Public Opinion in Kazakhstan on Eurasian Integration and the Eurasian Economic Union

The new course of comprehensive economic pragmatism as well as the consistent and predictable foreign policy aimed at promoting the national interests and strengthening the regional and global security is a priority of the strategic development of Kazakhstan until 2050 [1]. The prospects of achieving these goals depends, to a certain extent, on the success of the Eurasian Economic

Union that, in turn, relies not only on the political will of the governments concerned but on the support of the people who are to be the main beneficiaries of the integration project.

The discourse of Eurasian integration emerged in Kazakhstan in the mid 1990s being triggered by President Nazarbayev’s speech at Lomonosov Moscow State University in 1994 [2]. The idea of rapprochement of the countries of the former USSR was received rather ambiguously both in Kazakhstan and beyond. The lack of enthusiasm was quite understandable then given that the former Soviet Republics had had only three years of their independence; the disintegration forces were at their peak.

During the two decades, the idea of Eurasian integration has been always present in the public discourses of Kazakhstan. Before the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) was established, the discussion had been focused on the issue of feasibility of the integration per se. When the ECU was formed, the political discourse on the Eurasian integration in Kazakhstan started to polarize and the attitudes were getting more and more uncompromising.

Currently, there are several discourses on the Eurasian integration in Kazakhstan. These are the official and the alternative discourses. It is also worth mentioning that, although one can draw a clear line between the Kazakh-speaking and the Russian-speaking discursive segments, their differences in terms of the attitude and perceptions of the Eurasian integration are largely exaggerated. As the social base of the Kazakh language expands, the two segments of the society are interpenetrating and so are their discourses. Therefore, the assumption that Kazakh-speaking people are predominantly against the Eurasian integration and their discourses regenerate this attitude while the Russian-speaking people are supportive and the discourse emanating from them is forming a positive image of the integration project is not based on any solid grounds.

The question is how each of the discourses deal with the issue of the Eurasian integrations. The official discourse tends to be more utilitarian emphasizing the “economic advantages” and “pragmatism”. The official rhetoric is based on the following premises: the era of the hydrocarbons is almost over; the negative consequences of the financial-economic crisis are aggravating.

Under these conditions, the nations who have not been able to built the industrial economies that would be based on innovations and technological advances, those who have not been able to find their niche in the world economic order, those who are unable to make their human capital thrive are not to survive and will be displaced to the periphery of the international system. Therefore, the only way to mitigate these drastic impact of globalization is regionalization. The official discourse underlines the economic nature of the regional integration.

The official discourse, while promoting the idea of the Eurasian integration, is not immune of being critical towards some instances of its practical implementation. For example, there have been a number of critical remarks on the official level about increasing imbalance in the mutual trade, about the EEU Commercial Code that needs considerable liberalization and about the Eurasian Commission. Moreover, rapid expansion of the Union has been also disapproved of for being unjustified and too hasty. The Union has been criticized for failing to implement a number of very feasible agreements that, otherwise, could have led to the considerable changes for better.

There have been a number of topics that receive largely positive reporting. The Kazakh- Russian cross-border cooperation has been occupying a special place due to a number of factors, namely the length of the border as such, the historically close economic ties between the two nations as well as the inter-ethnic fusion throughout the border areas of the two countries. Therefore, all of the abovementioned discourses portray this situation as positive or, at least, neutral.

The unofficial discourse, however, is more diverse emanating both positive and negative attitudes towards the Eurasian integration project. The positive aspects stressed by the unofficial discourses are:

  • integration enables to have a single market and create advantages for the domestic manufacturers; this will generate positive macroeconomic effects;
  • financial, intellectual and human resources combined within the Union will enable to solve the problems that are too difficult for states dealing with them alone and these will enhance overall wellbeing of the people living in the EEU and enable further advancement of the field of sciense and texnology;
  • integration is inevitable course of action determined by the contemporary trends of the world development. However, Kazakhstan may choose between several integration projects pushed forward by the various players, namely the Free Trade Area of the SCO, the project of Turkic Unity, the Great Silk Road within the broader Greater Central Asia. The Eurasian integration just seems a more logical and natural solution due to the obvious economic, historical and cultural reasons;
  • Eurasian integration gives the states an opportunity to become genuinely independent and potent actors in the Eurasian space in terms of both their economic and political influence;
  • Eurasian integrations enables the member states to safeguard the secular character of their political regimes that is crucial given the increasing threats of religious extremism and terrorism.

