Vladimir Putin’s dream of creating a Eurasian Union is about to breathe its last breath.
Over the past several weeks, Russia has made headlines with its bullying of Ukraine for the latter’s intention to sign an association agreement with the European Union in November. Frantic to keep for themselves what would be the crown jewel of the potential Eurasian Union, Russia has in the past month ordered intense checks of all Ukrainian goods entering Russia, banned imports of Ukrainian chocolate and warned Ukraine that it would lose its status as a “strategic partner” and face “defensive measures” should it sign the Agreement.
Russia knows very well that should Ukraine sign the EU Association Agreement, it will no longer have the tools to incorporate Ukraine into the Customs Union, thus making further political integration into the Eurasian Union impossible.
The Eurasian Union has been at the forefront of Putin’s attempts to create an umbrella group for former Soviet nations that would strive for their security, economic prosperity and cultural closeness.
The idea of seeing Russia as the core of a new geopolitical center that would act as a bridge between West and East has long been an attractive idea to many Russians and is a project that Russian rulers have promoted for centuries. The idea of Great Russia has been twice realized in history, first as the Russian Empire (1721-1917) and then as the Soviet Union (1922-1991). Putin has himself hoped for Russia to reacquire that position, and has dreamt of resurrecting a geopolitical giant that would balance America, the EU and China in the twenty-first century.
Putin’s plan was to consolidate “willing” countries around the already existing Customs Union trade block of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and, following the example of EU integration, slowly transform into a political unit. But Moscow’s project was immature and flawed from the very beginning.
First, the Eurasian Union lacks the kind of strong ideology that was the cornerstone of the Soviet project. Bolshevism and the promise of the great Communist tomorrow galvanized both the elites and ordinary peoples of the former Russian Empire to endure the harsh road ahead, suffering losses and total lack of political and personal independence. But such an ideology does not exist to unite the Eurasian Union. The concept of “Eurasianism,” is based on the contraposition of Russia to the West in the sense of culture, power and existential meaning but does not provide for a unified solution to the problems that the post-Soviet states face. Rather, Putin wanted to use Eurasianist ideology solely for a pure and direct Empire-like projection of Russia and Russianness onto Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
But as it is a Russian vision, the Eurasian Union would bear the flaws of modern Russia: neglect of human rights, selective justice and omnivorous corruption. As compared to the European Union, the example on which Putin wanted to base his Union, Russia also lacks the tradition of following established rules. This understandably engenders fears and doubts among the potential members for the integrity of their sovereignty and, in the case of Ukraine, pushes them towards the more secure embrace of already established alternatives. Ukraine now sees its economic future with Europe, while at the other end of the old Soviet space, Kyrgyzstan would be ill advised to join the Eurasian Union, as it would lose much of the benefits it receives from Chinese trade.
A further weakness in the Eurasian plan is the massive difference between the economic potentials of Russia and the Central Asian states. Out of the five Central Asian states, Kazakhstan, the most economically advanced, is already a part of Customs Union, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have shown no interest in integrating with Russia, thus leaving two poor, but “willing” nations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The establishment of a Eurasian Union with those states that would make Russia accountable for balancing the inequalities of economic development through massive monetary transfers, as the European Union has done recently with southern European states like Greece and, in the past, most of the eastern European states. Such transfers would likely aggravate the economic situation in Russia, slowing down economic development and creating massive social liabilities; additional expenses would not be approved by the vast majority of even the most conservative, Soviet-nostalgic population.
Yet another obstacle is Russia’s resurgent nationalism. The old Soviet idea of “the friendship of nations” has long since faded and, over the last decade, Russian support of nationalist attitudes toward work migrants from Central Asian states has grown substantially. This has produced tensions in the big cities, regular assaults on immigrants by nationalist radicals and, more commonly, an overt intolerance of migrants. It also makes the question of integration with those Central Asian nations a sticky one.
The Eurasian project has proposed to significantly liberalize border control and to eliminate immigrant work quotas between Russia and at least three Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In Kazakhstan’s case, their standards of living and education are very close to Russia’s, decreasing the chance of the eruption of severe nationalist problems between the two peoples. Only 13 percent of Kazakhstanis are thinking of emigrating, and most that have emigrated are ethnic Russians.
But the situation with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is quite different. With their GDP per capitas at $1,070 and $837, respectively, (compare to $14,037 in Russia), their stagnating economies, lack of job opportunities and high birth rates, Kyrgyz and Tajiks are compelled to look for jobs abroad. Russia is their first choice of destination, and Russia has seen constant growth in the number of work permit applications submitted. Inclusion of these states in the Eurasian Union would likely boost the numbers of those immigrants who plan to stay in Russia permanently, furthering tensions that already sit at dangerous levels. Ukraine would likely have seen a similar jump in immigration had they chosen to join the Eurasian Union. For them then, the choice to associate with the European Union means both increased opportunities for Ukrainian citizens to travel and do business in Europe, but also a barrier against unwanted immigration from the East.
The purpose of any Union is to resolve controversies, not to create them, but the idea of the Eurasian Union has produced far more problems than it proposed to solve. It is understandable that some issues can only be solved once the Union is operational, because any integration project is a process, not a goal. The European Union has struggled with various dilemmas and problems for nearly 50 years and in every step of its integration. But its successes can be attributed to one key feature that Eurasian Union lacks—the desire and willingness of each member to share responsibility and to delegate power.
The apparent loss of Ukraine and social dangers of integration with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan leave Russia only with the current members of its Customs Union—Belarus and Kazakhstan. But neither President Lukashenko, nor President Nazarbayev, who have ruled their countries for nineteen and twenty-three years respectively, are inclined to sacrifice their patiently gathered powers on the altar of an unknown leviathan. Reason dictates that Russia must drop the notion of creating the Eurasian Union and deal with the new reality of Ukraine’s inexorable westward movement, and the fact that involvement with Central Asia is too dangerous for Russia’s internal stability.
The Eurasian Union is an unattainable dream for Mr. Putin. The sooner Russia’s leader acknowledges his failure the better it will be for the stable development of the region—and of Russia itself.
Anton Barbashin is a Moscow-based International Relations researcher and analyst who has published in Russia's Moskovsky Komsomolets and Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Hannah Thoburn is a Eurasia analyst based in Washington and is one of the Foreign Policy Initiative’s 2012-2013 future leaders.