Three former Soviet republics have launched a new regional integration project, with at least two others on track to join in. Critics accuse Moscow of rebuilding the USSR, but architects of project say the aim is to become a better version of the EU.
The idea of the Eurasian Union – initially between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – made the headlines in October this year, after Vladimir Putin voiced it in a program article. The name may be new, but the future entity behind it is quite old. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the current leader of Kazakhstan, suggested it as long ago as the early 1990s, saying a Union of the three countries plus Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is necessary for them all. At the time, the notion of reconnecting the newly-separated parts of the former Soviet Union was questionable at best, but a decade-and-a-half later it is high on the agenda.
It is no surprise that many commentators, both in the west and on home ground are cautious about the project. For instance, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was quick to brand it “a new Soviet Union”. Critics say that Putin wants to dedicate his almost-assured presidential term – or two – to reviving the socialist empire. A closer look, however, shows that this is unlikely.
The creation of the Soviet Union in the 1920s had two key features that are absolutely absent today. First, it was about gluing back together the shattered Russian empire. What became members of the new country were parts of the old one, and less than a decade of independence was far from long enough to allow that memory to fade.
The collapse of the Soviet Union happened two decades ago, and in former Soviet republics a new generation has grown. The number of people in power with nostalgic notions of the old empire is shrinking, while the majority of the new active youth in the region has little reason to rebuild it.
Secondly, the Bolsheviks had a ready ideology, which resonated with the desires of the population. The dream of a fair nation of the common people by the common people was a strong one, while little suggested that it could not be made true.
Today, neither actual nor potential members of the Eurasian Union have that to offer. They cling together for the sake of economics first and foremost. It is a union created to defend their markets, businesses and labor from foreign competition. But at a political level, the participants are not eager to step away from their sovereignty.
Putin’s article specifically points to the European Union as the model for Eurasian integration, and it casts certain doubts on how successful the project might be. The EU implemented a single currency without a political body to enforce a single monetary policy. This worked in the times of prosperity, but failed miserably in the time of economic struggles.
A single currency for the Eurasian Union is stated as one of the goals. Would the EAU be struggling to save the ruble – or a ‘eurazo’, for that matter – from downfall two or three decades down the road? Of course the Eurasian allies may learn from Europe’s mistakes, and it makes their prospects better. Hopefully, Russia and Co. will not try appeasing their voters by going into a lending spree to fund social programs the way the Europeans did.
Economically speaking, the Eurasian Union has obvious benefits for its members coming regardless of how it will pay off in the long-term. Kyrgyzstan’s newly-elected President Atambayev has announced that his country has applied for membership. Tajikistan is likely to follow (which will be hailed by its people working in Russia as guest workers, who would no longer be bound by labor quotas). Together, the five nations will have a stronger position negotiating with their trade partners – both in Europe and in South Asia.
The new union also has a strong point in old Soviet ties. Good knowledge of the Russian language in the region and the many family and friendship ties alone will make stitching the EAU together easier. Reviving those will also hopefully boost the morale of the older generation, who suffered both in terms of standards of living and psychologically from the USSR collapse. Putin’s critics say he is nostalgic for the empire, but it is actually this failing of the people that he called “the major geopolitical disaster of the century.”
The biggest question is how much the economic integration would help them find their identity in the new age. Their national mentalities are just as far from the Western-brand welfare democracy as they are from Asian all-national mobilization-style drive. The EAU may need to erect a bridge in ideology as it intends to do with transportation between Europe and Asia.
Alexandre Antonov, RT