The negative attitudes towards the Eurasian integrations is being formed primarily within the nationalist circles. Here, the fact that the project means integrations with Russia is particularly amplified. The criticism is mostly focused on the danger of graduate takeover of Kazakhstan by Russia in economic, political and cultural sense that is, understandingly, regarded as a threat to the nation. The supranational bodies and institutions are the subjects of the major concern as well as the idea of the single currency and the apparent Kazakhstan’s trade deficit. It should be

noted, however, that despite the fact that Russia is the key factor of the concerns, the oppositional discourse is addressed domestically and appeals to the Kazakhstan political class, accusing the former of connivance of the neo-imperial ambitions of Russia.

Given that these are the expert communities, public intellectuals and academics as well as artistic intelligentsia who are forming the discourses, the question remains what do common people of Kazakhstan actually think of the Eurasian integration? It is worth to know about the popularattitude towards possible further expansion and deepening of the integration processes, about people’s assessment of the risks and about their major expectations from the Eurasian Economic Union.

In order to answer these questions, the Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan (KazISS) held a survey on the “Public Opinion on the Eurasian integration and Kazakhstan’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union”. The survey was conducted prior the ECU was transformed into the EEU [3].

The survey revealed the attitude of the people of Kazakhstan to the integration process in general, Kazakhstan’s participation in it in particular; the current state of the ECU and the prospects for its development as well as the major expectations from Kazakhstan’s membership in the EEU.

The study was carried out in two stages. Firstly, the massive survey was conducted in all regions of Kazakhstan as well as the two biggest cities of Astana and Almaty. The second stage was the discussions within a number of the focus groups.

Attitude towards Kazakhstan’s Integration

The survey revealed that the overwhelming majority of the respondents (91,1%) thought that it was good for Kazakhstan to participate in various international structures and alliances. The

three major reasons to do so, according to the survey returns, were the following: the contemporary international realities make it impossible for individual states to thrive all alone (55,8%), the integration will impulse positively the domestic developments in Kazakhstan (44,1%), this kind of cooperation is mutually beneficial

(42,2%). However, 5,3% of the surveyed were against Kazakhstan’s involvement in any alliances and international structures. Notably, 67,3% of those who opposed any integration were utterly skeptical about any possibility of having equal relationships among participants in the integration, while 26% of the opponents thought Kazakhstan to be all-sufficient.

The most supported vectors of integration were the CIS and fellow members of the ECU, namely Russia and Belarus. These two directions for further integration were assessed more positively than the integration with the countries of Central Asia, the other Turkic-speaking countries or China. A closer integration with Europe and Islamic World were not popular choices by the respondents either.

The survey also revealed that the majority of the respondents preferred the integration to be purely economic in nature. At the same time, Kazakhstan’s involvement in military alliances was the least popular choice (Figure 1). This can be explained by the fact that the nation has been able to get rid of the militaristic and confrontational sentiments during its independence.

Figure 1. What Kind of Kazakhstan’s International Involvement (Union) Do You Support? (% of the surveyed) Source: KazSS. 2014. Eurasian Integration and Kazakhstan’s Participation of the Eurasian Economic Union // Public Survey. Almaty: KazSS under President of Kazakhstan.

The majority of the respondents (64%) thought that the key positive impact of Kazakhstan’s participation in the integration was improvement of the relations with the neighboring countries; 50,8% underlined that Kazakhstan’s economy had acquired more competitive strength due to the integration while 49,5% pointed at the expansion of the markets for the goods made in Kazakhstan.

