“Euroasian Union” idea: Can “civilised divorce” turn into “marriage of equals”?

This year marks the 20th anniversary since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Is it possible to create “Euroasian Union” on the basis of former Soviet republics as Vladimir Putin calls for?

The year 2011 is chock-full of landmark anniversaries, and it’s not hard to see that most of them are directly or indirectly associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whatever your thoughts on the disappearance from the world map of a state that used to occupy one sixth of the land mass, it’s impossible to deny that this event led to a tectonic shift in Eurasia, setting its economic, social, and security agenda for years to come.

The most important lesson of the past two decades has been understanding that dividing up a union doesn’t in and of itself solve the issues of sustaining newly independent states, nor does it guarantee their prosperity, adequate domestic and foreign policies, or social harmony. The former Soviet republics, regardless of their attitudes towards their common past and each other, turned out to be linked by thousands of different threads that have proven difficult to sever once independence was gained. As a result, the entire post-1991 history of the newly independent states has amounted to a constant fluctuation between integration processes and centrifugal tendencies. To what extent can we speak today, 20 years after the collapse of the USSR, about unifying at least some of the former Soviet republics? And what are the ideas upon which any such integration could be conceivably based?

An article by current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin published in Izvestia on 4 October 2011 attempts to answer those questions. The article’s title is telling: A New Integration Project for Eurasia – A Future That is Born Today. Although Putin’s text deals with quite a specific integration project, the Common Economic Space, which is scheduled to launch in January 2012, it raises issues that are much broader in scope. First of all, it offers a brief summary of the history of integration projects in the former Soviet Union over the past two decades. Secondly, Putin’s article appeared on the eve of a new election cycle, after the Prime Minister announced his presidential bid. Consequently, the text can be considered a kind of presentation of the future presidency’s priorities in the Eurasian (post-Soviet) arena. Because of this, since its publication the article has been subject to scrutiny both within Russia and abroad. That said this isn’t just about Putin’s presidential prospects. In the twenty years since the collapse of the USSR, the West has viewed any attempts by Moscow to bolster its activities in post-Soviet territories with caution. This explains both the hard-line response from Washington and its NATO allies to recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the first case of redrawing inter-republican borders since 1991) and their reluctance to work with the CSTO, which is perceived as a tool of Russian domination rather than as an integration structure. Add to that an obsession with a Russian military presence anywhere in the former Soviet Union. Part of the Western political establishment has even connected a Russian military presence with the extent of internal political democracy in newly independent states, although this criterion appears widely off the mark. Are Russian troops stationed in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan? They are not, but one would be hard-pressed to talk about these countries’ successes in building a democracy. Whatever the case, certain expert and political circles have developed a tradition of viewing Russia’s strengthening presence in Eurasia as a challenge, and as a bid to restore Soviet hegemony.

Has Vladimir Putin’s article helped galvanise those fears? Or, on the contrary, has it made a case against alarmist approaches to Russian foreign policy and foreign trade? There is no simple or clear-cut answer to these questions. On the one hand, Vladimir Putin has clearly and unequivocally stated that his proposed model of economic integration has nothing to do with the USSR. “It would be naïve to try to revive or emulate something that has been consigned to history, but these times call for close integration based on new values and a new political and economic foundation,” Putin wrote. At the same time, the Russian Premier pointed out that the Common Economic Space will be based on the principle of open borders between its members – hence his remark about the needlessness of erecting border lines between Russia and Kazakhstan, a boundary comparable in length only to the US-Mexican border. Moreover, if there are any comparisons made in Putin’s article, they have to do with the EU and the European integration model. The Prime Minister heavily emphasised the need not only for a close examination of the experience of a “united Europe,” but also for cooperation between a new, integrated post-Soviet entity and the world’s leading economies in the West, as well as in the East. The article is therefore free of obtrusive nostalgia for the Soviet past and a confrontational attitude towards other countries and integration projects.

