Think Tank
Eurasian Integration: Is There Any Reason to Worry?

It is possible that the countries participating in Eurasian economic integration now consider it more profitable to slow down and achieve greater sustainability, having temporarily sacrificed extensive development, both in terms of areas of cooperation and in the levels of the arrangements implementation, writes Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Club. 

Its not the best time for the development of international cooperation institutions, given the current state of international politics and the global economy. Fundamental changes in the balance of power that were launched after the end of the Cold War have, in recent years, led to the destruction or, at best, to the slow erosion of all elements of the liberal world order. It would even be preferable if these processes concerned only the institutions that ensured the absolute power dominance of the West. In the end, they could not adapt to the needs of all mankind. It is much worse that the ability and timeliness of systemic interstate cooperation as such has been called into question. The destruction of the international institutional heritage of the second half of the 20th century has been led by the United States. China is increasingly helping it, although it does not declare it directly. Europe and Russia are trying to preserve these institutions, but their own capabilities are limited in the context of an escalating struggle between the two economic superpowers. Does this mean that the era of international institutions is ending?

For Russia, this question is particularly relevant. In addition to the fact that Russian foreign policy has traditionally focused on institutions and agreements, for several years Moscow, together with its partners, has been building the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a unique project in which a group of states have jointly tried to realise the goals of national development. At the same time, they hope to create conditions where trust and mutual security will be ensured not by “iron and blood”, but on the basis of benefits and interdependence. The formation, in the participating countries, of a critical mass of citizens who need mutual relations within the framework of integration should be good, not bad. This is a new experience for them. For 300 years, Russia’s military power has enabled it to forcibly provide security around its own borders. The other EAEU countries remain new independent states, which are striving to preserve and strengthen their sovereignty. Therefore, without even diving into a deep analysis, we can assume that integration in this part of Eurasia is not a phenomenon that requires haste, especially amid difficult international conditions.

The modern process of the weakening of international institutions has a completely natural origin. The change in the balance of power provoked by the weakening of the United States and the strengthening of China affects all international systems, simply because any one of them, like any institution, is based on such a balance. European integration, NATO, the WTO, the UN as represented by the Security Council and many other examples – all of them have as their foundation the consent of their participants regarding the balance of power between them. Only such agreements provide a compromise that creates relatively fair opportunities for the participants in cooperation. But this compromise, in turn, needs constant protection.
On May 19, a meeting of the supreme body of the Eurasian Economic Union took place, like everything now, online: a summit of the heads of state and government of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. In addition to many current issues, the leaders of the EAEU countries discussed strategic aspects of integration. Many observers approached the assessment of the results of the meeting from the position of the need to maximize achievements. Therefore, these results were met with a mixture of disappointment, enthusiasm and completely unjustified panic reminiscent of a conspiracy theory. The greatest response was caused by the speech of the President of Kazakhstan, part of which was taken out of context. As a result, the summit participants approved the proposed EAEU Development Strategy as a whole, but decided to work it out more deeply.

The criticism of the leader of Kazakhstan regarding the possibilities of cooperation in the field of information, science and education is understandable. There really is no need to rush here. Education is an area where the nation-state really seeks to maintain absolute control. The future worldview of the citizen, and therefore the voter, depends on his or her education. This is important even for political systems that do not need to strive to meet the template ideas about the democratic system, adopted, for example, in Europe. Therefore, here the integration is only possible at a very mature stage. And certainly not at a time when the participating countries cannot fully comply with the provisions of the existing treaty that entered into force in 2015. Apart from that, there was nothing revolutionary in the speech of the head of Kazakhstan.

In general, one can completely agree with the author of one of the popular Telegram channels that the summit simply recalled objective reality – any integration is a tool in the hands of the participating countries. And it is up to them, the countries, to decide how and at what pace the integration will proceed. The European bureaucracy in Brussels made a mistake when it decided that the engine of integration was Brussels itself. The result was a mindless expansion of powers, and the result was that humiliated state in which the European Commission was now in relations with Berlin or Paris. For the young and inexperienced supranational bureaucracy of the EAEU, this certainly cannot be considered a positive and worthy learning experience. Institutional integration is a very complex and multifaceted process, in which national interests are always in the first place, and supranational decisions only ensure their implementation for the common good.

The fears that many observers expressed at the end of the summit are connected with unjustified expectations of a breakthrough. Indeed, in recent years, Eurasian economic integration has begun to stall. Since the EAEU Court is a practically non-functioning institution, the member countries are very poor at fulfilling their mutual obligations. Curious phenomena have begun to appear. Moldova has become, for example, an observer country in the EAEU. Uzbekistan, instead of conducting serious negotiations with the EAEU, is also moving towards such a status. It is clear that political culture and domestic political institutions in the former USSR mean more attention to symbolism and all sorts of bureaucratic “toys”. A review of the opinions of informed European analysts yields an understanding that such decisions constitute a substantive reason for one to doubt the future of the EAEU. At the same time, integration remains the only alternative to direct control by the strongest players in the region. This can be seen even in the example of Europe – as soon as the mechanisms of integration began to weaken, control over them and other countries was immediately intensified by the strongest member-state, Germany. 
These objective and subjective problems are not a reason to try to artificially accelerate Eurasian economic integration. It is possible that the participating countries now consider it more profitable to slow down and achieve greater sustainability, having temporarily sacrificed extensive development, both in terms of areas of cooperation and in the levels of the arrangement’s implementation. The coronavirus pandemic showed in principle a very high level of trust between the EAEU countries. This experience can be the subject of a careful academic analysis, which could lead to the improvement of integration and its institutions.

Another thing is that the whole array of our knowledge and ideas about integration and the best ways to develop it, was formed on the basis of the experience of European integration in the most comfortable years of the Cold War. It is possible that modern conditions require not only the adaptation of the categorical apparatus, but also a new attitude to the methods and tools of interstate cooperation. Only the external conditions remain unchanged. International politics is an area where states inevitably constantly compete with each other. It is only the counter-force and determination that compels them to compromise and create institutions not of domination, but of cooperation. The same applies to international relations in Eurasia.

It would be strange to assume that even in its present distress, the European Union will not seek to destroy any hint of an alternative to the relations that it itself is trying to build with the states of Eurasia. First, the European bureaucracy and the national authorities of the member countries have budgets for these activities planned for years ahead. From the point of view of international policy laws, it would be strange if the resources for important long-term foreign policy activities are directed to improving health systems or nursing homes that were most affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Second, European integration, by its nature, cannot allow itself to exist together with a number of institutions that it does not control.

China, in turn, also has no objective reason to welcome the strengthening of ties of its neighbours in Central Asia with Russia, Belarus or Armenia. China’s economic opportunities are great and often Chinese statements speak of confidence in future control over this region, which is critical for China. The signing in 2018 of the Agreement between the EAEU and China was a great achievement. However, this is only the beginning of the road, and if the EAEU countries do not take the Chinese issue seriously, it will be more difficult for them to convince China to play by their rules in the next 10-15 years. So far, Russia’s allies in Central Asia have not given the opportunity to doubt their serious attitude to independeIt is possible that the countries participating in Eurasian economic integration now consider it more profitable to slow down and achieve greater sustainability, having temporarily sacrificed extensive development, both in terms of areas of cooperation and in the levels of the arrangements implementation, writes Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Club. nce. The United States is less involved in regional affairs, although its word costs a lot.

External pressure will increase in the context of the Sino-US global conflict. It is now much more important for the EAEU countries to strengthen political trust and the ability to integrate their partners’ interests into their national interests. For objective reasons, they will have to cope with this task at the national level.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.