by Nikita Taranko Acosta – Geneva
Almost immediately after the collapse of the USSR, first integration projects in the post-Soviet space were envisioned and began to emerge during the second half of the 1990s when Russian foreign policy started to shift towards the traditional focus of its sphere of influence in the “near abroad” rather than continuing to open itself to the Western Euro-Atlantic bloc as was originally intended by Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation. This trend of favouring the “near abroad” vector at the expense of the so-called “Westernisers”, initially dominating the Kremlin during the 1991-1996 with Andrey Kozyrev at the head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was gradually becoming a coherent policy after several events took place in the former Soviet space and the Warsaw Pact (as well as its former sphere of influence) undermining Russia’s national interests, namely the NATO’s expansion plan to the Eastern Europe (as well as the already foreseeable EU’s expansion) and the Euroatlantic Organisation’s 1995 military intervention in Yugoslavia, considered illegal from the point of view of the international law. Following these developments, Russia began a long process of re-evaluating and re-defining its relations both with the West and its “near abroad”, moving towards a more balanced approach under Yevgeny Primakov, a far more conservative and Russia-centred Minister of Foreign Affairs when compared to its predecessor. Nevertheless, integration policy became an absolute priority only after the second mandate of the presidency of Vladimir Putin. It was at that moment that Russian foreign policy experienced another U-turn, abandoning the balancing role between the West and Russia’s traditional interests in favour of the Eurasian choice and, therefore, inevitably distancing itself (politically) from the West. In this setting, fostered significantly by Vladimir Putin himself, Russia would consolidate its new role of bringing together the broken pieces of the USSR allowing Russia to return to the international stage and make its own way in what it believed to be a multipolar world. The purpose of this paper is, therefore, to explore some of the intricacies, such as the level of success, the geopolitics and the legal issues involving the integration projects in the former Soviet Union. We will analyse these complexities through the prism of the two most ambitious projects: the Russian and Belarusian Union State and the Eurasian Economic Union (hereafter the EAEU). Although Russia is believed to be the driving force in both cases today, we suggest delving into the other side’s perspectives as well. Additionally, we propose to tackle this topic from various angles going from the historical and social view to the political, legal and economic aspects, without forgetting to place it in the current context where both the EU and China may be regarded as direct competitors to the integration projects in question, making them sort of a threat for the Russian quest of regional hegemony.
It is true that references to regional (re-) integration processes in the former Soviet space have become more common over the last years in the media, partly due to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, which aggravated the already tense relations between Russia and the West and sparked a new wave of fear of another potential aggression. On the other hand, this somewhat overwhelming fear could be also explained by the emergence of differing competing blocs all over the world, such as the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) globally or the modest Visegrád Group locally (often regarded by the EU elites as a dangerous political alliance within the EU), In the case of the Russian-Belarusian Union State, the headlines of many newspapers, magazines and even scientific journals1 evocate the possibility of Belarus joining Russia2 into a Federal State or even Russia “swallowing” Belarus3, assuming that the smaller neighbour would be unable to continue to exist by itself in the near future and that Russian president could not remain in power otherwise (without becoming the president of the Union State) after 2024. In the case of the EAEU, many observers highlight its potential claiming that, despite its yet limited success, it should not be underestimated as the EAEU remains the most significant breakthrough in Russia’s attempts to form a powerful trading (and to some extent political) alliance that is partially able to offer an alternative to the EU or China-driven alliances in the region4. Nevertheless, put these references to recent developments in Russian-Belarusian relations and Russia’s pursuit of regional hegemony aside, we should recall that integration projects are not new. The first ones date to the 1990s already. To take an example, the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) was the first regional interstate structure that was created immediately after the break-up of the USSR in 1991. It can be of course considered a rather amorphous and vague organisation for its limited scope of activity or even purpose, without mentioning the fact that only 11 out of the 15 former Soviet Republics decided to sign and ratify the CIS agreement. While the Baltic States and Georgia (after the 2008 conflict) refused to join the club, Ukraine adopted a rather passive role, becoming almost inexistent after the 2014 events before formally exiting the Commonwealth in 20185. Nonetheless, this still shows some reluctance to disintegrate completely and advocates for a sense of pragmatism among the majority of the former republics of the Soviet Union.
In order to understand the causes and the evolution of the initial integration projects in the first place, and especially when it comes to the Russian and Belarusian rapprochement, one ought to consider the state of affairs in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the evolution of the foreign policy in both countries. Due to the sudden dismemberment of the USSR, social unrest and political turmoil throughout the entire post-Soviet space were flagrant. It must not be forgotten that one of the reasons of the Soviet Union’s demise was the rise of nationalism6 among the main republics: in the Baltic States, Ukraine, Belarus and in Russia in particular. It was therefore difficult to imagine any post-Soviet State promote a re-integration process. Not even Russia, which used to be the core of the USSR, desired such a scenario precisely because of the unwillingness to give up the newly acquired (or regained) sovereignty and cede competences to a supranational structure fearing it would have to “feed” again the laggards that would damage Russia’s own prosperity and national interests. This was the common rhetoric used by Boris Yeltsin, the person who would challenge Gorbachev himself in many ways during the last years of the USSR and one of the figures who would bring down the Soviet Union together with his two counterparts from Ukraine and Belarus. The first president of Russia would then foster Russia’s modernisation and privatisation, implementing much of the advice from the Western partners in order to overcome a profound economic crisis and an acute social upheaval. This was done at such a great cost for the population that this transition period is commonly known today as the “shock therapy”. By accepting advice from the West and trying to align Russia’s foreign policy with the Euro Atlantic bloc, Yeltsin’s team was predominantly composed of Westernisers who largely ignored the prospects of potential integration projects within the former Soviet Republics. In the meantime, the other newly-born republics feared the yet too-recent Soviet heritage and generally shared the unwillingness to submit to a supranational body or even to an interstate structure, for they knew that it would be inevitably controlled mostly by its core, i.e. Russia. Their economies and societies were also in agony as a result of heavy losses caused by the break-up of the USSR. Many of these countries were unable to become self-sufficient needing subsidies for their industries and access to the internal market which was no longer guaranteed. But in the context of such an ordeal as well as general refusal or mistrust of re-creating an alliance within the former Soviet republics, what drove eventually Russia and Belarus close enough to sign such an advance integration treaty in 1999 already and how did the Eurasian project follow?
Belarus and Russia needing each other
Despite all the above-mentioned issues and reluctances, there are indeed several reasons for Belarus and Russia wanting to cooperate closely, to what extent remains yet an unanswered question until today, though. In Russia, after the constitutional crisis that ended in firing on the Russian parliament in October 19937, the political situation became relatively stable at the end of the year as the new constitution was approved by the Duma. Nevertheless, the risk of a further internal disintegration was real, putting Russia to test in 1996 when the First Chechen War broke up. That is why Russia was able to conceive the Union of two Slavic States in such a destabilising environment as a stabilising factor enabling Russia to strengthen its positions in the CIS and the “near abroad”8. Soon after Russia’s first disenchantments with the West by 1995, its foreign policy began to shift to its immediate surrounding with the replacement of the former liberal Foreign Minister Kozyrev by a more traditional apparatchik Primakov. A special resolution was passed by the Duma in the same year stating that “the idea of the unification of Slavic states conforms to the basic interests and expectations of the Russian and Belarusian ‘nations’, contributes to the improvement of their welfare, promotes the development of the Slavic culture, helps in overcoming the manifestations of crisis in the societal development encountered by both countries, and increases the international standing of Russia and Belarus”.9
As for Belarus, following the unprecedented economic and systemic crisis, a populist and a Soviet-minded kolkhoz leader, Alexander Lukashenko, was pushed into power by democratically winning the elections in the second round with over 80% in 199410. Lukashenko made a lot of promises to the ordinary Belarusians regarding stability, order, jobs, fighting corruption, social guarantees and the strong authority that would take care of the newly-born State. Because of this agenda, Belarus opted eventually for a different transition model than Russia and the other CIS countries, relying heavily on the State-controlled enterprises and social policies together with the very limited privatisation. Nonetheless, this was only possible due to the Russian support with raw materials and other subsidies in the form of credits or “presents” (usually in exchange for concessions). Because of this Belarusian extreme dependence on Russia since the very beginning, (which would only increase over time in the first decade), it was bound to closely cooperate with Russia accepting the supremacy of the “big brother”. It seems relevant to stress that this occurred not only because of the economic dependency and tight links Belarus shared with Russia in almost all spheres, but also as the result of a weak sense of national identity (partially due to Lukashenko’s initial de-nationalisation policies), which continues to be the case today to some extent and makes Belarus very different from Ukraine, for instance11. In addition, the beliefs of the Belarusian leader and his personal involvement in the integration project with Russia were highly significant at the inception of the process as it is frequently suggested that Lukashenko aspired for Kremlin when signing the union agreement with Russia, truly believing that he could succeed Yeltsin12.
