Since Vladimir Putin officially introduced the idea of a Eurasian Union (EAU) two years ago, it has become obvious that the Russian authorities are determined to create a new integration association in the former Soviet Union and that this association will be not only economic or military, but also political. Interestingly, however, all lobbyists for the EAU emphasize only economic interests and practical benefits. The tone was set by the Russian president who stressed that this would be only an economic organization. The name of the future association has been amended as well – now it is referred to not just as a Eurasian but a Eurasian Economic Union.
However, international, including European, practices show that purely material interests are not enough to bring about full-scale and, most importantly, long-term and successful integration. It is only a common ideology and a common system of views that will allow people of all countries in a Eurasian Union to feel as one. One simply needs to invent such an ideology.
First of all, we should clarify some terminological and methodological issues.
To start with, not everyone who uses the term “Eurasian Union” fully understands what it is from a geographical point of view (that is, how many countries it should include at the final stage of integration). Some people believe the present status quo (Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) will be maintained. Others predictably add Ukraine to them (which is in line with the intentions of the Russian authorities), while still others dream of recreating a mini-USSR, which would include eight to ten of the former Soviet republics. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, in one of his articles, in addition to the current troika, names also Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (they are members of the Eurasian Economic Community which will serve as the basis for the following stages). These plans will hardly meet with understanding among the Russian population (see more on this below).
Secondly, there can be no universal ideology in the EAU in principle; the local elites and populations should be given different messages.
It is easy to identify several areas where the consolidation of the three countries’ elites is possible. One is guarantees of stability for the ruling class during the change of political generations. The incumbent regimes in Kazakhstan and, to a lesser extent, Belarus are on the verge of depletion of their resources. Renovation processes are inevitable, which may involve destabilizing interference from abroad (“color revolutions”). These developments may require an external shock-absorber and a guarantor of stability, and Moscow could serve as one.
For example, Moscow may believe with regard to Belarus that sooner or later Alexander Lukashenko will lose freedom of maneuver and will have to yield power to a pro-Kremlin candidate in exchange for his personal safety and the safety of his assets. Theoretically, the Belarusian leader earlier could hope for such guarantees from the West, but Muammar Gaddafi’s fate is more than indicative. If you are in the “bad guys” list, they will get their hands on you sooner or late – even if you are publicly exonerated before that, as was the case with the former Libyan leader who had achieved reconciliation with the West in the early 2000s. Highly placed parties to the conflict in former Yugoslavia were the first to face such a phenomenon – in the 1990s they also received assurances from U.S. and European diplomats that they would be guaranteed safety in exchange for their withdrawal from the political scene. However, the “contract” proved to be very short-lived.
Another area is the protection of the partners against expansionist aspirations of heavyweight players. For Belarus, this is Europe; for Kazakhstan, this is China. The elites of both countries have well-founded fears that they may lose their actual sovereignty in favor of their giant neighbors. Although there are similar fears with regard to Moscow as well, Minsk and Astana now view Russia’s presence as less risky and demanding. Russia already serves as a guarantee of political calm and independent development in several post-Soviet countries (partly, this is the function of the Collective Security Treaty Organization).
Finally comes the third area (it can be proposed not only to the elites but also to the population). This is the Eurasian Union as a bridge between the East and the West (more specifically, as a bridge between the European Union and the Asia-Pacific region). This idea was already voiced in Putin’s major article and other official interpretations of the project. But it needs to be developed. It is important to invariably emphasize the open nature of Eurasian integration, which does not conflict with other projects of this kind and which is intended to help member states to mutually complement each other and build a vast area of prosperity and success across Eurasia. Such a position is winning compared, for example, with the EU’s stand providing that integration can only take place around Brussels and that, if some countries make a different choice, they will lose their European prospects. This EU approach is particularly evident in the case of Ukraine, on which Europe has been exerting overt pressure.The elites of Russia, Kazakhstan and even Belarus, despite the specificity of Alexander Lukashenko and his inner circle, seek to become, using market terminology, global-scale shareholders (albeit minority ones). Since the break-up of the Soviet Union and until recently, integration into the European space was the only chance for that (this is why the “aristocracy” of the three countries are striving to settle in Europe with their families, buying real estate there and opening bank accounts in foreign banks). However, people from countries that lost the Cold War, as well as their heirs, are not viewed as equals in the West and are simply required to obey the rules set without them. Equitable integration into existing organizations is simply impossible. Secondly, the decision-making center is gradually moving towards the East (the Asia-Pacific area), and this factor offers a unique chance for all post-Soviet “losers” of the last two decades. The value of joint integration (with voting rights) into the new world order that is now taking shape in the coming “Asian century” can attract all the three aforementioned countries.
