The EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius saw Georgia and Moldova initial Association Agreements, but Ukraine and Armenia have leant towards a Russian alternative. Giovanni Cadioli asks why the Eurasian Union has made an unlikely comeback, and whether it is sustainable.
As shown in a post published last week, Russia has not been entirely successful in its 22-year long attempt at reintegrating the post-Soviet space. These two decades have witnessed a parade of ghost organisations, many of which were only launched on paper and barely saw the light of the day.
However, after Russia’s “decade of humiliation” in the 1990s, favourable hydrocarbons prices drove Russia’s resurrection and stabilisation. Focusing exclusively on the European theatre, a trend favourable to Russia seems to be quite clearly identifiable. In 2008, Georgia’s defeat in the short August war with Russia – a war initiated by Georgia, after a series of mutual provocations (pdf) – posed an end to Tbilisi’s realistic hopes for NATO accession. Two years after, the more Russian-friendly Yanukovych re-conquered Ukraine, halted NATO accession plans and extended the lease of the Sevastopol navy base to the Russian Black Sea Fleet for 25 years. In autumn 2011, Russia acquired the totality of Belarus’ Beltrangaz gas transportation company, and in April 2013 it announced the installation of a new airbase on Belarusian territory.
Western commentators, who often display little understanding of post-Soviet affairs, identified in such events and several others a sort of unequivocal movement towards the creation of the “Soviet Union of the third millennium”. Most of them forgot the Kremlin’s severe rows with pro-Russian Minsk over energy matters, as well as Yanukovych’s initial caution and refusal to join the CSTO, the Union State or the Customs Union; these events plus a dozen others should remind us that the man in the Kremlin does not have the power his predecessors had in the 1950s or 1960s and that the Cold War is over, while no new one ever broke out.
Nevertheless, recent developments in the east have substantiated the idea that Russia is striking back. The new battlefield, after NATO accession and the US missile shield installations, has become the EU Eastern Partnership. More specifically, the object of contention were the broad Association Agreement and the more specific “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area” (pdf) meant to be signed at the Eastern Partnership Summit of Vilnius (28-29 November 2013), between the EU on the one side and, separately, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia – such agreements would have meant further liberalisation of trade and the re-orientation towards EU member states of the Eastern Partnership countries.
Naturally, the most crucial nation at stake in this dispute was Ukraine, a nation Russia has tried to reincorporate and reintegrate throughout the whole period of these two nations’ existence as independent states. Without it, most of Russia’s new integration plans would prove largely meaningless. Indeed, Russia’s official launch of the Eurasian Union and Eurasian Economic Union projects, is a clear sign that Russia wishes to expand the membership of the organisations it heads and replace the loose framework of the existing Union State, Eurasian Economic Community and Customs Union with new frameworks. Ukraine, due to the size of its economy and its geostrategic position, is the natural and irrevocable candidate.
Sergey Glazayev, adviser to Putin, warned Ukraine that its association with the EU would violate the friendship treaty it has with Russia. Dmitry Rogozin, deputy PM in charge of the weapons industry, warned Kyiv that if it signed the EU deal, Russia would have had to stop the placement of sensitive technology related to the aircraft and space industry in Ukraine. Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, said the EU Association Agreement would have forced Ukraine in a condition of “semi-colonial dependence”.
All these pressures seem to have succeeded in winning over again Ukraine to the cause of Russian-lead post-Soviet reintegration. This seem very much to have been an agonising decision, in which trade partnership with Russia and short-term economic issues seem to have played an overwhelming role, as Yanukovych himself seems to have admitted. In a society where pro-Russian and pro-EU supporters are extremely polarised, the row over Yanukovych’s turn to Russia will likely increase the country’s instability.
If Ukraine was the “big prize” for Russia, one cannot forget that the Kremlin scored its first success last September, when Armenia turned to Russia’s Customs Union, after Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan met with Putin. The relevance of the economic and security role that Russia plays in Armenia has been outlined in a previous post on this blog.
The EU, which had concrete hopes to score a 4-0 against Russia, is left with an unstable 2-2 tie, as the prospected agreements were signed only with Georgia and Moldova and possible Russian retaliation is already feared.
Moreover, if the political realities in Georgia exclude any sort of return to Russia, this is definitely not true for Moldova. The tiny, former Soviet Republic was ruled by the pro-Russian communist Vladimir Voronin between 2001 and 2009, when the communists were ousted from power after a three-year political deadlock and a low-intensity “colour revolution”, when Nicolae Timofti was elected president in March 2012. However, the communists remained the biggest political force in the country, while the heterogeneous governing coalition often struggled to keep united. Armenia and Ukraine’s turn to Russia has re-inflamed the communists’ opposition against the Government’s pro-EU attitude and a mass rally was organised in November 2013. If the Kremlin will retaliate in any way against Moldova’s association with the EU, maybe exploiting the country’s almost complete dependence on Russian gas, protests are likely to increase, together with political instability.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacted to the launch of the Eurasian Union project stating that “it’s not going to be called [the Soviet Union] but let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it”. However, as of today, one cannot but recognise that, far from having been slowed down or prevented, Russia’s new Union project seems to have met a new impulse that could effectively lead to its proper establishment within the next few years.