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Putin's 'Eurasian Union'

Map of Commonwealth of Independent States, European States and Part of Central Asia
Less than a week after the announcement of his return to the Russian presidency, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took the time to write an op-ed for the Russian daily Izvestia, in which he called for a Eurasian Union of post-Soviet states. How effective could Putin's plan for the Eurasian Union be? What obstacles will Moscow have to overcome to achieve this objective, and in what time frame? What about Russian efforts to entice or cajole Ukraine into joining?

Putin's idea is geared toward building a viable common market of some 180 million people, starting with the three member states of the Customs Union ­ Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan ­ and gradually expanding to a Common Economic Space including Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (with the eventual introduction of a monetary and political union modeled on the EU).

Many observers in Moscow pointed to the timing of Putin's article as a hint that gathering together the former Soviet lands under Russia's leadership would be Putin's electoral platform during his presidential campaign and, subsequently, a major focus of his presidency. And while the issue remains popular among ordinary Russians, many have also questioned Putin's priorities, arguing that Russia has much more pressing problems at home.

In many post-Soviet states and the West, meanwhile, Putin's ambitious plan, though unoriginal ­ Kazakhstan's president Nazarbayev came up with the same idea in late 1990s ­ has been taken as evidence of Russia's neo-imperial ambitions and of Putin's desire to integrate the area at the expense of building friendlier relations with the West. In Russia, some analysts cited the move as a sign of Moscow's increasing pragmatism in dealing with the former Soviet states.

Putin also specifically avoided mentioning Ukraine in his description of the Eurasian Union, arguing somewhat implausibly that it is not a substitute to the European aspirations shared by other post-Soviet states such as Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia. He argued that the Eurasian Union would be a bridge between the EU and the dynamic economies of East Asia, but without elaborating how this could be achieved.

How effective could Putin's plan for the Eurasian Union be? What obstacles will Moscow have to overcome to achieve this objective, and in what time frame? What about Russian efforts to entice or cajole Ukraine into joining? How could domestic upheaval and political succession issues in future member-states, such as Belarus or Kazakhstan, impact plans for the Eurasian Union? How would Western and, perhaps more importantly, Chinese influence in the region affect Putin's ambitious plan?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, Vermont

Putin's article is probably only the first in a series of moves that will determine his upcoming presidency. This first step needs to be recognized as obviously positive, and it will find support among people in many corners of the former Soviet Union. It will also likely be supported by a majority of the Russian business community and people in general. The necessity of some form of new integration in the region is quite evident and long expected, and has required only the political will of contemporary leaders of the involved countries.

Previous steps, such as the Customs Union and the CSTO, were important but lacked a perspective of future development and had a fragmentary character. In his article, Putin clearly presented this future prospect, built along a similar framework as the EU. If the project succeeds, Putin will add to his list of accolades a new accomplishment that will have a much larger auditorium; it will make him not only a Russian, but a Eurasian hero.

Moreover, Putin is certainly suited to gather back the broken pieces of the former Soviet Union. In this regard, the shift in power expected to occur in Russia in 2012 makes sense. Political succession in Kazakhstan is unlikely to cause much trouble because the elites there realize that the existence of such a union is one of guarantees of territorial integrity and internal peace in their country. The case of Belarus, meanwhile, may be more unpredictable but still a majority of people there will support the project and whoever will rule in Minsk will have to follow the people's geopolitical orientation.

Although this plan is a great one and will enjoy the support of a majority of people in most of the post-Soviet countries, it will nevertheless face many obstacles. Among them are the current leaderships in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and even more so in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (which were not even mentioned in the article). Tensions among the three aforementioned Central Asian neighbors will be another issue, which is much more serious than succession in member countries of the Customs Union.

A similar situation persists in the Western borderlands. Yet at the same time, the Eurasian Union could pave the way for a final solution to the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, while Moldova could also solve its problem regarding Transnistria. However, for the time being, all these conflicts and tensions will present some difficulties on the way to developing such a community of nations in the former Soviet Union.