Two factors can call the aforesaid into question, though. Firstly, the entire construct rests on the belief that the incumbent regime in Russia will last for ever. However, there has been enough evidence that since the late 2000s it has been entering the stage of decay. This circumstance makes the issue of political turbulence during the change of political generations as acute for Russia as it is for its partners. The other factor, related to the first one, is whether or not the integration policy will be continued after a new generation of the elites comes to power, and the nature of relationships between new leaders. It would be appropriate to recall the evolution of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s and Alexander Lukashenko’s attitudes to integration in the 1990s and 2000s. Initially, they were definitely and sincerely in favor of integration (Nazarbayev proposed the idea back in 1994), because they showed to advantage against an ailing Boris Yeltsin and could well hope that one of them would lead the new integration association. However, when a young and energetic Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, both men grew cool towards major integration initiatives and focused on formal and economic aspects.
At present, each of these three countries is dominated by a national leader who controls key assets. In Belarus, the domination is the harshest (Lukashenko alone controls all strategic sectors of the economy). In Kazakhstan and, especially, Russia, the domination is more diversified (assets are distributed among major elite groups, but the heads of state still remain the “ultimate arbiters” who can redistribute property). A change of generations can influence the situation, bringing it closer to that in Ukraine where there is no obvious domination and where President Victor Yanukovich represents the interests of the oligarchate formed by the late 2000s of approximately equally influential groups. The change of generations in the elites (especially in Kazakhstan) is expected to increase the weight of opponents of integration with Russia, who have been particularly active in the past few years.
BONDING VALUES FOR THE MASSES
The political will of the elites will have decisive importance only initially; later, they will have to pay special care to citizens. In simpler terms, common values (literally, explanation of why a proposed idea is so good for the population) should be clear and positive answers to questions asked by various groups of society about the trilateral integration.
The analysis of sociological data reveals two main target groups (the following classification is more true for Russia and Belarus and less for Kazakhstan). The first group includes people older than 50 who live in large cities or in the countryside, as well as most residents of small towns and rural areas. They are characterized by paternalistic attitudes and their views of integration can be described as “post-Soviet.” They see a Eurasian Union (and all integration associations) as a step towards restoring the Soviet Union and see much more positive than negative points about it. In other words, there is no need to invent new “bonding values” for them; the old, Soviet-imperial ones would be enough.
The authorities of the three countries have been playing the card of “post-imperial syndrome,” found (albeit in different ways) in the populations of many countries in the former Soviet Union, ever since the present generation of leaders emerged. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin actively exploited the idea of a Union State between Russia and Belarus during the 1996 presidential election campaign.
The other target group comprises young people and residents of large, but not only, large cities. Due to their age or a new social and political demand, these people are negative about the idea of restoring the Soviet Union. For objective reasons (death among the older generation, and urbanization), the percentage of such people is growing, which tells on the attitude of the populations of potential member countries of a Eurasian Union to integration with Russia or with Europe.
The Belarusian Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies has conducted a public opinion survey regarding foreign-policy preferences of Belarusians. Over the last 10 years, these preferences have changed significantly. In 2001, an overwhelming majority of people in Belarus (80%) supported the unification of Belarus and Russia into a single state. In 2011, this figure decreased to only 31.4%, whereas 47.8% opposed such unification. Asked if they had to choose between integrating with Russia and the European Union, 44.5% chose the EU, and 35.3%, Russia. In 2006, 46.4% of Belarusians would vote for the unification of Belarus and Russia into a single state, while in 2004 the figure stood at 49.3%. In 2003, 53.1% of Belarusians wanted to integrate with Russia.
