Unless you’ve been watching the post-Soviet space with a keen eye, you likely missed the world’s-biggest-round-table signing last week. The meeting, held in Astana, heralded what Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed as a new “epoch” – the official founding of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), set to come into force on Jan. 1, 2015.
But where Putin had envisioned something that could represent a third “pole” – something dividing Europe and Asia – the EEU is looking to be, if not some kind of Potemkin construct, then at least a far cry from what it could have otherwise offered. The reasons are plain, and stem directly from the Kremlin’s own doing. I took a stab at examining the EEU’s flaccid unveiling in Foreign Policy:
Rather than launching a wholesale effort at post-Soviet reintegration, the EEU has rapidly morphed into something far more degraded — and has faced substantive pushback from states watching Putin attempt to shift the EEU into another vehicle for Russia’s revanchism, displayed so obviously in Crimea. Where the concerns on the EEU were originally economic — the benefits are discernibly slanted toward Moscow — events in Ukraine have displayed that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialism is back. …
And Astana’s not the only one taking a hit. According to Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov, Russian fiscal support for the other two EEU member states could soon jump more than $30 billion, or five times its current rate, should all trade restrictions be lifted. For an economy sliding into recession and facing sanctions and capital flight, watching allies suck up much-needed funds is likely a difficult sight in Moscow. Moreover, says economist Aitolkyn Kourmanova, “Without direct subsidies, the Central Asian countries will not perceive any significant advantage to integrating with the [EEU].”
Irredentism and wobbly economics aren’t all, though. I took a look over at over at The Diplomat at two additional factors squeezing the EEU:
The first is the Chinese presence, and the continued push within Beijing’s “March West” strategy. On the heels of President Xi Jinping’s whirlwind 2013 journey through Central Asia, which saw him expound and expand upon his projected Silk Road Economic Belt, Xi gathered regional heads in Shanghai for a recent Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). In addition to backing Russia into a gas deal slanted heavily toward Beijing, Xi cemented economic and energy-based hegemony within the region. If, as Martha Brill Olcott observed, Xi’s 2013 swing presented a “victory lap” in Central Asia, the recent gathering saw him accelerate Beijing’s pace, that much more to the detriment of Moscow’s regional influence. …
But where China, outside the EEU, will only continue to swell in geopolitical import in Central Asia, it is the lack of a Ukrainian presence in the EEU that presents the final, fatal strike against any attempt to craft the union as the “pole” Putin originally desired. The likelihood of Ukraine – with a market of nearly 50 million, and industrial potential second only to Russia within the EEU roster – joining the union remains next to nil, effectively neutering the EEU’s geopolitical consequence.
As it is, and for my money, the three best pieces to date on the blowback to Russia’s Eurasian Union plotting are here, here, and here. While the potential remains for Lukashenko-Putin-Nazarbayev to salvage the EEU into something sensible, there remains little chance that it can ever come close to regional bulwark Putin desires.