Russia once more is seeking to assert its geopolitical influence in Eurasia as they had done previously in the past. First with the Russian Empire (1721-1917); then the Soviet Union (USSR) (1922-1991) and now with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Several post-Soviet States feel pressured by Moscow to join the Eurasian Union led and coordinated by Russia, making them dependent once again.
After the official dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) so that economic relations between the countries could be revived by creating a common economic zone based on free trade. In 1996, a treaty signed by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan showed the first signs of a Eurasian integration, such as the creation of a common market. In 2000 these countries, along with Tajikistan, created the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC). In 2003 Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine were working towards creating a Single Economic Space (SES). Ukraine left the project after a while and Uzbekistan joined EurAsEC in 2006. (Eurasian Economic Commission)
In 2007 Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed an agreement to create the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) which was established officially in 2010. At the time, some critics said that Russia was once again trying to regain influence over the territory that used to belong to the USSR; “The ECU is clearly seen by Russia as a vehicle for reintegrating the post-Soviet space, including the countries that fall within the sphere of the EU’s eastern neighbourhood.” (Dragneva and Wolczuk, 2012)
In 2011, these three countries signed an agreement that would lead to the creation of the EAEU by 2015 and also discussed the creation of the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC). The Customs Union had proven to be successful; SES and the EEC became operational in 2012. (Eurasian Economic Commission)
It is noticeable that the EAEU is based on the European Union, as mentioned above, the SES and EEC are already in place and there are discussions concerning the creation of a Eurasian parliament and perhaps a common currency. President Putin also mentioned that the union considers the principle of parity as being essential – for many that is a doubtful statement as the founding countries of the union have dictatorial inclinations and often poor press freedom. Gerhard Simon, an expert in Eastern Europe from the university of Cologne, believes that the EAEU does not only involve integrating the economy but also politics and the military – led by Russia of course. (Deutsche Welle)
For many observers, the EAEU initiative is being used by Russia to establish its geopolitical influence in Eastern Europe in an attempt to relive the ‘glorious days’ of the Soviet Union when Russia had more power and a larger sphere of influence. Just like the Soviet Union the EAEU will be coordinated by Russia.
Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, sees the EAEU as a Russian effort to Sovietize the region. (Radio Free Europe). Some former Soviet countries stated that Russia has been pressuring them to join the EAEU over the EU. As president Mikhail Saakashvili from Georgia stated “Armenia has been cornered, and forced to sign customs union. Moldova is being blockaded, Ukraine is under attack, Azerbaijan faces extraordinary pressure, and Georgia is occupied. Why? Because an old empire is trying to reclaim its bygone borders”. (Varshalomidze in Aljazeera, 2013)
Joining the EAEU as a member State involves integrating and coordinating the economy, legal system, customs and military with Russia. In order for the union to be successful, they need to attract countries that have a strategic importance such as Ukraine. Ukraine is one of the biggest countries in Europe and is in the process of entering the EU through its Eastern Partnership Program as an associate member. Russia plans to retaliate to the decision to associate by adopting stricter customs towards the country. The main problem of joining the EAEU is that countries will end up being dependent on Russia and their sovereignty will be affected. (Varshalomidze in Aljazeera, 2013)
Russian president Vladimir Putin recently stated that countries that sign an agreement with the European Union would not be able to join the EAEU. (Surkov, 2013) This will happen to Ukraine who will sign an agreement with the EU in November, 2013. Until the day of signature Russia is putting pressure on Ukraine by complicating the import of their goods to Russia. (Barbashin and Thoburn, 2013)
According to Putin, the EAEU would be based on the ‘best values of the Soviet Union’, but it is not ‘an attempt to capitalize on the nostalgic mood among the older generations’ as the main aim is to pursue economic objectives based on the EU. Many Russian have nostalgic memories of the stability and social security standards from the USSR between the 70’s and 80’s before the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Bryanski, in Reuters, 2011)
However the question remains to be answered; is this nostalgia shared by post-Soviet countries? And more importantly will the EAEU achieve the same status and sphere of influence as the EU, and if so what would be the resultant relationship between both unions?
*Cover image ‘Russian flag’ by Bryan Jones