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Russia’s Eurasian Dream: The Original Sin Revisited

The creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has underlying it a new vision of wider Eurasian integration. Indeed, Russia considers its centrality within Eurasia as a precondition for its strong role in global politics. Therefore, largely inspired in the (neo) Eurasian postulates, will the EEU have the conditions to succeed at the regional level? Will Russia be able to effectively securitize its interests in Central Asia? Judging by the experience of the organization which was the embryo of the EEU (better known under the acronym EurAsEC), several experts are skeptical about the securitization potential inherent in the EEU. And why? Although the designation Eurasian Economic Union indicates the economic essence that apparently characterizes the functioning of this organization, the real lever underlying its creation is geopolitical.

Russia sees the EEU as a political project, whereas Kazakhstan and other members view it as a way to further their own economic interests, rather than as ‘any dream’ of forming a super-state between Europe and Asia. Because strictly speaking, Russia’s real goal by stimulating the creation of the EEU is to adapt the essence of economic and political cooperation to the case of Central Asia, Belarus and Armenia. However, its member states are not willing to give up what they regard as their national sovereignty, to the detriment of a single currency, or a regional Parliament (inspired by the European Parliament), likely to dictate the rules of the game, as Moscow appreciates.

According to Coffey, “the EEU is an economic union loosely modelled after the European Union,” founded in January 2015, having as members “Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.” The creation of the EEU has underlying it a new vision of wider Eurasian integration. Indeed, as Svarin explains: “Russia considers its centrality within Eurasia as a precondition for its strong role in global politics, especially with the recent moves in favor of establishing Eurasia as a geopolitical region governed by legitimate institutional links and thus responding to a broader tendency in global politics toward more institutionalized regionalism and supranational organizations.”

The proposal of Russian regional integration will hardly succeed if it does not respect the economic and security interests of the states that it aims to cover. This was, in fact, one of the main reasons for the failure of the previous EurAsEC, which imposed large costs on the Central Asian countries, that had to buy either lower quality or higher priced Russian manufactured goods under the common external tariff umbrella that favored Russian industry. Having started with the Russian tariff – which, as the EurAsEC, protects the Russian industry – the EEU may suffer from the same error that caused the failure of the EurAsEC. On the other hand, the crisis in the Russian economy makes the EEU a ‘risky bet’ for the states of the region. In fact, as the currencies of the Central Asian republics are connected to a certain extent (though not attached) to the ruble, they have registered falls compared to the dollar. In addition, the remittances sent by the Kyrgyz and the Tajiks working in Russia – and who are a very important source of income for the fragile economies of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – also lost their value because of the collapse of the ruble.

Jan Strzelecki is particularly critical about the way Russia uses the EEU to allegedly “strengthen its influence [in Central Asia],” avoid “the integration of the countries of the region with the West,” contain “the China’s growing influence,” and “legitimize the Kremlin elite to Russian society.” Approximately three years after its implementation, the EEU remains far from the initial expectations of its members. This is due, not only to oil’s falling prices, the sanctions imposed by the international community on Russia, but also to the fact that the EEU focuses its attention on the search for political influence, rather than on the promotion of free trade. Given these reasons, I share Cooley’s vision, for whom Russia’s EEU and China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) are ‘conceptually incompatible’: the EEU is about fencing in economic activity as a regional economic bloc, while the OBOR is about transit and connectivity between regions.

It is curious that despite the considerable differences between the two, both China’s OBOR and Russia’s EEU initiative are two narratives designed to induce and convince. And, in this sense, they can be considered a form of securitization in terms of soft power. But while China is an apologist for glorious past achievements, touting the universalist nature of Chinese culture as a way to sublimate the dissatisfaction regarding the party and the internal difficulties, Russia, in turn, evokes the civilizational distinctiveness of the so-called Russian world (Russkiy Mir). On the other hand, while the OBOR narrative is used to appease the fears of the international community concerning China’s intentions at the external level, in the case of the EEU, it also aims to securitize (either nationally or in the post-Soviet world) the stability of the Russian political regime.

Faced with a situation of domestic economic downturn, of assertive foreign policy and militarization in various theatres, the EEU also aims to enhance internal critics, like the one Gorbachev made in an article published in Novaya Gazeta, on February 29, 2016. According to the last Soviet leader, “Russia needs a real democracy in order to emerge from the authoritarian trend in Russia’s domestic politics…Russia’s top-down system of government had been to the detriment of real democracy, at the expense of the independence of the parliament, the courts, and the mass media…It is impossible to isolate Russia – the World will never agree to this…We must overcome the authoritarian trend in our internal politics…(and) return to a path of real democracy.”

It is the Central Asian republics’ interest to make the most of the OBOR’s economic potential, at the expense of the EEU. This does not prevent the Central Asian countries from cooperating simultaneously with Chinese intelligence in an anti-terrorism effort. It is in the interest of the Central Asian republics to always maintain pragmatism that allows them to avoid the emergence or persistence of any monopoly in the region, as has been until a few years ago the case of the logistics control of regional pipelines by Moscow, something that China has now broken. Furthermore, it is essential to overcome first bureaucratic barriers and distrust between the states involved in the revitalization of the old Silk Road corridors, so that China’s extraordinary initiative – which will achieve in the medium/long term a rail crossing between Singapore and Scotland in two or three days and can be more profitable for the countries of the region.