In 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin lamented: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.”
Exactly 10 years later, Putin plans to bring post-Soviet countries into a Russia-led Eurasian Union (EAU). In November 2011, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Belarus signed an agreement with Russia to launch the Eurasian Union and make it fully operational by 2015.
Membership in the EAU entails uniting economies, legal systems, and customs services – and military coordination with Russia. In order for the ambitious plan to work, Russia needs to lure strategically important ex-Soviet states such as Ukraine into the game.
However, Europe’s second-largest country by area has already expressed its desire to join the European Union as an associate member instead, and is expected to sign an association agreement with the EU during a summit in Vilnius in November, within its Eastern Partnership programme.
The Kremlin has repeatedly warned Ukraine against the move. “We would somehow have to stand by our market, introduce protectionist measures. We are saying this openly in advance,” Putin told a gathering of Russian experts and journalists recently.
Kremlin economic adviser Sergei Glazyev said Russia was “preparing to introduce tougher customs administration in case Ukraine makes the suicidal move of signing the EU association agreement”.
Meanwhile, another post-Soviet country – Armenia – made a surprise move by declaring its readiness to join the Russia-led Customs Union – seen as a precursor to the Eurasian Union. This conflicts with the country’s ambitions of becoming an associate member of the EU.
At the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, the president of Armenia’s neighbour Georgia took a different tack, arguing post-Soviet countries that aspire to join the EU were being bullied by Russia.
“Armenia has been cornered, and forced to sign customs union which is not in this nation’s interest or in the interest of our [South Caucasian] region. Moldova is being blockaded, Ukraine is under attack, Azerbaijan faces extraordinary pressure, and Georgia is occupied. Why? Because an old empire is trying to reclaim its bygone borders,” said Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili.
However, the Eurasian Development Bank survey – published on September 24 – claims that 50 percent of Ukrainians, 67 percent of Armenians, and 59 percent of Georgians support the idea of joining the already existing Customs Union.
The Bank – founded by Russia and Kazakhstan in 2006 – also sees Azerbaijan as a potential member of the Customs Union, but acknowledges only 37 percent of the country’s population supports the idea.
“Putin’s plan to integrate post-Soviet countries is a trap. If either Baku or Tbilisi joins the Customs Union and Eurasian Union, it would signal the end of European access to Central Asia,” Zaur Shiriyev, a research fellow in the Foreign Policy Analysis Department of the Center for Strategic Studies in Azerbaijan, told Al Jazeera.
The World Bank seems to think so too. Its report, published in February 2013, said “the [Customs Union] creates an opportunity for Russia to expand its exports and its presence in Central Asia at the expense of exports from other countries, such as the European Union and China”.
Shiriyev suggested the only way for eastern European countries to avoid more pressure from Russia is to increase integration with the European Union and strengthen relations with the United States.
Who will benefit?
According to the World Bank analysis, evidence suggests that Russia has been the main beneficiary in the short term of the Customs Union (launched on January 1, 2010 with Kazakhstan and Belarus), and this is also expected to be the case once the organisation grows into a larger Eurasian Union.
However, there are some benefits to be gained by Central Asian member states in the medium to long term, as Russia is their most significant trading partner. Border controls within the union are removed for goods passing through, and all member states impose the same tariff on imports from outside the union.
The economic benefits have lured at least one more Central Asian post-Soviet country – Kyrgyzstan – to the union. It’s not a member state yet, but it has committed to doing so.
“By joining the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union, [the] Kyrgyz Republic would get access to a very large common market, which would attract investments and new technologies,” said Talant Sultanov, director at the National Institute for Strategic Studies of Kyrgyzstan.
According to Sultanov, the negotiations between Russia and Kyrgyzstan regarding its integration in the Customs Union and wider Eurasian Union “are going in a very constructive manner”, unlike the situation with Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries. Because Kyrgyzstan’s trade with the EU and US is already limited, Sultanov does not think its move will have much of an impact on its trade relations with the West.
At what cost?
Yet though membership in the union could bring economic benefits, critics worry it could carry a high price, degrading the countries’ sovereignty and independence from Russia, with its imperial past and regionwide reputation as an aggressor.
The Russian army currently occupies 20 percent of Georgian territory, and is accused of fuelling ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“Unlike most nations, the Russian Federation has no interest in having stable states around it. Neighbouring countries in constant turmoil is what the Kremlin is seeking,” said Saakashvili at the UN General Assembly.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once described Putin’s effort of launching the Eurasion Union as “a move to re-Sovietise the region”.
Like the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before it, the Eurasian Union would be run from Moscow.
Follow Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter: @tamila87v