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  Integration of Eurasia: stable or fragile?

Viktor Denisenko
2013 12 09

Recently Eurasian integration has become one of the key trends in Russian foreign policy. Russia has initiated the Customs Union (CU) behind which one can discern the outlines of the Eurasian economic union (EEU). But integration processes in Eurasia are not unambiguous.

At the beginning of November, in Yekaterinburg Vladimir Putin and President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a bilateral agreement “On Good-Neighbourliness and Alliance in the 21st Century“. Pursuant to this agreement, the countries stated their intention to avoid participation in any blocks and alliances directed against either of them; they also pledged their commitment to coordinate their foreign policy and develop a single geocultural space. The agreement also anticipates the support of the Eurasian integration processes. Today it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear about a similar Russia‘s agreement with Belarus.

Relationship between Russia and Kazakhstan seems to have a positive dynamics, but, as is often the case, here one can also discern a fly in the ointment.

Good relations with Russia are differently evaluated in Kazakhstan. Since the beginning of this year, Kazakhstan‘s political opposition parties and public representatives have initiated the nation-wide referendum to decide the country‘s withdrawal from the Customs Union. According to them, membership in the CU is not economically beneficial for Kazakhstan; moreover, integration processes in Eurasia reflect Russia’s imperial ambitions.  

Since Kazakhstan is an authoritarian state, the above efforts could be ignored. Yet economic and social instability might become a more serious argument (and a chance for the opposition). This instability was especially obvious by the end of 2011 and was related to Kazakhstan‘s membership in the CU. Even today the attitude toward the CU as a destructive structure has not disappeared, and this attitude could be clearly seen in Nazarbayev‘s statements.

During the meeting of another Eurasian alliance (EurAzEs) which was held in Minsk at the end of October, Nazarbayev said that Russia used the standards that are not envisaged in the sanitary certificates of Kazakhstan and Belarus, and that this was in contradiction to the CU principles. Nursultan Nazarbayev said that entrepreneurs of the country are not happy about the proceedings taking place in the Customs Union.

Belarus is also unsatisfied with the CU activity. It seems that Minsk expected more from the CU, and when expectations were not met, started accusing CU for the economic failures. The same tactics was applied in 2011 when the Government of the country declared that Belarus has suffered the losses from membership in the CU.

Claims directed toward the CU are heard in Belarus every day. One month ago Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko accused an “imperfect legislation of the Customs Union“. According to him, Russia shut the road to its market for the Belarusian agricultural production, and introduced a recycling duty on vehicles imported from Belarus and Kazakhstan. This demonstrates a concern of Belarus on the restrictions imposed on export of the production of the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ).    

During the EurAzES summit, President of Belarus criticised unequal conditions of the CU members: “We cannot move forward without fulfilling former agreements“, said Alexander Lukashenko. Although the CU was supposed to connect national economies into a single system, this didn’t happen. It seems that Russia is not yet ready to refuse market protection measures even with respect to the relationship with its allies.

But neither Belarus, nor Kazakhstan is likely to withdraw from the CU. Some time ago Lukashenko said that Belarus could make such a decision, but it is hardly possible. Integration in Eurasia is a geopolitical game initiated by Russia, and Vladimir Putin will be the first to prevent Belarus or Kazakhstan from destroying this major project.

Kirgizia and Armenia are also about to join the CU. If everything goes smoothly, at the beginning of 2015 the Customs Union might become the Eurasian Economic Union. One of its major aims would be to restore the Soviet Union and counterweight the European Union.

We must not forget the efforts of Russia to prevent Ukraine from signing an Association Agreement with the European Union. Today everybody knows: the agreement was not signed. One could argue on whether this is Russia‘s „merit“ or a secret strategy of certain Ukrainian political forces. It seems that Ukraine remains in Russia’s gravity field and Moscow will again try to attract the country in the CU and in the future EEU.

Eurasian integration stability is guaranteed by a strong Russia‘s interest and Moscow will do everything to accelerate this process. But dominance of one state in this geopolitical game might cause instability; moreover that decisions in these states on moving closer to Russia were not based on general consensus but rather on direct agreements between Moscow and political elite of the above countries.

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