On 3 October 2011, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin proposed the establishment of a Eurasian Union in an article published in the Russian broadsheet Izvestia. The article was entitled “New integration project for Eurasia – making the future today.”
His idea is groundbreaking. According to Putin, the Eurasian Union will serve as a bridge between Europe and the dynamically developing Asia and Pacific region.
Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union would continue and expand the existing Customs Union, operational since 1 July 2011, and the Common Economic Space (CES), launched on 1 January 2012 and including Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. These are the first supranational bodies that have emerged after the Soviet era. These states are at the same time members of broader organizations operating in the post-Soviet space, such as the Eurasian Economic Community (known as EvrAzEs) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Putin points out that the CES of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia is a large market with more than 165 million consumers, unified legislation, and free movement of capital, service and labor. With the creation of the CES, the existing commissions of the Customs Union and CES will be represented by a joint commission. From the gradual merging of the Customs Union and the CES, Putin envisages that a Eurasian Economic Union will emerge. Later, a deeper integration is possible with the creation of a Eurasian Union, which aims to strengthen political and cultural cohesion among its members.
The idea of a Eurasian Union has cultural, economic, and political components. If realized, the Union will have serious implications for Russia and other states and societies concerned.
With regard to the cultural aspect, “Eurasianism” has been widely discussed by many Russian and Kazakh historians and social scientists. The most controversial issue is whether Russia is Eurasia, or Russia is a part of Eurasia. The debate goes back to the 19th century when Russian political thought was divided into three schools: “Occidentalist,” “Slavophile,” and
“Eurasianist.” The Eurasianist school argued that Russia constituted the “core” of Eurasian civilization, with other areas making up the “periphery.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union, most CIS countries tend to regard Russia simply as a part of Eurasia.
This issue is still a subject of debate today, and it is expressed as a debate between two versions of Eurasianism in the post-Soviet space: the Russian version and the Kazakh one. The Kazakh people like to point out that Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev was the first leader to propose a Eurasian Union in 1994. However, because of post-Soviet difficulties and other factors, his idea was not supported at the time by other post-Soviet leaders, especially those from Russia. To this day, the leaders of the two countries cannot decide whether the CES headquarters should be in Moscow or Astana.
In terms of the political aspect, the creation of the Eurasian Union would change the geopolitical reality in the post-Soviet space. The new reality would be more pro-Russian. It is designed and meant to be that way, and this is the fundamental reason behind Putin’s proposal: to increase Russia’s weight in world politics, for Russia to become a stronger power in dealing with the People’s Republic of China, Europe, the United States, and other world powers.
The first targets of Putin’s proposal, smaller states such as the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, may be easily convinced to support the creation of the Union. They will support the scheme not only because their societies are loyal towards Russia and Russians, but also because their economy and security depend on Russia.
It may be harder to convince bigger states such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, which have more capacity and resources to pursue independent foreign policies. Russia will definitely try hard to engage them. For instance, without Ukraine, neither the Customs Union nor Eurasian Economic Union will have much meaning for Russia.
The purported economic benefits of the Union are not yet clear or visible. The Customs Union has existed for little more than a year, and the CES for about one and a half months. An expansion of the Customs Union and the CES is possible with the accession of the Kyrgyz Republic, but it is still not clear when and how it will take place, although Kyrgyz authorities have declared their intention to join the two regional frameworks.
For a small and economically weak country like the Kyrgyz Republic, the increase in imports that is expected to result from accession are likely to be a serious deterrent to joining the Union. The extent to which the Kyrgyz Republic’s membership in WTO may be affected by its possible membership in regional economic organizations remains unresolved. Moreover, the recent membership of Russia in the WTO has added more questions than answers regarding the future of the Eurasian Union.