However, as regards public sentiment in Belarus, a short-term factor, namely, the current position of Minsk, plays an important role in molding it. The majority of the population lives in rural areas or small towns. These people are a conformist-minded electorate prone to propaganda spread via official media, primarily television (the situation in Russia is similar but not as unambiguous). When relations between Minsk and Moscow worsen, this is immediately reflected in Belarusian TV coverage (which simultaneously helps Minsk shift responsibility for the unfavorable economic situation in the country to Moscow). When bilateral relations improve, the tone of TV coverage changes. This explains why the number of Belarusians favoring integration with Russia may vary significantly within a short period of time – from 20-30 to 60 percent.
On the whole, however, the trend present in the aforementioned survey is true for the populations of all three countries. There is growing the percentage of people who grew up after the break-up of the Soviet Union and who, therefore, did not go through the Soviet system of molding a unified identity. For them, institutional relations with Russia are not something self-evident but, rather, one of several options. In addition, the new generation includes mostly residents of cities with a new social, economic and political demand on the authorities. The contemporary citizen in all three countries (not only living in the capital) is a consumption-minded individualist/owner departing further and further away from the Soviet idea of the state and viewing it (as well as the authorities) as customer service.This conclusion is confirmed by public opinion polls. While the Russian government is trying to appeal to idealistic values and proposing initiatives for moral education, only 21% of Russians care about the state of public morals, according to the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM). At the same time, 54% are more interested in issues of self-interest, such as utilities and inflation; 46% are more concerned about their quality of life; and 43%, about the situation in the health sector.
Russia is leading among the three countries in the rate of transition to a new quality, where city dwellers will be atomized consumers of state services. From the point of view of societal development, this factor has different effects, including negative ones, but it gives Russia an advantage in the context of integration. The Russian authorities have been trying to respond to the new political demand (although there is an influential group in the elites which advocates totally copying Soviet practices). If they succeed in advancing towards the creation of a modern state, their positive experience could be used to attract citizens of Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The growing sentiment among the populations of the three countries suggests ideas that could unite them – not abstract patriotic slogans (historical brotherhood, restoration of the bygone greatness, etc.) but “applied” concepts that could explain to residents of the three countries why integration is vital to them. An idea of building an efficient, citizen-oriented state could take center stage, while more elevated, ideological values would be the prerogative of national governments which would certainly remain. All attempts to develop supranational patriotism are futile, as European Union officials know all too well.
State for man, not man for state. The growth of this kind of public demand is confirmed by public opinion polls. According to them, the percentage of people supporting integration into the EU (this is exactly the idea of the European welfare state) is increasing, whereas the percentage of advocates of an alliance with Russia is decreasing. However, the European welfare state seems to be nearing exhaustion, which increases the chance for Eurasian integration. The European project is in crisis, and the further enlargement of the EU has been frozen for years, if not decades (although no one will ever say this officially). An opportunity is emerging to create a new association, which would respond to the aforementioned sentiment, with due account for local conditions – the three countries, in their present state, are hardly able to immediately adopt the best European practices, even if they really wanted to.
However, as in the case of the elites, there arises the issue of a positive example. To be able to offer “bonding values” to the populations of Belarus and Kazakhstan, which they would eagerly accept, Russia itself must be an example of an effective welfare state (as Europe was in its best years). However, no signs of that are in sight yet.
Since the second target group – relatively young people with proactive attitudes – should be given priority, the authorities need modern tools to promote the image of integration. First of all, they need to pursue a concerted youth policy and start molding the future generation of Eurasian Union residents already now. In the EU, integration ideas are promoted in societies by a European Commission department, whereas there are no such departments in the coordination bodies of the three countries’ union (I am not speaking of a classical press service). However, efforts of state (supra-state) bodies are not enough – there are no efficient mechanisms of public support (people’s or cultural diplomacy). In particular, there is little use of educational, expert, cross-cultural, youth and other levels of cross-border dialogue for advancing Eurasian integration processes.NEUTRALIZATION OF PHOBIAS
There are phobias which prevent the development of integration processes and which must be neutralized. The first one is a propensity to associate a Eurasian Union with the Soviet Union. In particular, an idea is advanced that any integration association in the post-Soviet space (under Russia’s auspices) would a priori be a step backwards. This idea is substantiated (especially in the Western press) with Vladimir Putin’s words that the break-up of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and that those who do not regret it do not have a heart. However, people citing these words deliberately fail to mention the rest of the phrase, namely, that those wishing restoration of the USSR do not have a head on their shoulders.