Slow but steady: emergence of the Union State
Although the Union State’s enacting document was signed in 1999, it has a set of precedents in the previous years which help us understand the way both countries eventually got to that stage.
Following the so-called Belovezh agreements that founded the CIS (signed between Boris Yeltsin, Stanislav Shushkevich and Leonid Kravchuk) in 1991, the Treaty on Friendship, Good neighbourhood and cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus was signed in 1995. The same year a referendum on people’s support of Lukashenko seeking economic integration with Russia was held in Belarus and the official result was very straightforward with 83’3% of approval rate (against 12’5%)13. The following year, the Commonwealth of Russia and Belarus was founded, becoming already a more consolidated interstate structure in comparison to the blurred CIS. Moreover, this structure was transformed into a Union of Belarus and Russia in 1997, which added a new impulse to the integration process of the two States. The Union gathered some marks of a confederation, while its preamble declared that “the parties should act in accordance with their constitutions and the norms and principles of international law”. However, in spite of all these documents implying an advance stage of integration, almost none of the agreements signed were implemented as there was still no common legal base of the Union by that time. A year after, all integration process was halted as a huge financial crisis took place in Russia and the Belarusian economy — which was strongly linked to Russia — suffered a massive blow (the Belarusian rouble was devalued tenfold) 14.
In order to overcome these struggles and foster political and economic relations further, the Declaration Regarding the Further Unification of Russia and Belarus, as well as a treaty on equal rights of citizens and an agreement on the creation of equal opportunities for economic subjects was signed on the 25th of December in 1998. This breakthrough allowed both countries to continue with the integration agenda and establish the Union State between Russia and Belarus which, on the personal initiative of the president of Belarus, was finally enacted on the 8th of December 1999 in Kremlin. This founding document appears crucial as it sets up a legal basis for integration and we may also note that the current relations between Belarus and Russia are still defined by the provisions of this treaty.
Purpose of the Union State
Although still mainly on paper, except for some specific areas where great success was achieved, such as regional military alignment, coordinated air defence and joint military manoeuvres, talks about accelerating the integration process and continuing to build and improve the Union State have resumed in recent years. it was also recalled by the Deputy State Secretary of the Belarus-Russia Union State Vladimir Amarin earlier this year at the Day of the Unity celebration commemorating its 20th anniversary that the project has not lost its relevance : “This Union is considered as the best example of integration in the post-Soviet space as it was the first integration association, which in many ways set an example for the further development of integration formations in the post-Soviet space”15 [CSTO, GUAM, EEU, Baltic Assembly, CISFTA and others].
When it comes to the overall goal of the Union State, political and economic integration based on common interests of Belarus and Russia is what politicians and legal documents frequently refer to. However, because of the unending discussions and passions that arise from this topic, we tend to believe that the project may be also intended as a long-term unification process of both peoples, which seems to be the controversial point that we are going to tackle later. On the other hand, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, the agreement on the Union State is justified by the “Belarusian and Russian geographical location, close historic and cultural links as well as economic ties and co-operation between Belarusian and Russian businesses”. It is also explained that some of the more specific goals are to ensure peaceful and democratic development, to establish a single economic and customs area and a proper legal framework, to foster sustainable development, pursue the agreed foreign, defence and social policies and to ensure security and fight against crime, while maintaining the utmost priority of social and economic matters.16
Legal framework: Main provisions
One cannot analyse the complexities and the numerous issues of the Union State without going through the legal framework, i.e. examining the main provisions of the two most important documents: The Union State Treaty of 1999 and the Draft Constitutional Act of 2003.
After having read the 71 articles of the Union State Treaty17 we may certainly confirm that the document is quite ambitious as it envisages the creation of a very sophisticated body. The treaty implies an extremely high level of integration of the participating States, which — judging by the document — should not be inferior to that of the EU, and possibly even greater. This said, let us underline the three most compelling articles that disclose the nature of the founding treaty:
Article 1: The Union State is an integration project which represents a new stage in the process of the unification of the peoples of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus into a single democratic State ruled by law.
Article 3: The Union State shall be based on the principles of sovereign equality of the participating States, voluntariness and conscientious fulfilment by them of their mutual obligations.
Article 4: For the attainment of the purposes of the Union State, a supreme State Council, a Parliament, a Council of Ministers, a Court and a Board of Audit of the Union State shall be established. State power in the participating States shall be exercised by the organs of State established by them in accordance with their constitution.
Before jumping into the issues that arise from these and other provisions, let us also reveal the most representative articles of the Draft Constitutional Act of 2003, which remains the most acclaimed version so far and is the one to be found on the official website of the Permanent Committee of the Union State18:
Article 1: The Union State is a democratic, social, secular (…) State and it has sovereignty in the amount of powers voluntarily transferred to it by the subjects of the Union State (…).
Article 2: (…) With regard to the authority voluntarily transferred to the Union State, the subjects of the Union State shall preserve their sovereign rights, independence, territorial integrity, and international legal personality, independently decide on issues of their domestic order, have their own constitutions, state flags, state coats of arms and other attributes of statehood.
Article 5: The Constitutional Act is a normative legal act of the highest legal force throughout the territory of the Union State and is applied directly to all citizens of the Union State and other persons in the territory of the Union State.
Article 6: The subjects of the Union State retain their membership in the United Nations and other international organisations. If an international treaty of the Union State establishes other rules than those provided for by the law of the Union State, then the rules of the international treaty shall apply.
Legal and political issues of the Union State
We believe that the first major flaw resulting from the legal documents in both cases is the absence of any clear statement with regard to the structure of the Union State (Federation, Confederation or the EU-based model) as well as the issue of sovereignty, which is only partially addressed in some of the articles and remains yet a stumbling block. So, what stays quite unclear in, say, the article 2 of the Draft Constitutional Act is not so much the national sovereignty itself, but the relation between this sovereignty and the voluntary transfer of certain authority to the government bodies of the Union State. What does this “voluntary transfer” actually mean? Perhaps a more precise explanation should be added in the draft for the sake of avoiding this kind of premature confusion. Straight to the next related point, the name “Union State” appears to be highly misleading as well, for one might assume that we are dealing with a merger, absorption or even foundation of a new unified State when in reality this is obviously not the case. We can advocate for this view not only because the Union State has never taken shape in that form, but also because of the language used in the legal texts. This is especially perceived in the choice of words such as “sovereign equality of the participating States” in the article 3 of the Union State Treaty, “the subjects of the Union State shall preserve the sovereign rights, independence, territorial integrity, international legal personality, their own constitutions (…) and other attributes of statehood” in the article 2 of the Draft Constitutional Act or “retain their membership in the United Nations and other international organisations” in the article 6 of the same document. But despite these clear indications, there is also evidence of the opposite view in the same documents, such as the continuous repetition of the word “subjects”, “citizens of the Union State” or the first sentence of the article 1 of the Treaty where it is stated that the integration project in question pursues the unification of the peoples of Russia and Belarus under a single State19. This legal vacuum quickly translates into the differing interpretations that the participating States assume, transcending the legal discussion and becoming an extremely delicate subject of political debate.
