“Sit down, calculate, weigh it up, get rid of various political phobias from the past, and look into the future.” These were Vladimir Putin’s words of advice to a recalcitrant Ukraine, which continues to resist full integration into the Eurasian common zone the Russians have been trying to build and expand as an answer to the European Union and NATO. So far, Ukraine has tried to avoid full commitment, opting instead for “observer” or some other less-than-full membership status. Putin’s encouragement to “get rid of various political phobias” must sound to Ukrainians something like what Americans hear in the phrase, “Trust me.”
But leaving aside the question of the past (something far easier said than done), the nations inhabiting the former Soviet space have to ask themselves whether the benefits of joining a Russian-dominated common area will outweigh the costs in terms of lost market flexibility outside the union and the loss of foreign policy discretion. As an example, one Russian proposal would require that nations of the new union would have to give unanimous consent before permitting a foreign nation to bring in troops. One analyst has pointed out that the rule would conveniently give Russia much greater control over its surrounding territory.
Perhaps it could be suggested that calling out such Realpolitik so bluntly is crude and full of paranoia. So, let us look at the matter differently. If the new common market is so beneficial, surely the eligible nations are rushing to join. No? In reality, the core members to this point in various combinations have been Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. One might observe a distinct lack of balance in the union as constituted so far. There has been no great spontaneous call among the former satellites and republics for a Eurasian combination. Indeed, a great many have thrown their lot in with Europe. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia are already in the European Union. Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia are candidates. Ukraine has been looking carefully at what Europe has to offer and has made clear that its future lies with Europe. Indeed, Ukraine could become part of the developing DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement) being pushed by the EU. Moscow would prefer not to see such a close neighbor and strategic presence move further toward Europeanization.
On one hand, it is not hard to make out a case for a Eurasian compact on trade. The region is underdeveloped thanks to decades of pursuing a failed and eschatological vision of economics. Nations in the area could find areas of comparative advantage with each other and work out mutually beneficial trades. At the same time, they could raise tariffs against those outside the zone and gain a degree of protection for nascent industry. Certainly, a greater ease of movement for immigrant workers would be beneficial to Russia with its declining population.
The drawbacks, however, are significant. Russia would obviously dominate the proposed common area, both economically and politically. And it has shown it is willing to play rough in order to get what it wants. Vladimir Putin may make references to “phobias” as though reluctant parties are silly, manic, and frightened, but they need merely (if impolitely) refer back to matters which may be understood in such aetherial phrases as “empirical fact” and “established history.”
Thinking in less arch terms, one might also keep in mind the case for the reality that may be unfolding organically as opposed to the one which is being artificially constructed as a speedbump with which to slow the onset of the future. Without strengthening the common area, the Asian economies (most notably China) will play a larger part in the region as a trading partner. And deals struck with enterprising China may carry less of the unpleasant overtones of the commercial relationship which has existed between Mother Russia and her former children. Less of the arbitrary, but well-timed extra fees, taxes, and supply restrictions which seem to take hold when Mother is not happy. Less protected, unsentimental commerce without the baggage of the past might seem like a refreshing change of pace for the countries considering whether to stand under Russia’s tentpole.
Everyone understands the stakes involved are high, especially the Russians and Ukrainians around whom the main controversy seems to revolve. And when stakes are high, tensions build atop tensions. The government that may well have poisoned Viktor Yushchenko has issued a more heavily freighted comment to Ukraine than the one that led this piece. It came from Dmitry Medvedev: “If you participate in some international organization, you get a certain set of privileges. If you are not part of this union, you may have difficulties, accordingly. We considered it necessary to bring this to the attention of some of our observer states.” Yes, difficulties. In the back of my mind, I hear Al Capone giving a sermon about teamwork as he walks about flourishing a baseball bat.
Hunter Baker is an associate professor of political science at Union University. He is the author of The End of Secularism and the forthcoming Political Thought: A Student’s Guide.