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Escaping Moscow’s bear hug in Eastern Europe

by Merkhat Sharipzhan

Three former Soviet republics — Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine — have now signed association agreements with the European Union, despite Russia’s sometimes brutal attempts to obstruct the process. This is certainly a promising development for these countries, all of which have struggled to achieve stability since the Soviet Union’s dissolution. But it would be naive to think that Russia will give up so easily.

As Ukraine’s ongoing crisis has demonstrated yet again, former Soviet republics that attempt to make geopolitical decisions without the Kremlin’s assent do not remain intact for long. In Georgia, the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have had de facto independence since receiving Russian recognition in 2008. Today, the prospect of their return seems more distant than ever.

For its part, Moldova has been struggling for two decades to assert control over the breakaway Transnistria region. Moreover, in February, the tiny autonomous region of Gagauzia, with its indigenous Turkic population, announced through a Russia-backed referendum that it has the right to secede if Moldova “loses its statehood.”

The danger now is that pro-secession leaders may twist the loss of sovereignty supposedly inherent in association with the EU into precisely such a claim.

Beyond discouraging former Soviet republics from pursuing deeper ties with the EU, Russia has created a sort of “EU” of its own: the Eurasian Economic Union. In May, the leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan established the EaEU by signing a treaty that will enter into effect next year, assuming that all three countries’ parliaments ratify it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that the EaEU is not intended to function as a “resurrected” Soviet Union, but that any former Soviet republic is free to join. And some are eager to do so. According to a recent poll, some 80 percent of Kazakhs support Putin, and about 70 percent back Kazakhstan’s EaEU membership.

Though some countries have persevered in the face of Russia’s threats to bring separatist, ethnic or other problems to their doorstep should they choose integration with the EU, others have responded to the pressure. In September, Armenia, which has been locked in a conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for more than two decades, suddenly halted its integration talks with the EU and announced its intention to join Russia-led structures.

Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest post-Soviet countries in Central Asia, has no obvious separatism-related problems, though it struggles with ethnic tensions in its south, where clashes between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in 2010 left more than 400 people dead.

This month, the country closed the United States’ military transit center near Bishkek, and declared its intention to join the customs union that preceded the EaEU by the end of this year.

The Kremlin is using other mechanisms to exert additional pressure on former Soviet republics. Russia’s foreign ministry has just announced that, as of Jan. 1, citizens of post-Soviet countries that are not members of the customs union and the EaEU will no longer be allowed to enter Russia without passports.

This will likely soon be followed by visa requirements for these countries’ citizens, which for some would pose a major challenge. For example, the remittances that the estimated 1.5 million Tajiks who live and work in Russia send to their families back home are critical to Tajikistan’s economy.

Likewise, in April, Putin signed legislation simplifying the procedure for Russian speakers in former Soviet republics to obtain Russian citizenship. The law, enacted just a month after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, was undoubtedly intended to provide a legal basis for expediting the citizenship-application process for residents of Crimea and the rest of eastern Ukraine. But it may enable millions of other Russian-speaking citizens of EaEU member countries to become Russian citizens, and it could be used to apply pressure on countries like Estonia and Latvia, which have large Russophone populations.

But the EaEU’s development is not proceeding entirely according to Putin’s plan. At a recent Eurasian Economic Commission session in Sochi, Belarus and Kazakhstan rejected the Kremlin’s proposal to introduce customs duties for goods imported from Ukraine if the country signed the EU association agreement. The Belarusian government considers it to be Ukraine’s sovereign right to sign agreements with the EU — a flat contradiction of Russia’s stance — and appears likely to introduce customs fees of its own for electronic goods imported from Russia.

As it stands, the EaEU seems to have two major goals: to obstruct the integration of former Soviet republics into the West, and to help secure Putin’s power. Economic advancement does not appear to be on the agenda.

Unless it somehow manages to deliver tangible economic benefits anyway, the EaEU seems destined to become another failed institutional initiative, like the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Russian-Belarusian Union State, or the Central Asian Union. It may even accelerate Russia’s internal decay.

Merkhat Sharipzhan is a senior editor and analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. © 2014 Project Syndicate