On the one hand, Russia views the Union State as an integral entity that has the attributes of a federal state. That is why it seeks that the Constitutional Act is defined as a normative legal act of the Union State (which would make it part of the domestic law). Belarus, on the other hand, endeavours the Constitutional Act to be regarded as an international treaty between Russia and Belarus, which implies that it prefers to conceive the Union State as a modern confederation where independent and sovereign States are joined into some sort of “Union”, but remain autonomous enough to be considered independent from each other20. These opposing views are not surprising at all considering what lies on the table as well as the political context and the personal rivalry of both presidents, which is another matter for discussion. This crucial point made, a federal model would seem to be a much more advantageous option for Russia politically speaking, as it would allow it to control Belarus. In addition, it is suggested to be a more suitable choice from the security perspective enabling Russia to feel safer following the addition of a significant buffer zone against NATO (like during the Soviet period when it was used to buy some time against the Nazi Germany). Finally, there would be also not even nominal need for Putin to deal with Lukashenko on equal terms, which would seem probably right for Russia in view of its proportional superiority in all areas. Notwithstanding, the economic cost for such a scenario would be considerable to say the least, for the task of subsidising the 10-million-strong region during the assimilation period would have to completely fall on Russia21. When it comes to Belarus, this model of integration appears to be unacceptable, however, as it would compel the country to renounce the national sovereignty and, therefore, deprive itself from a significant amount of power (if not from all of it), which would cause an irreparable damage to President Lukashenko specifically. As for the polls, the majority of Belarusians seem also not so keen on the idea of becoming part of the Russian Federation, which makes sense if one considers that the country has been independent for almost three decades now and a whole new generation has been raised. One could argue that the country’s collective identity and a sense of national belonging has evolved enough to refrain from what could have been accomplished otherwise two decades ago22. Although the task of finding credible and independent polls conducted in Belarus on that matter is extremely difficult and the figures may vary significantly from year to year, it is possible to discern the split of public opinion. During the last survey performed by the Independent Institute of Social, Economic and Political Studies (NISEPI) in 2016, it was found that about 27-30% of respondents were in favour of Belarus joining Russia, while about 23%-27% would like to join the EU. However, when the question involved choosing between Russia or the EU, a significantly higher number of 45-50% (against 34%) would opt for Russia23. According to a different poll organised the same year by the Analytical Institute of Belarus in Warsaw (BAW), the number of Belarusians wanting to see their country in a Union with Russia was quite high (about 65%), while almost 20% would still prefer to join the EU, the rest being undecided or refused to answer. Nevertheless, only a minority of Belarusians believes they should be completely absorbed by Russia (about 2%) or form together a new country (13%). The vast majority (73%) only supports the current level of integration with Russia, which resembles to a fuzzy form of unachieved confederation: open borders, common customs and a visa-free regime amongst others, but not a common State, common borders, common citizenship nor common currency24. Although these numbers have fluctuated a lot, especially since 2014, which was the lowest point in Belarusian support for a union with Russia (some estimate it to be as low as 10%25), the generally high numbers of pro-Russian sentiments may be partially explained by the economic difficulties in Belarus and its inevitable dependence on Russia, as well as the internal calamities in the EU. This is what the head of BAW believes26, stating that the EU’s long-lasting internal crises (refugee crisis, UK withdrawal, eurozone issues, etc.) added to the lack of a clear signal from Brussels when it comes to its desire to see Belarus as a member of the EU one day, without forgetting the widespread Russian media in the country, contributes overall to a deteriorated impression of the EU and a better image of Russia. Finally, it seems also interesting to note that when a wider choice is given to Belarus, not just the EU-driven integration vs Russia-fostered Union, quite a significant number of Belarusians (up to 60%27) opt immediately for the neutral path28, which again makes sense considering the dramatic experience of the previous centuries (being always governed by an external superpower, just like in the case of Poland or Ukraine). Furthermore, according to the latest 2019 poll of the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM), most Russians tend to favour good neighbourly relations with Belarus (48%) or an integration on equal basis (18%) rather than Belarus joining Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation (17%)29. As for the EU-integration model which Russia could potentially accept, Lukashenko seems also unsatisfied as, in his view, that would mean a step back. “We have accumulated more experience that the EU in creating a Union State because we had already lived in a tighter collective union before” [the Soviet Union]. This kind of statements may seem quite paradoxical as Belarusian president constantly advocates on all occasions for the principles of sovereignty of the parties, which indicates that he clearly stands for the confederative model, not willing to move on any further. Lukashenko recently declared again on the 14th of December 2018 that “sovereignty is sacred” for Belarus and “if someone wants to break Belarus into regions and force us to become a subject of Russia, that will never happen”. “I understand the hints like ‘Ok, take our oil but for that destroy your statehood and become part of Russia’… It is useless to blackmail Belarus, to bend it, to choke us”, he said30. At the same time, the person commonly known as “Europe’s last dictator” does not hesitate to affirm that “If we don’t survive these years – if we fail – it means we will have to become part of some other State, or they will simply wipe their feet on us. God forbid they unleash another war, like in Ukraine”31. On another occasion this year, Lukashenko reiterated that Belarus and Russia can unite at any moment: “If the citizens of Belarus and Russia are ready and want to take the step to live together, this will happen sooner or later”! Meanwhile, Putin declared that “the Union between Belarus and Russia has become a geopolitical reality and an inevitable process”, adding that no country is completely independent in the world. He also made reference to the recent ceding of competences to the supranational bodies of the EAEU as another example of a necessary “sacrifice” in order to gain some competitive advantages.32
An additional issue emerging from the legal documents is the distribution of competences in the Union State. The Draft Constitutional Act mentions the “exclusive” and “shared” competences of the Union State. Despite this, it is not clear which of those would be exclusive to the Union State only and which ones would have to be shared with its “subjects”. It is explained, for example, that the Union State Supreme Council shall have the right to make international treaties within the bounds of its “exclusive” competency, but it is later added that the presidents of the member states shall have the veto right with regard to the Union State’s government bodies. This means that an exclusive competence, even that of the highest possible authority, which is currently the Supreme Council, could be overwritten by a member state if it did not like the decision adopted. Of course, the major difficulty to correctly determine the competences remains the likely lack of agreement on them by both parties, which delays the adoption of the Constitution even further, which in turn causes a greater number of obstacles in the integration process. On the other hand, it is equally unclear whether the national law may prevail over the State Union law because the Constitution of the subject States might collide with the Constitutional Act of the Union, assuming it would be finally adopted. To avoid this ambiguity, we believe that the matter would have to be addressed directly in the Constitutional Act, whereas the corresponding Constitutions of Russia and Belarus would then have to be amended accordingly. It is, nonetheless, clear both in the Treaty and the Draft Constitutional Act that the international law remains superior over the domestic law of the Union State.
A further relevant issue to be highlighted is the separation of powers and the Union State bodies. The Draft Constitutional Act, just like the 1999 Treaty, provides that the institutional system of the Union State consist of the following bodies: the Supreme State Council (Высший Государственный Совет), the Parliament of the Union State (Парламент Союзного государства) — composed of two chambers: the House of the Union (Палата Союза) and the House of Representatives (Палата Представителей) —, the Council of Ministers (Совет Министров), the Court of the Union State (Суд Союзного государства), and the House of Audit (Счётная палата). 33 Although the Parliament of the Union State would be elected in direct elections, it would remain extremely dependent on the presidents of Belarus and Russia who, in mutual co-ordination, would be entitled to approve or reject each and every law passed by the Parliament. This is not to mention that the parliamentary body was only envisaged in the treaties, but never set up (just like the House of Audit or the Emission Centre), largely because of Belarus’s unwillingness to fully implement the 1999 Treaty, which also explains why Russia is so furious about it. In this regard, we can recall what was commonly qualified as an ultimatum to Belarus when the Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev approached the integration topic at the meeting of the Belarus-Russia Council of Ministers in December 2018 listing the required fulfilment of the necessary obligations for the Union State to continue developing:: “I want to emphasize that Russia is ready to continue to move along the path of building the Union State, including the creation of a common Emission Centre, a single Customs Service, unified Courts, Counter Chambers, a single tax policy, pricing policy and tariff formation in the manner prescribed by the agreement on the creation of the Union State of December 8, 1999”34. Lukashenko was obviously unhappy with the statement, considering it a blackmail. But coming back to the bodies of the Union State, the Chapter VI of the draft Constitutional Act clearly states that the “government bodies of the Union State shall pass laws, decrees, decisions, directives and resolutions”, albeit the “dictatorship” of the Supreme State Council under the leadership of presidents. We can conclude thus by reiterating that in the absence of a functional democratic parliament and a system of check and balances limiting the power of the executive branch, any hope for real separation of powers is delusional.
