Putin the Statesman

Playing hardball comes naturally to Putin, but there's another side to his foreign policy (call it Nice Putin) that eschews confrontation and strife.

Putin's model for how nations should associate with one another is the Common Economic Space (CES), a free-trade zone that currently includes Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Putin called its formation "without exaggeration, a historic milestone for all three countries and for the broader post-Soviet space."

Here are more comments from Putin on the CES, as published in Izvestia. It reveals much about what makes the guy tick.

We are making [CES] integration a comprehensible, sustainable, and long-term project, attractive to both individuals and businesses that operate independently from fluctuations in the current political environment or any other circumstances.

Later, this framework will also include common visa and migration policies, allowing border controls between our states to be lifted.

[New] conditions ... will foster trans-border cooperation. For the general public, the lifting of migration, border and other barriers, including what are known as labor quotas, will mean that they have a free choice about where to live, study, or work, [thereby creating] a civilized environment for labor migration.

Broad swathes of opportunities will also open up for businesses. I am referring here to new dynamic markets governed by unified standards and regulations for goods and services—in most cases consistent with European standards.

I am convinced that in economic terms the commonwealth must be firmly founded in extensive trade liberalization.

[The CES will create] real jurisdiction competition for entrepreneurs. All Russian, Kazakh, and Belarasian entrepreneurs will be able to choose in which of the three countries to register their companies, where they want to do business. ... This will be a serious incentive for national administrative systems to start improving their market institutions, administrative procedures and their business and investment climate. Taken as a whole, these systems will be forced to address their inadequacies and all the lacunae they have never addressed before, and advance their legislation in line with best European and global practices.

[It] is highly important for us that the general public and business communities in all three countries perceive the integration project not as some kind of wheeze orchestrated by the top bureaucracy but as a living organism, and as a good opportunity to implement initiatives and succeed. [It will] be guided by the basic requirements to minimize bureaucracy and heed people's actual interests.

Is the ex-KGB officer really a champion of free and open markets? If his words can be believed, it would appear so. And there is more.

[We] are setting ourselves an ambitious goal: to move to the next, even higher level of integration, to a Eurasian Union.

The result, in his words, would be a "full-fledged economic union," capable of rivaling the European Union and China.

To make that happen, he proposes extending the CES customs union to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which have sought aid from Moscow. Kyrgyzstan is likely to join in 2015, as is Armenia.

Putin is also courting Azerbaijan and Moldova, although in competition with the European Union. The possibility of pulling Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan away from Chinese influence is being explored, although those three are wary of bringing Moscow back into their lives.

Note that Azerbaijan has lots of oil, while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are rich in both minerals and energy reserves. All would be plums for Putin's CES.

If the Eurasian Union seems like the resurrection of the USSR, well, that's the way most influential Washingtonians tend to see it, too. Putin, though, consistently downplays that notion.

In the Izvestia article, he insisted that "none of this entails any kind of revival of the Soviet Union. It would be naive to try to revive or emulate something that has been consigned to history. But these times call for close integration based on new values and a new political and economic foundation."

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