Initiated by Vladimir Putin to give back Russia its lost rank of superpower and to build a rival block against the US, the EU and China, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is to date the best integrationist project Russia has ever come up with since the end of the USSR. It started in 2010 as a Customs Union bringing together Russia Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukraine was supposed to join soon after, but the political turmoil and the Russian military intervention and annexation of Crimea killed the dream. The Union was created to bring together most of post-Soviet countries of Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia but it appeals works differently for each of them. The regimes in Central Asia can’t make a decision between bitter resignation and fierce hostility, as Moscow tries to impose the project on them.

Central Asian states consider the Eurasian Economic Union project with caution

Bayram Balci
Balci was a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on Turkey and Turkish foreign policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
More >

The current project is not the first attempt for regional integration led by Russia. Prior to the USSR dissolution that became effective on December 26th, 1991, Russia had already reorganized most of post-Soviet countries into the Community of Independent States (CIS) as early as December 8th, 1991. The loose political entity was ill-conceived and failed to inspire trust among member states. The CIS failed Russia in her ambitions for a renewed regional leadership over the Caucasus and Central Asia. The new project learned a lesson from the CIS and took the European Union construction as a model for development, although it is against this very entity that it is building up. Putin’s hidden agenda of the EEU is clear in some of his comments to the press and in particular to the Izvestia as early as October, 2011. Yet, the Russian political and strategic ambitions of the whole Eurasian project contradict those of its partners in Central Asia, whatever their status. Currently, Kazakhstan is a full member, Kirghizstan is supposed to join in 2015, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are considering their candidacy.

Kazakhstan is highly motivated by economic integration and never misses an opportunity to remind others that President Nursultan Nazarbaev was the first to evoke a Eurasian integration approach for post-Soviet countries. Indeed, in a famous speech he gave in Moscow University back in 1994, he had designed what could be a regional economic Union, that wouldn’t entail sovereignty losses and political constraints for state members, which is the most delicate point for such young independent states. None is ready for foreign intervention in their political or economic sovereignty. Moreover, Kazakhstan has always made clear that they would withdraw from the Union the day it would threaten their national interests.

Theoretically, except for a reversal of the situation, Kirghizstan should be the next to join the EEU. This little economically vulnerable and politically unstable country, which depends very much on its cooperation with Russia especially in the field of workers’ migration, is not so enthusiastic about the idea of swearing allegiance to Moscow again. However, economic and security issues, linked to the growing Chinese economic supremacy, have led the public and elites to believe that renouncing some of its sovereignty to Russia and the EEU benefit is not such a bad alternative to total “absorption” by China

Tajikistan is tempted to do the same for similar economic and security concerns. The country is economically as dependent to Russia as Kyrgyzstan is. Thousands and thousands of workers work in Russia on a short term basis, and their remittances are vital to the Tajik economy and society. The country is also concerned by the security risks exerted by Afghanistan. The leaders haven’t taken position for or against the EEU project, but nevertheless Russia should soon invite Dushanbe to join in.

However, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are firmly determined not to enter the EEU as they fear it will only serve Russian supremacy interests in Central Asia. Both are, more than their neighbors, eager to protect their sovereignty. Their oil and gas income and their small Russian minorities prevent Russia from exerting too much economic or political pressure to force their allegiance to the EEU. Now the Russian annexation of Crimea and support from Russian separatists in Ukraine hang over all post-Soviet countries as more potential threats of reprisal in the event they wouldn’t be ready to follow Moscow’s choices.

Although Russia is momentarily weakened by the financial crisis affecting the ruble and by the European economic sanctions against its military intervention in Ukraine, it still has leverage against post-Soviet countries, but these means differ very much in efficiency and scope according to internal resistance factors and potential external reactions from the international community.

As a founding member of the Customs Union, Kazakhstan proclaimed its right to withdraw from the Union at its convenience. The country is strong enough to hold a firm position. Russia does not operate a military base any more in Kazakhstan and the Kazakh economy, based on oil and gas income, is so strong that there are very little economic migrants to Russia. But, in the event of a unilateral withdrawal, without Moscow’s agreement, Russia can easily utilize the massive Russian minority in Northern Kazakhstan that accounts for 23 percent of the total population. Their historical settlement in the northern parts of Kazakhstan along the border with Russia is a potentially explosive national issue. By the end of the Soviet era, Russian nationalist and separatist groups had emerged to demand territorial reform. Yet, to date, Russian and Kazakh ethnics live side by side in peace and minorities don’t seem to hold much against the way they are treated as Kazakhstani citizens. However, if need be, Russia could use ethnic destabilization and social unrest to force Kazakhstan to remain in the EEU. Moreover, Russian press and media are extremely powerful and influential in Kazakhstan and could serve Moscow’s propaganda in that sense.

On the contrary, Kyrgyzstan is extremely vulnerable and its economy remains largely dependent on Russia, especially in terms of labor migrations. The lack of official data to quantify the importance of seasonal labor migrants shows how informal the phenomenon is. It is estimated that almost a million Kyrgyz are currently employed in Russia. Without the income they’re sending home, the whole of the Kyrgyz society wouldn’t make ends meet. The country is on a drip-feed and close to bankruptcy. Worrying social unrest remains and raises concerns about a potential third revolution in less than a decade. President Askar Akaev was toppled in 2005, as was President Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010 by an angry population. The Kyrgyz vulnerability to Russian pressure has also a military dimension. The Russians still operate the base in Kant, outside the capital city of Bishkek and the Russian minority in the country still counts for 12% of the population. Both give considerable leverage to Moscow. On the other side, Kyrgyzstan is under the aggressive economic pressure of China and the government of Almazbek Atambaev seems now more resigned than ever to joining the EEU with a better-known Russian leadership.

