Putin's Eurasian dreams

Will Russia's Eurasian ambitions be thwarted by its neighbourhood's increasingly European leanings?

    Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have agreed on the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union [Getty]
    Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have agreed on the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union [Getty]

    Over the last month, Eastern Europe and Central Asia have experienced an acceleration of the ongoing regional integration trend. Eager to reinforce their grip on their respective spheres of influence and get a strong foothold in their shared neighbourhoods, both Russia and the European Union have signed a wave of agreements with traditional or new allies.

    On May 29, Russia, together with Kazakhstan and Belarus, inaugurated the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). While these three countries could eventually be joined by Armenia and Kyrgyzstan before the end of the year, when the economic union is due to be implemented, the absence of representatives from Ukraine has been duly noted. Kiev has indeed inexorably drifted away from the Russian sphere of influence.

    Even if Russian President Vladimir Putin had annexed Crimea, the absence of Ukraine, an important pillar of the original regional integration scheme, has considerably reduced the economic power of his inspired Eurasian Economic Union. Putin has argued that this regional integration project would counterbalance the European Union, yet economic data seems to prove that his alliance fall far short of the objective. The total GDP of the Eurasian Union (the sum total of the economic output of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) indeed barely reaches $2700bn, less than France's economic power alone. Economically, the Eurasian Economic Union is a dwarf compared to its European neighbour.

    The economic potential of Ukraine could also have been a significant asset to the Eurasian Union, due to the complementarity of its industry and agriculture with the rentier state structure of energy-rich Kazakhstan and Russia. Yet the signing on June 27 of an economic association agreement between Kiev and the European Union - together with Georgia and Moldova - has definitely put a nail in the coffin for Russian's institutional grip on its Western neighbour.

    Ideological battle

    The signing of the pro-European agreement by Ukraine was also a significant blow to the dream of "Asiope" (the Russian version of "Eurasia"), developed by Kremlin ideologist Aleksandr Dugin. A simple economic or geopolitical reading of the evolution of regional integration on the Eurasian continent would be incomplete. What is at stake here is an ideological battle.

    The "Eurasianism" values that fuel Putin's foreign policy are based on the desire to build an "anti-liberal, xenophobic, homophobic and anti-US" counterbalancing institution.

    In the eyes of Putin, Europe has been contaminated by degenerative liberal values that now threaten Russian society. For the Kremlin, it is urgent to reaffirm the supremacy of a conservative, religious and traditional bastion that would stand in front of the propagation of Western culture...

    In the eyes of Putin, Europe has been contaminated by degenerative liberal values that now threaten Russian society. For the Kremlin, it is urgent to reaffirm the supremacy of a conservative, religious and traditional bastion that would stand up to the propagation of Western culture and its equal rights for gays, liberal democracy and independent news media.

    This ideological facet allows us to go beyond the sterile, realist opposition between two geographical spaces and to underline instead the transnationalism of this civilisational clash. Putin's discourse is indeed not much different from the conservative ideology of the Tea Party movement in the United States and the return to the conservatism advocated by its evangelical zealots. It is also very similar to the xenophobic projects defended by European far-right parties.

    One should recall that Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, has always embraced the Russian position in the conflict over Ukraine. Last April, she received a triumphant welcome when she gave a speech in front of the Russian parliament against Western sanctions on Russia.

    In parallel, some of her closest collaborators joined the far-right Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections during the referendum on Crimea, an organisation presided by Luc Michel, a leading figure of the pro-Nazi national Bolshevik movement. The very ideological grounding of the Eurasian Union has been summed up in Dugin's Fourth Political Theory whose preface was written by none other than Alain Soral, the French anti-Semitic ideologist.

    Reinforcement of an independent Europe

    This ideological fracture between the European Union and the Eurasian project reached yet another level last week when Jean Paul Juncker was nominated as the new President of the European Commission. The former prime minister of Luxemburg has always been an adamant advocate of the federal and transnational dynamic, that is the heart of the European project since its creation after World War II.

    This choice was institutionally historic as Juncker was imposed by the transnational European Parliament as opposed to the traditional arrangements behind closed doors between European heads of state. It reinforces this supranational revolutionary project that is the European Union, the very construction that Putin and US Republicans alike reject.

    Not surprisingly, the only countries that fought the nomination of Juncker until the very end were Hungary and the United Kingdom. On the one hand, British Prime Minister David Cameron opposed the deepening of federalism and the strengthening of the European Union's power over national states, a traditional position defended by a British Atlanticist ideology that favours an alignment of the European Union with US foreign policy.

    On the other hand, Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, widely seen as Putin's Trojan horse in the European Union, opposed the nomination of Juncker and reaffirmed his preference for a "community of nation states", similar to the institutional basis of Putin's Eurasian Union.

    Yet, in the middle of US liberalism and Russian nationalism, the European Union has further reinforced its independent integration project. And it is this path that Ukraine seems to have chosen.

    Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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