Vladimir Putin is seeking to unite nations formerly attached to Russia through the Soviet Union with an economic partnership that would make them a challenge to the European Union. The AFP reports today that Putin’s plan for a “Eurasian Union” will count on Belarus and possibly Ukraine, but will meet resistance in most recently freed states.
Putin, who had announced the idea of a Eurasian Union late last year and promised a more concrete proposal by this May, announced today that Belarus and Kazakhstan are onboard with the new economic plan that would open up trade between the three nations. In a television announcement following talks with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko, Putin announced that he hoped Ukraine would also participate in the union, and that it would eventually expand even beyond that.
Putin revealed that he and the other heads of state had “developed the draft of the institutional part of the Eurasian Economic Union agreement.” Belarus has long been Russia’s greatest ally in the post-Soviet world, and Lukashenko is considered by many possibly the most repressive dictator in Europe. While less repressive than Belarus, Kazakhstan has recently been accused of gradually closing its democratic avenues and moving towards a stricter regime.
The creation of this Eurasian Union is the lesser-told story of the protests and subsequent submission of the Ukrainian government to Russia’s influence in keeping them away from the European Union late last year. The trade deals that Kiev hoped to cement with Brussels would have required a certain level of exclusivity and would have alienated the country’s government even more from Moscow than it already had become after Viktor Yushchenko’s Orange Revolution. Putin threatened sanctions on Ukraine for the deal–including not providing the oil necessary for citizens to keep warm in the winter. Instead, Viktor Yanukovych made a deal with Putin that resulted in Russia’s buying $15 million in Ukrainian bonds. The people of Ukraine, outraged, took to the streets once again shortly thereafter, but American media have mostly swept aside the Ukraine story in favor of bigger and more local news stories.
The potential expansion of a Eurasian Union could also threaten nations that have been working for decades to create stable, free economies in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union– particularly the extremely free markets of Estonia, Georgia, and Moldova. Estonia and the other two Baltic states–Latvia and Lithuania–are both already members of the European Union and NATO. Georgia and Moldova boast significant anti-Putin factions, so much so that former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Moldovan President Iurie Leanca visited Ukraine at the height of their anti-Putin protests to show solidarity. Moldova actively rejected the idea of the Eurasian Union as just that–“an idea“–and moved forward with an economic deal with the European Union of the kind that Kiev turned down after pressure from Moscow.
Tensions will continue to rise in the region as Putin extends his reach, attempting to finally control Georgia and Moldova the way his regime economically and militarily manipulates smaller neighboring countries like Armenia. Belarus and Kazakhstan bring little to the table as far as exports and natural resources, as Belarus is so contaminated by the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster that 80% of families still eat radioactive food, and about 70% of Kazakhstan is desert or semi-desert. However, they certainly provide Putin a start for his grand experiment, a way to recreate the Soviet Union in some ways with him at the helm, and a threat that the project could snowball into an economic monolith that could threaten the EU, China, and even the United States.