Putin's Return to Kremlin Could Boost Eurasian Union Project

By Robert Coalson

A meeting of the prime ministers of CIS member states at the Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg in October, where Putin triumphantly announced an agreement to form a free-trade zone after years of fruitless negotiations.

When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin first announced his intention to return to the Kremlin back in the fall of 2011, one of the first programmatic articles that he published was devoted entirely to his vision of a "Eurasian Union."

"We suggest a powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world and of serving as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region," Putin wrote in Izvestia in October 2011.

Now that Putin is returning to the Kremlin for six more years - and possibly 12 - this priority project seems destined for a new infusion of energy. Behind the official congratulations that are pouring out of the capitals of the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are real concerns about whether closer integration can be achieved on an equitable footing.

The issue of CIS integration is clearly important for Putin. Just two weeks after the Izvestia article appeared, he hosted a meeting of prime ministers from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Ukraine in St. Petersburg and triumphantly announced an agreement to form a free-trade zone after years of fruitless negotiations.

"We are opening up our markets to each other, which means that goods will be brought to our markets at lower prices, which will in turn provide better conditions for starting new joint enterprises," Putin said. "All of this, of course, increases the competitiveness of all of our economies."
"No other way"

Putin sees Eurasian integration primarily as a way of cementing Russia's international status, says Kyrgyz political scientist Mars Sariev.

"Following the election, I think Putin will try to realize his vision about a Eurasian model embracing [the other CIS countries]," Sariev says. "And so Russia will pursue very close relations with Kyrgyzstan, will push us to join the Customs Union and the 'Eurasian Union.' If Russia fails to embrace us - the CIS countries - then Russia itself will fail. It will be just the backyard of Europe or a source of raw materials for China. There is no other way for Russia."

In his Izvestia manifesto Putin emphasized that Russia is "not going to rush or nudge anyone." States should only sign on to the initiative based on their "long-term national interests," he said.

But countries across the negotiating table from Putin's Russia often feel as if their "national interests" are being manipulated by their huge neighbor. Moscow recently announced a ban on imports of Ukrainian cheese, in a move that was widely seen as a bid to pressure Kyiv to agree to greater integration -- and to slow down on efforts to move closer to the European Union.

Ukrainian lawmaker Oleh Zarubinskiy, a member of the Russia-Ukraine interparliamentary group, expects that Moscow will continue its tough dealing with Ukraine.

"Over the last few years, Dmitry Medvedev has been in the Kremlin, but the key questions of Russian politics - both domestic and foreign - were de facto determined by Putin," Zarubinskiy says. "So we can't say there will be some sort of fundamental changes or, as some people are saying, tectonic shifts. Putin has his own style - harsh, pragmatic, and sometimes raw politics, including in foreign relations."
The gas problem

Cheese, in this case, is just a warning shot. Kyiv knows from past experience that when Russia really wants to get attention, it cuts off the gas.

Putin's vision will be hard to realize in the Caucasus, too. The key country in that region is oil-rich Azerbaijan. Many Azerbaijanis feel that Medvedev made sincere efforts to make progress resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. By contrast, they think Putin views the festering conflict as a way of increasing Russia's leverage over both countries.

In recent months, Baku has turned its attention to the West, seeking direct markets for its natural gas in Europe instead of, as Moscow wishes, selling all its energy to Russia's Gazprom.

Energy-rich Turkmenistan is also wary of Putin's tough approach. Turkmen analyst Amanmurad Bugaev also thinks Putin lacks the subtlety needed to realize the vision he laid out in his Izvestia article.

"Putin will certainly try to strengthen Russian hegemony in Central Asia," Bugaev says. "When it comes to Turkmenistan, Putin has always wanted to keep the Turkmen economy dependent on Russia. He does not even hide this."

In Izvestia, Putin wrote that the "Eurasian Union" should be built on the inheritance of the Soviet Union - "infrastructure, a developed system of regional production specialization, and a common space of language, science, and culture." But the legacy of the Soviet Union - both in terms of his own attitudes in the region and the wariness of its CIS partners - may run deeper than he knows.