In December 2014, there was rumor in Kyrgyzstan that the Russian financial crisis will convince the Kyrgyz parliament to veto joining the Eurasian Union scheduled in May of 2015. However, there is little Kyrgyzstan can actually do to oppose Russia and resist the EEU. Threats, like a simple ban on seasonal work from Kyrgyzstan, military maneuvers in Kant or media propaganda against Kyrgyz economic and political choices, make Kyrgyzstan a vassal to Moscow against an unfavorable public opinion and a skeptical Eurasian parliament.

Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors are not totally safe from Russian threats and constraints. Uzbekistan is openly reluctant to join the Union but has a relative dependence on Russia in terms of seasonal labor force with more than one million Uzbeks currently working in various cities across the Russian federation. Tajikistan’s economy is even weaker and more vulnerable to Russian pressure. The Tajik-Afghan border is under the control of the Russian 201st motor rifle division, called Gashinskaya. Security threats from Afghanistan, from which Americans are withdrawing are a major concern for Tajik authorities. Their lack of means forces long-term military cooperation with Moscow. Yet, the presence of Russian military in Tajikistan is a threat in itself to Tajikistan’s sovereignty.

Turkmenistan might be the last Central Asian exception to the enlargement of the Eurasian Union. There are almost no ethnic Russians left in the country, no labor force leaving for Russia, no Russian military base on its ground, and from the start they bet on a diversified foreign economic cooperation, which makes Russia a marginal partner, whom is not vital to their development. Therefore, Turkmenistan should remain the strangest and most isolated and closed autocracy in the region.

What are chances of success for the Eurasian Economic Union?

The project advocates praise it to be consistent and mutually profitable for all members, while its opponents are concerned that Russia views it as being only interested in recreating the largest sphere of influence possible for herself. Whether based on virtuous and cooperative intentions or based on ill-conceived notions to serve only Russian neo-imperialist ambitions, the EEU start is biased and this alone could jeopardize its chances for developing into a sound and actually functioning entity. The project design has several weak points.

The founding texts for the Eurasian Union show that it drew inspiration from the European construction, establishing a Eurasian Commission with similar missions and prerogatives and several so-called « colleges » as well as a court of justice, modeled on the European organizational system. Yet, the fact they have similar institutions does not guarantee the EEU will develop accordingly. The two integration projects differ very much on several points. First European member states were more or less homogeneous by their size, economic weight, and level of development, which is not the case among the founding members of the Eurasian Union. Russia by far leads all member states and candidates in every level. With a population of 145 million, against 17 million in Kazakhstan, and less than 10 million in Belarus, Russia is by far the most populated, as well as the richest.

Besides, it took forty years of thoughtful maturation for the original CECA, initiated in 1952 to turn into a fully developed Union in 1992, when Maastricht Treaty was eventually ratified. The Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan was only signed 4 years ago, in 2010, came into force in 2012, to become a full Economic Union by January 2015. The rush hardly dissimulates Putin’s impatience for revenge against his Western rivals. Thus, the Eurasian construction results more from a hostile reaction to foreign powers than from regional integration ambitions meeting several national interests.

Moreover, the nature of relations Russia has with its former satellite countries also jeopardizes the mere feasibility of the whole project. Once again, Russia rules over the Union but none is lured by its democratic disguise. Member states and candidates to the Eurasian Union know that Russia is the very same post-Soviet colonial and imperialist power. They are more than attached to their political sovereignty and eager to diversify partnerships, both political and economic, with other great powers to balance the weight and influence of Russia on their vulnerable independence. Most of them put a lot of efforts to develop good relations with the European Union, the United States, China and even Turkey. Russia’s ambition with the EEU is also to break this trend so they return to the fold.

Eventually, the Ukrainian crisis casts a bleak shadow over the Union before it even came into full force. Some nostalgic ex-Soviet elites view the Russian intervention with admiration, but most of the public opinion and the regimes view it with concern. Their perception of the Eurasian project led by Russia has definitely changed over the Ukrainian crisis. Before Ukraine, Central Asians thought the EEU to be a good alternative against China’s growing influence over the region. After the Ukraine controversy, where Russia annexed territory disregarding Kiev’s sovereignty in the silent indifference of the international community, who de facto acknowledges Russia the natural right to exert influence in former Soviet territories, they fear for their independence. The Russian reaction in Ukraine makes it even more difficult for diplomats to advocate for the EEU and convince Central Asian regimes to follow Russia on a blurred path of unbalanced partnership.

Conclusion

Thus, a profound misunderstanding stands between the Russian architects of the Eurasian Union and their Central Asian member states and potential candidates. Although they obviously deny this, the Russians want to use the EEU to resist and oppose the growing Western supremacy and the young independent states of Central Asia definitely refuse to engage in another ideological block confrontation. Their national interests demand international political and economic diversification, away from the Russian or Chinese grip. Yet, as the Ukrainian crisis showed, the ongoing integration project will force them to take sides, even though they feel this new confrontation is not theirs anymore. But being so small and weak makes their joining the EEU inevitable but so much resignation and resistance will doom the Eurasian Union in the womb.

This article was originally published on Silk Road Reporters.