Tuesday 17 April 2012

Putin’s Eurasian Union: A Bold but Unsustainable Vision

Joanna Christou

Outgoing Russian President Dimitri Medvedev at the meeting with other Eurasian leaders to discuss the proposed Eurasian Union. Radio Free Europe
Vladimir Putin’s return to the helm in Russia is hardly surprising, and with it comes the rhetoric and foreign policy of a leader who has always sought to bolster his country’s status as a great power. Part and parcel of this package are the surrounding regions, which have always faced the often overbearing influence of their largest neighbour. In Soviet times this influence was expanded, formalised and centralised with the creation of the 15 republics encompassing territories from Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Baltics. 
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992, the Russian desire to remain involved in its region has manifested itself through the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which has largely been a symbolic structure, often dubbed as the mechanism to bring about a civilised divorce. However, Russian desire to take a proactive lead in bringing greater co-operation and integration in the region remains and the vision is bold. In October of 2011, when announcing his run for the presidency Putin also proclaimed his desire to base his foreign policy largely on the creation of a Eurasian Union which would bring ‘a stronger integration on a new political and economic basis and a new system of values is an imperative of our era’. Practical steps towards this have seemingly begun. Just last week, Russia’s outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev hosted a meeting including the presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan and Ukraine on the subject, with the aim of establishing the Union by 2015. Yet, despite the rhetoric and subsequent meetings, the vision would arguably be very difficult to achieve for a number of reasons.
Firstly, despite Putin’s proclamations that the Union would not resemble its Soviet predecessor, it is difficult to imagine anything too far off from it. As the biggest country and strongest economy in the region Russia would by default take the leading role. And while Putin may be genuine in his desire to avoid the mistakes of the past it seems unlikely that he will be able to convince his closest neighbours otherwise. Ukraine for example has consistently rejected Russian forays towards greater integration, rather choosing to periodically but openly to align itself with the EU and NATO and to join the WTO. The Georgian reaction to the Union was particularly hostile, with president Mikhail Saakashvili rejecting the idea as little more than an attempt to reconstitute the Soviet Union and the republics’ subordination within it. So while Russian desire is definitely present, the reluctance of the other states will make turning this into a reality very difficult.
Vladimir Putin outlined his vision for a Eurasian Union in late 2011, coinciding with his announcement to re-run for the Russian presidency. The Telegraph
This reluctance is further influenced by the internal politics of each state and how these motivate their actions. For Putin, the Union would most likely be a good thing. In the face of the recent discontent and delegitimisation at home, what better than to attempt at diverting attention to region-wide initiatives. Even economically it is difficult to argue against such a scheme which could regulate trade and make the bloc more competitive. 
However, the economics alone seem unlikely to sway the political considerations of the other states. If the Union would help Putin politically at home, it would be perceived to do the exact opposite for other participant states. This is because authoritarianism and corruption are not limited to Russia but are a widespread issue in the post-Soviet space. Because of this, leaders in other states would most likely fear an erosion of their power should integration progress. 
Such a pre-occupation with maintaining the internal status quo has already hampered processes of integration at a smaller level. Numerous organisations have been formed since the 1990s. Examples include the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), GUAM, the Community of Democratic Choice and the Shanghai Co-Operation Organisation. The membership of each is varied but the one thing they all have in common is their confinement to paper with very little to show for in terms of concrete results. The reason for this failure is largely linked to the desire of most leaders to shield themselves from any influences which may seek to delegitimise or question their rule. So for example, the Shanghai Co-Operation Organisation in Central Asia has touted ‘The Shanghai Spirit’ and the ‘Beijing Consensus’ as its base values. The former represents mutual trust and co-operation but the latter refers to economic growth and development without political interference. This translates into an organisation which effectively promotes the security of the authoritarian regimes in the region from outside interference and bolsters their individual security. Essentially, if the CIS provided a civilised divorce, regional organisations like the SCO represent a marriage of convenience. It is a guarantee of such non-interference which seems unlikely to continue should a Eurasian Union, led by Russia and Putin, come to being. The Kremlin’s support for Viktor Yanukovic during the 2004 Ukrainian elections for example was very public, with Putin visiting Kiev twice and offering his congratulations to him before the results were public (he actually lost the election). Such precedents are likely to make other states fearful of entering any formal and widespread integration project. 
This all highlights another obstacle to integration, Russia’s problematic stance of undermining its neighbours in order to achieve its own goals. For example, even despite the pro-Kremlin Yanukovich’s eventual accession to power in 2010, Russia has struggled to maintain good relations with Ukraine. A major issue, highlighted by a government figure from Ukraine has been the Kremlin’s inability to view the country as an equal partner despite a number of Ukrainian concessions including dropping their pursuit to join NATO. Ultimately, it is this attitude which taints Russian interactions with all its neighbours and which will most likely seal the fate of any plan to promote integration on a wide level. 
So while Putin’s plans may be grand and his vision is undoubtedly bold, its materialisation seems highly unlikely as Russia will always view itself as the regional leader who knows best. This attitude, and its historical resonance through the Soviet Union’s history, will always clash with the post-Soviet states’ desire to be treated as independent equals, and to uphold their own, often authoritarian, regimes. 

