Putin’s ‘Eurasian Union’ admired and decried

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's stated intention to create a "Eurasian Union", made up of Russia and other post-Soviet states, has triggered a flurry of reactions ranging from enthusiasm to outright rejection in Russia and the countries concerned.

In an article published by the daily Izvestia, Putin, who is also expected to become his country's President next year (see background), appears to outline his geopolitical ambitions for the years to come.

As a departure point, Putin calls a "historic milestone" the kick off on 1 January, 2012 of the Common Economic Space of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (CES).

Putin writes that after having achieved on 1 July 2011 a Customs Union, now the three countries were moving to a Common Economic Space.

"We are creating a huge market that will encompass over 165 million consumers, with unified legislation and the free flow of capital, services and labour force," he writes.

But Putin stresses that this union remains open for other members. "By building the Customs Union and Common Economic Space, we are laying the foundation for a prospective Eurasian economic union. At the same time, the Customs Union and CES will expand by involving Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan," he writes.

Back in the USSR?

On the one hand, Putin appears to reject suspicions that he will be willing to resuscitate a smaller version of the former USSR.

"None of this entails any kind of revival of the Soviet Union. It would be naïve to try to revive or emulate something that has been consigned to history. But these times call for close integration based on new values and a new political and economic foundation," he points out.

But he also pays tribute to the former Soviet Union: "We have a great inheritance from the Soviet Union. We inherited an infrastructure, specialised production facilities, and a common linguistic, scientific and cultural space. It is in our joint interests to use this resource for our development," he writes.

"We suggest a powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world and serving as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. This project also implies transitioning to closer coordination in economic and currency policies in the Customs Union and [the Community of Independent States] CES and establishing a full-fledged economic union," he reveals.

Clearly referring to Ukraine and Moldova, Putin stressed that membership of his new project would not harm ambitions to develop deeper integration with the EU.

"Some of our neighbours explain their lack of interest in joining forward-looking integration projects in the post-Soviet space by saying that these projects contradict their pro-European stance. I believe that this is a false antithesis. We do not intend to cut ourselves off, nor do we plan to stand in opposition to anyone. The Eurasian Union will be based on universal integration principles as an essential part of Greater Europe united by shared values of freedom, democracy, and market laws," he pointed out.

He even appeared to convey to Ukraine and Moldova that their position inside the Eurasian Union would make their case stronger vis-à-vis the EU.

"Soon the Customs Union, and later the Eurasian Union, will join the dialogue with the EU. As a result, apart from bringing direct economic benefits, accession to the Eurasian Union will also help countries integrate into Europe sooner and from a stronger position," he writes.

Putin also appeared to convey the message to the EU that its eventual future relations with the Eurasian Union would help it preserve its role of a global player.

"A partnership between the Eurasian Union and EU that is economically consistent and balanced will prompt changes in the geo-political and geo-economic setup of the continent as a whole with a guaranteed global effect," he pointed out.

Putin's article triggered a flurry of reactions (see Positions). Punchy headlines within Russia, including  "Back to the USSR" or "Putin invented USSR 2.0", suggested that the Kremlin is seeking to invoke its  Cold War period grandeur.

In Ukraine many experts considered that Putin's article was chiefly targeted at Kyiv, as it appeared at a critical moment when the country's authorities are finalising a milestone association agreement with the EU to put in place a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA).

Ukrainian political scientist Vadim Karasev said Putin's article was aimed mainly at Ukraine.

"Without Ukraine, the process of reunification of the post-Soviet space is impossible," he argues. Karasaev also points out at the "division of labour" between Putin and current President Dmitry Medvedev, who is expected to be Putin's Prime Minister next year. Putin is pushing for geopolitical grandeur, and Medvedev's for internal modernisation, he said.

Russian political scientist Andrei Okara said that Putin's article reflects his  outstanding political ambition and that he would be "bored" to be "only" the President of Russia.

Okara says Putin's ambition is to have a place in world history. "Putin sees himself as a leader not only of Russian, but of global dimension. Putin wanst precisely to be the leader of a great state, and make political moves that would remain in history. Today he feels bored: as a Prime Minister and a President he has already got everything," he said.

Taras Chernovol, member of the Ukrainian Parliament and Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee called Putin's proposal "utopia".

"The participation of Ukraine [in the proposed EurAsian Union] is unrealistic. It directly conflicts with the [Ukarianain] foreign affairs strategy – the European integration, which is underpinned by the legal base of the country's internal and external policy," he argued.

Vitaliy Portnikov, political scientist and chief editor of Ukrainian channel TVi said Putin's article is in fact his election programme.

According to Portnikov, the article in fact says nothing new. The idea of reunification of the post-Soviet space is the ideology of the Russian elite since the 90's, he argues.

What Russia cannot understand is that an integration in which Moscow could play a leading role is not possible, Portnikov says.

Vitold Fokin, former Prime Minister of Ukraine in the period 1990-1992, said he "wanted" that Putin's ideas come to life.

"Ukraine in fact has no choice. Either we will have a Customs Union [with Russia] and obtain preferential prices with $11-15 billion in our favour, or we have the European option, which would bring nothing. Therefore I dream of the Eurasian space," he said.

Pavel Borodin, Secretary of the Union of Russia in Belarus, said he never lived in anything else than in an Eurasian Union.

"I was born in it. In different historical periods it had different names – the Russian empire, USSR, CIS, now they proposed Eurasia. I back Putin's proposal, more than this, I was waiting for it. It is aimed at our future," he stated.

The formation of a Eurasian Union on the background of the EU may give a positive effect, Azerbaijani MP Aydyn Mirzazade was quoted as saying.

The Eurasian Union may become an alternative to the EU. But the two organizations should cooperate than be competitors, he added.

"States need to have equal rights in such unions. Despite resolution of diplomatic and military differences between states, formation of a union must not harm their territorial unity," Mirzazade said.

Azerbaijan may take part in the union, as long as Russia and Turkey guarantee territorial unity of Azerbaijan and demand Armenia to withdraw from occupied territories, he added.

Sergei Reshulskiy, Russian MP, deputy head of the Communist Party political group, said:

"Belarus and Kazakhstan and some other republics of the former Soviet Union would move toward such an Union. But such a territory would not extend further. Such union should be put together by countries who sincerely want to be part of it. Putin has been on power for 12 years, and hasn't been able to achieve a decent union even with Belarus. Many of us remember was said to Belarus: come in, but with the rights of a region or an oblast. This time they speak of the same kind of relationship again."

In a choreographed congress of the ruling United Russia party on 24 September, Russia's President Vladimir Medvedev agreed to lead a list of candidates for a parliamentary election on 4 December in view of becoming the next premier, and won a standing ovation for current PM Vladimir Putin by proposing that he run for president in the March 2012 elections [more].

Since the fall of the USSR, there have been five elections for both president and parliament. Since Vladimir Putin became president of Russia in 1999, criticism of the conduct of Russian elections has grown.

The last presidential election took place in 2008 and was won by Dmitry Medvedev with 71.25% against 17.96% for Gennady Zyuganov, the candidate of the Communist Party, and 9.48% for Vladimir Zhirinovski of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

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