April 01, 2012, Sunday

Putin’s grand ‘reintegration’ plan: Will it work?

Since his recent victory in Russia’s presidential elections a few weeks ago, Vladimir Putin has been strongly advocating and promoting Moscow’s new foreign policy tiger, the Eurasian Union.

Putin has underlined that one of his top priorities will be to consolidate Russia’s relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS countries) by pushing ahead with this new strategic project as rapidly as possible. Given Russia’s current less than perfect relations with the West, including strong differences of opinion on a number of key issues, such as Syria and regional security, it is not surprising that Moscow is trying to create a more assertive and robust relationship, strengthening economic, political and security ties with its neighbors, which it no doubt hopes will boost its role on the global stage and make it better positioned to compete economically with the US, China and the EU. Moreover, all the protests in Russia in recent months show that the economic and political system of Putin is undergoing a crisis of confidence. Thereby, the idea of some sort of regional hegemony, with Putin at the helm, could be seen as a sort of medicine to reinvigorate the population and improve his image.

However, this is actually quite a strange situation because while Russia wants to be seen as a leading world power, an initiator and frontrunner, it seems to me that in reality the country’s leadership has very little idea of how to lead. Russia still tends to be more of a reactive country rather than a proactive one.

And of course this is not something new. It has been a common element in the country’s history. Moreover, Russia has the additional problem that it is not a particularly attractive country in the sense that the majority of the CIS countries do not view Russia as an attractive model -- a country that they aspire to be like or about which they can say, “We would like to follow the Russian example on this or that particular issue or sector.” Rather, there is something of a pragmatic approach. After all Russia is a big and powerful neighbor. Therefore, while Russia may offer free travel and allow hundreds of thousands of people from its neighborhood to work in the country, it seems that the majority of leaders deal with Russia on a need to basis or because they are cajoled and bullied into certain arrangements or partnerships by the Kremlin. Dependency on Russian gas remains a key foreign policy tool of the Kremlin that they are still able to use quite effectively. Unfortunately, for the most part Russia does not treat its neighbors as equals; rather, the relationships are usually tipped in favor of Moscow, and it has been hard for Russia to move away from being a master. Therefore it is not that surprising that while Russia’s enthusiasm for the Eurasian Union may be overflowing, one can hardly say that this has been reciprocated by many of those states that Moscow wants to have involved in this initiative. Rather its reception has been somewhat lukewarm. Countries such as Ukraine, which Russia would like to have at the heart of this project, have been far from receptive, even though the Kremlin is putting them under increasing pressure. Others such as Armenia, Moldova and Azerbaijan have also been far from interested. It has been more the countries of Central Asia -- which still remain more tied to Moscow -- that have been more open to it.

Furthermore, the Russians are not the only ones trying to further engage these countries. There are a number of others, including Turkey, China, the EU and to a certain degree Iran, that are trying to consolidate their relationships in this region -- although to different degrees and end goals. Indeed you could say there are now a number of competing neighborhood policies within the same region.

For example, all the countries have shown a strong desire to have closer links with the EU, which is viewed as an attractive partner, where tangible benefits can be gained. China is also making inroads. Turkmenistan is a good example. Russia seems to have lost its stranglehold over Turkmen gas reserves with the Chinese becoming Turkmenistan’s main trading partner. Another argument working against Russia is the fact many of the nations are nervous over such a union becoming an instrument to reduce their political sovereignty. Moreover, problems emanating between the countries themselves and between Russia and a number of the countries will also create hurdles to success.

Therefore, while Russia may still dwarf other foreign actors in many of the countries it is trying to lure into its Eurasian Union, all in all I think this project looks less and less feasible.

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