With his likely re-ascendency to the Presidency, is this something to worry Europe?
Ideologically, we should support this move. Federalism, wherever it is found, is a good concept, and a Eurasian Union could be strong partners, economically, politically, and in the eventual move towards global federal union. The region did indeed inherit “an infrastructure, specialised production facilities, and a common linguistic, scientific and cultural space” from the Soviet era. If they can capitalise on that in the interests of the federal spirit, then good luck Putin!
But we cannot delude ourselves – Putin is not interested in federalism. This is an issue of power politics. Of course, there is some level of political grandstanding, Putin wanting to position himself in a position of power before returning to the Presidency, but assuming that this is a serious proposal, and as it is a staple facet of Russian foreign policy, should it worry Europe?
Let’s look at Putin’s prospective partners
Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan already have a customs union, formed last year. In January, this will allow the free movement of goods, services and capital across a single market of 165 million people. The Common Economic Space (CES) is a historic move for this area. These are obvious candidates for a Eurasian Union.
But the CES is so limited – first we need to realise who may even join the CES, before joining something like a Eurasian Union. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have both faced higher tariffs when trading with Russia and Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan has officially applied to join the CES, and Tajikistan is apparently considering membership. Most analysts don’t except Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to join. However, all of these states are members of the Eurasian Economic Community, a minor version of a CES. This could be enhanced without too major problems.
The partnership opportunities in Central Asia are limited, but these are not countries naturally pulled by both poles, Moscow and Brussels. Geographically, they will always drift closer to Russia. If we want to see the effect of the Eurasian Union on the EU, we should look closer to home.
Georgia will not join. On-going disputes over Abkhazia and South Ossetia poison relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. Mikheil Saakashvili responded to Putin’s article in Izvestiya calling it the wildest idea yet of the Russian nationalists.
Moldova has distinctly said that it is not interested in a Eurasian Union. Prime Minister Vlad Filat has said that “though its geography, history and culture” Moldovans were very interested in European integration.
Armenia is closer to Moscow than Azerbaijan and may join, receiving support as it does from Russia over the Nagorno-Karabakh divide, but Azerbaijan could also be tempted, provided Russia and Turkey guarantee the territorial unity of Azerbaijan and demand Armenia withdraw from “occupied territories”, according to Azerbaijani MP Aydyn Mirzazade.
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Ukraine is obviously the prize in Putin’s eye. Such a large and relatively affluent state, and a close EU ally, would be an asset in the new Eurasian Union. Coming at the time of the trail of Ms Tymoshenko, will we see a Ukraine shifting further into Russian hands?
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is considered more Russia-friendly than his pro-EU predecessors, it is true. Putting Ms Tymoshenko on trial has found great criticism in Brussels, viewed as it is as a form of disposing of political opponents. Relations between Kiyv and Brussels are strained.
But despite this, Ukraine would still find its best home with Europe, not Eurasia. It is the Eastern Partnership country closest to any political or trade deals with the EU. It has previously rejected similar offers from Putin. Yanukovych has previously complained that the Kremlin was attempting to coerce Ukraine into joining the CES with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and has said he refused to yield to pressure. He is also still seeking EU membership. And don’t forget – the trial of Ms Tymoshenko is about her close ties to Russia, finding her guilty of misusing the office of Prime Minister in negotiating a January 2009 gas deal between the Ukraine and Russia, costing the country an estimated loss of $200million.
I feel that Ukraine is still moving towards the European sphere, and ties with Moscow will remain close, but merely pragmatic. Ukraine still hopes to find itself in Europe, not Eurasia.
So, those are the candidates. Essentially it would be the Eastern Partnership+Central Asia. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan are all prospective candidates, and yet only those already tied into the Russian sphere, or who are incredibly close such as Kyrgyzstan seem interested. But let us not forget, this is just on the economic level of CES at the moment. What about a true political union?
Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s 71-year old President, and former communist party leader, is obviously drawn to the idea. In fact, he first proposed the idea during a speech in 1994 in Moscow.
However, there is large resistance in Kazakhstan to further union with Russia. Bolat Abilov, co-chairman of the Social Democratic party Azat has said “Russian companies and small business enterprises are stronger than outs. Kazakhstan cannot compete.” When the opposition claims “It was a mistake to hurry into the customs union… Russia dictated the terms and Nazarbayev did not protect Kazakhstan’s interests” it is hard to see that under any other government could further integration be pursued.
Sergey Alekashenko, a former deputy head of Russia’s Central Bank has warned that the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan “would have to wave goodbye to power” if a Eurasian union developed into the political sphere.
This is the core difference between the European and Eurasian Unions. In Europe, there is a large Germany, doubtless the major economic power – but it can be politically counterbalanced by alliances of other states, France and Britain, France and Italy and Spain, the Eastern states under Poland… there are many other strong states that can counterbalance the largest economic power.
This could never happen with Kazakhstan or Belarus, or even states such as Ukraine. No state could politically, economically, or military counterbalance Russia.
Nazarbyev would never relinquish full control of his country. Even Lukashenko, Belarus’ dictator, and Putin’s closest ally, would never relinquish control over his personal fiefdom.
Russia would end up completely and utterly dominating the smaller ex-Soviet republics if they moved towards political union in any form.
While the CES may expand, to include states such as Kyrgyzstan, I strongly doubt that political union will ever take place.
Do not forget that there IS already some level of economic, political and military union between many of the states we’ve discussed.
In military terms, the Collective Security Treaty Organization seems impressive – and yet did nothing to prevent the overthrow of President Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 following riots. This is one of its own member states, and the alliance did nothing. Politically, there is little union – what states, out of the candidates we’ve listed, have recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia, apart from Russia? Not one. The Commonwealth of Independent States is little more than symbolic. Economically, the Eurasian Economic Community has guaranteed free movement of people in much of the area since 2000 – there may be scope for this side of things to be enhanced. But I severely doubt that political union is likely, possible, or desirable for any state outside Russia.
A cautionary note.
While states pinned between Russia and the EU’s eastern borders may not be instinctively willing to come back under Moscow’s hegemony, Brussels (or rather, Paris and Berlin) may force them back there.
While the Eastern partnership, the initiative from Poland and Sweden, is deepening ties with Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan, if they feel that this is a polite way of declining them ultimate membership… they very well may take the hint.
Moldova’s opposition Communist Party has praised the idea of a Eurasian Union. Communist leader Vladimir Voronin said that joining an Eastern bloc would not only get them cheaper natural gas, but that joining was preferable “to waiting to join an EU that does not want” to accept Moldova in its own community.
While, at this moment, most states refuse political union with Russia, if we do not draw away Eastern Partnership states, and eventually the Central Asian republics, from the economic hegemony of Moscow, we could lose them politically and military as well. This would not be beneficial for those states, now lost in the new Russian sphere. Nor would it be good for Europe to have a newly-resurgent Russian neo-Empire on its borders. We must show true commitment to our neighbours – even, perhaps, to Russia herself – if we are not to see a divided continent once more.