Putin Uses Symbols of Soviet Power to Announce Idea of Eurasian Union

 Marlene Laurelle

On October 3, 2011, Vladimir Putin made headlines by putting forward the idea of a Eurasian Union including several post-Soviet states. This was his first foreign policy initiative since the announcement of his candidacy for a third mandate, made at the United Russia Congress at the end of September this year (Gazeta.ru, September 24). Is this new Eurasian Union inspired by the Soviet Union or by the European Union? Is an official revival of Soviet nostalgia at issue, or a project of supranational integration following the models, cited by Putin, of the EU, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?

Putin has always excelled in manipulating the symbols of the former regime and playing on the Soviet nostalgia of a large part of the population – here one will recall his declaration according to which the fall of the USSR was the twentieth century’s greatest geopolitical catastrophe (www.kremlin.ru, September 25, 2005). However, the objective of the new Eurasian Union is not to rebuild a unified state. The Kremlin knows all too well that no ruling circle among the post-Soviet states would accept losing the political independence gained in 1991. Further still, neither are the Russian elite interested in any such development. For them, it recalls bad memories of the USSR’s last years when Moscow would complain about paying out of its pocket for the non-viable economies of certain republics, as well as of having to manage local conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Rather, in putting forward this idea, Putin’s aim is to put into place a few joint, supranational mechanisms in specific domains – mainly the economic and financial domains, but also potentially the strategic one – which would guarantee Moscow a right to oversee the evolution of its neighbors. Moscow’s aim is quite obviously to merge the Russia-Belarus Union State, created in 1996 but ailing for some years; the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC – Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan); and the Customs Union of Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan into a single entity. This Union could eventually also be endowed with a strategic section integrating the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

The Kremlin’s motivations are multiple. The ruling circles think that the time has come for a new post-Soviet dynamic: since the 2008 economic crisis, Europe has lost influence, a tendency that has been reinforced by the current difficulties with the euro, the question of sovereign debts and Brussels’s crisis of political legitimacy. Russia, on the other hand, presents the image of having a more dynamic economy, even if budgetary difficulties will also soon come into play. Moreover, Putin has never been convinced by the need for Russia to enter the WTO. The Custom Union, and the potential Eurasian Union, is therefore probably a nice way to postpone, once more, Russian accession to the global trade body.

But the stakes are mainly internal to the post-Soviet space, though not all the states of the region are concerned. Kazakhstan remains Moscow’s most faithful ally in terms of economic reintegration, and Putin knows he can count on Nursultan Nazarbayev for such projects, which would not necessarily be the case with a younger successor. Presidential succession, Astana’s most significant future political issue, thus invites Moscow to act in a preemptive fashion. As for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, they have indicated that they would like to join the Customs Union despite the problems this will present Bishkek, which is already a member of the WTO (Oxford Analytica, July 28).

With this Eurasian Union, Moscow is also seeking to avoid Alexander Lukashenka making any new attempts at increased autonomy. Minsk’s unprecedented economic difficulties were exacerbated by the EU- and US-imposed sanctions after its repression of the opposition. This has put Belarusian power in a deadlock, leaving it in a head-to-head struggle with its Russian neighbor and largest economic and strategic partner. Last but not least, the time seems ripe to try to force destiny with Ukraine. On many issues Viktor Yanukovich has softened Kiev’s position toward Moscow (e.g., by reinforcing the status of the Russian language, putting limitations on historiographical memory wars, and making its agreement on the Sevastopol base). However, Moscow is annoyed by the Timoshenko affair and Ukraine’s continued dialogue with NATO and the EU, and above all, wants Kiev to join the Customs Union.

The Eurasian Union thus targets a Eurasian core including Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and possibly also Armenia, which is already a member of the CSTO. Above all, however, what Moscow dreams of is the key missing piece in its reconstitution of a post-Soviet puzzle, Ukraine. But by no means does Russia imagine a return to forceful integration: reticent countries will not be forced, but simply bypassed and marginalized.

The announcement gave rise to significant activity among the most diverse ideologues of Russian nationalism. Alexander Dugin, the eulogist of neo-Eurasianism and president of the small International Eurasian Movement, rejoiced at this declaration, and suddenly seems once again to be riding high after having spent many years in the wilderness. In fact, some rumors on the Russian internet suggested that the Secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union, Pavel Borodin, might soon be replaced by Alexander Dugin, Borodin’s close friend, who has regularly visited Minsk to be at Lukashenka’s side (www.rus-obr.ru, September 10). But the Presidential Administration will more probably choose the presidential envoy in the Volga Federal District, the former secretary of EurAsEC, Grigoriy Rapota.

Is Putin inspired, then, by Eurasianist ideology? He never overtly makes reference to it, nor does he insist, in his last declaration, on the unity of civilization of post-Soviet peoples. His narrative is in fact centered, not on the need for a unity of culture between Eurasian peoples, but on that of Russia to arm itself better against globalization. To become one of the leaders of a new globalized world, Russia needs both a partnership with Europe, and a right of supervision over some of the ‘Eurasian,’ i.e. post-Soviet countries. Nor does he present this potential Eurasian Union as having an overtly anti-American or anti-European agenda. However, if Eurasianism is defined as a vision of Russia’s great power aspirations backed by the rest of the post-Soviet space (or at the very least by some of the post-Soviet countries), then Putin’s declaration is part of a kind of “soft” Eurasianism. Putin’s previous declaration during the re-opening of the Russian Geographical Society, “When we say great, a great country, a great state – certainly, size matters. (…) When there is no size, there is no influence, no meaning,” is a Eurasianist declaration of intent on the role of geography in building a Russian destiny (www.sptimes.ru, November 20, 2009). But the Eurasian Union could also turn out to be a simple PR action addressed to the Russian electorate, since, while there may be no doubt about Putin’s re-election, there does exist a question about his regime’s declining popular legitimacy.