1. The doctrine of Eurasianism and Russia’s exceptional mission in the world is effectively used to legitimize regional expansionism and substantiate reactionary anti-liberal agenda of the autocratic regime, which thus finds extra resources for self-justification. The Eurasian Union is explained as the “new, better emanation of the Soviet Union”.
2. The idea dates back to the beginning of the last century, with the concept of Russian empire’s uniqueness as a cradle and last bastion of morality. It went through some mutations in Soviet times that added a lot of symbolism and attributes of Sovietism to the doctrine, and has been redesigned into a geopolitical tool to strengthen Russian influence in the neighborhood and reinvent a Moscow-led political union.
New reading of the old concept appeared shortly after the collapse of Soviet Union, and Kazakh president Nazarbayev proudly owns the authorship, but the Russian ideologists during the second presidential term of Mr Putin redesigned the obscure integration project into a geopolitical tool to consolidate Russian influence in the neighborhood and reinvent a Moscow-led union with super-national institutions and common policies – combined with the covert solidification of economic control. The idea is to start with customs cooperation, evolve to closer economic integration, and further on – to political entity.
3. Eurasianism doctrine has strong media support. Historically, Russian media heavily dominate the information markets in most post-Soviet countries, and stably broadcasts populist anti-West propaganda (quite often – manipualtive misinformation), xenophobia, homophobia, exploits nostalgic sentiments about Soviet times when Russia was a world superpower, and revanchist messages of “standing up from the knees”. It sometimes runs programs directly attacking the governments of friendly neighbor countries.
4. Eurasianism is the new Russian imperialism, disguised as economic integration. It is centered – just like it was in times of Russian Empire and in Soviet Union – around the Great Russian nation. Putin claims Russians are the largest divided nation in world history and often defines the collapse of Soviet Union as a drama. This apparently gives him moral right to use another foreign policy doctrine of protecting “compatriots abroad”.
“Compatriots abroad” is a definition legally applicable to all ethnic Russians, individuals who had direct ancestors as citizens of Soviet Union or Russian Empire. Another criterion is being a Russian language speaker (reminder – a pretext for the Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, had been based on allegations of language-based discrimination). They are eligible to get Russian citizenship through an incredibly easy procedure. But even without becoming a citizen, having an ID card of a “compatriot” grants a number of social benefits in Russia. The cards are issued by “compatriots associations” to those who are active in promotion of Russian culture and values on the territory of their countries of residence.
5. Economic effects of the Customs Union, a precursor of Eurasian Union, were detrimental for Kazakhstan, and even for Russia. In economic terms, this experience did not produce enough ground for upgrade of economic integration onto the next level. One of the reasons why its results were so disappointing is the hasty pace at which Russian party was pushing the project – obviously, being driven more by the desire to bind its closest allies even closer, rather than by clear-cut economic calculations.
Russia was pressing for the Customs Union – a very hastily established creature with poorly elaborated procedures – promising that Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus would enter the WTO jointly and simultaneously. After the two countries opened up their markets to Russian goods, Moscow swiftly finalized its negotiations and entered the WTO, thus imposing its conditions within the organization on Kazakhstan and Belarus. Meanwhile, statistically, Kazakhstan trades better with the EU countries and China, than with Russia.
As more facts are testifying to little economic expediency, the propagandists start talking more about historical, territorial, language, cultural proximity of the post-Soviet states.
6. With the same hasty pace at which the Customs Union was set up, it is now attempting to spread wider to include smaller countries, more vulnerable to external pressure. Kyrgyzstan and Armenia are economically very dependent on Russian investments and financial aid. Many citizens of these countries are migrant workers in Russia, and their remittances constitute large parts of Armenian and Kyrgyz GDP numbers (21% and 31%). Information fields in both countries are dominated by Russian media, and both have frozen conflicts that can be employed to pressurize the elites.
Critics of integration in these countries say most critical issues can and should be discussed and resolved in bilateral manner without joining any of the unions. Moreover, unions like these don’t necessarily guarantee better trade or better life for migrants, because of inequality of members. The stronger peer can set the rules at its own discretion, using sanitary or certification leverages, or playing the political cards.
