TASHKENT, Feb 1(CACI Analyst/UNIVERSAL). In 2011, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin initiated the creation of a Eurasian Union. This largely amounted to a restoration of the historically recurring idea of reunifying the former Soviet Republics, albeit on a new, “democratic” basis.
The initiative revealed, however, a new trend – a geopolitical reversal in the post-Soviet space. By and large, this trend seems incapable of taking the upper hand over other geopolitical tendencies that have been unfolding in this part of the world since 1991 due to the lack of exactly a “democratic foundation”.
BACKGROUND: The Eurasian idea is a very old concept. In a modern, post-Soviet, historical context it has from time to time been voiced by the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and now by Vladimir Putin. Eurasianism was to a certain extent embodied in the form of the Soviet Union.
In any way, the concept has always been and still is a manifestation of primarily Russian geopolitics rather than the interests of peoples and countries located on its geographical perimeter.
By revitalizing this concept, Putin suggested the model of a powerful supranational unification which would become one of the poles of the contemporary world and thereby play the role of an effective link between Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. This is envisioned through an amalgamation of the natural resources, capital, and huge human potential of the countries that are current members of the now existing Customs Union and Common Economic Space. These two structures include the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.
Putin stated that the Eurasian Union will be created on the basis of universal principles of integration as an unalienable part of Larger Europe, and united by common values of freedom, democracy, and market laws. Finally, Putin underscored that the idea of the EAU is not about restoring the Soviet Union that was left in the past, nor is it intended as a replacement for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Yet, the reactions of prospective EAU members in Central Asia have been mixed. Only Uzbek President Islam Karimov expressed a somewhat non-supportive official reaction to Putin’s initiative. Other presidents of the CIS countries left it “without serious attention.”
IMPLICATIONS: When advancing his integrationist concept, Putin pointed to three fundamental aspects of the EAU: First, it is based on universal principles of integration; second, countries will be united by common values of freedom, democracy, and market laws; and third, the Union will be a supranational unification which would become one of the poles of the contemporary world.
However, these aspects, albeit certainly fundamental and normative per se, sound more like declaratory statements than fully acknowledged principles. Central Asian regional affairs are telling in this regard.
Indeed, if universal principles of integration are recognized as a prerequisite of the EAU, then the same principles should have been at play on a regional level in Central Asia by now. However, the integration process is deadlocked in this region.
Second, the perception that values of freedom, democracy, and market laws are common to all future EAU members contradicts at least Central Asian realities which are now as far from democracy as 20 years ago when they became independent.
Third, it should be emphasized that supranationalism will likely be rejected by former Soviet republics which have not yet freed themselves from the euphoria of nationalism. The ambition of the EAU to become one of the poles of the contemporary world also seems premature, since the acquisition of such a status would require it to display a Soviet-like unity, international prestige, and power – the three basic characteristics of a ‘pole’, which this group of countries lacks so far.
The state of regional affairs in Central Asia can serve as a barometer or Litmus test of general post-Soviet relations and tendencies in terms of integration or disintegration. The widespread pessimism about the perspectives of regional unification in Central Asia illustrates the following paradoxical situation: if the logic and rhetoric regarding the impossibility of Central Asian integration is correct, then there is also no ground for Eurasian integration.
And vice versa, if the EAU is a valid model, why has Central Asian integration not been successful so far?
One important factor is that any reunification initiative should not simply be addressed to states and their leaders or be dependent merely on the will of political leaders. It should not consist merely of a political campaign but rather a steady and dynamic bottom-up democratic motion. Thus, such ideas should primarily be addressed to peoples, rather than states.
Given the EAU’s deficit of democratic essence, the geopolitical side of this concept cannot but manifest itself. Indeed, the former Soviet space is undergoing a fundamental geopolitical transformation since 1991 and this process is not yet finished. The longer this process lasts, the more it will constitute a concern for Russia. Eurasia is continuously drifting farther from Russian geostrategic control due to its 20 years of lasting openness to Western and Eastern influences.
Finally, there is another aspect of the reality, namely the civilizational disunity of a once-united Soviet people. An illustrative example is the alienation in Russia of migrants and guest workers from southern CIS states and Moscow’s utilization of this factor as a lever in its relations with the South.
Integration can be exercised by force (imperial design), by despair (dependency design), or by mutual interests (strategic design). Since the dissolution of the USSR until today, the first two designs have prevailed in what is called ‘reintegration’ by default.
It is obvious the Eurasian Union can hardly be constructed as an imperial or dependency design. As far as a strategic design is concerned, the existence of mutual interests in favor of the EAU is not yet obvious given the persistence of the Soviet syndrome and geopolitical reversal.
CONCLUSIONS: Whether we like it or not, any model of the EAU cannot but be associated by the former Soviet republics with some form of restoration of the former Soviet Union or substitution of the CIS. In any case, the predominant perception will be one of restoring the Russian geopolitical supremacy in the post-Soviet space.
These two aspects of the EAU-related “campaign” – the Soviet syndrome and geopolitical reversal – will persist for the foreseeable future and undermine any positive undertakings towards re-unification of the post-Soviet countries and peoples.
When the CIS was created in 1991 by three Slavic republics of the former Soviet Union, the response of the Central Asian republics was to create of their own regional Commonwealth. In the course of independent evolution the CIS faced serious crises, and so did Central Asian unity.
Today, the Eurasian Union is initiated as a substitute, albeit not a formal one, for the CIS in order to overcome the crisis. Thus, the response of Central Asians should be adequate: they should first of all restore their own integration structures and thereby demonstrate their readiness for any larger-scale integration. Yet, while the concept of a Eurasian Union is a grand initiative in itself, it is quite plausible that it was introduced too late to reverse current trends in Central Asia.