The Stillborn Project of a Eurasian Union: Why Post-Soviet Integration Has Little Prospects

At first glance, the idea of a re-integration of the post-Soviet republics may seem sensible. The economies, societies and populations of the successor republics of the USSR are linked to each other by a multitude of ties. On closer inspection, however, the creation of a new supranational formation spanning much of the territory of the former Tsarist and Soviet empires is hampered by structural and historical constraints. 

The sum of these impediments make Putin’s project of a Eurasian Union look ill-conceived. Its practical implementation would create more problems than it will solve. 

The Elephant and the Refrigerator

First and foremost, there exists a fundamental geo- and demographic disparity as well military imbalance between Russia, on the one side, and the rest of the envisaged Union members, on the other. Not only is Russia far larger and militarily potent than any of the other presumed member states of the Eurasian Union. The Russian Federation would also exceed, in terms of size and power, the sum of the resources of all future members of the Union taken together. While this incongruence would be most prevalent in the case of the creation of a political union, it also implies serious challenges for the currently emerging Customs Union.

To be sure, Russia’s size and military are neither relevant for the already functioning Zone of Free Trade between several post-Soviet republics, nor that problematic within the Shanghai Treaty Organization (STO) – two other large post-communist integration projects. An abolition of cross-border trade restrictions does, by itself, not imply a re-distribution of political power between participants of such an arrangement. It is thus largely risk-free for smaller member states of the free trade zone, and does not directly limit their sovereignty. Within the STO, in turn, there are two large players with, moreover, partly conflicting interests and distinct power resources. Russia remains a military super-power and important actor, in international diplomacy. While China has nuclear weapons too, it is militarily less powerful. However, China has become an industrial powerhouse recently with an economic strength and financial resources far exceeding those of Russia. The resulting overall balance of power between the two dominant STO member states may make this organization a sustainable project, and is beneficial for its smaller member states.

In contrast, Russia’s territorial and population size as well as international weight would be a problem in case of the creation of a post-Soviet organization – whether of an intergouvernmental or supranational kind. Moscow would be far more than a primus inter pares , and quasi by default become a new imperial center – even if the Kremlin were not aspire such a role. This situation is different from Germany’s currently dominant position within the EU. While Germany is the economically most powerful country with the largest population in the European Union, it is also a military dwarf with a distinctly pacifist population, as of late. The Germans’ relative demographic and economic dominance among the nations of the EU is of less impressive proportions than that of the hegemony which the Russians would enjoy in the envisaged Eurasian Union. Apart from the Berlin Bundeskanzleramt , the Presidency at Paris and Downing Street No. 10 in London constitute formidable power centers within the EU. These actors, among other factors, balance the FRG’s economic power, and have been forcing the German Chancellors to seek support, make compromises, and create alliances when they wanted to implement a certain policy.

The Post-Imperial Predicament

Second, Russia’s past relationship to the other post-Soviet nations has not been trouble-free. Many Russians regard the unity of the peoples of the former Tsarist and Soviet empires as historically grounded, culturally easy, as well as geographically self-suggestive – and thus hardly in need of further explanation. However, the – above all – intellectual elites of the other post-Soviet republics have more or less ambivalent stances, and, sometimes, negative views on their nations’ past relations with Moscow. Russians eagerly refer to the significant joint achievements of the post-Soviet nations in the USSR, like the victory in World War II or advance towards Outer Space. Yet, in view of its ambiguity, historical heritage is an altogether unsuitable resource for the formation of a new Union. All too often, Moscow has been guilty of various forms of repression of nations under its rule, and engaged in russification drives, during both, the Tsarist and Soviet periods.

It also does not help that Russia’s past and future leader, Vladimir Putin, is a representative of those organs previously responsible for the execution of, among other crimes, anti-national policies. The term with which Putin chose to label his new project – “Eurasian” – too is problematic (a critique also applying to its use in Western post-Sovietology). Obviously, Putin’s “Eurasia” does not refer to the entire Euro-Asiatic landmass. Instead, the term implies some other concept – a question left unanswered in his programmatic Izvestia article (as well as in some Western usage of the label). Perhaps, it refers to the “Eurasianism” developed by the classical Russian Eurasianists of the 1920s. While the evraziitsy included respected academics, and had considerable sympathy for the Turkic people of the Russian empire, they were also imperial nationalists. For instance, the Eurasianists wished to extend the Orthodox faith all over “Eurasia.” Moreover, Eurasianism was explicitly ideocratic, openly anti-democratic, and rabidly anti-Western – ideas which are hardly constructive prescriptions for the development of the post-Soviet nations today. The bizarre biologistic or occultistic world views of such prominent later self-ascribed “Eurasian” as Lev Gumilev or Alexander Dugin provide even less suitable ideational foundations for a Eurasian Union.

