Russia’s Eurasian priorities

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Russia’s Eurasian priorities
Published 21-09-2012, 13:08
The first four months of Vladimir Putin’s new presidential term have shifted the focus of Russia’s foreign policy to post-Soviet countries. The Eurasian Union concept, announced in October 2011, is coming to the fore. This involves the creation of essentially a confederation of states with shared political, economic, military, customs and cultural spaces. The union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus is to become the institutional framework of the Eurasian Union, along with the relevant CIS structures: EurAsEC, CSTO, the Customs Union.
This summer, Russian diplomats took steps to lay the foundation for the Eurasian Union. On July 1, 2012, agreements on the creation of the Common Economic Space within the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Commission, replacing the Customs Union Commission, entered into force. An agreement on the accession of Kyrgyzstan to the Customs Union has been reached. Consultations with Ukraine and Armenia on the format of their cooperation with the Customs Union are in progress. After his visit to Baku on July 6-9, 2012, State Duma Chairman Sergei Naryshkin said Azerbaijan is closely watching the work of the Customs Union.

But Moscow’s integration projects have encountered difficulties. On April 4, 2012, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan claimed that it does not make economic sense for his country to join the Customs Union. Attempts to begin talks on the accession of Tajikistan to the Customs Union in May 2012 resulted in a chill in Russia-Tajikistan relations. On July 3, 2012, the head of Azerbaijan’s State Customs Committee Aidyn Aliyev emphasized that his country has no plans to join the Customs Union. The Ukrainian leadership is studying only the possibility of cooperation with the Customs Union in individual sectors in a 3+1 format. On August 3, 2012, the Central Electoral Commission of Moldova rejected a proposal by the communists to hold a referendum on the country’s accession to the Customs Union.

A serious problem stands behind these difficulties. Russia’s policy towards the CIS was forged in the mid-2000s. At that time, Russia was bolstering its positions in the CIS, which were lost after the collapse of the USSR. In 2012, the situation became more complicated. Political tendencies seeking to limit or at least balance the increasing influence of Russia grew stronger in the CIS countries.     

First, the character of Russia-Belarus relations changed. The creation of a confederative Union State was postponed indefinitely. Over the last six years, ‘diplomatic conflicts’ have regularly flared between Moscow and Minsk: from gas prices to Belarus’ agreement to participate in the EU Eastern Partnership program.  These conflicts have been resolved; however, they have turned Belarus from a ‘privileged ally’ to a ‘key ally’ of Russia along with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

Second, friction between Russia and its CSTO allies intensified. Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the CSTO raised a red flag to the Kremlin. But there are difficulties in relations with other countries, too. Kyrgyzstan is maintaining a separate dialogue with the United States and NATO over the Manas air base. Armenia has expressed displeasure over the growing Russia-Turkey partnership and holds an independent (though limited) dialogue with NATO. None of the CSTO countries except Russia have recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Third, the CIS countries that are not members of EurAsEC are growing increasingly estranged from Russia. After the 2009 conflict with Gazprom, Turkmenistan established its own infrastructure to export energy to the south and the east. Ukraine has yet not joined agreements on the Common Economic Space. Mounting tensions over Nagorny Karabakh have raised doubts about the constructiveness of the Russia-Azerbaijan dialogue. And all this is taking place as Yerevan is beginning to speak with greater frequency about the excessive influence of Turkey on Russia’s position on Nagorny Karabakh.

Fourth, the U.S. is again advancing its positions in the post-Soviet space. By the end of the 2000s, Washington had partially lost its resources in the CIS. But the Barack Obama Administration has managed to re-build the U.S. strategy in the region. The White House restored the military-political dialogue with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and asks for granting it a status of "partner for dialogue” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Washington supports Turkmenistan’s energy strategy and strives to start an independent dialogue with Tajikistan. U.S. diplomacy is playing a more and more active role in the Transdnestria settlement negotiations. 

These processes still do not threaten to derail Russia’s integration initiatives. But they create obstacles to the Eurasian Union project. The consolidating factor of the "external threat” (which can be anything, from Islamic extremists to the U.S. "export of democracy”) has waned. The elites of the former Soviet republics want not only economic advantages but also guarantees against the excessive influence of Russia. This should set off alarm bells for Russia. And if it fails to respond to them, Moscow won’t be able to get its Eurasian initiatives off the ground.

Alexei Fenenko is Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences

 

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