Vladimir Putin's Impotent Eurasian Union

Why the Russian president’s dream of 'near abroad' linked to Moscow might be less than the sum of its parts.

It was never meant as a return to the Soviet Union. When Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, first called for a Eurasian Union just over 20 years ago, he envisaged a grouping of individual states with individual interests coming together for the economic benefit of one another. Nazarbayev, an iron-fisted autocrat and the only president an independent Kazakhstan has ever known, cited, seemingly without irony, "the will of the people to integration" as he tried to justify the reintegration of independent states the Soviet Union's demise had left behind.

On May 29, Nazarbayev witnessed this goal finally come to fruition. Sort of. Alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Nazarbayev signed the founding treaty of the Eurasian Union (EEU) in Astana, paving the way for the transition from their current customs union to the full-fledged EEU on Jan. 1, 2015. Putin called the signing an event of "epoch-making significance."

But Putin has a way of mangling rhetoric and reality. While the EEU seeks to rejoin the post-Soviet space in economic agglomeration -- and has even received interested partners from Vietnam to Syria -- it stands far from the goal Nazarbayev once held, and even further from what irredentist Putin would hope.

Rather than launching a wholesale effort at post-Soviet reintegration, the EEU has rapidly morphed into something far more degraded -- and has faced substantive pushback from states watching Putin attempt to shift the EEU into another vehicle for Russia's revanchism, displayed so obviously in Crimea. Where the concerns on the EEU were originally economic -- the benefits are discernibly slanted toward Moscow -- events in Ukraine have displayed that the Kremlin's neo-imperialism is back. "The original purpose of the Eurasian Union was to become a dominant regional economic organization, with a legal architecture controlled by Moscow," said Alexander Cooley, a political science professor at Barnard College. But Crimea ended up illustrating that Putin would much rather have something to "effectively lock countries into Moscow's political and economic orbit."

Modeled on the European Union's economic constructs, the new union will represent a market of 170 million, and will boast a total GDP of nearly $3 trillion. The EEU will serve as the maturation of the current customs union shared by the three nations, and will allow further economic integration -- increased free movement of goods, streamlined trade regulation, unified macroeconomic policy -- between member states. And the EEU has potential to keep growing. If Putin somehow manages to woo the remaining post-Soviet (non-Baltic) nations, the EEU's market could jump to some 300 million members and just under $4 trillion in combined GDP.

But that swell is far from plausible. Even before the EEU became official, members had many doubts about its benefits. Kazakhstan, Central Asia's most dynamic economy, has failed to procure the expected benefit from membership in the customs union, and the EEU looks to continue the trend. Involvement with the current customs union has continued to delay Kazakhstan's accession to the World Trade Organization, with the WTO citing "discrepancies" surrounding the external tariffs that will continue under the EEU. Meanwhile, Russia joined the WTO on its own, rather than as the bloc originally proposed. More worrying for members is what the World Bank found in a 2012 study: Membership in the customs union has, as a result of the external tariff, "depressed real wages by 0.5 percent and depressed the real return on capital in Kazakhstan by 0.6 percent." This will "[lead] to a loss of productivity gains in the long run" -- a finding shared by the European Union's Institute for Security Studies. By being forced to trade more with union member states, and less with nonmembers -- increasing "costs to businesses and consumers of imports," as the World Bank noted -- Kazakhstan is forced to forego technologically advanced goods and services, and is required to rely that much more heavily on Russian supply. As one Kazakh analyst puts it, the union has been "like letting a [Kazakh] schoolboy and a [Russian] professional boxer into the ring."

The economic problems with the union go deeper. Kazakhstan has already seen substantial devaluation and record-setting oil setbacks in 2014 -- unrelated to the union -- and as Russia's economy slows due to Western sanctions, it will likely drag Kazakhstan with it. And Astana's not the only one taking a hit. According to Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov, Russian fiscal support for the other two EEU member states could soon jump more than $30 billion, or five times its current rate, should all trade restrictions be lifted. For an economy sliding into recession and facing sanctions and capital flight, watching allies suck up much-needed funds is likely a difficult sight in Moscow. Moreover, says economist Aitolkyn Kourmanova, "Without direct subsidies, the Central Asian countries will not perceive any significant advantage to integrating with the [EEU]."

The events in Ukraine have cast an even darker pall over the Eurasian Union's formation. Where Nazarbayev once envisioned the EEU to be a coalition of equals, Moscow's neo-imperialism now appears the driving force for its enactment. "Suddenly, the concerns are no longer purely economic -- now, they're political," says Luca Anceschi, a Central Asian Studies lecturer at the University of Glasgow. These concerns haven't only come forth in EEU negotiations -- since Crimea, Astana has proposed increased penalties for those calling for separatism, and cut timetables for ethnic Kazakhs seeking citizenship. Meanwhile, nationalistic, anti-Russian protests -- the kinds seen rarely (if ever) in Kazakhstan -- have been growing in numbers.

