On 2 October 2012 Vladimir Putin published an article, entitled “A new Integration Project for Eurasia” in which he set out his visions for the future of Russia and the former Soviet Republics.
His vision was simple and optimistic. He hoped to establish a powerful association of independent states capable of becoming one of the poles of the modern world that would serve as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific area.
Its member states would be linked by a customs union and cooperation reaching from services to capital flows, free labour movement, technical standards, patents, economic and currency policies, a development bank, a court of justice, a joint Commission and other supranational components.
Basically, the vision mirrored the EU. No surprise therefore that it also aimed at joining hands with the EU to establish a huge free trade area reaching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. But the EU did not pick up the “offer” being not allured by Putin’s vision which contrasted too much with the real policies pursued by him.
Though the idea goes back to the 1990 s the EAU has not progressed the way the Kremlin had hoped for.
The number of member states has not increased beyond the three founding countries, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Under pressure from Moscow tiny Armenia, heavily dependent on Russian security, had to accept joining in 2013. The central Asian countries – Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan- are still not keen on membership. Nor are Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, let alone Ukraine, seen as a crucial element.
Cooperation has not advanced much beyond free trade. No comparison with the internal EU market, which is huge compared to that of the three EAU countries.
For Putin it must have been painful to see how the former Soviet Republics refused to accept his courtship in favour of the much more attractive European Union, where small countries have nothing to fear from big ones bullying them or ignoring their interests. Feeling himself as a “modern zsar” Putin failed to address the structural fault lines of the EAU, the overwhelming Russian dominance, the absence of the rule of law, independent judiciary and democratic governance.
No doubt, his pride must have been hurt by the lacking success of his “geostrategic baby” which was to replace the Soviet Union, in his eyes the biggest geostrategic catastrophe of the 20th century.
This may also explain his reactions to the Ukrainian shift toward Europe. If he succeeded to “recover” the Donetsk basin, Ukraine’s industrial core, he might succeed in winning even more support from the nationalist majority at home. But at what costs for him and Russia? And how often can he play that trick?
Rather than pursuing the mirage of a Russian-dominated Eurasian Union his successors would be well advised to follow a more realistic approach of a Eurasian free trade area with the EU, fully based on the rule of law, independent judiciary, personal freedoms and democracy. But for this to happen Russia would have to undergo profound political and constitutional changes that are not in view.
Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 15/4/2014