March 21, 2012
The implosion of the Soviet Union has in many ways adversely affected the stability of the Central Asian republics like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. Since 1991, a loose alliance of 11 former Soviet republics, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), was formed in order to preserve, at least in part, the Soviet-era heritage in regional economic integration.
The geopolitical competition for influence in Central Asia has ceased to be a Russia-only affair, however. China is rapidly becoming a big player in the energy sweepstakes, if its direct dealings with Turkmenistan and others are any guide. Closer to Europe, Turkey has also been willing to take the lead in promoting Eurasian integration. Thus, on the 5th of February 2010, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has stated during a business conference that “there is a need to embark on a new vision in order to have the Eurasia region regain its historical importance”. Assembling the five “stans” into an Eurasian common structure would, in Davutoglu’s view, be useful to establish “a link between energy-supplying countries and energy-receiving countries”.
Turkey’s ability to foster Eurasian regional integration is based on common cultural and religious roots of the inhabitants of the Central Asian republics. To further its diplomatic aims, Turkey has founded TURKSOY in 1993 in Alma Aty (Kazakhstan), as an international organisation for the promotion of Turkish culture abroad.
As the Arab revolutions have forced Turkey’s diplomats to put the Eurasian project on the back-burner, the opportunity has astutely been seized by Vladimir Putin. In an article entitled “A New Integration Project for Eurasia: The Future in the Making” published by Izvestia on the 4th of October 2011, Vladimir Putin has outlined his vision for the creation of an Eurasian Union larger in size than the European Union. Putin argues that the objective is to build “a new, strong, supranational union that could become one of the poles of the modern world, and could play the role of an effective bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region”.
His proposed union would be much more than a mere customs union and would include such common institutions as an Eurasian Commission, similar to the one in Brussels, an Eurasian parliament, as well as an Eurasian common currency. To foster regional integration, the Eurasian union “should be built on the inheritance of the Soviet Union: infrastructure, a developed system of regional production specialisation, and a common space of language, science and culture” (V.Putin).
Putin claims that the impetus for the regional integration plans was provided by the financial crisis – a reason invoked by the Chinese, as well, in plans to build their own trade bloc together with the ASEAN countries.
According to Mars Sariev, a Kyrgyz political scientist, Putin and the Russian foreign policy elite have had little choice but to come up with a blueprint for integrating the former Soviet republics into a regional bloc. The alternative, he claims, would be for Russia to become a mere supplier of raw materials for the EU and China. Recently, during an Eurasian Economic Community summit involving Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, their leaders have decided to postpone the creation of the Eurasian Union until 2015. Curiously enough, the project’s most vocal opponent was Belarus’ president Lukashenko, although Ukraine’s president Yanukovich, whose country was present at the summit as an observer, also expressed serious reservations regarding Putin’s plans.
Professor Gerhard Simon of the University of Cologne assesses the chances of success for the proposed Eurasian Union project as “slim to none”. The president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, considers the project as being the blueprint for “a new Soviet Union”, a charge vehemently denied in his Izvestia article by Vladimir Putin.
The biggest misgivings concerning the Eurasian project come from countries like Azerbaijan and Georgia, which together with Turkey have already formed a geopolitical team that benefits from US assistance. Both countries experience ethnic turmoil, Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and Georgia in South Ossetia. Azerbaijan would rather export its oil and gas directly to Europe, through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. SOCAR, the Azeri state oil company has invested 1 billion US dollars in Georgia and controls 80 percent of the latter’s fuel stations. Georgia, meanwhile, is strongly courting NATO and EU membership and is complaining about Brussels’ foot-dragging regarding its accession hopes.
To be sure, the geopolitical competition between Turkey and Russia for the creation of an Eurasian union is heating up. Whilst it is hard to envisage an Eurasian union built around Russia, given its enormous size and colonial record, Turkey’s recent policy paralysis does not qualify it as a strong regional leadership contender, either. (sources: EurActiv, Voice of America News, Deutsche Welle, The Atlantic, Izvestia, Today’s Zaman, www.TurkishCentralNews.com)Florian Pantazi