The Associated Press
January 3, 2012 Tuesday 08:40 AM GMT


Russia's Putin dreams of sweeping Eurasian Union

By PETER LEONARD, Associated Press
ALMATY, Kazakhstan


Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has a vision for a Soviet
Union-lite he hopes will become a new Moscow-led global powerhouse.
But, his planned Eurasian Union won't be grounded in ideology: This
time it's about trade.

The concept of regional economic integration may be losing some of its
allure in Europe, where a debt crisis is threatening the existence of
the eurozone. But some countries across the former Soviet Union, still
struggling economically 20 years after becoming independent, are
embracing Putin's grand ambition.

Russia has moved one step toward this goal under an agreement with
former fellow Soviet republics Belarus and Kazakhstan that as of
Sunday allows the free movement of goods and capital across their
common borders.

As Putin envisions it, the still-hypothetical union will eventually
stretch from the eastern fringes of Central Europe to the Pacific
Coast and south to the rugged Pamir Mountains abutting Afghanistan.

The drive to somehow reform at least a husk of the Soviet Union has
been around since 1991. The Commonwealth of Independent States, which
loosely brings together 11 of the original 15 republics, was an early
attempt that never amounted to much more than a glorified alumni club.

It was Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev who first raised
the notion of an Eurasian Union in the early 1990s, but the idea was
too premature for nations busy forging their own delicate statehoods.

Putin was president from 2000 to 2008 and intends to regain that
position in a March election. A wave of protests that began after a
fraud-tainted parliamentary election in December is posing the first
serious challenge to Putin's authority, but his hold on power still
seems secure.

In anticipation of a new six-year term as president, Putin has made
forming a Eurasian Union by 2015 a foreign policy priority. He is
promoting the union as necessary for Russia and its neighbors to
compete in the modern global economy. His broader goal is to restore
some of Moscow's economic and political clout across former Soviet
space and thus strengthen Russia's position in the world.

If the poorer prospective members are clamoring for Putin's union so
as to become Moscow's financial beneficiaries, as was the case under
the Soviet Union, they may be sorely disappointed. Russia has in
recent years taken a more pragmatic line when extending its largesse
and that stance is expected to remain largely unchanged.

"Some years ago, Russia came to the position that assistance to former
Soviet republics should be monetized," said Ivan Safranchuk, an
associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International
Relations.

Safranchuk said this meant that Moscow issued lines of credit and then
sold countries oil, gas, electricity and military hardware at discount
prices.

That strategy has brought Russia closer to gaining control over energy
infrastructure in Ukraine, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. While giving Moscow
economic leverage over its former subjects, this approach has
precluded the exorbitant spending pressure that helped bankrupt the
Soviet Union.

The agreement to form a "common economic space" that went into effect
Jan. 1 gives Russia up to 30 million new customers in Belarus and
Kazakhstan, while these countries gain greater access to Russia's
market of more than 140 million people. The risk to Russian
manufacturers is the relatively lower cost of production in the other
two countries, which could potentially drive them out of business.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both economically struggling nations in
Central Asia, may be the next to join the free trade club.

Kyrgyzstan's former President Roza Otunbayeva said before stepping
down in late October that she saw her nation's fate as inevitably
linked with the Eurasian Union.

"The natural flow of the work force, services and movement of capital
is of course all directed to Russia and Kazakhstan," she said.

Current President Almazbek Atambayev has made it clear he sees the
fate of Kyrgyzstan, which hosts a U.S. air base that acts as a crucial
transportation hub for military operations in Afghanistan, as very
much tied to Russia.

Neighboring Tajikistan, whose long and porous border with Afghanistan
keeps many a security analyst awake at night, has proven a more
recalcitrant partner and was recently embroiled in an unseemly
diplomatic spat with Russia. But with more than an estimated 1 million
Tajik migrants currently working in Russia, the lure of a border-free
future could be too compelling to refuse.

Other potential members of the Eurasian Union in the Kremlin's sights
appear more wary about what this means for their sovereignty.

Ukraine, which has flirted uncertainly with membership, fears it could
further jeopardize its future economic and political engagement with
Western Europe. Others, such as Armenia, have proven positively cool
on the idea, while Georgia under President Mikheil Saakashvili will
likely always be hostile to anything coming out of Moscow.

Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, cautioned
against talking up the prospect of the Eurasian Union as a political
project.

"I see no absolutely no wish on behalf of the Kazakhstani leadership
to give up their sovereignty, and I see the Belarusian people not
wishing to become part of Russia," he said.

Still, Russia's neighbors may have reason to fear Kremlin attempts to
restore political domination.

Shortly after Putin came to power, the Foreign Ministry spelled out
Russia's strategic vision in no uncertain terms. The document, which
dates back to 2000, argues for promoting policies that "best serve the
interests of Russia as a great power and as one of the most
influential centers in the modern world."

The theme was recently reprised in campaign literature for Putin's
United Russia party, which claimed that the "new union will allow our
country to become another pole of influence in the modern, multipolar
world."

Trenin said that so far the fears of renewed Kremlin domination were
ungrounded, noting that Kazakhstan and Belarus only increase the reach
of Russia's markets by one-fifth in terms of population.

"That's fine, but it doesn't make you a powerhouse," he said.