ISTANBUL - Thursday, July 26, 2012 -
Vladimir Putin’s “return” to the Russian presidency has been accompanied by a worldwide debate about Russia’s foreign policy priorities, and in particular the Eurasian Union.
One of Putin’s first moves was to sign an “Executive Order On Measures to Implement the Russian Federation Foreign Policy,” which stresses the importance of the so-called Eurasian Union. In this respect, many have been wondering about the reactions of post-Soviet countries to this initiative and what tools Russia will deploy to put pressure on those governments.
However, with regard to the implementation of the Eurasian Union idea, debates started at the end of 2011 across the post-Soviet region, where it quickly became that the initiative enjoyed greater popularity in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev had even championed a similar idea before Putin. However, the idea appealed less to the countries of the South Caucasus.
This brand of economic integration is less attractive in the South Caucasus, where Russia’s political and cultural hold is getting weaker: ethnic Russians make up less than 2 percent of the population in each regional country; Russian education is increasingly less attractive with both Azerbaijan and Georgia implementing state education programs to support overseas education in the U.S. and European universities. Russian as the “lingua franca” is weaker than in Central Asia.
This reminds Russia that a new generation of thinkers in this region is increasingly westernized in terms of cultural and educational affiliation, and this could be the “long goodbye” in the sense of Russia’s influence in the region. In political terms, Georgia sees the Eurasian Union as a reunion of the Soviet Union, and due the political stalemate, official Tbilisi’s refusal to participate is understandable.
This can be observed in Azerbaijan more openly, but while the political and social elite have little confidence in this initiative, it is still the case that no one wants to anger Moscow. In Azerbaijan, the official discourse is balanced; the authorities have said clearly they are currently not interested in a customs union or the notion of a Eurasian Union, not seeing any benefits for their country. At the same time, they also want to avoid taking any action that might damage bilateral relations with Russia -- a case in which diplomatic strategies require careful scrutiny.
Armenia is heavily dependent on Russia in economic and military terms and sometimes even politically. However, there is no eagerness to respond at this stage.
Broadly speaking, there are two camps: the political elite, who want less dependence on Moscow and more integration with Europe and who oppose the idea, and the ruling elite, who acknowledge their dependence on Russia but don’t want to lose their financial aid from the European Union and who are moderately against the proposal. In general, the Armenian reading of Moscow’s integration projects remains centered on the geopolitical issues (the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, relations with the EU), rather than on the need for any kind of supranational Eurasian integration.
From Russia’s standpoint, Azerbaijan and Armenia are crucial for the Eurasian integration project. Moscow is applying different types of pressure in each country, and visits by high-ranking Russian officials to Azerbaijan and Armenia in mid-July indicate that Moscow is taking advantage of the international focus on the Middle East, and has started diplomatic maneuvers.
In Armenia, Russian Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko met on July 11 with the chairman of the National Assembly of Armenia, Ovik Abramyan, and urged Yerevan to join the free trade agreement, which, according to Matviyenko, “creates conditions for invigorated trade and economic cooperation.” But even the Armenian leadership has said that Yerevan has no plans to join a customs union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
However, in the run-up to the 2013 presidential elections, Russian-backed politicians in Yerevan are supporting Putin’s idea, which poses a challenge to the current government. The Prosperous Armenia Party welcomed the initiative, and Tigran Urikhanyan, party spokesman, argued that Armenia is already part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and has close economic ties with other ex-Soviet states that can serve as a basis for Armenian membership of the union.
In the case of Azerbaijan, Russia’s attitude is slightly different. A few weeks in advance of the visit by Speaker of the State Duma Sergey Narishkin to Azerbaijan on July 8-9, the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Lezgins held its first conference at Moscow’s President Hotel. The political importance of this event was reflected in the hotel’s ownership; it belongs to the Russian presidential administration and several Russian officials attended the meeting.
This suggests that Russia has renewed interest in provoking separatism among ethnic minorities. The Lezgin ethnic group lives near the Azerbaijan-Russia border. Back in 1990s and early 2000s, the Lezgin separatist movement Sadval, responsible for a number of terrorist strikes in Azerbaijan, had unofficial support from some forces in Russia.
Regardless, to this day Armenia has played a leading role in keeping the “ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan” issue alive by financing and hosting conferences and other initiatives with participation of representatives of similar separatist organizations. In this context, if an event that legitimizes nationalist movements is hosted in Moscow, in a hotel owned by the Presidential Office and attended by high-ranking officials, this is more than a conference. It’s a message and a form of pressure directed at Azerbaijan.
At this juncture, the countries in favor of the Eurasian Union seem to hold such positions mainly because the current political and economic deadlock gives them no other choice. Other countries have challenged this integrative strategy not because of Moscow’s lack of legitimate capacity to generate an integrationist dynamic, but rather because there are questions over its ability to do so. The low level of trust in the Kremlin’s role and capabilities is a key element of the prevailing skepticism about Moscow’s integration project in the South Caucasus.
(This column was first published in the Today’s Zaman web site. See original article at http://www.todayszaman.com/columnistDetail_getNewsById.action?newsId=287520#.UBF8gKGg7wd.twitter)