7. Since early days of Customs Union, top Russian officials were signalling the priority of making integration as deep and quick as possible, thus revealing the major geopolitical interest – including having rouble as common currency or inroducing a super-national parliament or inviting notorious regimes like Syria’s to join the Union.
Internally, such sentiments of Russian chauvinism and re-establishment of the Soviet Union seem attractive for the population, securing higher rates of approval for Putin.
In the countries of so-called “near abroad”, such signals are also appealing for the Russian minority and send clear messages to the elites – that Russia has national interests and a mobilization potential in their countries.
External message for the West is about reinvention of Russia as a super-power, leading a global axis of states that share its anti-liberal agenda and get supplies of Russian weapons.
8. After Crimea many people in Russia and in Kazakhstan are speculating that Kazakhstan might be the next station for Russian imperialist expansionism, notably the Northern regions of Kazakhstan. Concerns about possible vulnerability of the Northern Kazakhstan are voiced in Kazakhstan, while revisionist statements are ventilated in Russia by marginal politicans, members or parliament and media outlets.
9. Kazakh authorities claimed that the EEU treaty was developed with much more scrutiny than the CU agreement, and all politically sensitive components were removed from the draft by them. But even though the decisions in EEU are said to be taken by consensus, it is still a tricky consensus, as Russia has much more political, economic, sanitary, certification, informational and other leverages to exert pressure and force a consensus for decisions it wants.
Another argument in support of the union was security – like, “Russia as a regional hegemon would guarantee Kazakhstan’s sovereignty”. Both Georgia and Ukraine were members of CIS, the basic post-soviet interstate association, at a time of Russian aggression against them, which was violating even more high-profile treaties. A closer intimacy with a country, internationally acknowledged as aggressor, raises serious questions, even if the union were purely economic.
10. In economic terms, creating an economic union with a country hit by international sanctions and economic recession is pointless, just as weakening rouble is a bad choice for becoming a single currency. Eurasian protectionism may hinder national financial markets and put obstacles to the western investments and technologies.
It also creates big doubts about the efficacy and usefulness of the Customs Union within the Russian society. Finally, for prospective members – Armenia and Kyrgyzstan – it means fewer job opportunities for their migrant workers, while rouble devaluation means migrants will send less money home.
11. The allegedly non-political union has already affected the Kazakhstan’s declared multivector foreign policy, which has shrinked to balancing between Russia and China. Both are bad choices, yet Russia seems worse for its growing unpredictability. In the allegedly non-political union, its members have already been set in uncomfortable positions in UN votes concerning Crimea, and more of that will follow.
12. The historic decision for the next generations about creation of EEU was made by the elites without inclusive public debate. For many, it looks more as the elites seeking guarantees of self-preservation and painless succession of power under supervision of the Russian patron. The union is not inter-national, but an inter-elite one. This makes the union lacking sustainability in the long run.
13. In Kazakhstan, the public discourse on these issues is quite negligible, but it grew significantly after Crimea, which has drastically polarized the society. The divide goes along civilizational lines, rather than economic or political implications of EEU. Most people might still look at Russia as a strong country and historic ally, and see Putin as a tough and adorable leader, but few choose Russia as a destination for their vacation or want Putin to cut pieces out of Kazakhstan.
14. Eurasianism bears possible challenges for the way internal politics is made in Kazakhstan, Belarus and other prospective members. Political forces supporting EEU may receive political, informational and financial support of the hegemon, while critical politicans and parties will be gradually (or rapidly) marginalized.
Dependency on the hegemon’s discourse is placing national sovereignty issues and values in a secondary position. Arbitrary forced escalation of Russian language status / Russian minority’s rights becomes a permanent threat.
Finally, with the clearly anti-Western positioning of the Eurasian Union, progressive democratic values (rule of law, equal rights, government’s accountability etc) appear to be the choice we are rejecting.