Countries that choose not to participate in this project will risk being marginalized in the globalizing world and will certainly lose out on many advantages of integration. However, it would be a poor idea to force anyone to join this union. A decision to join the Eurasian Union should be based on popular referendums, not on a parliamentary vote or a presidential decree. There is absolutely no rush in expanding the union; it should be a natural process, and only countries ready to join should be allowed to become a part of it.

The Chinese factor is also important because China plays an increasingly important role in Central Asia, and it even has plans for closer ties with distant Belarus. However, I hope that Central Asian leaderships realize that China will never be able to provide for them the opportunities that may come from Russia. China is a different civilization and any deep integration between Islamic people and the Chinese are very unlikely.

The European Union, for its part, should realize the benefits of the Eurasian Union, and what is equally important is for the EU to accept is its own limits on expansion. It is quite obvious that, for example, Ukraine will never be a part of it. This simple fact must be accepted in Brussels and the spread of unjustified hopes should be abandoned.

Ira Straus, US Coordinator, Committee on Russia in NATO, Washington DC

Putin gives two mutually contradictory geopolitical definitions of his Eurasian Union: a pole within a multipolar world, and a part of a united European space. In his words, the Eurasian Union will be a "powerful supranational structure capable of becoming one of the poles of the [multi-polar] world as it is and serving as a bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asian-Pacific region." At the same time, it is somehow to be an integral part of "the greater Europe with common values of freedom, democracy and market laws," and to provide a faster integration into Europe for its members.

This is the standard contradiction of Russian foreign policy in the Lavrov era. The united European space -- spoken of sometimes in grandiose language as a unity of Christendom in its three big chunks, America, Europe and Russia -- is conceived by Lavrov and Putin in terms of classical balance of power "unity" with all its intrinsic internal contradictions; that is, conceived apart from and, to a large extent, in opposition to the actual unity built in the Atlantic space since the balance of power destroyed itself in World War I. The real Western unity is integrative and has overcome the centuries-old contradictions of European power politics. Meanwhile Medvedev has kept the option open of resolving the contradictions by a more substantive and meaningful integration of Russia with the Euro-Atlantic space, making initiatives for this that have been flawed but far from senseless. Putin promises, far more illogically, that his union will somehow help achieve this rather than its obvious role in adding a further obstacle to it.

What is new in Putin's use of these opposite definitions is that he raises the Lavrov contradiction to a higher level. He makes it a contradiction at the core of what is supposed to become the main project of the Russian state, not just a contradiction in its foreign policy rhetoric as it keeps its options open.

A day later, speaking to the VTB Capital "Russia Calling!" Investment Forum, Putin said "I just don't understand how Russia can join the EU. We are well aware of the standard of living and the quality of life in Europe and in Russia, of European stability and social safety nets... Are we going to join NATO or EU? No, we aren't." At the same time he said, once again absolutely contradictorily, yet in itself with great clarity and even passionately: "Europe in this (cultural) sense goes much further, to the Pacific Ocean, because this territory is populated mostly by Russian people and people of other ethnicities, and ... they are still people of European culture. This is all a single space. I just don't see how people living in this cultural space will preserve themselves as a respectable hub of international policy and power without joining forces for the benefit of future generations. Either we join forces or gradually leave the international arena and make room for others. I am not sure whether it's good or bad, but things will definitely change. In order to preserve ourselves, we need to join forces."

This is in the manner of Lavrov's often passionate and always content-free appeals for the unity of Christendom. It also has much in common with the call of Edouard Balladur, the initiator of the transformation of the EC into the EU, for moving on to a transformation of greater Western unity into a Union of the West, in order to maintain the West's necessary influence and positive roles in the global system, and avoid these being excessively diminished or lost as other countries and regions grow. Balladur, a former French Prime Minister and the head of the Gaullist faction out of which Sarkozy emerged, devoted a whole book to this: Pour une union occidental entre l'Europe et les Etats-Unis, in which he set the tone for contemporary French diplomacy. He has one more thing in common with Putin: in the standard French style, he accepts and embraces multipolarism. But there is a big difference: Balladur avoids ever using multipolarism destructively; indeed he devotes much of his intellectual effort to overcoming the old French Gaullist habit of deploying it destructively. Balladur's post-Gaullist France returned to a full role in NATO. It was on the right side of the war in Libya -- and the winning side; it contrasts to the naive, kamikaze Gaullism of today's Russia, which, for the sake of embittered resistance to the unipole, manages to put itself on both the wrong side and the losing side. Another difference is that Balladur gives his call for giving this union some substance, proposing a genuine effort at institutional construction, and in a constructive way - on the basis of the foundations that have already been built, rather than by trying to undermine them.

