Photo illustration by John Lyman

The Eurasian Economic Union and Latin America: What could 2018 Bring?

As the world becomes more interconnected, regions that are geographically distant are now becoming closer as diplomatic and trade ties develop. For example, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is approaching Latin America both as individual members and collectively.

Growing Relations: The members of the EAEU are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. Relations between Moscow and Latin America have been well covered – for example, the author has recently reviewed Russia’s relations with Bolivia and Nicaragua – hence we will focus on the other EAEU members.

The Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan is an interesting case study as it has approached several Latin American states, particularly Brazil, which is one of the few Latin America countries where Astana has an embassy. For example, this year Kazakhstan’s Air Astana acquired five E190-E2 aircraft, produced by Brazil’s aerospace conglomerate EMBRAER, and deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2018. Air Astana did not purchase the planes directly from the Brazilian company, but rather signed a long-term lease agreement with AerCap; nevertheless, the decision to utilize EMBRAER platforms could help bring about future deals. Furthermore, the Kazakh company TetraTech, via its partnership with the US Agency for International Development, has been involved in projects among Latin American countries like Mexico (providing clean water) and Peru (supporting good governance).

Moreover, Astana has expanded its diplomatic presence in South America by opening a consulate in the Argentine city of Rosario, apart from already having a cultural center in said city. Additionally, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro visited Astana in September to take part in a meeting of the Islamic Cooperation Organization. As for positive publicity, the Mexican daily El Universal published a flattering piece about Kazakhstan’s interests in Latin America on 1 November, which includes an interview with Kazakh deputy foreign affairs minister, Yerzhan Ashikbayev. The article stresses that Mexican citizens do not need visas to travel to the Central Asian nation and the potential for future bilateral energy-related projects.

Meanwhile, Belarus has developed close ties with Venezuela; case in point: President Alexander Lukashenko met with President Maduro in Minsk just this past October. The meeting between the two leaders was followed by a round of a bi-national high-level commission, which occurred in late November, and the two sides discussed cooperation on issues like energy, agriculture and military strategy. Additionally, Mexico opened an honorary consulate in Minsk in 2016 while in early December 2017, Belarusian Ambassador to Ecuador and concurrently to Colombia, Igor Poluyan, made a working trip to Bogota, to promote bilateral relations, Belarus News reported.

As for Armenia, it is worth noting the migration of Armenians to Latin America, particularly after the Armenian Genocide. A 2016 article by Sputnik Mundo discusses Armenia migration to Argentina and Uruguay in particular, though Armenians have migrated to other regional states. Nevertheless, the author has not been able to find recent diplomatic initiatives between the Caucasus nation and Latin America in spite of the Armenian Diaspora in the Western Hemisphere. Brazilian Foreign Affairs Minister Aloysio Nunes Ferreria did write an op-ed praising Brazil-Armenia relations prior to his mid-November visit to Yerevan, however no major agreements have been reported as part of this visit. A similar situation occurs with Kyrgyzstan’s stance towards Latin America. Apart from a statement by the Brazilian foreign affairs ministry that in 2013 Brasilia “donated $50 thousand to the Kyrgyz Government through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for supporting activities in favor of refugees,” there have been no significant initiatives.

Finally trade appears to be minimal. For example, the Mexican daily Milenio, reported in March 2017 that trade between Mexico and Belarus centered on Mexican exports of steel, materials for tires and cleaning machines. Meanwhile, Brazil has reported that its bilateral trade with Armenia reached USD$38.4 million in 2016.

Thus, bilateral relations between individual EAEU members, apart from Russia, and Latin America should not be overhyped. Bilateral relations are generally positive, but sporadic. Moreover the scarce trade between the aforementioned EAEU nations and Latin America stresses that there is much to be done still to bring both sides further together.

Mexico’s Faux Pas over Nagorno-Karabakh: There has been one recent diplomatic incident between the two distant regions worth mentioning. Namely, Mexican government officials apparently made a diplomatic statement in favor of Armenia’s territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. In late October, three members of the Mexican Congress – identified as Margarita Blanca Cuata Domínguez, Carlos Hernández Mirón, de Morena, and María Cristina Teresa García Bravo – travelled to Armenia as part of their work for the Mexico-Armenia Friendship Group. The problem is that they also travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh, without authorization from the Azerbaijani government and apparently ignoring orders from the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs.

The Azerbaijani government has vehemently protested the Mexican officials’ visit to the disputed territory.

EAEU-Latin America Deals: Limited bilateral relations notwithstanding, there is optimism regarding the future of relations between the EAEU (as a bloc) and Latin America. Case in point, on 4 December, the author attended a conference organized by the Eurasia Center at the Russian Cultural Center in Washington DC, entitled “4th Annual Conference: Doing Business with the Eurasian Economic Union: Improving East-West Relations.” The speakers included government and diplomatic officials of the five member states, who praised current levels of integration, the new Customs Code that will enter into force in 2018, and ties with countries like South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam.

The author inquired about EAEU-Latin America relations, and the speakers were optimistic about these initiatives and singled out relations with Chile, Mexico and Peru in particular. In fact, Chile and the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC) have a joint commission aimed at promoting ties, which held its third round of meetings this past March. An EEC press release mentions that the recent round included lists by both Chile and EEC members of products that they would like to export. Similarly, in 2016 Peru noted that 99% of its exports to the EAEU currently go to Russia and the goal is to approach other states. Finally, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray Caso has declared his country’s interest in looking for new markets. “We would like to establish stable relations with EAEU,” the diplomat has stated.

As a final point, it is worth highlighting the meetings between the EAEU and the South American bloc MERCOSUR – its member states: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela (which has been suspended since December 2016). In late November, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov declared that Latin American nations, including MERCOSUR, are interested in close cooperation with the EAEU. While there have been important meetings between the two blocs in the recent past, MERCOSUR currently is at a standstill due to internal problems, such as the problematic situation in Venezuela. Additionally, regional powerhouse Brazil is under stress due to its ongoing economic woes, while its foreign policy is essentially on hold until the October 2018 elections when a new administration will take over. We will probably have to wait until then to see what direction MERCOSUR takes and if rapprochement with the EAEU continues.

Final Thoughts: It will be important to monitor what 2018 brings for the EAEU-Latin American relations. Russia already has a hefty presence in Latin America, and the key will be to see if the Union’s other members can begin to establish a foothold in this vast area. So far, initiatives by Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been scarce and, given the geographic distance between these nations and Latin America, in addition to other foreign policy priorities, we will likely not see major bilateral initiatives in the near future. Thus, the EAEU, as a bloc, led by Russia, would be the key to bring these nations and Latin America closer together.

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.