The West continues to view the Eurasian Economic Union as the reincarnation of the old Soviet Union. But that’s simply not the case.

The leaders of the states of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council. Pictured left-right: President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan. Photo: RIA Novosti

Plenty of myths and stereotypes surround the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Some claim that it is a revival of the Soviet Union or just another imperialistic project masked by political rhetoric. But what are the objective interests and goals of Russia for this project? What does Eurasian integration really mean for Russia and other member states?

Myths about the Eurasian Economic Union

The image of the EAEU abroad is controversial, particularly due to low awareness of the Eurasian integration project in general. The lack of information is fertile ground for creating myths. Too often the EAEU is presented as a marginal concept, which does not have any basis behind it, least of all, any economic or judicial basis.

That is not indeed true - the Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union includes a significant number of detailed articles on its functioning and operations among member states, and the system of subnational and intergovernmental bodies provides conditions for thorough negotiations and expertise on various issues.

Moreover, the EAEU is often explained as an attempt to revive the Soviet Union and part of the expansionist ambitions of Russia to renew control over the former Soviet republics. But the principles of today’s Eurasian integration are substantially different compared to the Soviet project. The EAEU declares equality among all members and lays out other postulates about integration, which are now mostly about economics, not ideology or politics.

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Of course, the common imperial and Soviet past is a strong foundation for the integration project. These potential connections, which have existed between states for a long time, can promote integration and help better understand the interests of each member.

Another myth is that the EAEU was a Ukraine-centric concept. People claim that Eurasian integration will fail and be irrelevant without the involvement of Ukraine in this project. But, on the contrary, the Ukrainian crisis has given a push (especially, to Russia) to develop the Eurasian integration track and encourage its effectiveness to avoid dissatisfaction inside countries. Ukraine was really an important potential member, but not the most important one.

Some critics point out that Eurasian integration is involuntary and manipulated by the Kremlin, but arguments do not go further than these simple allegations. Firstly, there is no clear evidence in any of the official documents about the dominance of Russia.

Secondly, of course, there are always links between the politics and economics, and bargaining is the normal process in international relations. By the way, it was Kazakhstan that offered the idea of Eurasian integration in the 1990s. And the system of subnational bodies is set up to counterbalance national ambitions, which might infringe on interests of other member states.

The clichés are quiet enduring among Western observers, but it’s important to have a deeper look at the meaning of Eurasian integration.

Benefits of Eurasian integration and the new multipolar world

There are standard benefits of economic integration in general, which Eurasian integration brings to the world. They include free trade and free movement of goods, capital, services and workforce, lower probability of conflicts because of the interdependence of stakeholders, higher opportunities for economic gains and new forms of cooperation.

Eurasian integration is also the response to the challenges of globalization. It protects states from the side effects of globalization processes and helps to get more benefits from world trade. Overall it is a positive sum game for all the members – each stakeholder gets benefits without hampering the interests of others.

At the same time, Eurasian integration is an attempt to keep pace with emerging global trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Even though Eurasian Integration has much less clout, it is a positive sign the post-Soviet countries are trying to catch up with a global trend.

After all, it is much easier to cooperate together, and Russia is not an exception to this rule. Eurasian integration is yet another way to bolster global multipolarity, with the interests of numerous stakeholders taken into account.

As well, Russia is interested in a stable and predictable environment along its borders, as well as neighbors who are open for negotiations and not liable to revolutions, coups and internal instability. These problems are often caused by economic problems inside nations.

Unfortunately, Ukraine is an example of such a problematic neighbor. Eurasian integration to a certain extent became a matter of dispute in the process of determining foreign policy toward Ukraine in 2010-2013. But Eurasian integration had an opportunity to reconcile Ukraine and Russia – at least, until 2014.

Today there are some chances of Kiev and Moscow finding common ground, but it will be extremely difficult, if impossible, in the current political situation.

Pivot to the East

Eurasian integration used to be positioned as a bridge or a transitional point to the Greater Europe. Until recently, many researchers have seen it as a foundation for creating the common cooperative space together with the European Union, as a basis for a broader continental integration.

But new trends in the world and deep division in Europe drives Russia to reassess its concept of integration - “From Lisbon to Vladivostok.” This just doesn’t seem viable during a period of Moscow’s confrontation with the West.

On the contrary, today’s Eurasian integration targets not Europe, but Asia, while becoming an essential part of Russia’s so-called pivot to the East. The alignment of the Chinese “One Belt, One Road’ initiative with the EAEU is a clear indication of this, although it is incomplete and vague.

Another example is the attempt to establish a free trade zone between the EAEU and Vietnam, which expresses interest in signing agreements with the EAEU. Likewise, India, Israel, Egypt and Turkey seem to be ready to cooperate economically with the EAEU. They could be willing the same types of agreements.

The EU reluctance to cooperate with the EAEU  (because of the Ukrainian crisis and difficulties in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements) pushes Eurasian integration toward the Eastern or Asian countries to a greater extent. In particular, it forces Russia to reinvigorate its “turn to the East.” However, it does not necessarily mean that Russia neglects its European part of identity; it just means that the Kremlin is reassessing its foreign policy priorities.

Challenges for Russia

However, Eurasian integration poses a lot of challenges for Russia. Much depends on creative approaches and the political will to deal with them.

One of the most important challenges is the threat of losing sovereignty in some areas, which is a strong pitfall for all five of the member states. A balanced and flexible mechanism of decision-making is needed, but perhaps not such a complicated structure as the European Union, because it may be seen as another bureaucratic institution in the post-Soviet states.

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At the same time, Russia faces the migration challenge. However, in fact, if Eurasian integration will work properly, it will alleviate the threat. Because of the economic benefits of integration, the standards of living of other states might become high enough so that citizens need not go to Russia to earn money.

Integration has to be gradual, although there is always a temptation to speed up the process in a time of dynamic changes in the world. As well as the Brexit case and multiple internal crises within the EU show, the European integration model is far from perfect; it contains many flaws, so the EAEU must have its own recipes and adjust the EU experience to the post-Soviet reality. Moreover, the Eurasian space is not similar to the EU one: somewhat different mentality, culture, social and economic structure should be taken into account.

Another issue is the huge Russian territory and the threat of being the only leader or hegemon in the integration process.

 “Our neighbors in Eurasia — Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and others — are also seeking to prop up their national sovereignty,” said Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin in an interview with Russia Direct. “They just want to be themselves and avoid becoming the provinces of a greater Russia. All this means that there won’t be the second Soviet Union.

Today the EAEU just needs to come up with its own recipes to become effective, unique and profitable for all members. Russia has to think over how to become less “scary” and “imposing” to real and potential member states of the EAEU.

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Open dialogue and public diplomacy could play a significant role in the explanation and discussion of the benefits and challenges of Eurasian integration. But the fact is that Eurasian integration has started and it can no longer be ignored, either by internal stakeholders and member states or by external players, such as other states and integration structures in the international arena.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.