Sunday 1 April 2012

Britain’s Central Asian Predicament

Adam Lenton

Leaders of Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Afganistan in Dushanbe. Central Asia Online (in Russian).
In Tajikistan, festivities are already under way for Norouz- Iranian New Year. Although William Hague sent his best wishes on an online video, it’s likely that this will be overshadowed by Mahmoud Ahmadinijad’s personal visit this Saturday.

This is sure to strengthen what are already strong relations between Iran and Tajikistan. Tajikistan, along with several other states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, are termed as ‘Greater Iran’ due to their common historical and cultural ties. Notwithstanding this, all of the contemporary states of ‘Greater Iran’ form part of the Economic Cooperation Organisation, a trade organisation comprising of some 400 million people which aims to create a single-market union much like the EU. Tehran- seat of the ECO’s headquarters- may be increasingly isolated in the West, but this certainly isn’t the case in Central Asia.

It’s not hard to see why. Capitalising on the USSR’s collapse in 1991, Iran made its interest in the region clear. It was one of the first countries to recognise the independence of the 5 ex-Soviet states that comprise Central Asia, and was the first state to establish an embassy in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe.

Leaders of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan at the Eurasian economic summit.  RIA Novosti.
Iran isn’t the only influence in the region. The USSR may be dead, but Russia’s influence is still very much alive. Incidentally the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were also the Presidents of the previous Soviet Republics. Just like in the Soviet era, Russian is the regional lingua franca. President-elect Vladimir Putin has his own visions for a Eurasian Union to be established by 2015. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation- a security organisation- already exists and counts Russia, China and 4 of the 5 Central Asian Republics amongst its membership (Turkmenistan, the only state not a member, is still a ‘guest’).

It’s worth wondering why the West is bothering. It seems axiomatic that the likes of Russia, Iran and China are better placed to vie for influence, rather than countries like Britain, which have few ties to the region. If indeed influence is a zero-sum affair, it’s hard to imagine any established regional influence loosening its grip over an increasingly important geopolitical region. This is already self-evident. The US, which maintains two bases in Central Asia, is acutely aware of its precariousness in the region, and consequently refrains from anything too recalcitrant- it hasn’t swayed from its stance that its forces will be withdrawn once Afghanistan is ‘stabilised.’ Interest in the region extends beyond military logistics. Afghanistan shares borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which makes their cooperation and ensuing stability priorities for policymakers in London and Washington.

However, Britain faces an enormous stumbling block. Policy was turned upside-down when several regimes were overthrown last year during the Arab Spring. It, too, had been a region where stability was hitherto the main concern of policymakers. The West’s short-sightedness had created a democratic backwater which, once ignited, exploded. The parallels are astonishing. The tenure of the deposed Arab leaders was not measured in years, but decades. All had led authoritarian regimes with considerable presidential power, whilst justifying this with a vociferous anti-extremism rhetoric.

Tajikistan, for example, is on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed it within a list of the world’s 16 worst abusers of religious freedom, and Tajik authorities have faced criticism for unjust convictions of so-called terrorists. More recently, Tajikistan temporarily blocked access to Facebook at the beginning of March. Tajikistan isn’t alone. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are all unfavourably mentioned by USCRIF.

It’s not in Britain’s interest to condone this. Another regional upheaval would be incredibly destabilising, yet the lessons of the Arab Spring indicate that Britain can’t ignore these states in the naïve hope that conditions will remain effervescent until it’s convenient to demand change. Whilst unexpected and turbulent upheaval certainly isn’t something that would be good for Britain, it cannot realistically make demands in a region where parliamentary democracy is seen as a very foreign concept, for it is likely to further weaken its influence there. It cannot feasibly condemn the persecution of alleged terrorists, for Russia is a strong advocate of a hard-line approach as has been seen in Chechnya. Nor can Britain express concerns over the blocking of social media sites, as China is well-known for its stance regarding Facebook.
Britain needs to be careful not to push Central Asian states closer to Tehran by dictating change in the region. Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
Iran complicates things further. It has already been seen by some in the Middle East as an example of conservative Islamic government to follow. Given its ties to Central Asia- which are much stronger- political upheaval in the region could prove catastrophic if it resulted in the establishment of theocratic anti-Western governments based on the Iranian model. Britain cannot therefore continue to pressure Iran unless it secures more concrete support from China and Russia.

Russia and China are not leviathans; eventually they, too, will lose their patience with Iran if it continues to isolate itself on the world stage, which would provide a relief for policymakers- for whom Iran is the immediate worry. A political relaxation in the region and a weaker Iran would allow politicians to voice stronger concerns over Central Asia without fear that it would push leaders towards Tehran. Stronger cooperation with countries like Britain may then appear more favourable to the leaders of the region as a way to remind Russia and China that influence is not a given.

Britain and the West seem to acknowledge their limited ability to voice concerns in the region. However, it is in their interest to ensure that the failures of the Arab world are not repeated in another strategically important place.