This response is, on the whole, not that surprising. Northern parts of Kazakhstan have historically been part of Russia -- and more than 60 percent of Russians believe parts of neighboring countries "really belong to Russia." As one Kazakhstani, an ethnic Russian, recently asked me, "Do you really consider [Kazakhstan] a country?" In response to Putin's imperialistic push, Astana has increasingly cited the preeminence of its territorial sovereignty in EEU-related matters, and Nazarbayev has repeatedly called on slowing the integration process. "I am ... not a supporter of quick decision-making," Nazarbayev recently observed. "We all have to understand that we are not making a sparkling snowman here that would melt in the face of economic and geopolitical changes."

Putin's Crimean adventurism has effectively dampened any momentum the EEU once maintained. Russian calls for potential common passports and currency have fallen flat. The possibility of a Eurasian Parliament, first proposed by the Russian Duma in 2012, failed to find any traction in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Lukashenko recently noted that he would "fight" anyone attempting to challenge Belarus's sovereignty. "Even if it is Putin," he added.

It's not only Kazakhstan and Belarus taking issue with the EEU and with Moscow's neo-imperial push. Kyrgyzstan, which seems a natural fit to join the EEU -- remittances from Russia account for over 30 percent of the country's GDP, and over 35 percent of its imports come from EEU member states -- has delayed decisions on its pathway to membership multiple times. Armenia has seen protests against the union and, despite being one of the few countries to publicly support Russia's Crimean annexation, just witnessed Moscow double its offer of tank supplies to Yerevan's decades-long enemy, Azerbaijan. It's little wonder that Armenia has opted to continue talks with the EU about a postponed Association Agreement, which the country had appeared to swap for EEU membership only a few months ago.

But even if Armenia or Kyrgyzstan suddenly reversed course and rushed to join the EEU, their stunted economies would add little muster. For the EEU to really stand as any kind of consequential geopolitical pole, it would, in end, require the membership of Ukraine, whose industrial heft and 46-million-strong population represent the greatest economic force in the former Soviet Union after Russia. But events in Ukraine over the past six months all but preclude the country's potential recruitment. Kiev isn't exactly enthusiastic about joining a union with a government propping and propagating the civil war rumbling through Ukraine's east.

Ukraine's (non-)role in the EEU shares strong parallels with that other grand attempt at post-Soviet reunification: the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Rising from the refuse of the collapsed USSR, the CIS was meant to stand as a regional successor. But without Ukraine's wholesale participation -- Ukraine was only an associate member, and officially exited the group this month -- the CIS offered little more than photo ops and empty handshakes.

And that, it seems, is what the EEU now stands to offer: plenty of spectacle and ceremony, but with little to actually show. The association will be far from the goals either Nazarbayev or Putin once carried. The ghosts of the Soviet Union and an imperialist Russia surround the EEU -- but the organization will carry an impotence of the Kremlin's own doing.



D-Day's Going to Be a Bit Awkward This Year

Why the memory of the liberation of Europe is still a battlefield.

War is politics by other means and so is its commemoration. World leaders will gather on the beaches of Normandy on June 6 to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day and they will bring their political and historic baggage with them. Though the Battle of Normandy is over, the war over its significance continues and the day's events will represent the latest in a long series of conflicts over the ever-shifting meaning of one of the most decisive days in modern European history.

Among the presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors in attendance, only the group's lone constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is old enough to remember the war. The other leaders will probably experience a certain kind of nostalgia for an age when choices were clear and wars were good. But clarity and goodness are as much inventions of each nation's postwar narrative as they were part of the actual past. There is no single history of D-Day. There are, instead, only histories that vary from nation to nation and era to era, histories sculpted by changing political priorities and cultural concerns. Both as individuals and nations, we remember the pasts we choose to remember. All told, it is a pretty parochial exercise. And as the authors of the recent book D-Day in History and Memory suggest, "national parochialisms are shaped by transnational imperatives."

For many Europeans, perhaps no great power has been more parochial than the United States. But American parochialism has universal ambitions. Hardly had Europe been liberated from Nazi Germany before the American government began public commemoration. With the consent of the Élyseé, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) took control of strategic sites along the Normandy coast. And when the Normandy American Cemetery was inaugurated in 1956, the beach became, in the ABMC's inscription, a "portal of liberty." The stark simplicity of nearly 10,000 white crosses and Stars of David planted at Colleville would teach reverence to visiting Americans. No less important for the ABMC, however, the cemetery would also teach "alien people ... the sacrifices made by Americans."

But as time wore on, these alien people grew tired of such lessons. They began to insist that the sacrifices they had made get their commemoration, too. Through the 1950s, the French had promised never to forget, in President René Coty's words, their "infinite debt of gratitude" to America. But shortly after 1958, when Coty shut the doors to the Fourth Republic and gave the keys to Charles de Gaulle, the French debt suddenly became finite.

