.

Second, there has been no serious debate within Uzbekistani society or the media on the political implications of Uzbekistan’s EEU membership. The limited anti-EEU discussions in independent news outlets and online social media are generally brushed off as an irritant by the government (Daryo.uz, February 17, 2020). Uzbekistan’s officials, in both the executive and legislative branches, consistently portray the EEU as the best option for the future of the country and for achieving economic growth. Consequently, the population tends to more-or-less unquestionably accept the Moscow-led regionalist organization as purely an advantageous economic club.

Third, and relatedly, decades of limited political debate domestically (not only over the past four years) has meant that Russia’s geopolitical intentions in Uzbekistan have never really been questioned. Moscow’s hidden agendas are almost nonexistent in open discussions among Uzbekistani officials for fear of offending the Kremlin and of becoming embroiled in political attacks by Russia—a battle Uzbekistan’s officials would most likely lose. This may, in part, explain why Russia still remains so apparently highly favored among Uzbekistani elites.

Yet, it is worth reiterating that the CERR poll results additionally show that the percentage of supporters of the WTO and EEU are almost the same, and both international organizations are viewed as equally advantageous for the country’s economy. In an honest debate over the political and foreign policy implications of this choice, the EEU would almost certainly lose to the WTO; but that is not a debate that politicians in Uzbekistan are ready to engage in. The limited discussions in the media of the negative political consequences of joining the Russian-dominated Eurasian Union have not swayed the opinions of the majority of professionals away from the EEU. The reason could be that these discussions remain confined to a limited number of independent intellectuals.

Meanwhile, officials in Uzbekistan continue to prime the country to join the Eurasian Economic Union. Uzbekistan’s top think tank on economic policy first delivered a study on the favorable economic consequences of EEU membership; and now it has presented a poll that delivers the same message. This survey will surely serve as another tool in the toolkit to bolster support for and justify the government’s policy decision to accede to the EEU. The poll will also likely be used as “proof” that the decision on membership was not arbitrary, but rather a deliberate approach backed by the country’s business and intellectual elites. Lastly, the poll will allow the authorities in Tashkent to distance themselves from the domestic and international warnings of the potential political dangers that may come from such membership, and for the government to claim that the move toward EEU membership reflects the desire of the people themselves.

This article was originally published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor

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