In the beginning of April, Russia officially launched the ‘Eurasia dialogue’ that will serve as the groundwork for discussions on creating a Eurasian Union. Furthermore, in October 2011 then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin voiced a new integration project that invoked a controversial reaction form the West. Many talked about Russia showing its appetite for imperial domination over Post-Soviet states, likened to that of the old Soviet Union times. Nevertheless, Russia nowadays seems to be less interested in imperial unilateralism, but seeks more pragmatic goals and realistic forms of effective economic development in the post-Soviet space.
In his October article Putin revealed his project for a single economic space for Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and others willing to participate. Its aim was coordinated macroeconomic, transportation and competition policies that would later include single visa and migration policies. The Chief of the ‘Eurasia Dialogue’ initiative, Andrei Klimov, mentioned that the Union would encompass humanitarian components and only some elements of common external policy, ‘as hardly any country will be willing to delegate its foreign policy.’ Finally, the project is positioned as voluntary and non-exclusive: no one will be forced to participate while everyone is welcome to become a member.
Many in the West ‘traditionally’ view this integration as an attempt to consolidate post-Soviet space into a new ‘evil empire’ with an unprecedented domination by Russia, despite Putin on several occasions rejecting any comparison of the new economic initiative with that of USSR model. Although Russia will hardly take on a position of a unilateral sponsorship, and the union does not possess a unifying ideology similar to that of the Soviet times, opponents fear that the interactions within the union will have to follow Kremlin-established rules. What’s more, a closer cooperation in the region will limit Western presence and its ability to reach out to former Soviet Union Republics. This skepticism is likely to persist as long as the working mechanisms of the Eurasian Union, as well as the balance between its economic and political goals, remain a work in progress.
Aside from watchful attitudes, many remain skeptical about how attainable Eurasian integration is. Although some of its prerequisites already exist, i.e. the common language, experience with common currency and absence of regional customs in the past, skeptics suggest that they might not be enough. Furthermore, history could become more of an impediment than of a unifying factor. Historic memories, fears of losing sovereignty and available alternatives (NATO, EU) could all speak against Post-Soviet states deciding to join the project. For instance, as much as Russia would like to see Ukraine in the Eurasia Union, the latter has been reluctant to participate amid ongoing tensions between the two regarding energy policies. It is also not clear how Belarus will be able to open up its economy considering how it is intertwined with the will of its political leader. Meanwhile Moldova, and even friendly Armenia, so far preferred the status of observers.
Amid all the existing skepticism, a Eurasian Union as an economic initiative standing for a more effective economic and mutually beneficial cooperation, is, without doubt, worth trying. The foreseen structure deems equal economic participation of all the parties that is reflected in the cooperation principle: ‘one country – one voice.’ Nevertheless, Russia holds the biggest share of economic potential of the commonwealth, which raises the important question: Will Russia be able to translate its outmatched economic potential into an equal vote? This will be the definitive answer to the hopes, fears and skepticism of all, inside and out.