The final, and the most resonating, major issue worth tackling is the institute of the presidency of the Union State. The possible institution of the Union State’s presidency continues to raise a lot of discussion both in Russia and Belarus. These talks and speculations must be assessed in earnest as many observers regard this potential post as the next step in Putin’s political career after the end of his fourth term (which will expire in 2024) as the president of the Russian Federation35. Belarusian leadership objects to such a scenario for obvious reasons, trying to delay the formation of this body alluding to the fact that the post is currently not even provided in the Draft Constitutional Act. Even so, the speculation on whether Putin might convince or pressure Lukashenko to accept such an amendment is widely circulating in the media in both countries. In a recent interview given to Foreign Policy, Andrei Sannikov, the former opposition leader and one of the leading candidates at the 2010 elections in Belarus, explained that Lukashenko will not have a choice and will be forced for his own foolishness in the previous decades to accept sooner or later some kind of compromise before moving on with the Union State’s agenda even “at the cost of losing ultimate control”36. As some analysts suggest, one possibility for Lukashenko could be becoming the vice-president of the Union State or a Prime-minister replacing Medvedev, although this option is believed to be insufficient for the proud “father of the nation” who does not feel comfortable sharing power with anyone but himself37. It is quite reasonable to assert that Lukashenko would enjoy more being the supreme leader of an average-sized European country rather than stepping aside as a second man in command, even of a huge Federation where his power would be greatly diminished if not removed completely. We believe that his vision could possibly alter if a weaker leader were to occupy Kremlin one day as it would give the former a credible incentive to compete for the leading position in the Union State and aspire to defeat his Russian counterpart by becoming the president of the Union State himself. Whatever the case, none of the variables, including the possibility of a collective presidency or other speculations on the matter, should be ruled out.
Relevance and prospects of the Union State
Having considered the main legal and political issues, it appears only natural to ask oneself whether the Russian-Belarusian integration project is still relevant nowadays and, depending on the answer, what would be then its drawbacks or prospects. Due to the impossibility of a straightforward short reply, the German “jein” answer appears to be the most appropriate. Of course, this would depend more on the personal will of the Russian and Belarusian leadership and elites rather than on public support or foreign pressure, but there are other factors that must be accounted for as well.
Firstly, relations between Russia and Belarus have become significantly more difficult since Putin came into power and we can observe a clear deterioration and tensions escalating namely since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. Although the traditional gas and oil supplies’ disputes between the two States have always existed and used to skyrocket every year by the New Year time before a last-minute agreement was reached, the disagreements in recent years not only grew in number, but they also concern many more areas38. To name a few examples: the issue of the Russian military base in Belarus, which Lukashenko continues to fiercely reject, questioning altogether the increasing number of Russian troops in Belarus, although mainly for joint exercises that are held every two years and are aimed at strengthening defence power against a potential attack on the Western front; the so-called recent Russian oil tax manoeuvre (forcing Belarus to pay a market price instead of the subsidized one) which will result in billions of dollars losses for Belarus in the coming years; the issue of the first and very controversial nuclear power plant in Belarus, financed mainly by Russia and which benefits are currently all but certain for the Belarusian economy, not to mention the environmental concerns, especially in the aftermath of Chernobyl; the issue of the Russian loans that had been systematically granted to Belarus during the previous decades and are now been reduced or questioned, alternatively more conditions for their procurement are being put forward by Russian authorities (indirect pressure and ultimatum to give up some sovereignty); Russia-Belarus new level of the so-called “milk wars” following the introduction of the new tariffs or even embargos by Russia, which does not hesitate to impose severe controls on imports of Belarusian dairy products knowing that they mostly go to Russia and make up an important part of Belarusian income (together with the export of other specific goods, such as tractors, as well as the oil and gas transit). The latter are largely done to “punish” Belarus for what Russia sees as “gone-too-far unilateralism” that damages Russia’s interests39. To take an example, Belarus refuses to completely align with Russia’s foreign policy on certain subjects: it has introduced, unlike Russia, a visa-free regime for many countries in 2018, including the Western States and China; it does not recognise Crimea as Russian (playing quite successfully the “neutrality” card since the 2014 crisis which helps in improving relations with the West), nor does it recognise the sovereignty of Abkhazia or South Ossetia; it is always bargaining between the West and the East inviting NATO and EU leaders from time to time, mainly to show off and get some loans; it also participates in the Eastern Partnership Programme of the EU since its inception in 2009, which is mainly aimed against Russia40. Additionally, Belarusian authorities seem to have toughened its stance and drawn a red line on everything they consider to be too pro-Russian: in 2017 some commentators expressing excessively pro-Russian views were arrested and some Russian media were censored for the first time, a pro-Russian picket was banned on the celebration of the Unity Day and earlier this year Mikhail Babich, the Russian ambassador to Belarus, was accused by the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs of manufacturing artificial figures in his interviews and of being unable to distinguish an independent State from a Russian federal district, without forgetting the most recent detention by the Belarusian KGB of Andrey Vtyurin, a high-level official and Lukashenko’s former security chief and one of his closest persons in the inner circle, allegedly due to his links with the Russian FSB as well as mild corruption41.
Secondly, there undoubtedly exists personal rivalry between Putin and Lukashenko, which complicates the prospects of a deeper integration process. Both individuals are trying to resurrect the idea of the common Slavic people in their specific ways and they have both lamented the collapse of the USSR for a reason. Both leaders of a very similar age are generally identified as quite populist and authoritarian: the two of them enjoy being seen as the strongmen of the Russian-speaking world and like being featured in the media, they are also unwilling to share power and believe to have no equals in their respective States. Nevertheless, Lukashenko and Putin, although both products of the Soviet pedigree, come from a very different background (a former director of a state pig farm and a former KGB agent) and they also face quite dissimilar challenges from the inside and abroad42. Their (in)ability to compromise will largely determine whether the Union State may pursue the deepening and integration agenda.
Thirdly, the bare fact that the integration project has been put on halt for decades is self-revealing. After more than 20 years of discussion, there has been no agreement yet on the final version of the Draft Constitutional Act, or even on the need of such a document at all, which is nonetheless envisaged since the Treaty of the Union State was signed. We have seen that the same applies to some of the bodies and provisions of the Union State that, although initially planned, were never implemented. This also includes the unending debate about the long-awaited introduction of the common currency on which the two parties cannot agree for years (the Russian side proposes the Russian ruble, while the Belarusian side advocates for another currency that would have to be under the direct control of the supranational bodies of the Union State and not under Moscow’s supervision).
Nevertheless, to say that the Union State is a failure or that it is completely irrelevant would be more than misleading. Despite its flagrant flaws and numerous practical limitations that we have touched upon, the project has never died. On the contrary, in spite of its certainly limited success, as for the potential of the Union State itself, we can only reaffirm that it continues to be rather high as long as both Russia and Belarus (or their corresponding leaders) are interested in at least maintaining, if not increasing, the current level of integration. The already strong cooperation that exists in some areas, together with the numerous combined cultural and economic projects, would have never been possible to that extent without the Treaty of the Union State and a clear shared will of both countries to assume the task of being the integration projects’ forerunners in the post-Soviet space. This said, in addition to the enhanced military and security co-operation that we had mentioned earlier, many other examples may prove this point: trade and economic cooperation that yearly produces an increase in the turnout between Belarus and Russia, equality when it comes to the majority of social rights: employment, choice of residence, education, healthcare and social protection that apply equally to the citizens of Belarus and Russia, which allows them to enjoy these benefits without having to undergo any additional procedures as they move from one country to another. Finally, events such as the famous Slavic Bazar (musical festival celebrated yearly in Vitebsk) that are meant to underline the Eastern Slavic friendship or the yearly Forum of Regions which brings together Russian and Belarusian businesses are promulgated under the banner of the Union State “for the benefit of the fraternal peoples of the two countries”43.
Lastly, it seems interesting to note that although the term “supranational” is frequently used in academic literature to describe integration projects, particularly when referring to national bodies that ought to cede competences to the supranational ones, the Union State Treaty itself does not contain, surprisingly, any mention of such terminology at all. From this perspective, one could perhaps argue that strengthening the Union State does not hence require any party to give up their sovereignty to some kind of abstract supranational level. The integration process could be then regarded rather as enhancing policy coordination and cooperation in all relevant fields between the two States, while actively promoting the interests of Belarus and Russia on the international stage.
The Eurasian Economic Union from the prism of the economic theory
Having tackled the legal and political issues of the Union State, let us now proceed with what is commonly considered as the most ambitious and advanced integration project in the entire post-Soviet space: The Eurasian Economic Union.