The fact that being a member of the integrations structures, Kazakhstan could face the necessity to participate into defending the other nations concerned one in four of the respondents (25.3 %). Additionally, one in five (20.5%) of the

surveyed assessed negatively the fact that Kazakhstan’s had assumed too many “unnecessary” obligations. Nearly one in seven of the respondents (14.7%) disapproved of giving too much access to the foreigners to the domestic market.

In most cases, the respondents believed that Kazakhstan should take part only in those integration projects that would not impede its national power. There could be two explanation of that: on one hand, the prospect of losing sovereignty was mentioned as utterly negative by the majority of the opponents of the Eurasian integration, on the other hand, people did not have enough knowledge about the options available in terms of the ways how the member states might delegate parts of their national powers to supranational bodies.

Public Opinion on the ECU

The majority of the respondents assessed the performance of the Eurasian Customs Union as positive (73.1 %); the proportion of those who expressed negative attitudes towards the CU was small (4.8%) (Figure 2).

Figure 2. How Would You Assess Performance of the ECU So Far? (% of the surveyed)

Source: KazSS. 2014. Eurasian Integration and Kazakhstan’s Participation of the Eurasian Economic Union // Public Survey. Almaty: KazSS under President of Kazakhstan.

The survey revealed the direct correlation between the positive assessments of the ECU and the

income level of the respondent: the higher the income was the more likely a respondent was to be positive about the Union. At the same time, there were no any significant differences of the opinion of the respondents in terms of the age and ethnic groups.

The survey showed how the people assessed the influence of the Eurasian Customs Union on the socio-economic situation in Kazakhstan. The comparative analysis of the responses about the impact of the ECU on the domestic situation and how that translated into the respondents’ own wellbeing led to the conclusion that the overall situation in the country was regarded more positively. While saying that their own wellbeing was not changing, the respondents believed that the situation in Kazakhstan was still improving. There were twice more the respondents who pointed at the improvement of the situation in Kazakhstan than those who said that their ownwellbeing had changed for batter. Importantly, the positive changes that had occurred due to the establishment of the Eurasian Customs Union were evaluated by the respondents in the light of the national interest of Kazakhstan as a whole.

Among the other positive changes the respondents mentioned was opening of the new markets for Kazakhstan’s goods (42.1%); more employment opportunities (41.8%); strengthening of the economy of Kazakhstan because the customs duties had been abolished within the ECU (39.9 %). Almost one quarter of the respondents (23.8 %) said that increasing attractiveness of Kazakhstan for foreign investors was a good thing. One in five of the surveyed (21.2%) said that the goods and services from Kazakhstani gained a lot in terms of their competitiveness. Only 16 % of the respondents said that their personal wellbeing improved because the quality and range of goods had increased or their prices had reduced.

The survey revealed that people in Kazakhstan were mostly concerned about the rising prices for the imported goods produced outside the ECU, especially the durables such as cars and household appliances. The people surveyed were also unhappy with the fact that the goods made in Kazakhstan were gradually pushed out from the domestic market being replaced by those produced in Belarus or Russia. The small and medium businesses of Kazakhstan proved to be unprepared for the such a competitive environment. The situation is even more alarming given that these people were supposed to become the principle beneficiates of the deeper integration in Eurasia.

Generally speaking, the surveyed were more likely to regard the ECU as a positive factor rather than negative one (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Has the ECU Impact on Kazakhstan Been Mostly Positive or Negative? (% of the surveyed)

Source: KazSS. 2014. Eurasian Integration and Kazakhstan’s Participation of the Eurasian Economic Union // Public Survey. Almaty: KazSS under President of Kazakhstan.

Interestingly, the survey showed that people from urban areas, who had their income of the average level and higher, assessed the impact of the ECU more positively that their fellow citizens belonging to the other strata of the Kazakhstan’s society.

