Just recently, Open Democracy has featured a series of articles taking a look at opinion on the Eurasian Economic Union in the smaller states soon to join this Russia-directed project. What do Armenians, Belarusians, and Kazakhstanis think?
On Armenia, Greg Forbes’ article “Armenia and the EEU: the point of no return for Yerevan” suggests that Armenia is making the best of an unenviable situation.
Armenia’s dramatic turnabout decision to move towards Customs Union membership is most commonly attributed by western pundits to a campaign of sustained pressure from Moscow. Increasingly concerned with developments in neighbouring Ukraine post-Euromaidan, and hostile to soft power intrusions into the former Soviet space, Russia made clear its disappointment with Yerevan’s pursuit of an Association Agreement with Brussels. Armenia, dependent on Russia for energy, regional security and trade, and thus arguably hostage to Russian geopolitical interests, duly acquiesced.
However, as some observers have noted, there’s probably more to this picture than might meet the eye. Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan presides over a struggling economy and there has been significant domestic opposition to his government since contentious elections in February 2013 saw street protests dispute the legitimacy of his re-election to a second term. Yerevan’s hurried change of heart may have been prompted as much by Sargsyan’s sense of acute political vulnerability as by Armenia’s strategic dependency on Russia: Sargsyan was seeking to shore up his position with near-term economic rewards from Moscow and to forestall Russia’s possible fomenting of a more pliable client (the Kremlin boasts ties with the main opposition Prosperous Armenia Party, former President Robert Kocharian and allegedly with dozens of MPs from the ruling Republican Party).
To date Armenia has received relatively little in return for signing up to Russia’s grand project of regional integration. This reflects the profound position of weakness from which Armenia must negotiate with her patron. There are three core geopolitical drivers to the Russo-Armenian relationship and all of them are weighted in Russia’s favour: the supply of Russian energy to Armenia, the access of Armenian citizens to the Russian labour market, and Russia as Armenia’s security guarantor in the face of Azerbaijan’s revanchist aspirations.
On Belarus, Vadzim Smok suggests (“Belarus and the EEU: caught between a rock and a hard place”) that while this integration might be relatively popular, it isn’t actually changing the underlying Russian-Belarusian relationship much. The two countries are already closely integrated.
A March 2014 study by Belarus’s Independent Institute for Social, Economic and Political Research meanwhile asked the question: ‘If you had to choose between unification with Russia or membership of the EU, which would you choose?’ When the same question was asked in December 2013, about half of respondents answered in favour of the EU, but now, three months later, with the crisis in Ukraine and the help of a powerful Russian propaganda campaign, opinion has swung away from Europe, although more than a half of Belarusians still oppose the idea of hypothetical unification with Russia.
In other words, Belarusians are only interested in the economic side of integration, or to be more precise its impact on their own standard of living, and have little interest in grand political projects. If Eurasian integration brings no financial benefits, they will happily turn their attention back to the West. But recent events have shown that although Eurasian integration doesn’t seem to be moving very fast, the Lukashenka government is wary of sowing the seeds of disaffection among the public, to avoid annoying Russia.
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A poll conducted by the Belarus Business and Management Institute’s Research Centre, in 2013 found that over 50% of owners of small-and-medium-sized businesses (SMB) saw the current level of integration in a fairly positive light, and 44% were in favour of further integration. Only 19% spoke out against the present situation, and 23% against an increase in integration. These figures nevertheless show a significant drop in approval compared to 2012: pro-integration numbers were down by 17%, and anti-integration ones up by 7%.
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Eurasian integration has not, in fact, had any significant economic effect on Belarus, primarily because its partnership with Russia predates the ECU and EEU; in 1999 Lukashenka and then Russian president Boris Yeltsin set up the Union State of Russia and Belarus, which created close economic ties between the two countries. The current political situation is good for Lukashenka: the increasing external pressure on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine has brought concessions from the Kremlin on the single energy market, although Putin’s insistence on bilateral agreements means that he wants to use annual energy supply contracts to keep Belarus under his thumb. It also means that Belarus will be even more economically dependent on Russia than before (and it is already deeply dependent).
On Kazakhstan, meanwhile, Luca Anceschi and Paolo Sorbello argue in their “Kazakhstan and the EEU: the rise of Eurasian scepticism” that skepticism about Eurasian integration is being used strategically by the government and by opposition factors.
Rampant anti-Eurasianism represents a key factor in understanding the cleavage between the two main political alternatives to Kazakhstan’s current establishment. The first constituent of the Kazakhstani opposition appears to be favouring western models of political participation, seeing as it incarnates values and visions strongly influenced by US and European traditions. Close monitoring of its activities – as well as brutal repression – have ensured that the forces of this opposition have never become strong enough to have a sizeable impact on Kazakhstan’s political landscape. Pro-government media and political organisations have systematically discredited these actors and portrayed them as ‘foreign agents,’ working to facilitate the capitalist exploitation of Kazakhstan.
The other main opposition grouping – which can be roughly presented under the umbrella of the NatsPatrioty – is fuelled by nationalist sentiments, sits at the right of Kazakhstan’s political spectrum, and tends to manifest its views by advocating the promotion of the Kazakh language and the preservation of Kazakh culture. This group is important to the leadership in Astana, as it includes a sector of its supporters that have become increasingly uneasy with some of the government’s policies. For this reason, Nazarbaev and his associates have largely tolerated the agenda of the NatsPatrioty. The leadership has seemed unwilling to challenge their points of view and has even been known to espouse some of the NatsPatrioty’s arguments, in order to shape legislation introduced to the detriment of Kazakhstan’s main domestic minorities (Russians, Koreans, Germans, and others) or its key international partners (Russia, China, the US). Rumours that the regime has artfully fomented this strand of opposition may remain unfounded but it is undoubtedly true that some of the NatsPatrioty arguments have promoted a divisive nationalism, which is widening the gap between the different components of Kazakhstan’s multi-national fabric and, interestingly, is being used to put more distance between Astana and its neighbours.
In this context, the NatsPatrioty anti-EEU discourse encapsulates their duplicity vis-à-vis the establishment: the same opponents of the new framework, in fact, are defending the original idea that Nazarbaev presented 20 years ago in Moscow. Their criticism is targeted at Russia, as the NatsPatrioty see Kazakhstan as just a partner being deceitfully driven into the arms of the greedy bear. This discourse facilitates the airing of various opposition grievances, and it ultimately causes the juxtaposition of domestic issues – the country’s economic situation, a suffering job market and industries, its many environmental disasters – with international and geopolitical questions of sovereignty, respect for international law, and prestige in the global arena; a set of foreign policy concerns very dear to the leadership in Astana.