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Eurasia or EuRussia?

What provoked this projected institutionalization of Russia’s geopolitical resurgence?


Last Sunday put an end to the speculation over whether Vladimir Putin will return to the helm, as he was nominated as the United Russia Party’s presidential candidate in the March 2012 elections.

Putin has announced his motto as “never look back.” This news led to further speculation about his “Eurasian Union” idea: Is it a genuine alternative to EU policy in the former Soviet Union, or a PR move that will be forgotten after the elections? The issue now is not the content and direction of Moscow’s strategy or the extent to which it feels it can and must pursue this “Eurasian Union” quest, but rather what mistakes the EU has made. What provoked this projected institutionalization of Russia’s geopolitical resurgence? In order to answer this question, the EU must “look back” at its own actions.

First of all, at the EU’s Eastern Partnership Warsaw Summit on Sept. 30, where Belarus did not have high-level representation, the EU began to criticize the Belarusian government, which prompted its delegation to leave the summit. At this point, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told EU leaders that it is essential that the EU does not lose control over the negotiations with Minsk and does not allow Russia to control Belarus. Actually, this public criticism by the EU led to the total and hopeless isolation of Minsk, which prompted the Belarusian government to seek to leverage a new partnership with Moscow. The EU launched its isolation policy following Belarus’ presidential elections at the end of 2010, which saw a serious crackdown by security forces against the opposition. This isolation included sanctions from the EU and the United States, and was one of the many causes of the serious financial crisis Belarus is now in.

Secondly, last month a Swiss-brokered proposal to end Georgia’s block on Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) came through. From the US or the EU’s perspective, this deal could help normalize Moscow-Tbilisi relations. More significantly, if it sees the steps Tbilisi is willing to take under pressure from Washington, Russia will be less obstructive with regard to the US’s plans for a radar system in Eastern Europe. In order to encourage Tbilisi to yield, the EU referenced the European Parliament’s Nov. 17 resolution on Georgia, which used the term “occupation,” and thereby clearly demonstrated European support for Georgia.

In my recent talks with Ghia Nodia, a professor at Georgia’s Ilia State University, he gave a key insight into this issue: “When it comes to the conflict with Russia and the related issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia cannot achieve any qualitative breakthrough in the foreseeable future. The current situation, at least, gives no hope for that. But it is crucial for Georgia to retain international support and to ensure that the Georgian version of events is shared by major international players.” In this context, it seems difficult to argue that Georgia’s compromise on the WTO issue could act as a catalyst for the normalization of Moscow-Tbilisi relations, especially given that the European Parliament has now twice called for Russia to end its occupation of Georgian territory.

These two developments hastened international recognition of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, but there have been other indicators, which the EU should be able to identify with hindsight. First, the presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus signed a Declaration of Intent in Moscow on Nov. 18 that could see the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) become fully operational within five years; this is seen as the first step to making the Eurasian Union a reality. That the first move has been to create an economic coalition (as opposed to a political bloc) is undeniably a clever strategy. Belarus, totally isolated by the EU, has taken a role in the creation of EurAsEC, demonstrating the negative perceptions of EU policy in Minsk. Following EurAsEC, the next step was a new natural gas agreement between Russia and Belarus.

Kazakhstan is more ambivalent about this general strategy, particularly with respect to the politicization of what initially seemed to be an economic initiative. In my discussion with Kazbek Issayev, adviser to the director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, he expressed his view that “Kazakhstan is aiming to build Eurasian integration based primarily on economic pragmatism. In this context, Kazakh policy on the creation of a Eurasian Union is determined exclusively by national economic interests.” It is possible that many of the post-Soviet countries perceive the steps described above as threats; nobody wants a return of the USSR. Right now, it is not clear what the future will be for this initiative, and Putin’s new “never look back” motto makes it all the more difficult to identify the precise trajectory of this strategy.

The second development involves Moscow’s response to the US anti-missile shield plan. Many believe that after resolving the WTO veto issue with Georgia, US-Moscow relations could continue on the basis of the reset policy. During a United Russia Party congress, President Dmitry Medvedev signaled a warning that Russia will target US anti-missile sites in Europe and withdraw from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) if the US does not cancel its plans to deploy an anti-missile shield in European countries. He also ordered army leaders to prepare to deploy a mobile weapons system to the Kaliningrad enclave in the Baltic Sea near Lithuania and Poland. This will upset Polish and Lithuanian security, and gives rise to the crucial question of whether this will be the end of the US-Russia “reset.” Will “resetting the reset” usher in Moscow’s new geopolitical ambitions?

A 2005 remark by Dov Lynch, an expert on the region, resonates strongly in the context of the current situation: “Russia makes you an offer you can’t refuse, while the EU makes you an offer you can’t understand.” The Eurasian Union cannot become a political entity as the EU has because the motivation behind its establishment is so different. However, at the same time, the EU’s bureaucratic system is failing to offer timely and compelling opportunities for further integration. Visa liberalization and other concrete steps are slow-moving, and it is an open question whether all EU countries will accept such steps.



29 November 2011, Tuesday



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