Tajikistan Mulls Accession to the EAEU Amid Potential Pressure from Neighbors
Discussions on the possibility of Tajikistan’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) were revived in July when Tajik Customs Service Chief Khurshed Karimzoda suggested that joining the union would have negative economic consequences on the country. The union, comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia, was established in a 2014 treaty. The EAEU integrated the markets of its member states to form a collective confederation designed to facilitate the free movement of goods and people, and institute a common policy for trade, transport, industry, and agriculture. Discussions surrounding Tajikistan’s accession to the EAEU have resurfaced but the country is unlikely to concede to Russia’s request to join right away.
Tajik society is divided over this contentious issue. Some officials are concerned that joining the EAEU would indirectly cede sovereignty to Russia. In addition, Chinese investment from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a critical source of financial assistance for Tajikistan. The BRI has also precipitated an increase in trade between the two countries. China has become Tajikistan’s second fastest growing import and export partner from 2017 to 2018. In 2018, 39.2 percent of Tajikistan’s imports originated in China, amounting to $1.43 billion worth of goods. Authorities are concerned that Tajikistan’s accession to the EAEU could result in a decline in economic activity and complicate its multi-vector policy by linking it too closely with Russia.
On the other hand, the pro-accession faction recognizes certain benefits Tajikistan would enjoy if it joined the union. Tajikistan is the most remittance-dependent country in the Caspian Region and one of the most dependent in the world. In 2019, approximately 524,000 Tajiks, about 5.76 percent of its population entered Russia for work. In total, Tajik migrant workers abroad sent back about $2.3 billion in remittances, contributing to 28.6 percent of the Central Asian county’s GDP. Tajikistan’s accession to the EAEU would provide it with a platform to lobby Russia to incorporate certain programs for labor migration into the framework of the union. Moreover, greater Eurasian integration would expand Tajikistan’s emerging textile and energy industries by providing it access to a market that is 20 times greater than its own domestic one.
The Kyrgyz Republic is the latest country to join the EAEU, officially becoming the union’s fifth member state in 2015. The reaction to the Kyrgyz Republic’s accession has been mixed. Kyrgyz agricultural producers have noted that they are now facing competition from Kazakhstani and Russian producers in their own domestic market. Moreover, Russia was unable to continue construction on a Kyrgyz hydroelectric station, effectively terminating the agreement and disappointing officials that were hopeful that the EAEU would provide new infrastructure projects. However, officials also recognize the positive developments that have been observed since its accession. The Kyrgyz-Russian Development Fund was formed in 2014 to boost investments in the Kyrgyz Republic. Furthermore, the inflow of remittances from migrant workers from Russia increased by 22 percent in the first year following its accession. The Kyrgyz Republic’s adoption of the EAEU’s integrated market had both positive and negative consequences that Tajikistan should consider while charting its own course.
Uzbekistan is also mulling the possibility of joining the union. However, Uzbekistan’s accession could spell trouble for Tajikistan and compel it to join the EAEU shortly after. All of Tajikistan’s goods transported by international rail and most goods transported by its road networks must pass through Uzbekistan to access markets beyond Central Asia. In addition, Tajikistan would be the only country in Central Asia, except for Turkmenistan, to not have access to the synchronized customs and product quality standards that its neighbors implemented. Tajik officials are worried that Uzbekistan’s accession to the EAEU would inadvertently leave Tajikistan with no choice but to join as well.
Accession to the EAEU continues to be a contentious debate in Tajikistan. Authorities should closely observe the experience of the Kyrgyz Republic and the debate on the EAEU in Uzbekistan. Tajik authorities should seriously consider the potential benefits from joining the union, including access to larger markets and a platform to ensure migrant workers are protected in Russia. Ultimately, the decision of Tajikistan’s western neighbor may force Dushanbe’s hand. Should Uzbekistan accede to the union, Tajikistan’s government would have little choice but to follow suit.