Unite or Lose Sovereignt
The Eurasian integration project is truly unique. For the first time in history several countries that were once part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union are trying to peacefully establish a new association. They are going through an agonizing and scandal-filled process of coordinating egoistic national interests, with fair to middling results to show for it. Indeed, part of what makes this project unique is the number of problems standing in its way.
I'll say up front that I'm not 100% sure of the union's chances of success. Currently its chances are not even 50%. But any obstacle can be surmounted.
The egoism of Russian and other elites is considerable. Soviet times are still fresh in their memory. Many Russian intellectuals and politicians would prefer to separate Russia from former Soviet republics by visa barriers, especially Central Asian states, where economic and political conditions are tough. Such appeals are often intellectually convincing and politically timely. However, integration mechanisms are the only way to civilize the labor market that binds Russia to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There is no other way to free the market from the hands of criminals. Those calling for the introduction of visas do not realize that, in this case, in several years we'll have to ask Beijing for permission to do business in these countries.
Imperial snobbery will get Moscow nowhere. Nor will Astana or Minsk achieve anything if they entertain excessive provincial pride.
Politicians, the media and rank-and-file citizens find it difficult to understand what real integration looks like and how to go about it. The search for hints of empire continues. Russia has criticized Belarus for not recognizing Abkhazia as well as its other partners for their failure to join the Russian delegation's walkout during Mikheil Saakashvili's scandalous speech to the UN General Assembly. In Europe, for comparison, partners in European associations lashed out at Paris for its barbarous war in Algeria, and France once blocked the work of all EU institutions for months.
The critics of integration want everything and they want it now, failing to realize that an integration union is not an empire, a select club or a kindergarten. Integration is about forming a union in which every member pursues its individual gains and should fight for them to the last breath.
The external resistance to Eurasian integration has been enormous. No integration project in history has encountered as much opposition from both the East and the West. The EU bluntly says that countries that pursue closer ties with the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia will have the door to Europe shut on them. China is less crude and only voices concerns about the possible impact of Eurasian integration on freedom of trade and investment in the CIS, i.e. the scale and depth of China's penetration of the former Soviet republics. Threats and outright bribery are being used. Russia is skillfully provoked into making abrupt movements and then accused of "exerting pressure" on Armenia and Ukraine, although Yerevan and Kiev were simply asked to make a choice. Drawing closer to the EU and preserving the former format of trade and economic relations with the Customs Union is impossible for purely technical reasons. It is not easy to acknowledge this but we must.
European integration began in much better conditions. NATO had already been around for almost 10 years and all the founders of the EU were NATO members. By 1958 the Americans and their political allies in Europe, including the Italian mafia, had already broken the back of the West European communist movement. The West was enjoying relative political harmony a kind that is still a remote prospect for the former Soviet states.
Raising the Eurasian Union to the international level
More concerted efforts are needed to raise the institutions of the Eurasian Union to the international level and to bring the head of the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC) into G20 and G8 meetings, talks with the EU and other international institutions. EEC members should work in all international formats that can influence the operation of the Customs Union, as this will allow Russia to make the voices of Belarus and Kazakhstan heard at the highest international level and make the project more valuable for its current and future members. It is time for Russia to stop shying away from promoting itself and its partners.
Balance between the supranational and interstate components has been difficult to achieve since the very start. The EEC is fairly strong. One Russian diplomat said its staff behaved "like Huns" in their pursuit of power. This is how a supranational bureaucracy should behave if it wants to be relevant. However, the second, interstate component of the institutional infrastructure is totally missing or, to be more precise, only exists at highest political level. Intergovernmental contacts remain bilateral, which unfortunately brings bilateral problems into the integration process. Russian, Belarusian and Kazakh diplomats are growing increasingly irritated at how rarely the EEC consults them.
We should follow Europe's lead and create interstate working bodies that could coordinate the positions of individual countries in dialogue with the EEC. In expert estimate, balance between supranational executive bodies and interstate institutions makes it possible to harmonize national interests on 75%-80% of all issues. We should also think about a parliamentary assembly, even one without significant power in the beginning.
Industry integration has been non-existent. The European Coal and Steel Community formed the backbone of what would become the European Union. In Eurasia the emphasis has been on achieving the free movement of goods, capital, people and services from the very start. But this is putting the cart before the horse, and it must be changed without delay. The opening of the market by itself does not make the industrial enterprises of the Customs Union competitive with their EU, Chinese or American counterparts. There must be industry cooperation in order to form a single economic entity. Common rules on industrial policy and government subsidies are essential.
There are serious obstacles to Eurasian integration, but they can be overcome with the measures I've mentioned and a very simple argument. The current rules of the game will not allow any country, even a big country like Russia, to retain independence in the face of deep cooperation with already established trade and economic blocs. The former Soviet republics do not stand a chance outside the Eurasian Union in either the West or the East. They will either have to give up their sovereignty or do everything themselves.