Integrating Russia’s Post-Imperium

MOSCOW – With Russia’s 2012 presidential elections effectively over since Vladimir Putin’s decision to reclaim his old Kremlin office, it is time to turn from personalities to policies. Putin plans to stay in the Kremlin for two more presidential terms, another 12 years, as he is enabled to do by the recently-amended constitution. So who will be Russia’s next president is now a certainty; less obvious is what he hopes to achieve.

One issue, however, has now shot to the top of Russia’s political agenda: Eurasian integration. In early October, Putin wrote a newspaper article that proclaimed what appears to be his reigning foreign-policy goal: a Eurasian Union of former Soviet states. Two weeks later, in St. Petersburg, he hosted a meeting of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) prime ministers, eight of whom signed an agreement establishing a free-trade area among their countries. On January 1, 2012, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, which now form a customs union, will join a single economic space.

And Putin wants even more: a “Eurasian Schengen” (free movement of people among the three countries, built on the example of the European Union) by 2015, followed by a currency union and, ultimately, full economic integration. Indeed, Putin wants to restructure Russia’s relations with the former Soviet states to create not merely a bigger market, but eventually an economic bloc-cum-security alliance.

The feasibility of this plan is not to be taken for granted. Ever since the Soviet Union broke up 20 years ago, there has been much talk about reintegrating the successor states. Little has come of it, owing mainly to Russia’s reluctance to support the other countries financially. At the same time, the other CIS countries have maintained an overriding focus on their own state-building and independence vis-à-vis Russia. Both factors, however, may now be changing – at least somewhat.