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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Says Central Asia Must Choose

The five former Soviet republics of Central Asia must choose whether their economic futures lie with Russia or with the Moslem south and draw up alliances accordingly, a top Russian official said Tuesday.

Speaking at a press conference on a new economic agreement between Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Shokhin outlined an emerging economic and political division of the Commonwealth of Independent States into Slav and Moslem blocs.

"Our friends from the CIS who, looking for better fortunes, are turning to the south should choose between closer economic integration with Russia and with their southern neighbors", Shokhin said, adding later that "a slightly different political alignment has emerged".

He was referring to a similar economic agreement that the Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan recently signed with the Organization of Economic Cooperation, which groups Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Both declarations envisage forming trading blocs that would enjoy common customs unions, free movement of labor, visa agreements and in general the conditions required to create a common market.

"Clearly", Shokhin said, "one country cannot be a member of two customs unions".

Shokhin said that his statement in no way amounted to a threat of economic sanctions against Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Even if they were to realize a separate economic bloc, he said, their economic and political ties with Russia would remain strong.

Asked whether his appeal amounted to an acknowledgment that plans to forge the Commonwealth into a closely knit economic bloc had been abandoned, Shokhin said only that both agreements were at an early stage and it was too early to bury the idea.

"Today, these countries have a realistic opportunity to weigh up all the pros and cons of those alliances", he said, adding that they were all free to join the tripartite, Slav, agreement. Only Turkmenistan, he believed, had already resolved against joining an economic alliance in the CIS.

Shokhin traced in detail the genesis of last Saturday's agreement between the three Slavic states, stating that Ukraine had come late to the table where it had replaced Kazakhstan.

That was a remarkable turnaround. As recently as May, Kazakhstan was the most vociferous proponent of closer economic integration within the Commonwealth, while Ukraine had been among the most reluctant, fearing renewed domination by Moscow.

But Shokhin said that despite continuing political hurdles, leaders in Kiev and Moscow had come to an "awareness" over the past month that the countries "cannot do without a close economic union.