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Interpreting the Eurasian Economic Union: Flawed Obsession with Geopolitics

The EEU came into existence on 1 January 2015 as an organisation for regional cooperation comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. Kyrgyzstan formally joined in August 2015. Foreshadowing the creation of the EEU in late 2011, Vladimir Putin characterised it as a “powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world and serving as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia- Pacific region”. He was adamant that “none of this entails any kind of revival of the Soviet Union” and stressed its mission to work alongside China, the EU and the United States towards sustainable global development (Putin 2011).

This vision was quickly challenged by critics in the west who spoke about the project using idioms of Russian imperialism and the Kremlin’s bid for continental or even global hegemony, thus casting it as primarily an adversarial geopolitical project. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was unequivocal in passing judgement on the advancing Eurasian integration:

There is a move to re-Sovietise the region ... It’s not going to be called that.

It’s going to be called a customs union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that... But let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it. (cited in Clover 2012)

There is now an impressive corpus of literature portraying the EEU as a sort of reservation established by the neo-imperialist Putin regime for neighbouring post-Soviet nations which they are intimidated or cajoled to join against their will (Blank 2014; Mankoff 2014; Orenstein 2015; Standish 2015). Even those authors who do not regard the Russian president as an aggressive thug tend to argue that the EEU is a defensive geopolitical project designed to secure Russia’s hegemonic position in Eurasia, in the face of competing initiatives such as the European Neighbourhood Policy (Krickovic 2014).

The temptation to analyse the EEU through the lens of geopolitics - an ultimate form of realism - is understandable given the current tensions between Russia and the west, and the allure ofa theory that explains alliance formation parsimoniously through the logic of balance of power. There are three problems inherent in this approach. First, as Chidley argued, the predominant concern of global security in any interstate alignment “need not preoccupy scholars to the extent that it obscures other motivators and accounts of state behaviour” (2014, p. 153). The EEU easily lends itself to the alternative analytical toolkit of new institutionalism, constructivism, policy network analysis, multilevel governance, regulatory politics, constitutionalism or the “politics like any other” approach (see Bulmer 2007, pp. 118-122). It is quite appropriate to tackle the EEU as a mechanism of cooperation divorced from the security field where participants pursue welfare through economies of scale, lower transaction costs and improved information flow (Rittberger et al. 2006 pp. 16-20; Cho 2014, p. 53). Far from constituting a political and military threat to the West, Eurasian integration may simply result in the emergence of yet another “economic region in the neo-liberal world system driven by global markets” (Lane 2014, pp. 4-6).

The second problem is the misrepresentation of the EEU’s operational mode. It is often portrayed as a vehicle for Russian domination where supranational organs and regulations disproportionately benefit Moscow (Barbashin 2015). The EEU is implicitly measured against the old autarkic Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) in such assessments. A closer look at the organisation’s treaty and institutional setup actually evokes strong parallels with the process of European economic integration somewhere between the 1957 Treaty of Rome and the Single European Act of 1987 in terms of delegation of specific powers and competences from the national level and extent of policy coordination (Voronina 2013, p. 241).1 Conflicts ofinterest in regional economic blocs are nothing new (Rittberger et al. 2006, pp. 145-146), and the EEU is yet to experience its equivalent of the EEC’s “empty chair” crisis of 1965 when France boycotted Council meetings in an attempt to get its way on a range of issues.

The final and perhaps most egregious problem with the geopolitical mindset is its treatment of smaller countries as objects of international politics, the gormless pawns in various great games played by the superpowers. Although a lot of critical effort went into showing the remarkable resourcefulness of the former Soviet republics in engaging with, directing, harnessing and deflecting external agency (Cooley 2012; Kavalski 2010), the reductionist take on Eurasian integration that treats it as a function of power play by Moscow versus Washington (or Beijing, or Brussels) with little input from current and prospective EEU members continues to be widespread. At best, commentators insert brief caveats in their geopolitical narratives, for example, Krickovic (2014, p. 505): “This is not to argue that the region’s smaller and weaker states are simply an object of Russia’s power. These states will undoubtedly play an important role in the integration process and Russia will have to appeal to their interests and concerns”.

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