We may often hear today that economic unions and trading blocs are powerful tools to transform societies and obtain mutual benefits, which is probably the reason there currently exists such a great number of Free-Trade-Agreements/Areas and other kind of regional economic blocs around the world (from MERCOSUR in Latin America to the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Persian Gulf). Economically speaking, the establishment of the EAEU can be seen as an initiative to foster economic growth and prosperity in the region. According to the international economic theory, “integration offers attractive benefits such as an enlarged and secure market, elimination of tariffs and non-tariff barriers”44. In addition, it is believed that as an economic bloc gets bigger (take the case of the EU and the former EEC), the cost to the countries outside this area tends to increase, which produces a domino effect when it comes to the new members willing to join the club45. Finally, as Lispey and Smith suggest, this process may, theoretically, lead to an ever-increasing number of actors willing to be part of the trading bloc in question triggering a universal free-trade-association as long as it is politically sustainable46. However, the prospect of creating, say, a Common Economic Space from Lisbon to Vladivostok47 is not entirely knew. The idea of a common “European house” has actually existed since the 1960s already when Charles de Gaulle, disappointed by the French demise both globally and on the European level while, not without reason, fearing the rise of rival powers such as the US and the FRG, promoted the concept for the first time48. In his view, that “common European house” would have to include the Soviet Union as well. This idea seemed quite utopic at that time, but it was indeed considered in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR when hopes of EU-Russia rapprochement were tangible. In this regard, it may be even argued that the previously examined Union State Treaty was written under the influence of the ideas of this « Common European House », which involved the building of a common market on a transcontinental scale, merging the EU markets with the economies of the former Soviet Republics. Nevertheless, due to the changing geopolitical situation and the systematic deterioration of Russian-Western relations, this project could not take shape in the way economists had envisaged it. But this does not mean, however, that Russia has given up completely on the attractiveness of the EU’s internal market (nor the other way round). It just seems that both sides are behaving in a more self-centred, perhaps politically (but not economically) pragmatic way. As some analysts put it, Russia’s plan and immediate focus have certainly changed as it now prioritises the single market of the EAEU together with the markets of Central Asia and China over the interregional agreements, such as the EU-EAEU relations49. From this angle, we may assert that Russia has deployed a new tactic since the formation of the EAEU, while maintaining the same strategy and increasing its ambition, the overall goal being now an Economic Space from Lisbon to Beijing or perhaps an even broader trading bloc including the ASEAN States. This recent concept of the Great Eurasian Space was coined by the Russian President at the International Forum “Belt and Road Initiative” that was held in Beijing in 201750.
Historical context and precedents
Just as the Russian-Belarusian integration project, although the EAEU was established quite recently in its current shape, it had been already conceived in its earlier forms since the 1990s, namely since 1994 as Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former president of Kazakhstan, had mentioned the importance of strengthening the CIS markets in order to profit from the recovering and growing economies of Eurasia during his speech at the Moscow State University: “When there is a storm of scientific and technological progress, and a fierce struggle for markets, one can only survive in uniting” 51. However, it is also Nazarbayev who frequently recalls that the project of Eurasian regional integration shall only involve the economic and security fields, not the political aspects, daring to even criticise Russia for “politicising the economic integration” by inserting geopolitical imperatives and applying pressure on certain States to follow Russia’s agenda52. Strictly speaking, this nuance appears to be the main difference between the EAEU and the Union State of Belarus and Russia, for they are both undeniably driven by Russia, but only the latter does involve a significant degree of political union. This said, and before delving into the legal and political intricacies of the EAEU, let us explore the evolution of the Eurasian project. We believe it can be divided in four stages, the latest one comprising the most sophisticated level of economic integration.
Stages of the Eurasian integration project
The emergence of the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC). Just a year after Nursultan Nazarbayev’s speech, the first attempt at creating a free trade zone was made in 1995 when the majority of the former Soviet Republics (except for the Baltics States, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan) signed the FTA agreement. Although it proved to be rather unsuccessful mainly because of Russia’s hesitations53, it became already clear by that time that the core of the integration would be formed by the Minsk-Moscow-Nursultan (former Astana) triangle, which has a lot to do with the leaders of these countries whom we are going to briefly address at a later point54. On the other hand, structures defying either Russian or Chinese interests in the post-Soviet space began emerging by the same time: The Organisation for Cooperation in Central Asia (OCCA) in 1994 — becoming the Central Asian Economic Community in 2002 — and the Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development (GUAM) in 1999. Both projects remained rather vague and did not deliver any significant result because of the internal differences that existed in the member States, in addition to the lack of vision and insufficient funds55. And yet we tend to believe that these alternative integration projects, as well as the increasing role and size of the newly-created EU (much more ambitious than the EEC) and China’s driven Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), together with the shift in Russian foreign policy with the arrival of Vladimir Putin into power, did encourage Russia to opt eventually for the integration agenda within what it considered to be its “near abroad”. That is why the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) finally came about in 2000. It was the first regional multilateral organisation, officially registered at the UN, that was designed specifically for the economic and trade cooperation. The fact that the EAEC managed to, first, significantly restrain the rivalling Central Asian Economic Community and, later, completely absorb it, proves its success and Russia’s determination to restore its sphere of influence56. Its additional ambitious goal included preparing its members for the creation of a Customs Union (CU) and a Single Economic Space (SES) so that they could be integrated into the world economy and the international trading system57.
The formation of the Eurasian Customs Union. This time only the core of the EAEC (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia) took the step of enacting the CU becoming effective since 2010, after having previously signed the Dushanbe Agreement in 2007, which set a legal base for the CU58. This stage of integration is more advanced in comparison to the free-trade-area where no customs are levied on goods travelling within the area. But in a customs union, the members additionally impose a common external tariff on all goods entering the union meaning that the bloc can negotiate with other actors as a single entity, which further enhances international trade. The only restriction the CU foresees involves the antidumping or compensatory measures59. The formation of the Eurasian CU brought about the implementation of the new supranational bodies responsible for coordinating the combined projects of the three States, such as the Interstate Council and the Commission, which became the executive body of the CU. We can already see at this point that the Eurasian project is trying to gradually emulate some of the EU’s structures during each stage of integration, the global goal being to widen the Union and achieve a form of economic integration similar to that of the EU60. As for the other CIS States that have not immediately joined the CU, the complex and out-dated FTA agreements were reviewed and a new comprehensive one was agreed on in Saint Petersburg the following year. This agreement simplified considerably the legal framework of trading and economic relations among the 9 signatory States, preparing them for potentially adhering to a CU soon. This entailed an important step for Russia as well, as it was able to replace several multilateral and hundreds of other bilateral treaties that it had previously signed with the CIS countries61.
The third stage of the Eurasian integration comprises the establishment of the Single Economic Space (SES) in 2012. The main aim of the SES was to develop the so-called “four freedoms”: common market for goods, services, labour and capital62. It was also meant to improve the coordination of monetary, financial and tax policies, as well as the development of unified transport, energy and information systems, the ultimate goal being to create a full-fledged union. The Eurasian Economic Commission, composed of deputy prime ministers, would be set in Moscow as the most important supranational executive body63.
The latest stage of integration was achieved by 2015 when the Eurasian Economic Union was established, after its founding treaty had been signed in Nursultan the previous year by the presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan would follow later and join the EAEU just on time it started functioning in 2015. In addition to the free trade area, common external tariffs and the “four freedoms”, the EAEU comprises a set of “written regulations, laws and procedures necessary for effectively running a union”64. At the same time, although the goal of the fully-fledged Union has perhaps not been attained, let aside the political union (which is not in the interest of the participating States, except Russia probably), the necessary institutions to guarantee the efficient implementation and operation of policies, modelled after the EU, were already in place.
Having gone through the long and complex evolution of the Eurasian project, let us briefly illustrate some of the main articles of the EAEU’s founding Treaty65:
Article 1 on Establishing the Eurasian Economic Union Legal Personality:
The Parties hereby establish the Eurasian Economic Union ensuring free movement of goods, services, capital and labour within its borders, as well as coordinated, agreed or common policy in the economic sectors determined under this Treaty and international treaties within the Union.
The Union shall be an international organisation of regional economic integration and shall have international legal personality.
