Is the Eurasian Union becoming a mirage?

The Eurasian Union makes today a step forward, as the prime ministers of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan – the funding members of the Custom Union – are meeting in Moscow to discuss an agreement for the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union, a second stage towards a broader political union. But Ukraine is still the missing tile.

According to RIA Novosti Russian agency, heads of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan will sign the agreement in May, as the Eurasian Economic Union is planned to take effects in the next months. "Eurasian economic union will take place. Presidents of the three countries are ready to sign an agreement on the establishment of the Eurasian Union starting from January 1, 2015 in May. I hope that these plans will be realized”, said Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov in a speech at the Eastern forum in Berlin on April 10.
The Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus has been in force for already four years, but in Kremlin’s view it’s high time to make of it a stronger and more internationally recognized entity. So far, a single customs zone where no duties or economic restrictions were applied, let you travel from Moscow to Minsk and Astana without coming across any border, any control, and with no need on any visa, just like the Schengen area. But this only represented the core where to start from, expanding the Union to other former USSR countries. And Ukraine has always been at the top of the list.

The Kremlin’s mirage
So far, only two countries have followed Russia, Belarus and Kazakstan. A number of other former USSR nations, including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, have stated interest in joining, under a certain pressure from Moscow. The other Central Asian countries are still not keen on membership. Nor are Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. And Ukraine, well, it’s still a big question point.
 “Cooperation has not advanced much beyond free trade. No comparison with the internal EU market, which is huge compared to that of the three EAU countries”, wrote on his blog Eberhard Rhein, Senior Adviser to the European Policy Centre on neighborhood policy, a Brussels based think tank.

The Russian annexation of Crimea has earned Mr. Putin huge popularity, rocketing his approval rate at more than 70%. At the same time, it seemed to end his dream of bringing the rest of Ukraine voluntarily into the new structure, making the original Eurasian Union a “mirage”, as Rhein says. “This may also explain his reactions to the Ukrainian shift toward Europe. If he succeeded to “recover” the Donetsk basin, Ukraine’s industrial core, he might succeed in winning even more support from the nationalist majority at home. But at what costs for him and Russia? And how often can he play that trick?”

The missing tile
The fact is that today Putin needs Ukraine more than ever. The Eurasian Union project, actually modeled on the European Union is, according to many observers, a re-release de-ideological USSR, of which already covers two-thirds indeed. The ambitious project goes well beyond the simple removal of borders between the three ex-Soviet countries. If the adhesion of the other Central Asian republics will lead to a further extension of territorial Eurasian Union, only the entry of Ukraine will provide this new entity with a pan-Slavic character and - in the absence of an ideological constituent basis - an internationally recognized identity.

“Rather than pursuing the mirage of a Russian-dominated Eurasian Union”, Rhein continued, “[the Kremlin] would be well advised to follow a more realistic approach of a Eurasian free trade area with the EU, fully based on the rule of law”. Possibly, an even more ambitious project.

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