Putin is not lacking in the dreamy idealistic language of other unions that have aimed to serve as a nucleus-attractor for an eventually wider union. As he wrote, his concept of the union " will welcome the accession of other countries," starting with, but not limited to, the CIS. That dream - filling up its natural expansion space and drawing in others beyond it - worked with some earlier unions, such as the EU and NATO, because they were the natural unipolar core of attraction in the world. The dreaminess is likely to remain more wistful for Russia. I would recommend to Mr. Putin, in whom there is no doubt an element of sincerity in of all this, to read an book published in 1939 by the New York Times correspondent at the League of Nations, titled Union Now: A Proposal for a Federal Union of the Leading (North Atlantic) Democracies. Streit thought through carefully, quite professionally for his time, the logic of various union proposals, and realized, long in advance of the historical experiences that have verified the point, that a Western Union would attract others, potentially everyone, to join, but non-Western unions could not do the same. The reasons for this were both democratic and developmental: people would never overthrow a democracy to join a union of authoritarians but might do the opposite; and all countries would want to be united to the core area of global development, not to peripheral areas.

Some have argued that the "Eurasian Union" has another, more concrete meaning (apart from its domestic campaign use): to gain Russian domination of the countries and foreign policies in the former Soviet space, but without responsibility for their domestic affairs. In practice, even such a limited "union" is not likely to get very far. There is too much nationalism in the region for that; too much visceral distrust of Russia for its past domination. A few of the countries may wish to be dominated, but most will not, and the attempt to do so will backfire as it has in recent years. One would hope Russia and the West had both learned something from the "own goals" scored when either of them pushed too hard in this space vis-a-vis the other.

Is the "union" meant to entail exclusion of Western influence from the space? Evidently yes. Exclusion of all foreign powers, among them China, would occur in a genuine union, but this amorphous Union seems directed only against the West; immediately after announcing his Union goal, Putin ran off to China and spoke of its role as his geopolitical partner in reshaping the world. Multipolarist ideology is always oriented in this era, not neutrally, but concretely against the West, as the real existing unipole of the world. And that is why multipolarism is to be understood as a product of disappointment. For the truth is that the unipole is Russia's natural home.

Notwithstanding all the disappointments since 1991, it is precisely this unipole, this emerging union of the Western space - the union of the vast span of European culture, in the areas where that culture has matured into modern political and economic form - to which Russia, as a land of European culture, belongs at root. It is tied to it for its most vital interests. It is Russia's proper destination, the point to which its compass will revert to pointing no matter how badly it is deflected. Sooner or later, it is Russia's destiny, although it can keep pushing it off later and later if it keeps misdirecting its compass for interim periods. It will take time even in the best case; for now it can only attach itself to its natural home in partial and preliminary forms, but still serious forms, as a strategic ally (for all the reasons Putin states, before he proceeds along a contradictory path). It would be better for Russia to make this serious attachment, and do it consistently; otherwise it will only shoot itself once again in the foot.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute (USA), San Francisco, CA

As noted in the Introduction, the idea of a free-trade zone in the post-Soviet space is not new. When one considers other associations, like NAFTA or Mercosur (and even the EU), which include countries with dissimilar historical trajectories, a Eurasian free trade zone for countries that share history and were recently in the single (albeit very flawed) economy of the defunct USSR is logical.