Article 3 on the Basic Principles of Functioning of the Union: The Union shall carry out its activities (…) based on the following principles: respect for the principles of international law, including the principles of sovereign equality of the Member States and their territorial integrity; respect for specific features of the political structures of the Member States; ensuring mutually beneficial cooperation, equality and respect for the national interests of the Parties; respect for the principles of market economy and fair competition; ensuring the functioning of the Customs Union without exceptions and limitations after the transition period.
Article 8 on the Bodies of the Union:
Bodies of the Union shall be represented by: Supreme Eurasian Economic Council; Eurasian Intergovernmental Council; Eurasian Economic Commission; Court of the Eurasian Economic Union (…).
Article 5 on Jurisdiction:
The Union shall have jurisdiction within the scope and limits determined under this Treaty and international treaties within the Union.
The Member States shall carry out coordinated or agreed policy within the scope and limits determined under this Treaty and international treaties within the Union (…).
We can clearly infer from these articles that the EAEU is meant to take form of an international organisation and remain, above all, an economic union. It is equally specified that all cooperation and policy coordination must be of mutual interest and result beneficial for the participating States. It is later added that their sovereignty, political structures and national interests should not be undermined by the supranational and interstate bodies of the Union, unless it is provided so in the founding treaty or another international treaty that was signed by the EAEU. All this indicates that the members of the Union ought to be equally represented through its bodies and delegate some of the commonly agreed competences to them. As for the bodies in question, we observe that the Union operates both through supranational and intergovernmental institutions. The role of each body is clearly explained on the EAEU’s official website66, where we find that the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council is the highest body of the Union, consisting of the Heads of the member States, while the second level of intergovernmental institutions is represented by the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council, consisting of the Heads of the governments of the member States. The purpose of the EIC, which is summoned at least twice a year, is to consider any issues for which no consensus was attained during decision-making in the Supreme Council session. As for the executive body, the day-to-day work of the EAEU is conducted through the Eurasian Economic Commission that consists of the Council and the Collegium and which oversees the subordinate branches and the advisory bodies, just like the EU Commission does. Moreover, it can take decisions on many other fields, such as customs policy, the macro-economic aspects, the competition regulations, the energy policy or the fiscal policy of the Eurasian Economic Union67. Finally, there is also a judicial body — The Court of the EAEU. It is certainly based upon past regional integration initiatives, but it also claims to follow best EU practices. One of the clearest indications of that in the legal field is the abundance of references to the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, which can be found in the rulings of the EAEU Court68.
Another aspect from the legal text we believe to be noteworthy is the article 118 that concerns the Member State withdrawal from the Treaty69.
Any Member State may withdraw from this Treaty by sending to the Depositary of this Treaty via diplomatic channels a written notice of its intention to withdraw. The effect of this Treaty in respect of such State shall cease after 12 months from the date of receipt of the notice by the Depositary of this Treaty. A Member State which has notified in accordance with paragraph 1 of this Article its intention to withdraw from this Treaty shall be obliged to settle all financial obligations incurred in connection with its participation in this Treaty.
It seems reasonable to believe that this final article was modelled after the EU’s experience with the addition of the article 50 to the TEU when the Treaty of Lisbon was signed in 2007. The EAEU’s withdrawal clause, however, looks much more immediate and straightforward in comparison to that of the EU’s, which requires not only the notification of the decision to the European Council, but the negotiation of both parties until an agreement is reached; otherwise, it must be waited for at least 2 years70. In other words, the EU’s withdrawal article appears to be more comprehensive, but also more problematic, especially having seen the way the Brexit issue has been evolving for more than 3 years now, so maybe the clause was simplified on purpose to facilitate a potential exit of one of the members of the EAEU. As President Putin reminded several years ago71,
It took Europe 40 years to move from the European Coal and Steel Community to the full European Union. The establishment of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space is proceeding at a much faster pace because we could draw on the experience of the EU and other regional associations. We see their strengths and weaknesses. And this is our obvious advantage since it means we are in a position to avoid mistakes and unnecessary bureaucratic superstructures.
Having considered all these features, we can only reiterate how the EAEU differs from the allegedly deeper type of integration such as the Union State. In the latter the issue of competences seemed to be much more arbitrary, while half of the envisioned bodies were not even established, not to mention that the integration model and the institute of the presidency, just as many other crucial aspects, were never fully agreed on and the whole integration process has been halted for decades as we have previously mentioned. The EAEU, on the contrary, — probably due to the absence of the kind of issues the Union State has — seems to be more realistic to complete and more appealing to pursue, especially from the stance of the States that might fear an excessive influence of Russia in their internal affairs. In this regard, the EAEU, unlike the Union State, has somewhat credible prospects of enlargement in the coming years, the current forerunner and most likely candidate being Tajikistan, although it is still considering the pros and cons of accession72. However, although any European or Asian country is theoretically eligible to join the EAEU, it seems obvious that the regional integration project is predominantly aimed at the countries from the former Soviet Union or the ones having close ties with Russia (such as Mongolia, Serbia or Moldova), which is manifested in, say, the almost exclusive use of the Russian language being the only official working language of the Union73. This said, it seems rather unlikely that any European country, even one having strong links with Russia, might want to go through the path of fully joining the Russia-led Union, especially taking into account that most of them are currently willing to join the EU. Pragmatic cooperation with Russia-led projects is of course possible, though, as Moldova was granted the observer status in the EAEU since 201774, while Serbia (observer of the CSTO since 2013) is about to sign a free trade agreement with the EAEU75. Another distinguishing feature of the EAEU, which although not officially a political project, does clearly involve a set of political choices, especially in the context of geopolitical rivalry with the EU and China, is the strong and reliable core of Belarus-Kazakhstan-Russia as long as the three States enjoy the authoritarian type of leadership. Some analysts argue that the EAEU even owes its existence to the political regimes of the main participating States, which mutually depend on each other76. This especially appears to be the case for Belarus and Kazakhstan, considered to be currently the most pro-Russian republics in the post-Soviet space, both relying on Russia for one reason or another. However, this is much less so when it comes to political, security or ideological fields where the so-called pro-Russian (not to mention Armenia or Kyrgyzstan) republics and their elites tend to distance themselves as we have seen in the Russian-Belarusian relations. Finally, Russia seems to be much more determined to promote and support the feasible potential of the EAEU-model rather than the Union State way-too-ambitious and complex objective, close to impossible to even try to extrapolate to any post-Soviet State apart from Belarus.