Indeed, in 1964, President de Gaulle refused to attend the 20th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. Instead, he sent one of his ministers, who declared that D-Day's success was due to the French Resistance. De Gaulle's absence was dictated, in part, by his own myth of liberation, in which the French alone threw off the German jackboot -- a myth designed to heal the political and ideological divisions that had scarred the nation after four years of German occupation. But it also reflected de Gaulle's effort to reassert France's role as a power of the first rank after the damage wrought by Nazi occupation and military defeats to anti-colonial insurgencies in Indochina and Algeria. His absence at Normandy foreshadowed his demand, two years later, for NATO headquarters to absent itself from Paris. The general's demoting of America's role in France's past went hand in hand with sidelining it in the present.

At the same time, the civilian population of Normandy began to insist on commemoration of its sacrifices, wrought mostly by American bombers. With 3,000 casualties, as many Normans died on June 6, 1944, as Americans. Over 20,000 civilians were killed by the time the Battle of Normandy ended in mid-August. Caen, a city of dubious strategic value, was pulverized, as were smaller cities like Saint-Lô. Allied shells transformed the countryside into a hecatomb, the fields pocked with bomb craters and rotting carcasses of cows and horses. In 1964, the same year de Gaulle absented himself from the official commemoration, French newspapers for the first time published the accounts of civilians who survived their own liberation. Forty more years had to pass before an official commemoration acknowledged the tremendous toll paid by French civilians.

For decades, two of Europe's biggest players were frustrated by their marginalization from D-Day commemorations. Helmut Kohl had the dubious distinction of serving long enough as Germany's chancellor to be snubbed twice at official commemorations. In 1984, France's then-President François Mitterrand considered inviting Kohl to the 40th anniversary commemoration, but French veterans' resistance put the kibosh to the idea. (By way of recompense, Mitterrand asked Kohl to join him later that same year at Verdun to mark the 70th anniversary of World War I.) Russia, while an ally in World War II, found itself on the other side of the West once the Cold War was underway. The American postwar emphasis on D-Day as the pivotal event of World War II had long annoyed Soviet Russia, just as American delays in opening a second front during the war had maddened Joseph Stalin. As the historian Robert Service notes, Stalin was "not amused" when he learned in 1942 that his new allies had decided to invade North Africa, and not Europe.

The shattering of the Soviet Union changed the choreography of commemoration once again -- though it took 15 years. In 2004, President Jacques Chirac invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the 60th anniversary of the storming of the Normandy beaches. Though Putin kept a poker face during the events, the Russian newspaper Pravda showed its hand, observing that, apart from Chirac, no other Western leader had thought to mention the staggering Russian sacrifices made during the war. A second newspaper, Izvestia, took the offensive: Putin's presence, it declared, reminded one and all that "the Second Front was just that, second."

Chirac didn't only reach a hand out to Russia, though. The 60th anniversary also saw the first German delegation on Normandy's beaches since June 6, 1944. Chirac had already responded to history's great weight when he acknowledged France's grim role in the Final Solution. He invited German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to do the same. The chancellor justified Chirac's decision when, in his official speech, he affirmed that the D-Day landings marked the beginning not just of France's liberation, but Germany's as well.

But a new front had since opened that threatened to poison ties among the Western nations gathered at Normandy. The Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq had been denounced by all the leaders at Normandy, except Tony Blair. Shortly before he left for France, Bush had linked the liberation of Europe to the "liberation" of Iraq. While this claim evoked mostly derision among European leaders, the commemoration itself nevertheless served a vital purpose. Remembrance of things past forced the now-fractious group of leaders to recall a shared history, in spite of dramatic differences over American-led wars. Despite the awkwardness of ignoring the Iraqi elephant on the beach, the French president expressed his country's gratitude for America's role in her liberation.

This year's commemoration will prove even more challenging. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now wound or winding down, have proved to be anything but good wars. The Obama administration's NSA spying and drone warfare, and even its position in the free trade negotiations that threaten the traditional French "cultural exception," have cast a pall on the United States' historic role as the country's liberator. Moreover, Vladimir Putin's presence will serve not just as a reminder of Russia's claims in Ukraine, but also of the support Moscow has given to many of the Euroskeptic parties whose recent success stunned European leaders.

While it is unclear how these events will influence the commemoration, it is quite clear that President François Hollande is ecstatic to play host. The perspective from the Élyseé has, of late, been especially bleak. In the wake of the European elections, the National Front, which ran against Europe, now claims to be the nation's leading political party. Though nearly 60 percent of the French did not bother to vote, the party's claim nevertheless must be taken seriously. As Hollande's approval ratings continue to fall to depths no other French president has seen, the Gaullist opposition party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), is imploding under the weight of scandals and scams.

Little wonder, then, that Hollande has grasped at this commemoration with the desperation of a drowning man reaching for a plank of wood. His invitation to both Putin and the newly elected president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, is aimed as much at France as the rest of the world. It will be tragic for Hollande if the commemoration ceremonies do not help revive his presidency. But it will be far more tragic if they fail to convince the participating nations to overcome their own parochialisms. One of the truly good consequences of the "good war" was a unified Europe. Its future is now in doubt and it is up to the leaders gathered at Normandy to remind us all of this, the true meaning of D-Day.