The Eurasian Economic Union – an economic alliance of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – is expected to become effective on January 1, 2015. After the events in Ukraine it can be assumed that in the future the Eurasian Union will expand by another neighbor of Russia.
On December 24 a regular meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council was held in Moscow with the participation of the presidents of the Customs Union member states as well as the canditates to join that bloc. Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus expressed different views on the extent to which the planned union should be political.
Meanwhile, after the events in Ukraine Western experts started talking about recreation of a Soviet empire by Russia. As stated in an interview by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former National Security Advisor, if Russia subdues Ukraine, Moscow might get an impression that it is able to restore the Soviet Union under a new name – the Eurasian Union.
Since the topic “Russia restores the empire” has once again become relevant to Western experts, Izvestia decided to conduct a survey among experts on Russia, known for their critical views of our country and its current regime. The experts were asked whether Russia really “wants” to restore the Soviet empire, and “can” do it in the foreseeable future given the current state of affairs. If Russia is still able to become an empire again, the point of view on Russia’s “weakness” needs to be corrected, and if it “is not able” to become an empire, that means it does not present such a terrible “threat” to its neighbors and the whole of Europe, as argued by experts who keep talkina about our “weakness”.
As Edward Lucas, the Editor-in-Chief of The Economist [he’s the International Section Editor editor – Ed.] and probably the most ardent opponent of Russia in the Western media, told Izvstia, Russia’s desire to create the Eurasian Union is an attempt to restore the Soviet empire. Lucas argues that although Putin has all the necessary resources to reach that objective, this association will not be like the USSR.
“The USSR was a very specific empire. It was based on the one-party system and the planned economy, while the unification project by Putin is based on gas, financial subsidies, blackmail and behind the scenes political cooperation,” says Lucas.
He believes that Russia’s policy is nevertheless not acceptable for either the EU or NATO. According to the expert, the Eurasian Union will not be able to cooperate with the EU in the future by virtue of too different strategies.
“The EU is founded on the rule of law, jurisprudence, elected parliament and national elections, the Eurasian Union is based on Putin and Russia,” said Lucas.
Bruce Jackson, a U.S. political scientist, a former Soviet Union expert and the President of the Transitional Democracies Project Project, is less pessimistic about the fate of Russia as a country. He is confident that Russia could become a prosperous modern state with stable trade and political relations with its neighbors in the post-Soviet space.
“But in order for Russia to become a strong state globally, it needs to clean up its norms and standards in line with the requirements of the WTO and the European Commission. This will allow Russian companies to become international,” says Jackson. “This is the key to power and influence in the XXI century.”
Interestingly, unlike Lucas Jackson doubts that Russia has set its sights at regaining imperial influence.
“I think,” he told to Izvestia, “that returning to the system of empires and dependent dominions that existed in the XIX century, is hardly possible in today’s interdependent economy.”
Leon Aron, the Director of the Center for Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, also expressed doubt that our country in fact hopes to restore the USSR, even in a new form. According to him, Russia is currently trying to identify and establish its own “sphere of special interests” in the oldest sense of the word, that was in vogue in the XIX century. This means military, economic, and, if possible, cultural dominance in the post-Soviet space.
“I do not think,” says the analyst, “that Russia, or rather, its leaders, are ready to shed blood and spend money to the extent that would be necessary to restore the Soviet Union. This requires a special ideology, an quasi-religious belief in its mission, that does not exist today in Russia.”
However, according to Aron, our country’s desire to ensure a priority “area of interests” around its territory, would inevitably pit Russia against the European Union, and the price for maintaining the current stance would be a negative image of our country in the Western public opinion, which is significant if only because public opinion in the West largely determines policy.
Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who regularly comments on the processes in the post-Soviet space, has a more well defined opinion, and argues that Russia will not be able to recreate a Soviet-style empire. To make a point he refers to the massive corruption in Russia and a near-term prospect of economic stagnation.
“When your share in global GDP is 2.5%, you cannot have global ambitions,” summarizes the expert.
Thus, there is an elusive dissonance in the opinions of the sharpest critics of Russia. If, as Edward Lucas fears, the Russians “want” and “can” restore the old empire in some new form, it means Russia is not quite so weak and hopeless, as is commonly believed among its detractors. If it “wants”, but “cannot” become an empire again, although perhaps not in the Soviet form (this is an opinion Aslund leans towards), hence the threat coming from it, against which the entire Western world must unite, is largely fiction. And all efforts to confront our country would be useless. It applies even more to the “does not want and cannot” point of view, on which Bruce Jackson and Leon Aron converge to some extent.
Interestingly, among the Western experts’ points of view about the chances for the restoration of the Soviet Union there is also a “does not want to, but can” position, that Ariel Cohen, a leading expert in the Washington Heritage Foundation for Russian and Eurasian Studies and International energy policy, shared in an interview with Izvestia. In particular Cohen said:
“It wouldn’t be appropriate to speak about Russia’s weakness now, because weakness is a relative term. Yes, if you compare Russia with China, the relative strength of China is growing, and the relative strength of Russia is diminishing. But relative to the European Union, and to its neighbors, Russia is not getting weaker. In the long-term, of course, there are many questions. In general, expansion of the territory is a very traditional Russian way, that has been used over the last thousand years. You have to understand that with the expansion of the territory the number of clients you need to be feed increases. Besides, if for political and economic reasons, the outflow of highly educated personnel continues, then, of course, intensive development becomes highly problematic. This problem will have to be solved by the present as well as future generations. And it is impossible to solve by cutting off from the world and rejecting its basic values.
A language of a new civilizational confrontation has not yet shaped up completely, and critics of our country has not yet come to a consensus on what Russia wants and what it can hope for. While the external weakness discourse is gradually becoming less relevant, the discourse of internal weakness is still relevant – in this regard the Western experts focus on adverse economic conditions, economic slowdown, corruption, etc.
Commenting on the talk about Russia’s desire to ” restore the Soviet empire,” so much in vogue among Western experts, Alexei Pushkov, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the State Duma said in an interview with Izvestia:
“Such statements are part of a geopolitical struggle. See how Kiev was flooded with EU representatives. Russian representatives are not there, we do not want to influence the choice of Ukraine. Therefore, these charges are coming from Europe and the United States trying to incorporate Kiev into the orbit of their interests. Russia cannot and should not try to recreate the Soviet Union. The CIS countries have their own national elites who embraced the idea of sovereignty of their countries, and want to act independently. Trying to force them to do something against their will is counterproductive. And recreating a huge country based on the principles of centralization will also result in a deadlock. We have to offer each other something beneficial. Creating a common space of economic exchanges with duty-free flow of goods and investment, where people could move freely to get the jobs they want. The future of the Customs Union is not an imitation of the USSR, but a new kind of interaction, the one that does not involve subordination.”