The EEU: Attitudes and Expectations

By the time the survey was conducted, there had not been enough time to give to the people of Kazakhstan a good sense of what it was like to live in the Eurasian Economic Union unlike the Eurasian Customs Union that had been functioning since 2010 or the Eurasian Economic Space that had been established in 2012. However, there were clear positive and negative understandings and expectations about the EEU. Given that, at the time of the survey, the EEU was just to be launched, there were a number of discussions held in the focus-groups in the framework of the study in order to learn how much the people knew about the future Union (Figure 4).

Figure 4. What Do You Know About the EEU? (% of the surveyed)

Source: KazSS. 2014. Eurasian Integration and Kazakhstan’s Participation of the Eurasian Economic Union // Public Survey. Almaty: KazSS under President of Kazakhstan.

It was also important to know whether the respondents supported Kazakhstan’s membership in the EEU. The study showed that the majority of those participating demonstrated the positive attitude to the matter while the overwhelming minority (7,5%) were against Kazakhstan’s entering the Eurasian Economic Union (Figure.5).

Figure 5. Do You Support Kazakhstan’s Membership in the EEU? (% of the surveyed)

Source: KazSS. 2014. Eurasian Integration and Kazakhstan’s Participation of the Eurasian Economic Union // Public Survey. Almaty: KazSS under President of Kazakhstan.

Although the survey revealed that people were rather knowledgeable about the EEU and supportive of the idea in general, 40% of the respondents admitted that the Union did not gain any significance yet in their personal lives.

Almost one-third of the surveyed (31,1%) said that the EEU symbolized the unity of the sister nations in their thriving towards better life. The economic consideration were of the primary importance for the 29,3% of the respondents (Figure 6).

There were the three most popular arguments in favor of Kazakhstan’s membership in the EEU: it would enhance the position of Kazakhstan on the international arena (41,2%); it would strengthen and broaden the economic and cultural ties that had already been existing (38,9%); it would impact positively Kazakhstan’s economy (38,7%). About one of the three of the surveyed (30,8%) stressed that the EEU would improve the economic opportunities for people of Kazakhstan, especially for businessmen. Almost the quarter of the respondents (24,2%) said that the reasons for their support was an expected increase of the trade with Russia and Belarus. The security consideration were significant for 20,2% of the respondents as they

thought that Kazakhstan’s membership in the EEU would facilitate the common efforts to prevent contemporary threats (Figure 6).

The 7,5% of the surveyed were against Kazakhstan’s membership in the EEU and 38,9%of them did not believe that the idea was all in all viable; one-third of the opponents (33,6%) were concerned about Kazakhstan’s losing its sovereignty and the other third (30,9%) stated that the membership in the EEU would not bring any good for the economy of Kazakhstan while inevitable inequality in the relationship among the members of the Union concerned 28,9% of the and 14,1% said that Kazakhstan should integrate elsewhere but not into the EEU (Figure 6).

The overwhelming majority of those who were supportive towards integration in principle thought that the most preferable sphere would be that of economy while the integration in military terms was the least popular option. Those from the large cities were more likely to support a political integration that those from the rural areas and smaller towns. Political and cultural integration were more popular among those from the middle and upper-middle classes in terms of their income. As for the respondents of deferent ethnic background, the survey showed that there were no any significant influence of this factor on the attitude towards the Eurasian integration. The most appropriate model the Eurasian Economic Union should follow, according to the almost every second respondent, that of the European Union (Figure 6).

Figure 6. What Are the Most Preferable Spheres of Integration Within the EEU? (% of the surveyed)

Source: KazSS. 2014. Eurasian Integration and Kazakhstan’s Participation of the Eurasian Economic Union // Public Survey. Almaty: KazSS under President of Kazakhstan.

Uneven economic development of the members of the Eurasian integration was, according to the majority of the surveyed (43,1%), the major factor that could impede its successful implementation. Almost one-third of the surveyed (34,5%) were concerned that too much bureaucracy might impact negatively on the EEU. There were those who thought that the stereotyping and prejudges (27,9%) or differences among the member states in understanding of their national interests (27,2%) could prevent the EEU from being a success. One in five of those surveyed believed that the Eurasian integration was of a constrain nature due to their concerns about Kazakhstan losing its sovereignty. One in seven of the respondents tended to think that the negative memory of the USSR could also make negative impact on the EEU perspectives.