Would a Eurasian free trade union be the "revival of the Soviet empire" or even of the older Russian empire? One can claim this only if one also proposes that NAFTA is an American empire, Mercosur is the Brazilian Empire writ large and the EU is a revived Late Roman empire. Would Russia be willing to surrender her own sovereignty to a revived USSR, where huge and wealthy Russia would be a donor, in mandatory parity with some small, barely functional Central Asian republics? Doubtful.

Can the Eurasian free trade zone be built in twelve years (presumed two presidential terms by Mr Putin)? A foundation can be laid in that period. International institutions are permanent "works in progress." The United Nations in 2011 is not the same as it was in 1945.

Are there complications? Yes, many and very important ones ­ Mr Putin should carefully study the experience of Mercosur, NAFTA and the EU, so as not to repeat the same mistakes. Let us examine two complexities.

There is a huge disparity in economies, cultures, development and human potential between some of the potential Eurasian members. Countries where voices already express great interest in joining a Eurasian free trade zone (Kyrgyzstan, for example) are among the poorest and least developed in post-Soviet Central Asia. They seek to exchange their third-world output for first-world market access, simply by joining a club (replicating their position in the defunct USSR). Such members (and Kyrgyzstan is not the only one) would drag the Eurasian Union common economy down and dilute its potential. Mexico through NAFTA has caused deindustrialization in the US (the maquiladoras).

To counteract this complication the Eurasian Union must establish degrees of membership (with appropriate limitations) and rigid "Maastricht criteria" for entry and exit from one grade to another, with mandatory roll-back provisions. Countries would have to demonstrate verifiable qualification for advancement in membership grade over multiple years, and there must be no bending of the rules to allow premature accession (the example of Greece and others in the EU must be a lesson thoroughly learned and always remembered).

The development of a new common currency for a free trade zone is not a good idea. Of course, the Russian ruble can become a regional reserve currency for a Eurasian Union, provided Russia receives a proven real benefit. Neither NAFTA nor Mercosur use a common currency (though the idea has been considered) and are not impaired by this. Perhaps a basket monetary unit, backed by a "local IMF" would be the path to take.

What about Ukraine? One should remember that Ukrainian separatism is often defined not as a positive assertion ("we are Ukrainians!") but as a negative one ("we are NOT Russians!"). From that negative perspective, anything proposed by Russia is by definition unacceptable to Ukraine. Moreover, the separation of Ukraine from Russia has been a Polish dream since the 17th century (when much of Poland's Ukrainian colony was liberated) and Poland is an influential member of the "New Europe" faction of the EU. Therefore, one can expect a very strong push to fixate Ukraine's detachment from Russia. This detachment violates countless organic trends and links between Ukraine and Russia, but what are romantic dreams for, anyway?

Anthony T. Salvia, Director, American Institute in Ukraine, Kiev

Vladimir Putin's proposal of a Eurasian Union may not be wholly original, but it does have lots of merit. If it is to have any hope of succeeding it must not be patterned on the European Union, which is often referred to in the blogosphere as the EUSSR.

One can understand why. In its penchant for central economic planning, suppressing national autonomy, and imposing official agnosticism, more than a few Europeans see in the Brussels institutions shades of the Soviet Union.

Brussels' insistence that Greece remain shackled to the euro rather than act in its own national interest (i.e., default, exit the euro-zone and regain control over interest rates) is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Brezhnev Doctrine: once incarcerated in the bloc, there's no getting out.

It's not for nothing that British journalist James Delingpole calls the European Union a "Communist-style economic dead zone in which all productive business and financial service industries have long since fled to the safety of the Far East."

Moscow, in setting up the envisioned Eurasian Union, cannot go down this route. Instead of central planning, it must aim for growth and economic freedom within the space defined by its tariff walls. The freeing up of the economy is vital to getting rid of corruption, promoting a demographic resurgence, and fostering social peace and stability.

A Eurasian Union would possess more factors for success than the European Union ever did: linguistic and cultural commonalities between business leaders across borders, shared infrastructure, similar levels of development, the shared experience of living in a vast transnational union (the late, unlamented Soviet Union), self-sufficiency in natural resources, possession of 25 percent of the world's black earth (if Ukraine were to join, it would be 50 percent), etc.