However, the text contains much to suggest that the Russian leadership may not fully understand the strategic implications of integration beyond the context of elections. The article is heavy on optimistic slogans and goals but short on mechanisms and resources for achieving them. Take for instance the following excerpt: “Back in the day, it took Europe 40 years to move from the European Coal and Steel Community to the full European Union. The establishment of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space is proceeding at a much faster pace because we could draw on the experience of the European Union and other regional associations.” That said the Customs Union has only been in existence since January 2010 (and a single customs territory for Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus was only introduced in July 2010). We should also keep in mind that economic cooperation is just one aspect of integration. It’s unlikely that the European Coal and Steel Community would have become the European Union we know and see today (with all of its strengths and weaknesses) had the Europeans not raised and resolved complicated political issues. But even Moscow and Minsk, members of a single Union State, have many disagreements, including over Russia’s policy in the South Caucasus. The same is also true of Kazakhstan, which has long been a strategic economic partner to Georgia. In addition, economic cooperation itself cannot be reduced to providing loans to support one regime or another. Any loan is a tactical rather than a strategic task. Plus, interaction with a country cannot be limited to maintaining contacts with its ruling elite, since there is a risk of losing influence in case of regime changes. Therefore, economic cooperation won’t become true integration unless political issues are resolved (or at least raised) first. Otherwise it will remain only half-hearted and opportunistic.

Putin’s article pays a great deal of attention to the CIS, by virtue of it being the oldest and most well-known integration project. Many of the Prime Minister’s assessments appear spot-on. Looking back, it’s clear that this structure has helped solve problems such as:

- dividing up the common Soviet military legacy and establishing national armed forces,

- recognising borders between newly independent states,

- implementing a coordinated immigration policy (ensuring visa-free travel), 

- implementing a coordinated energy pricing policy and common approaches to the humanities field (recognising Soviet education diplomas across CIS member countries).

However, certain problems have been left out, leading to stagnation in the CIS’s development and undermining its effectiveness. These include “trade and economic wars” between member countries and the afore-mentioned political tensions that have contributed to a significant revision of immigration policy. On top of that, the Commonwealth’s internal integration mechanisms have also been blocked by a system of bilateral relations between the newly independent states, which have become a higher priority for them. Georgia’s withdrawal from the CIS in 2009 set a precedent for reconfiguring the structure. And there is no guarantee that bilateral relations won’t become an obstacle for integration within the Common Economic Space as well.

In general, the article overlooks the important issue of fragmentation of the post-Soviet territory, not only as a challenge to Russian policy, but also as a new reality. A common history has certain limitations and cannot serve as a unifying factor over the long term. The old “rules of the game” (as embodied in the Belovezha Accords and other early CIS documents) are no longer entirely compatible with the reality at hand. The post-Soviet space is now more integrated in the global economy and politics than it was in the early 1990s. Important global players such as the US, EU, China, Japan, Turkey, Iran, and multinational corporations have all staked their claims here. Many integration processes in newly independent states now include participation from “far abroad” countries. New value systems, something mentioned only in passing in Putin’s Izvestia article, could thus also revitalise post-Soviet integration. Meanwhile, not a single integration project that we know of (be it NATO, the EU, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organisation of American States, or the African Union) has ever been built on a strictly pragmatic basis, without an ideological component. But what should the Russian project for Eurasia be if it isn’t modeled after the Soviet example and doesn’t lend itself to the framework of European integration? This question remains unanswered. And the longer we go without a detailed rationale, the more unfounded fears the West will harbour towards Russia’s plans.

Moscow holds geopolitical and economic leadership in the territory of the former Soviet Union today. However one personally feels about Vladimir Putin or Russia’s foreign policy, it’s hard to contest that. But this leadership is based on a historic past, and even with all of its past achievements, its continuation cannot be automatically guaranteed. In order to maintain it, instead of a “mechanism for a civilised divorce” (to quote Putin’s own assessment of the CIS back in March 2005), new and effective integration processes are needed to give a fresh impetus to both the internal development of new independent states and to their cooperative aspirations. But in order for this to work, we require not only optimistic predictions but also a serious reflection on the mistakes of the past and how to properly address them.

Sergei Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC 

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