Limited achievements of the EAEU
Since 2015, focus on developing relations between former members of the Soviet Union is on continued development of the Eurasian Economic Union, which as we have seen is modelled on the EU’s integration. “Today we have created a powerful, attractive centre of economic development, a big regional market that unites more than 170 million people” – declared Russian President right after signing the founding treaty of the EAEU in 201477. Nevertheless, the EAEU does not come even close by objective terms to the EU, putting aside the complete absence of political integration, which remains within the remit of the Union State. The Eurasian Economic Union as a bloc does have some striking features indeed: it is an integrated single market of 183’3 million people with a relatively low (in comparison to the EU or world average) unemployment rate of 5’4%, its enormous size of more than 20 million square kilometres (14% of the world’s firm land) explains its leading positions not only in oil and gas production or power generation and extraction of other raw materials, but also in manufacturing and agricultural industry78. However, the other side of the coin comprises its rather humble GDP of 1’9 trillion USD or 5 trillion according to the purchasing power parity (PPP) index79. It is of course a significant economy that makes it into the top ten leading countries and blocs, but remains far behind the largest economic powers, such as China (GDP of 13’4 trillion USD and PPP GDP of 27’4 trillion USD), the US (GDP of 21’3 trillion USD and PPP GDP of 21’4 trillion USD) or even Japan (GDP of 5’1 trillion USD and PPP GDP of 5’8 trillion USD) and India (GDP of 3 trillion USD and PPP GDP of 11’4 trillion USD)80, apart from considerably lagging behind the other economic blocs, such as the EU, UNASUR or ASEAN81. It might be of course too soon to evaluate the EAEU’s economic macro indicators, assuming the logical outcome would be a gradual increase in GDP as the result of the removal of barriers and the implementation of the “four freedoms”, besides the coordinated macroeconomic policies between the participating States, without forgetting the envisioned transition to a single currency (although unlikely in the near future), which could potentially ease and increase trading possibilities. It is believed that these potential benefits would not be immediate and would be mostly felt by the “core” of the EAEU, though, as it has been already working closely through the CU and the SES since 2010, which partly explains the macroeconomic improvement of their linked economies in the years prior to the foundation of the EAEU82. To illustrate this in figures, trade among the three countries has risen by 45,5% in the period of 2010-201283, while nominal GDP experimented a boost as well for the same period (from 139’9 billion USD to 203’5 billion USD in Kazakhstan, from 1’49 trillion USD to 2’13 trillion USD in Russia and from 58’67 billion USD to 65’69 billion USD in Belarus)84. Of course, it can be argued that this increase was partially due to the world recovery and resurge of global trade from the previous economic and financial crisis, especially when considered the reversed trend in foreign trade that followed in 2014, linked to sanctions wars between Russia and the West as well as the sinking oil prices85. Nevertheless, despite the sudden decline in foreign and internal trade due to the devaluation of the Russian rouble and a sharp decrease in oil prices, the economies of the 5 Member States continued to slowly grow in terms of real GDP during the 2014-2019 period, although the numbers did fluctuate more in the period of 2014 to 2016, displaying a negative value occasionally in Belarus and Russia86. It seems to be yet rather difficult to assess whether this mild overall increase in GDP is at least partly prompted by the development of the EAEU or whether the countries would experiment a similar type of calamities and growth anyway, without being part of the unified bloc. Whatever the answer, it appears clear that the EAEU cannot, at least for now, deliver a remedy to the economic troubles present throughout the bloc and the much awaited economic gains for the participating members have been quite modest, close to inexistent if taken into account the costs incurred by each State in order to adapt its laws and regulations to a common framework by giving up part of their economic and financial sovereignty to the EAEU structures where Russia is insistently trying to dictate its own rules and force the others to emulate them for the sake of “common interest”87. It can be therefore stressed that the EAEU’s potential depends almost exclusively on Russia, which accounts for over 80% of its economic output, trade and territory. Its GDP is 6 times higher than the combined GDP of the other 4 States, while its population size is almost 4 times larger than the combined population of the other members88. This clearly indicates who is running the show while explaining some of the flaws of the Union too. Because of Russia’s dominance in the bloc, which translates into unilateral decisions, such as banning the EU products as a measure of the so-called Russian counter-sanctions and occasionally imposing additional tariffs or controls on goods coming from Belarus and even Kazakhstan in violation of the free movement of goods and capital, the economic performance of the participating States deteriorates as its potential is not allowed to be fully exploited89. And although this is all done not directly against the members of the EAEU — Russia views it probably as collateral damage in its “war against the enemy”— the fact it does not even tries to delegate this kind of decisions to a supranational body where all the members would have a saying on the matter shows the limits of the “mutually beneficial cooperation” and the lack of commitment to the principles of the EAEU Treaty, relegated to the sidelines the moment it goes against Russian interests. In fact, the common objection on Russia by the members of the Union is the double-standard approach when it comes to introducing internal trade barriers for the existing members (which, again, goes against the Treaty), while offering concessions and benefits to new members for joining the EAEU even when they do not comply with the necessary legal and economic requirements90.
Another pressing economic issue in the EAEU is the share of internal trade in the EAEU’s total trade. Even though internal trade has somewhat increased in recent years, it still stands at only 14 %91. In comparison, the trade conducted among the EU members States amounts to 63 %92. Belarus is, as one could predict, the only exception to this trend in the EAEU because it trades much more with Russia than the other members (about 40% of exports still goes to Russia and the same amount of imports comes from Russia, while the EU represents a 30% of the trading volume)93. This mismatch is, of course, produced not only because of the internal trade wars and tensions arising between the member States, but also as the result of the huge surplus of oil and gas (especially in Russia and Kazakhstan) that is highly demanded in the EU or China and not so much inside the bloc (aside from the need of “feeding” the smaller members, such as Belarus, which then tries to re-export a significant portion of the cheaply acquired hydrocarbons anyway). The other reason for such a great volume of external trade is the need of hi-tech goods, such as cars, computers or even medicines, which are generally acquired from the West rather than from the trading partners of the EAEU as these goods cannot be easily produced at the same standards of quality inside the bloc. Finally, the geographical features and the yet to be formed or improved infrastructure and transport corridors, especially with Armenia, that has no land borders with any of the EAEU members, and with Kyrgyzstan, that only has a land border with Kazakhstan, is another obstacle in incrementing trade volume within the EAEU94. We do believe that both internal and external trade have the potential to grow in the coming years, especially if internal tensions cease or diminish to a more acceptable level so that mutual trust between the member States can be restored. The economic situation in the EAEU would evolve even more positively if the sanctions were lifted on Russia, which, although desperately (and quite successfully) tries to diversify its outlets and supply chains by signing some of the most incredible trading deals in history, such as the 400 billion USD gas contract with China for a period of 30 years, would still be much better off if it could benefit from the access to the EU’s internal market (and vice versa) at least to the level prior to the sanctions regime, but all that will be likely subject first to the political will of the US, a topic being outside of the reach of this paper. All in all, even if we were to believe the 2015 long-term forecast of economic development of the EAEU to 2030 done by the Eurasian Economic Commission95, it appears that the extra growth of the EAEU overall GDP as a result of integration measures is estimated near 3%, which does not seem astronomical.
Searching for partners rather than members
Having seen that although the EAEU considers itself to be officially an economic union as its name suggests, this is not the case when global context and Russian re-emerging role are taken into account. Considering all the above-mentioned political, economic and legal issues, it is only reasonable to look for international recognition, partnerships and seek alliances. This is what Russia is trying to do on behalf of the EAEU in order to enhance its geopolitical importance, but also to divert attention from the internal tensions and legitimise its project both within and outside the Union96. We reckon that the immediate goal is probably not so much to enlarge as a Union, as that entails some heavy costs for both parties during the harmonisation process (let aside the difficulty of convincing new actors to join the club), but to appear as an attractive strategic and economic pole in the eyes of potential partners who would be willing to collaborate with the EAEU. This task is complex and time-consuming to say the least, especially after having failed with some crucial actors, such as Ukraine. Some economists actually believe that the EAEU will never be able to achieve a significant success without Ukraine taking part in the project, which is more than unlikely in the near future. According to them, this is largely due to the population threshold of 300 million, believed to be necessary for making a strong regional independent bloc97. In that regard, the loss of the second most inhabited country (and 3rd by size) in the post-Soviet space, which has already signed an association agreement involving the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU, dealt a considerable blow to the EAEU’s ambitions. On the other hand, Russia’s inclination to display its hard power in the first place by using economic, political and military leverage, rather than make use of its soft power through public diplomacy (still evolving and generally lacking a positive image)98 may alienate deep cooperation prospects from potential partners. As for recognition, the EAEU has been systematically criticised by the West and struggles to be seen as an equal partner because of Russia’s behaviour, believed to be imperialistic. This is exactly what the spokesman of the US State Department implied in the aftermath of Armenia signing the EAEU accession treaty in 2014 highlighting that “No country has the right to determine the political and economic orientation of another country, nor decide which alliances and trade agreements it can join”99. Jean Claude-Juncker had also reminded in a letter to Vladimir Putin in 2015 that the EU-EAEU closer relations could be considered, but only after the implementation of the Minsk-2 agreements on Ukraine100 (believed to be violated both by Ukraine and Russia), which indicates the unlikelihood of reaching a mutually beneficial agreement any time soon. Nevertheless, the EAEU has managed to expand its market to a significant number of actors in recent years, predominantly in Asia. The first obvious and strategic partner of the EAEU is China, which is quite interesting considering the Union was meant to counterbalance China’s growing aspirations in Central Asia. We can only assume that as no country is currently in a position to successfully restrain China from its pursuit of global economic hegemony, Russia prefers to join efforts with its neighbour to at least obtain some benefits from the shared cooperation and diminish Chinese influence over Central Asia rather than try to fight a battle impossible to win (especially in the current context of trading wars between the US and China). This is probably why the Russian President declared at the Beijing One Belt and Road Summit that the Chinese project “echoes the Russian idea of creating a large Eurasian partnership, which implies the ‘integration of integrations’, that is, close coupling of various bilateral and multilateral integration processes in Eurasia »101. Putin’s statement was quickly commented by Nazarbayev, who explained that the merger of the EAEU and the Chinese BRI initiative was a very important step. He also stressed that if the EU joined both the BRI initiative and the EAEU, we would be enjoying the « global integration on the Eurasian big subcontinent, beneficial for all. »102 Anyway, after some years of discussion, a free trade agreement was finally signed between China and the EAEU in 2018 and entered into force in 2019. Although this agreement is not yet a comprehensive FTA, but a non-preferential one, it is still highly symbolic for the EAEU because the agreement considerably boosts its level of confidence103.
