The internal political crisis in Belarus - regardless of its outcome - is a good reason to talk about the nature and prospects of relations between Russia and its neighbours. For the most part, these are countries which were created from the formerly united republics of the USSR and had never before had their own statehood within the framework of the Westphalian international order.
Like most countries with such a fate - in Africa or Asia - they will have problems with their own legitimacy for a long time to come. Their national elites will have to balance between the benefits that they get from sovereignty and the objective impossibility of maintaining this sovereignty outside the conditions determined by the balance of power of the larger and more established powers.
The main obstacle here is not only their inability to ensure security by relying on their own forces - only nuclear powers have this privilege in the modern world. The problem is of a more fundamental nature – in order to have confidence in international affairs, it is not sovereignty as such that is needed, but a tradition of statehood recognised in the world. India or China, at certain stages in their history, could not have sovereign rights that would be comparable to those of Russia or other European powers. But their history stretches back hundreds or even thousands of years.
International politics cannot solve this fundamental problem for Russia's neighbours, and history is now moving too fast to be able to rely on them remaining independent. Even the Baltic states that have joined the institutions of the West - NATO and the European Union - do not have absolute confidence that their statehood will be unchallenged and therefore develop on the basis of denying some external factors and adapting to others. The behaviour of a fully-established state is based on its internal development and strategic culture. If we employ the terminology used by George Kennan (The Sources of Soviet Conduct, 1947), then the “sources” of Russian, French or even German behaviour (after that country received full sovereignty in 1991) we are looking for in internal development, and most of the countries of the former USSR - in reaction to external challenges and opportunities. Therefore, the task of maintaining international security for Russia and its neighbours inevitably consists of creating external conditions conducive to peace. Among them, the confidence of the national elites of the participating countries in their future is and will remain essential. It is these elites that should be the main beneficiaries of international cooperation, given their contribution to increasing social stability, creating jobs and ensuring mutual economic openness.
One such political solution may be Eurasian economic integration. In principle, this integration and the Eurasian Economic Union were originally conceived as a way to strengthen the sovereignty of the weak states of the former USSR. But how effective has it turned out to be, given modern conditions? So far, we cannot give a completely convincing answer to this question. Although, if you look at economic indicators, participation in the EAEU should already contribute to greater confidence in the participating countries. However, as we can see from the events in Belarus, so far the source of confidence for the elites is bilateral bargaining with Russia, the tone and content of which changes in accordance with external and internal challenges. During the five years the EAEU has existed, it has not yet been possible to create systematic mechanisms for stabilising the statehood of Russia's neighbours which are participating in the project.
To a large extent, a common subject in discussions about the future of the EAEU is the preservation of the unique position of Russia. None of the world’s supranational integration projects, whether in Europe, Asia or Latin America, has known such a complex correlation of the aggregate capabilities of the participants. The eminent British historian Dominic Lieven wrote (The Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as Imperial Polities, 1995): "What does make Russia unique are the geopolitical aspects of its post-imperial status. When Turkey, Austria or England lost their empires, they were automatically relegated to second-class status or worse: their homelands lacked the population or resources to sustain a great power. Uniquely among the nineteenth-century European empires, Russia has retained the jewel in its imperial crown, namely Siberia." Precisely as a result of the preservation of Siberia, Russia's geopolitical importance has not changed, despite the fact that for more than 10 years its foreign policy capabilities were limited by internal chaos. Once the chaos was overcome, Russia inevitably regained its geopolitical self-sufficiency. Therefore, based on orthodox ideas about the nature of any international integration project, it was difficult to come up with a more unfavourable combination of participants.
However, this fact does not negate the need for Moscow and its neighbours to build relationships of a new type, albeit one which takes into account the facts set out above. And for Russia, sharing economic and political responsibilities with partners is apparently the most acceptable strategy. Otherwise, the USSR would never have ceased to exist. So far, as a technical solution, a copy of the successful experience of European integration was chosen; at the moment when the EAEU was conceived and created, most were under the impression that the EU was a successful project.
But European integration has been a unique experience for the history of international politics, and was staged amid very special historical conditions. In contrast to Russia in Eurasia, the most powerful member state in terms of its potential, in the era of the most convincing achievements of European integration, had what could be considered limited sovereignty and was effectively occupied by a foreign military. At the same time, even Europe was unable to overcome the appeal of national egoism and the domination of national interests over the interests of the community. Now we see how the rich EU countries dictate to the less rich how they should pursue their economic policies. The countries that created the EAEU together with Russia and participate in it, understand that for the West or China they are just an object of only resource development. Russia is too big to export resources; they must be processed on the spot, that is, to develop production in any case. However, striving to do "as in Europe," but it was initially a strategy that needed serious adjustment.
From the European experience, integration in relations between Russia and its neighbours has adopted institutions that work with great difficulty amid different conditions. The most striking example is the practically inactive EAEU Court, despite the fact that in the European Union it is the Court that is traditionally the engine of the most real aspects of the integration processes. But the Court works when there are participants in legal relations who are confident in their legitimacy, and the EAEU participants have problems with this. In order for the EAEU countries to feel confident in themselves, it is necessary that integration should be beneficial to the elites. And this, incidentally, is precisely the experience of the European Union that the EAEU has not yet learned. European integration was initially an elite project, and therefore every case where its fundamental issues have been subject to a national referendum has ended in failure, and in one case even led to one country's withdrawal from the union.So far, Eurasian economic integration remains a popular project aimed at improving the lives of ordinary people: taxi drivers and merchants from Kyrgyzstan, Belarusian farmers, Kazakh students, Armenian engineers and builders. In other words, people who are engaged in a specific business and do not have the time or desire to go to demonstrations and write on social networks. But at the elite level, support is still rather marginal. In the event that this basic problem is resolved, we can count on the fact that objective obstacles to more civilised relations between Russia and its neighbours will not become insurmountable in the future.