Russia's Ragtag Eurasian Economic Union
On February 22, Kazakhstan announced the adoption of an “official program” to move the Kazakh language from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet by 2025. This seemingly domestic development is indicative of a broader regional trend: the ties between the members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) are weakening.
The EEU, Russia’s counterweight to the European Union’s Eastern Partnership policy, is an economic and possibly political union between Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. And the state of that union is far from strong.
Research shows that the strength of unions and alliances depend upon four factors: 1) the degree of their sense of collective identity, 2) the degree of common interests, 3) the level of interdependencies (usually economic), and 4) the presence or absence of institutions to handle cooperation problems. All of these factors are present in the EEU. Yet unlike the EU, in the case of the EEU these factors have more negative than positive overtones. Mostly Russia’s economic and military leverage hold the EEU together so far.
In the EU, shared identity denotes a common understanding that this is a union of democracies sharing values. In the transatlantic alliance, a common understanding of security complements shared values. The only shared identity still sticking to EEU countries is the obsolete post-Soviet one. While “post-Soviet” often implies commonalities between these countries, it has arguably transformed into a geographic term. The differences between these countries are notable, although often not acknowledged.
The Kremlin has attempted to reinvigorate the sense of shared identity by invoking traditional values and shared history. Yet, it seems to have forgotten that this history points to Russia’s imperial past, which others often prefer to forget. The idea of Russian-speaking “russkiy mir” (Russian world) does not project the desired appeal either. Known Russophile Aleksander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, shunned the Belarusian language for two decades, but is now attempting its political revival. Kazakhstan’s 2016 ban on foreign television channels carrying advertising has effectively removed Russian TV from its second-largest market. The younger generation increasingly uses the Kazakh language. Russia’s main propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, notoriously complained that Armenians stopped speaking Russian.
Yet, the nature of their regimes is clearly common: all are increasingly autocratic, despite rhetorical commitments to democracy. Similar to Russia, all are also wary of popular protests and “color revolutions.”
The interests of EEU countries often diverge rather than converge. Belarus has not had much choice in its foreign policy, given previous European and U.S. sanctions due to Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule. Yet, it has often sought to balance Russia by improving relations with the West.
Armenia spent years negotiating an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU. Yet, its main national interest has been ensuring its security, due to the conflict with Azerbaijan. Russia’s decision in late spring 2013 to increase it arms sales to Azerbaijan by another $1 billion helped divert Armenia towards EEU membership.
Similar ambivalence applies to Kazakhstan. For years, Astana balanced its foreign policy between Russia and the United States, and has insisted that the EEU should not become a political union.
Thus, none other EEU member officially recognized Crimea as part of Russia, even if the Armenian and Belarusian presidents made vague statements on the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum. Moreover, none of them joined in on Russia’s import ban on European and U.S. products in response to Western sanctions.
Economic interdependence is highly asymmetrical: First, while all of the other EEU countries trade with Russia, they do not all trade with each other and certainly not to the same degree. Moreover, they cumulatively trade more with EU countries, stressing the attractiveness of the EU market over EEU.
Second, economic changes influence these countries differently. The combination of EU and U.S. sanctions and low oil prices led to the devaluation of the Russian ruble. The Russian currency’s devaluation hit its Armenian and Belarusian counterparts hard. Those economies rely on the ruble, and remittances sent by nationals working in Russia fill budgets. Responding to the weakening ruble, Kazakhstan devalued its currency by 19 percent against the U.S. dollar. Russia is also the main energy provider for Armenia and Belarus, while blocking Iran from increasing its gas deliveries to Armenia. Understanding this asymmetric interdependency, Russia has repeatedly imposed trade sanctions on EEU countries, most recently banning meat products from Armenia, which strongly denies claims of foot-and-mouth disease. Curiously, this ban followed the new agreement between the EU and Armenia to restart negotiations on a framework for their relations.
The good news for the EEU is that it has institutions and in name they emulate those of the EU. The bad news is the limits for such institutions to govern illegitimate autocrats distrustful of one other.
How is this relevant for the EU and the United States?
The conflict between the transatlantic partners and Russia largely stems from the clash of visions they have for the third countries. Russia has pursued the politics of submission and absorption to make sure these countries will do its bidding where Russia identifies its interests. The EU’s projects, supported by the United States, have aimed to facilitate economic development through capacity building and technical assistance. In the long run they facilitate greater foreign policy sovereignty for these countries. But to design applicable policies, the EU and the United States need to stop putting them in the same post-Soviet basket, acknowledging the differences in their identities and interests. And first of all, they need to decide how much effort and money they are willing to spend to support these countries.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.