The geographical expansion of the EEU was unconditionally supported only by one-third of the respondents. Another third agreed to an extension but on the condition that the new members would be able to strengthen and enrich the Union as a whole. That position was confirmed during the discussions in the focus group as well. The number of those who were utterly against the EEU was 4.6 %.

Kyrgyzstan and Armenia were named as the most preferable partners for the integration, here the surveyed agreed with the official discourse.

Kyrgyzstan was regarded as a more desirable candidate for the membership by virtue of its being a Central Asian state given that, traditionally, people in Kazakhstan are more supportive to the cooperation of Central Asian countries. The three Turkic-speaking countries, namelyAzerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan followed Kyrgyzstan and Armenia in terms of their popularity. None of the European post-Soviet states, namely Moldova, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia was mentioned by more then 10% of the respondents.

According to 80,2% of the surveyed, Kazakhstan’s membership in the EEU was in its national interests while 4,4% expressed the opposite opinion. Almost every sixth respondent could not answer this question (Figure 7).

Figure 7. How Much Do You Think Kazakhstan’s Membership in the EEU Complies with Its National Interest? (% of the surveyed)

Source: KazSS. 2014. Eurasian Integration and Kazakhstan’s Participation of the Eurasian Economic Union // Public Survey. Almaty: KazSS under President of Kazakhstan.

The overwhelming majority of those participating in the survey (88,4%) thought that Kazakhstan’s membership in the EEU would be beneficial. According to 7,4% of the respondents there were no advantages for Kazakhstan to enter the Union. The major positive impact was expected to be in the economic sphere, however, almost every fifth respondent believed that virtually all spheres of the public life would benefit from Kazakhstan’s membership in the EEU.

The majority of the respondents had positive expectations from establishing of a single market for goods, services, capital and labor. Only every eleventh respondent stressed the possible deterioration in the labor market due to increased competition for jobs and every fourteenth said that Kazakhstan’s business would lose due to the competition.

In the meanwhile, half of those surveyed expected that Kazakhstan’s business would benefit

due to the expansion of the market while 42.3% of the respondents thought that the positive impact would not be limited to the business sphere giving better chances for employment to more people. Every fourth of the respondents expected Kazakhstan’s business to benefit because the

EEU would facilitate the access to more qualified labor force from abroad.

It shall be noted, however, that, while assessing the advantages for Kazakhstan from its membership in the EEU, the respondents were more likely to use the criteria of national or public interests whereas the critical assessments were made through the prism of personal wellbeing.

During the study, the respondents were given an opportunity to formulate what their personal benefits from Kazakhstan’s membership in the

Eurasian Economic Union would be. Some of the surveyed used it. The most popular answers were:

  • economic development (9,1%);
  • better quality of life (6,5%);
  • freedom of movement, lack of the borders (6,4%).

It is noteworthy that more than two thirds of the respondents could not articulate their own personal expectations from a single market for goods, services, capital and labor, which signified the apparent lack of awareness among the public about the opportunities the Eurasian Economic Union might bring them personally.

To sum up, the survey did not reveal any significant differences in the attitude to the integration among the groups that differ in terms of their socio-demographic characteristics or territorial location despite the rather common misconception that the ethnic Russians are the most active supporters of the Eurasian integration. There were no any serious variations of the opinion expressed by the respondents belonging to the deferent generations either. The study revealed that the higher income of the respondents the more positively he or she assessed the Eurasian integration. Similarly, those from the big cities are more likely to have positive attitude towards the Eurasian integration than their fellow citizens from the rural areas and smaller towns who were more prompt to be anxious about the risks of the integration with Russia and Belarus that were discussed in the media.

Year: 2015
City: Almaty