Other countries with which the EAEU has concluded or about to conclude FTAs in recent years include Egypt, Iran, Vietnam and Serbia. In the case of Egypt, a framework document for negotiations on the FTA between the two parties was signed already in 2018 and the FTA agreement itself is now expected to be signed in 2020104. In the meantime, a Russian industrial export processing zone in East Port Said is already bringing its fruits allowing Russian-Egyptian bilateral trade to rise by 37% in 2018105. As for Iran, a temporary agreement enabling the formation of a free trade area with the EAEU was signed in 2018 and is already in force. The fully-fledged FTA agreement is planned to be signed by 2021 when the complete documents may be finalised. 106 When it comes to Vietnam, it was the first country to officially join the FTA area with the EAEU back in 2015. It had enjoyed therefore the “early bird status” regarding exports to the EAEU as well as investments from the bloc, from Russia in particular. It is expected now that bilateral trade between the EAEU and Vietnam will rise to 30 billion USD by 2030 from an initial base close to zero107. The Serbian case is also interesting as the country is constantly bargaining between the EU and the EAEU, although it seems clear that the Balkan State had already chosen the path of the EU-led integration when it decided to apply for the EU membership in 2009 becoming an official candidate country in 2012 and currently holding negotiations on the Acquis Communautaire. Nevertheless, an FTA between Serbia and the EAEU is expected to be completed by the end of 2019108. As the Serbian Minister of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications explains it, a trading agreement with the EAEU will not jeopardise the trade with the EU: “Until we become a full member of the EU, we have the right to make free trade agreements. Once we enter the EU, those agreements will no longer be in effect and we will be a part of the EU trade system”109.
As for the other actors, there currently exist over 40 countries and trading blocs interested in closer cooperation with the EAEU, namely in the form of free trade deals, such as we have seen with the previous group of countries. Even though the majority of potential partners are coming from Asia, some South American and African States have also expressed their interest in joining the trading bloc in some way110. In addition, some important regional actors are already holding negotiations with the EAEU on the establishment of free-trade zones and agreements. India, Israel, Singapore and Turkey are the most salient examples111.
Having analysed the varying (geo)political, legal, economic, historical and societal implications and features of the Russia-led integration projects in the post-Soviet space, namely the Union State of Belarus and Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union, we may confirm that Russia is definitely coming back as a global player. The (re)integration projects it proposes differ substantially according to the level of initial ties that Russia has (or had) with a certain group of countries. It could be argued that there are roughly four levels of these ties that explain the degree of integration each State is involved in. The first level would comprise only Belarus, an extremely dependent country on Russia that shares with it the strongest economic, political and historical links, which explains why Russia’s smaller Slavic neighbour takes part in the deepest and most ambitious integration process. Kazakhstan would be an example of the second level, which although also shares a lot of ties and interests with Russia, is still more reluctant with regards to Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, besides being able to pursue — quite successfully — a more independent governance and diversify its economy via other relevant actors, such as China and the EU. That is why Kazakhstan took part in every single Russia’s led integration project, except for the Union State, which involves sharing (perhaps even loosing) political sovereignty. The third level would be composed of the less pro-Russian post-Soviet countries, but which are nonetheless leaning on Russia for security or economic reasons as is the case with Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and potentially Tajikistan. This would then explain why these countries only joined (or are about to do so) the EAEU when it was already formed and when it became clear that they could gain some specific benefits from it after having closely observed the previous experience of economic boom since the establishment of the CU and the SES between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Finally, the fourth group would include the most reluctant countries of the post-Soviet space, such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan or even Ukraine, which although do not currently wish to join any significant Russia-led projects, might do so in the future for pragmatic reasons if they see that it does not compromise their sovereignty and will bring them certain benefits. We can add to this group Moldova and all the other countries outside the former Soviet Union that have had some type of close relations with Russia (Mongolia, Iran, China, Serbia, Turkey, Israel, etc.) and that are willing to benefit from the trading advantages or obtain some specific economic gains from the bloc.
On the other hand, we have observed that the success of these integration projects is limited to specific areas and is overall rather modest, which is mainly due to the lack of internal agreement between the participating States as well as a significant degree of mutual distrust. This is especially the case concerning scepticism vis-à-vis Russia’s unilateral leadership and worrying aspirations that could potentially compromise the sovereignty of the smaller States which tend to judge this as unacceptable. Moreover, the domestic issues to which every participating State is exposed constitute an additional obstacle for the integration to become bright and fruitful. It should be added that the inefficient economic governance (lack of economic reforms, relatively low number of FDI and private actors), which is a problem related to the lack of functioning democratic institutions throughout the whole post-Soviet space, further complicates the prospects of a meaningful, proportional and steady economic development, not to mention the lack of credibility and positive image by the Western States.
Nevertheless, both the Union State and the EAEU bear high potential that should not be underestimated. Although their prospects are difficult to predict in a world of dynamic evolution and considering that much depends on Russia itself, it appears possible to distinguish an important feature regarding the way the post-Soviet space has been transforming since the dismemberment of the USSR. Regardless of the sphere of influence, motivations or fears, most of the post-Soviet States have been trying to form regional alliances with a common goal, which is not surprising in today’s competitive globalised world. However, most of them had either failed or remained too vague for a significant level of integration while some were only envisaged as treaties or agreements. The Union State and the EAEU were not only much more comprehensive and ambitious since their inception, but they also proved to deliver results (even though with a limited scope and application). It seems clear that Russia remains the main beneficiary of these projects politically speaking, as they allow it not only to recompose the post-Soviet space and bring it closer to its strategic interests in the region, but also (re)assert itself as a power capable of defying the West and China, ability that had been lost or significantly diminished during the first decades following the demise of the USSR. All things considered, we believe that aside the political legitimacy and economic performance in the coming years, it is now mostly up to the Russian leadership and that of its loyal neighbours, Kazakhstan and Belarus, to shape the regional blocs in the post-Soviet space. Whether they will be genuinely successful is yet to be seen.
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1 This is especially so after the recent deterioration of the Russian-Belarusian relations and the increasing confrontation between Russia and the West.
2 Foreign Policy : https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/10/lukashenko-is-selling-belarus-piece-by-piece-to-russia/, Belarus Partisan: https://belaruspartisan.by/politic/449822/, STRANA.ua: https://strana.ua/news/178985-vojdet-li-belarus-v-sostav-rossii-i-chto-proiskhodit-mezhdu-moskvoj-i-minskom.html.
3 The Moscow Times: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/01/29/a-brotherly-takeover-could-russia-annex-belarus-op-ed-a64326, Emerging Europe: https://emerging-europe.com/voices/will-russia-seek-to-annex-belarus/, The New Republic: https://newrepublic.com/article/153520/belarus-putins-next-land-grab, The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-belarus-putin-lukashenko-sovereignty-rule-oil-tax-crimea-term-presidency-a8689416.html, The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/une-annexion-de-la-bielorussie-un-projet-de-poutine-pour-assurer-lapres-2024-118270.
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Новые Известия. Poll: Belarusians do not wish to join Russia: https://bit.ly/30w5Ix7.
46 Lispey and Smith. Ibid.
48 Yanis Varoufakis. And the weak should suffer what they must?
52 The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. Kazakhstan increasingly concerned over Eurasian Economic Union: https://bit.ly/30zrL64.
53 The struggle between the national identity building and (re-)integration process was still ongoing, but more importantly a deep level of economic integration with so many struggling economies of the former Soviet Republics that were directly competing with Russia in the exports of raw materials to the West, which Russia saw as its main economic partner, was undesirable for Russia’s interests at that moment.
Regard sur l’Est. Les structures d’intégration économique dans l’espace post-soviétique : https://bit.ly/2xT7hch.
66 Eurasian Economic Union. Governance: http://www.eaeunion.org/?lang=en#about-administration.