Opponents of the integration project argue that it is old-fashioned and archaic, because it allegedly follows the logic of reviving the empire, which is not in line with current world trends. This is partly true – the world is witnessing the erosion of composite states (the disintegration of Yugoslavia, increasing difficulties in Belgium, Spain and the UK, and the deepening crisis of the European Union). However, the EAU may well become an association of nation states aware that they have common interests in the world. If we examine the planned structure of the Union, we will see that there is nothing imperial about it. On the contrary, Russia for the first time offers truly equal cooperation, where it will have the same vote in the Eurasian Economic Commission as the other, much smaller partners. In order to appreciate the path followed by Moscow, suffice it to recall Putin’s words in 2001 when he proposed to Minsk integration with Russia in the proportion of 97:3, in accordance with the size of their economies. True equality never exists, but the current concept is, at least, the closest to it, if compared with previous Russian ideas.
There is one more myth about the Eurasian Union. That is a claim that the EAU is a purely Russian project aimed at depriving the elites of the other countries of their powers. Unfortunately, the Russian authorities themselves add fuel to this myth. For example, Kazakhstan complains, not without reason, that Russian officials do not pay due respect to its interests in forming new supranational bodies. For example, none of the integration centers is located in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. Some offices of the EurAsEC have been moved to another Kazakh city, Alma-Ata, but this is only partial compensation for the decision not to place bodies of the Eurasian Economic Commission there. The recipe for success is simple – Moscow should not fear sharing powers and decision-making infrastructure with its partners. In one such example, Kazakhstan has been instructed to select personnel for the Eurasian Economic Commission.
Finally comes the third phobia, which is widespread primarily among the populations of Russia and Kazakhstan: people fear that the formation of the EAU will increase the influx of migrants from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These fears stem from the lack of clarity about the future composition of the EAU. However, part of the elites in Russia is interested in a growing influx of migrants from Central Asia. These people support a mobilization scenario of development, including Soviet-style forced development of Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. But they realize that Soviet times (especially the Stalinist period), when territories beyond the Urals were developed by means of prison labor and the enthusiasm of Young Communist League members, are gone. There is no more enthusiasm among the Russian population. This is why migrants from Central Asia are proposed as cheap labor force (spokesmen for supporters of mobilization development insist that Russia lacks tens of millions of workers).
However, people’s attitude towards migration has changed dramatically over the last year and a half, even among the elites. The explanation is simple – quantity is transforming into quality. The number of migrants from Central Asia has increased so much that it can be seen with the naked eye, and the migrants behave more and more aggressively. The authorities do not fail to notice that. Central Asians demonstrate their growing ambitions, so there is no expecting them to be a source of obedient labor force, especially if their influx becomes really large-scale. By the way, whereas a year ago any talk of introducing a visa regime with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was actually taboo, during the next six to eight months the taboo was lifted, and candidates of the ruling party in September 2013 mayoral and gubernatorial elections in Moscow and the Moscow Region, respectively, actively exploited this subject.
The best way to overcome the fears is to clearly declare that there are no plans to enlarge the EAU beyond the southern borders of Kazakhstan. If, for political reasons, it would be incorrect to deny admission to some neighboring countries, then it may be worthwhile to introduce a mechanism of conditionality, practiced in the EU. Membership would then be conditional on meeting numerous criteria, and compliance with these criteria would be assessed on the basis of practical expediency for the association. So, negotiations with some countries may continue for years, if not decades.
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So, in addition to purely economic arguments, one needs general ideas, some ideological basis for a Eurasian Union. This cannot be universal as each target group requires its own set of ideas, possibly those can form an integral system. Individual “bonding values” are needed for the elites and the population, among which two major groups stand out in all three countries. The first group, represented mainly by the older generation and living in small towns and rural areas, lives in the past and views the EAU as an effort to revive a mini-Soviet Union.
The other group, the younger generation, lives mainly in cities and is oriented towards European consumer values. People in this group should be offered future-oriented goals, namely, building within the EAU framework a modern welfare state with efficient institutions to serve and increase human capital (education, health, security, and utilities). The latter goal requires an “exemplary” participant who has already made significant progress in this field and who can serve as “a city upon a hill” for the others. Ideally, Russia should be such an example, but at its present condition is far from desirable.