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President Putin of Eurasia (part 2)

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7 October 2011 15:45

John Besemeres is an Adjunct Fellow at the Centre for European Studies at the ANU. Part 1 here.

If Moscow succeeds in manoeuvring Ukraine back into its sphere of influence, it will be a huge victory for Putin, one that may lead to a major restoration of Russian power in the vast Eurasian region. 

That is what Putin's well-timed and adroitly-formulated proposal about a Eurasian Union is all about. He is at pains to assert that this is not the USSR Mark II, that members of the Eurasian Union will be completely free to make their own choices, that the Eurasian Union would seek to have close ties with the EU so that nothing would really be lost in that respect, etc. etc. 

Indeed members of the putative union, he argues, would be better able to advance their interests with the EU from a position of collective strength. The proposal is also skillfully formulated to imply to Putin's West European friends in Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece and elsewhere that this is a proposal aimed at strengthening Russia's links with the West.

   

What Putin is able to offer autocrats and dictators throughout the post-Soviet space above all is the one thing they crave most: freedom from irritating democratic constraints domestically and having to endure endless harping about human rights and other such rubbish from their EU partners. A Putinist power vertical could be established throughout the Union, ensuring 'stability' for all incumbents. 

Recently, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-led military alliance of seven former Soviet republics, the members discussed setting up arrangements to ensure that, in the event of one of its members being threatened by a 'colour revolution' (as occurred in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan), all other members would come to the aid of their threatened colleague. One leader at the CSTO meeting who was particularly strong in his advocacy of solidarity against the threat of people power was the 'last dictator of Europe', Alexander Lukashenka of Belarus.

A colour revolution is the besetting fear of most post-Soviet autocracies, a fear reinforced by the Arab Spring. Even the popular Putin regime has felt acutely anxious about such a development at different times. The CSTO appears to be pushing towards an insurance policy against people power, a kind of Brezhnev Doctrine for our times. 

Perhaps it is not accidental (as the Soviet press used to like to say) that Putin's press secretary has recently had some words of praise for the late Soviet leader. Opposition bloggers in Russia have recently been comparing Putin to Brezhnev as they express their fears about the prospect of his being president until at least 2024.

But just as the Customs Union and the CSTO have proven unattractive to many of the autocrats in the post-Soviet space, so too may the Eurasian Union. While post-Soviet bosses do not relish political pluralism or Western interference in their domestic affairs, they also fear domination from Moscow. Some who can afford to do so may continue to resist Mr Putin's cordial invitations. And many will try to balance for as long as they can between Moscow and Brussels. 

Still, Putin has chosen his moment well. If Ukraine can be blocked from tilting towards integration with a weakened and distracted EU now, there is a chance Brussels will succumb to even greater disarray and enlargement fatigue as the euro crisis marches on. Even at the best of times, many Europeans are blind to the strategic importance of Ukraine or would be happy to 'give' it to Russia, in exchange for freedom from any repetition of the gas wars of 2006 and 2009.

At the recent summit in Warsaw of EU leaders with their counterparts from the six western former republics of the USSR (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – the so-called Eastern Partnership group), Ukraine was again encouraged to conclude negotiations by year's end for an association agreement, though no such encouragement was offered to Moldova or Georgia, two countries who meet the democratic criteria better than the others in the group. Even this outcome would probably not have been achieved in the present EU atmosphere of crisis and enlargement fatigue, were it not for the leg-work of Poland, the current half-yearly holders of the EU presidency, and Sweden.

If Western Europe fails to maintain its interest in the future of the former western republics of the Soviet Union, a sharp new demarcation line could develop by 2024 between the EU of the 27 and the countries to its east. Despite Moscow's repeated official declarations that NATO is its principal enemy, this would be unlikely to become the kind of hermetic, heavily fortified barrier of recent memory. But it would hardly be in the best interests of populations on either side of the wall.

Photo 1 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo 2 by Flickr user John McNab.

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