The union, at the outset, would also share a generalized poverty owing largely to 70 years of Marxist-Leninist misrule. This tragic history has impaired the strength of the economy and its ability to withstand external competition.

The tariff wall will afford a measure of protection. It will promote Foreign Direct Investment in infrastructure, as foreign firms establish a physical presence within the Union so as to avoid tariff discrimination, and to take advantage of direct access to a market of some 200 million people with pent-up demand for just about everything.

What about Ukraine? Will it tap into these benefits that have the potential to transform its economy over time? Kiev believes its interests are better served by negotiating a free trade agreement with Brussels. Frankly, I think Ukraine is running a great risk at a time when Europe is mired in a debt crisis so severe that some question whether the EU can even survive in its present form.

Assuming the free trade agreement is not derailed by the Timoshenko affair (highly unlikely in my view), no one knows how Ukrainian enterprises would fare when European firms, with their superior financial resources, enter the Ukrainian market. Nor can anyone be overly optimistic about demand in Britain, France and Germany, for example, for Ukrainian manufactured goods. All things being equal, Ukrainian agricultural products might be able to make a go of it, but things are far from equal: European agriculture is lavishly subsidized, which raises real concerns about the prospects for Ukrainian food and grain exports.

Moreover, the EU, which views Ukraine as too big, too poor and too corrupt to be easily absorbed, refuses to assure Kiev that the conclusion of a free trade arrangement would lead to a roadmap to eventual membership.

In my view, that's a blessing in disguise, but galling to those in Kiev who see Ukraine's future as best served by membership of the European Union.

The biggest shortcoming of the free trade agreement for Kiev is that it precludes joining the Customs Union with its very tangible benefits for the national economy, including paying domestic Russian rates for gas supplied by Gazprom.

My fear is that Kiev will realize too late that its most likely alternative to the ruble-zone is not the euro-zone, but the twilight zone.

Vlad Ivanenko, PhD economist, Ottawa

In a paper entitled The Collapse of the Second International, published in 1915, Vladimir Lenin said that "In Russia, as is common knowledge, capitalist imperialism is weaker than military-feudal imperialism." It seems that while the military component has become considerably weaker in this country over the last twenty years, its feudal part remains firmly intact. Recall that the feudalism can be defined as a set of reciprocal obligations revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs and replicating themselves on vertically structured levels similar to the "hierarchy of power" promoted by the Lenin's namesake who is likely to become the next president of Russia.

Personally, I agree that the average Russian voter would be happy to see a man return to the helm, who has shown his mastery in navigating treacherous political waters. The problem lies with the same antiquated system of feudal governance, which he has nurtured during the last decade and whose hostage he has become, namely: it is not a positive prospect for Russia's neighbors.

The only Eurasian union that is compatible with the existing regime in this country is, unsurprisingly, the extension of the vertical of power in the near abroad. By agreeing to form a union, Astana and Minsk will trade their current status of politically independent countries for economic benefits they obtain from access to Russian markets and, importantly for the landlocked Central Asian countries, to Russian-controlled routes to lucrative European energy markets. This arrangement would mostly benefit a handful of large companies owned by local oligarchs. But why, then, any country not firmly under the thumb of local financial elites should join such a union is an open question.

Yet, I see a silver lining in this mostly cloudy picture for Russia. The union will invariably dilute the political clout yielded by the current Putin regime. The Kremlin will need to make concessions to appease neighboring strongmen, at least in the initial stage. Later, it might attempt to initiate a new round of power consolidation to bring Minsk and Astana closer to the status enjoyed by Russian national republics but managing this attempt could be tricky. The big money wants to control the power and not to be subjected to the sovereign will as it is under the feudal regime. This will lead to their take on bourgeois revolution under the slogan of "Oligarchs of all nations, unite!" the success of which could lead to democratization of Russian politics. And Putin might find in the end that he is in desperate need of the same level of public support that he enjoyed in the beginning of his political career.


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