Saturday, November 22, 2014

Escaping the Bear Hug

PRAGUE – Three former Soviet republics – Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – have now signed association agreements with the European Union, despite Russia’s sometimes brutal attempts to obstruct the process. This is certainly a promising development for these countries, all of which have struggled to achieve stability since the Soviet Union’s dissolution. But it would be naive to think that Russia will give up so easily.

As Ukraine’s ongoing crisis has demonstrated yet again, former Soviet republics that attempt to make geopolitical decisions without the Kremlin’s assent do not remain intact for long. In Georgia, the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have had de facto independence since receiving Russian recognition in 2008. Today, the prospect of their return seems more distant than ever.

For its part, Moldova has been struggling for two decades to assert control over the breakaway Transnistria region. Moreover, in February, the tiny autonomous region of Gagauzia, with its indigenous Turkic population, announced through a Russia-backed referendum that it has the right to secede if Moldova “loses its statehood.” The danger now is that pro-secession leaders may twist the loss of sovereignty supposedly inherent in association with the EU into precisely such a claim.

Beyond discouraging former Soviet republics from pursuing deeper ties with the EU, Russia has created a sort of “EU” of its own: the Eurasian Economic Union. In May, the leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan established the EaEU by signing a treaty that will enter into effect next year, assuming that all three countries’ parliaments ratify it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that the EaEU is not intended to function as a “resurrected” Soviet Union, but that any former Soviet republic is free to join. And some are eager to do so. According to a recent poll, some 80% of Kazakhs support Putin, and about 70% back Kazakhstan’s EaEU membership.

Though some countries have persevered in the face of Russia’s threats to bring separatist, ethnic, or other problems to their doorstep should they choose integration with the EU, others have responded to the pressure. In September, Armenia, which has been locked in a conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for more than two decades, suddenly halted its integration talks with the EU and announced its intention to join Russia-led structures.

Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest post-Soviet countries in Central Asia, has no obvious separatism-related problems, though it struggles with ethnic tensions in its south, where clashes between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in 2010 left more than 400 people dead. This month, the country closed the United States’ military transit center near Bishkek, and declared its intention to join the customs union that preceded the EaEU by the end of this year.

The Kremlin is using other mechanisms to exert additional pressure on former Soviet republics. Russia’s foreign ministry has just announced that, as of January 1, citizens of post-Soviet countries that are not members of the customs union and the EaEU will no longer be allowed to enter Russia without passports. This will likely soon be followed by visa requirements for these countries’ citizens, which for some would pose a major challenge. For example, the remittances that the estimated 1.5 million Tajiks who live and work in Russia send to their families back home are critical to Tajikistan’s economy.

Likewise, in April, Putin signed legislation simplifying the procedure for Russian speakers in former Soviet republics to obtain Russian citizenship. The law, enacted just a month after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, was undoubtedly intended to provide a legal basis for expediting the citizenship-application process for residents of Crimea and the rest of eastern Ukraine. But it may enable millions of other Russian-speaking citizens of EaEU member countries to become Russian citizens, and it could be used to apply pressure on countries like Estonia and Latvia, which have large Russophone populations.

But the EaEU’s development is not proceeding entirely according to Putin’s plan. At a recent Eurasian Economic Commission session in Sochi, Belarus and Kazakhstan rejected the Kremlin’s proposal to introduce customs duties for goods imported from Ukraine if the country signed the EU association agreement. The Belarusian government considers it to be Ukraine’s sovereign right to sign agreements with the EU – a flat contradiction of Russia’s stance – and appears likely to introduce customs fees of its own for electronic goods imported from Russia.

As it stands, the EaEU seems to have two major goals: to obstruct the integration of former Soviet republics into the West, and to help secure Putin’s power. Economic advancement does not appear to be on the agenda.

Unless it somehow manages to deliver tangible economic benefits anyway, the EaEU seems destined to become another failed institutional initiative, like the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Russian-Belarusian Union State, or the Central Asian Union. It may even accelerate Russia’s internal decay.

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    1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Merkhat Sharipzhan says, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine may have escaped Russia's "bear hug", after signing their Association Agreements with the EU, but they are not out of the woods yet. Indeed, "it would be naive to think that Russia will give (them) up so easily". Putin may still try to derail their process of joining the EU. Of the three, Ukraine - deeply linked to Russia - has a special place in Putin's heart. He has in mind of forming a Russian equivalent of the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) and bringing Ukraine into it. He is determined to make it a success, after the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Central Asian Union had failed to live up to his expectations.
      Since Putin became president in 2000, he had set up an economic organisation, the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), which aimed at creating common policies on tax, employment, currencies and customs tariffs. It replaced the customs union between Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Tajikistan. In 2008 Uzbekistan left and started to export gas to the West. Little is known what happened to EEC. Nevertheless in 2011, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan had agreed to set up the EaEU and President Dmitri Medvedev said any former Soviet state would be eligible to join.
      Although Putin had insisted that there was no talk of reforming the USSR, arguing that it would be naive to copy what had been abandoned in the past. It isn't farfetched to say that "EaEU seems to have two major goals: to obstruct the integration of former Soviet republics into the West, and to help secure Putin’s power". That "economic advancement does not appear to be on the agenda" is a prospect that had discouraged many Ukrainians from joining.
      As protests in Ukraine became louder and Viktor Yanukovich had to flee the country, Putin didn't hesitate to show what the consequences were, when former Soviet republics made "geopolitical decisions without the Kremlin’s assent". The annexation of Crimea under the pretext of ethnic Russians' desire for autonomy is a writing on the wall for many former Soviet republics . They fear that ethnic Russians in their territories could one day rise up and break away, or they may urge for joining Russia - all under the auspices of the Kremlin.
      Putin has always baulked at the principle of "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P), when it came to passing a resolution at the UN Security Council to prevent civilians in Libya or Syria from being slaughtered by regime forces. Yet he seems to have discovered the delight of using "R2P" to protect ethnic Russians abraod.