Grand Bargain or Integration of Integrations: What Does It Take to Create a Regional Order for the Post-Soviet Space?
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

On April 25, 2019, the Valdai Discussion Club hosted an expert discussion devoted to the prospects of regional order in post-Soviet Europe and Eurasia. The main speakers were the co-authors of the book “Rethinking the Regional Order for Post-Soviet Europe and Eurasia”, published earlier this year.

Relations between Russia and the West are deeply mired in a crisis. Its roots lie, according to the authors of the book (published by the Vienna-based Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Regional Office for Cooperation and Peace in Europe) in rivalries over countries that are geographically located between them. Even if this crisis had become a “new normal” for politicians on both sides of the barricades, the task of experts is to propose intellectual alternatives to the status quo in order to prevent the exacerbation of the current situation, where everyone loses. The Thursday event at Valdai Club was devoted to the discussion of such alternatives.

According to co-author of the book Yulia Nikitina, Associate Professor at the Department of World Political Processes and Research Fellow at the Centre for Post-Soviet Studies at MGIMO University, the crisis in question began at different times for both parties. If for the West the reference point is 2014, then for Russia it was 1999 (the first NATO expansion to the east and aggression against Yugoslavia) or even 1991 (break-up of the Soviet Union). Moreover, while for the West the crisis has a regional dimension, affecting the eastern periphery of Europe, for Russia it is global, relating to its role in resolving global issues. Russia’s attempts to organise the post-Soviet space have faced the collective resistance of the West, which offers a model of integration within the framework of Euro-Atlantic institutions, which it considers a ready solution and the only right decision. The quintessential expression of the collision of the two paradigms was the Ukrainian crisis of 2013-2014.

In subsequent years, the game started in the post-Soviet space (specifically the book is devoted to six states: Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, called “in-between countries”). This is a negative-sum game, says Samuel Charap, co-author and one of the book's editors, and senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. According to him, the current policy of all parties has led to a dead end. Ahead is just a new cold war, growing instability and a lack of prosperity in the “in-between states”.

According to Charap, the way to overcome the current crisis could be a “grand bargain” on a regional order, concluded between Russia, the United States and the EU through the OSCE’s mediation. History shows that such bargains are possible even in the midst of acute military-political and ideological confrontation: examples include the Austrian State Treaty, negotiations on the German issue and the Helsinki Final Act.

Charap outlined his vision of five steps that can serve to achieve this goal. The first is the establishment of an informal dialogue in a “three plus one” format. The second is a review of the signals that each party must send to the other in order to demonstrate the seriousness of its intentions during negotiations. The third is to agree on a set of principles that should guide the negotiation process on a regional order. The fourth is the development by Russia and the West of a stimulus package for “in-between countries” which adopt the new rules. Finally, the fifth is the adoption of an agreement by all interested parties and a phased implementation, which should begin with confidence-building measures, so that all parties, especially the “in-between countries”, see the concrete benefits of the process.

It is curious that the idea of ​​a “grand bargain” was proposed by the Western co-authors of the book, because the tendency to conclude similar agreements on regional order is usually attributed to Russia. The Russian co-authors, in turn, proposed a liberal approach to improve relations between the great powers, as expressed in the concept of cooperative trans-regionalism. As Yulia Nikitina said, Russia officially demonstrated the desire to develop rules amid chaotic, multi-polar conditions, at least since Vladimir Putin’s Valdai speech in 2014. In 2015, the idea of ​​integration was announced: powerful regional organisations should enter into agreements instead of great powers. At the same time, Russia spoke resolutely in favour of a big Eurasian project.

Meanwhile, the West continues to eye the Eurasian initiatives of Russia with apprehension. According to Nikitina, organisations in the post-Soviet space need external recognition, after which they could be ready to build a dialogue with Western structures. However, the West often does not see the subject as open to cooperation, since it considers its integration model to be the only correct one. According to Nikitina, a way out of this situation could be a dialogue in the format of working groups, which does not require the establishment of official relations with Eurasian counterparts from Western institutions. There could be working groups at the level of relevant institutions: EU-EAEU; NATO-CSTO; EU-EAEU-SCO-BRI in the economic sphere and the OSCE-SCO in the security sphere. It should be noted that the issues of interaction between the EAEU and the EU and the OSCE were touched upon during last year’s visit of OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger to Russia (during the visit he made a speech at the Valdai Discussion Club).

According to Yaroslav Lissovolik, programme director of the Valdai Club, who is also one of the co-authors of the book, the WTO could play an important role in mediating interaction between the regional blocs. The more saturated the region is with bilateral agreements on trade and investment liberalisation, the better it is in terms of its stabilisation, he said. In addition, it is necessary to look for new formats of cooperation - one of them could be a “regional G20”. The Valdai Club came up with this idea within the T20 process.

Criticism of the proposed measures was voiced by the fourth speaker, Alexander Iskandaryan, Director of the Caucasus Institute (Yerevan, Armenia). While agreeing with the analysis of the situation, he expressed skepticism that individual problems could be resolved without regulating the entire structure. According to him, politicians both in the West and in Russia have no desire to change anything, since the existing state of affairs has become for them a “new normal”. At the same time, the position of the “in-between countries”, one of which is Armenia, is becoming more and more unstable.

Responding to these objections, Charap agreed that there is indeed no political will. But the reason for this is that politicians do not understand what the alternatives to the status quo look like. The development of such alternatives is the task of experts. The ultimate goal, Charap said, is not a return to the pre-crisis period. The elements of rivalry will always be present. But now, when the lack of stability causes particular concern, the work which resulted in the book under discussion aims to offer a way to stabilise this rivalry and provide more structure.