Germany too, of course, had an image problem (to put it mildly) after World War II. The Germans were then far less “popular” among the European nations, than the Russians are today in the post-Soviet area. Notwithstanding, West Germany was included into both, the European integration process and Atlantic alliance – initiatives, to some degree, especially designed to tame and frame the German monster. West Germany’s membership in various Western organizations helped to gradually diminish the other European nations’ fear of a German resurgence.

In contrast, Russia’s membership in the envisaged Eurasian Union will contribute little to alleviate the widespread skepticism regarding her eventual aims, among the cultural and political elites of the other post-Soviet successor states. For that to achieve, Russia would have to engage in, among other transformations, a comprehensive Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) regarding both, Tsarist and Soviet nationality policies. This is something that the currently dominant Russian intellectual and political elites are not yet ready for. Rather, many Russians would regard the idea of Russian repentance for the Tsars’ or Soviet leaders’ regressions towards the non-Russian peoples, cultures and traditions as ridiculous. Some are deeply offended by non-Russian critique of Russian imperial history. They would regard the idea of a Russian apology for Tsarist and Soviet repressive nationality policies as scandalous blasphemy.

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A third and final aspect speaking against rather than in favor of post-Soviet integration is that the socio-economic advantages of a Eurasian Union are unclear. Free trade has already been secured by the recent agreement between most of the post-Soviet states. What all of the potential member states of the Eurasian Union need now most are profound technological and managerial innovations in their economies, as well as thorough a modernization of such spheres as local administration, social welfare, higher education, or public health. It may, for the post-Soviet states, be possible to implement some of the necessary reforms independently or in junction with other former Soviet republics. Yet, the source of most of the training, know-how and investment necessary to modernize the post-Soviet societies would obviously have to come from – what, in the former USSR, is often called – the “civilized world,” i.e. above all from the West or such Western-influenced countries as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan or Singapore. Clogging the post-Soviet nations within a Russia-dominated Eurasian Union may, therefore, hinder rather promote comprehensive modernization.

It is not the least Russia herself that needs fundamental technological, managerial and socio-political modernization. Outside Russia’s two capitals and some regional centers, everyday social life is still often pretty grim – if not partially pre-modern. The idea that Russia has the capacity, proficiency and energy (metaphorical and not literal) to lead the post-Soviet world, within a Eurasian Union, into the 21st century sounds fancy. True, Russia has considerable natural resources, possesses a formidable arms industry, and is able to provide space travel for affluent adventurers, from all over the world. Yet, these competitive advantages will help only little to transform Russia and the other post-Soviet countries into truly modern states able to integrate effectively into the world economy.

What both Russia and the other post-Soviet countries need is as deep as possible an inclusion into one of the integrative processes led by the dynamic economies of the world – whether in Asia or in Europe. For the Central Asian countries, closer ties with China, India, Turkey, the Gulf states, or/and Japan may be the way to go. For the rest of the post-Soviet world, including Russia, the obviously primary modernization partner is the European Union. To be sure, Russia may never or only in a distant future become a full member of the EU. Yet, the current European crisis could lead to a re-conceptualization of the project of Europe as a multi-stage integration arrangement. Envisaged already some 25 years ago by, among others, Eurocrats such as Jaques Delors, the future Europe may become, even more so than today, divided less into East and West than via concentric circles. That means that the depth of integration of different countries with Union structures may vary considerably. It would depend on the respective states willingness to give up national sovereignty as well as their ability meet EU standards. In some ways, various existing incongruent integration spaces, such as the Eurozone or Schengen Area, can be seen as already constituting such concentric circles. This tendency for differentiation could accelerate, in the future, and may lead less to disintegration than a deconstruction of “Europe.” Such probably necessary fundamental re-imagining of the European project may be painful for Western Europhiles. Yet, this repercussion of the current crisis will, at the same time, make it easier for the Western republics of the former USSR to both, find their place in the European project and identify their road towards deeper integration. Not only would they be able to position themselves more clearly than now within a Europe of concentric circles. A more sharply differentiated Europe would also offer various further options and pathways of integration for each country to choose from, and follow on. Even as large and specific a European country as Russia may be able to find a decent place and prospect within such a model. The currently ongoing negotiations for the creation of a visa-free travel regime between Russia and the EU could be seen as a first step, in that direction. Russia’s future lies not in Eurasia or some other post-Soviet mirage, but with Europe and the West.

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