Conference Report: "The Evolution of the Eurasian Union: Economics, Politics, Geopolitics" February 5, 2016








On February 5, 2016, CERES hosted a one-day conference on “The Evolution of the Eurasian Union: Economics, Politics, Geopolitics.”  Over one hundred attendees listened as panelists from a wide range of American, European, Russian, and Chinese universities, think tanks, and organizations evaluated the Eurasian Economic Union’s economic and political impacts to date and assessed its future trajectory.  After an introduction by Dr. Joel Hellman, dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Dr. Mark Bassin opened the conference with a brief history of Eurasianism.    


Opening Keynote – A Century of Eurasianism: The Evolution of an Ideology: Dr. Mark Bassin

            Dr. Bassin traced the evolution of Eurasianism, focusing on the similarities and differences between ‘classical Eurasianism,’ which emerged following World War I, and its current incarnation, neo-Eurasianism, of which Alexander Dugin and Lev Gumilyov are the most prominent advocates.  Both classical and neo-Eurasianism share a vision of Eurasia as a multi-national community of fraternal peoples united by a shared civilization or Weltkultur.  This shared vision dictates the second commonality between the two ideologies: their stress on geopolitical unity with the former imperial subjects/Soviet republics as the primary geopolitical imperative for Russia.  However, he also noted that these commonalities are counterbalanced by three significant differences.  While classical Eurasianism rejected Russian nationalism and imperialism, neo-Eurasianism seeks to reestablish the leading position of ethnic Russians in the former Soviet space.  Secondly, classical Eurasianism was strongly isolationist, stressing the need to prioritize economic and political integration of internal spaces, while neo-Eurasianism promotes internal consolidation and directs attention externally.  Finally, classical and neo-Eurasianism differ in their perceptions of the West.  While classical Eurasianism viewed the West as Russia’s principal threat, neo-Eurasianism is more ambivalent, stressing Atlanticism as Russia’s principal enemy.  Alexander Dugin even views Western Europe as a potential ally for Russia (provided Western Europe recognizes its shared interest in rejecting US influence), an idea with no precedent in classical Eurasianist thought.


Panel 1 - Politics of the Eurasian Union: Chair: Ambassador William Courtney; Panelists: Dr. Alexander Cooley, Dr. Shaolei Feng, Dr. Vitaly Kozyrev

Dr. Cooley used theories and comparative examples of regional integration to examine the challenges facing the EEU.  The central challenge for all regional organizations is developing credible leadership, which is affected by power asymmetry within the organization, the type of contracting, and the degree of super-nationalism.  Citing the examples of the EU and NAFTA, Cooley argued that the EEU’s high power asymmetries, incomplete contracts, and dysfunctional super-nationalism will only heighten Russia’s credibility problems, undermining the viability of the EEU.  To conclude, Cooley addressed the potential for cooperation between the EEU and China, arguing that the EEU is fundamentally incompatible with China’s strategic vision for Central Asia, but China’s economic power will mean that Eurasian integration will increasingly take place on Chinese terms.  Dr. Feng concentrated on China’s perception of the EEU and its impact on Sino-Russian relations.  Noting that China’s primary interest in Central Asia is its long-term economic development, he argued that China views the EEU favorably as a mechanism to drive growth in the region, even if it results in a short-term decline in Sino-Russian trade.  Feng expressed cautious optimism about prospects for future Sino-Russian cooperation, citing progress in transportation and infrastructure projects and the Putin-Xi agreement on ‘One Belt, One Road.’  In his remarks, Dr. Kozyrev outlined three key dimensions of the EEU: economic, geopolitical, and civilizational.  He stressed the importance of the value-based component of the EEU, which presents Eurasia as a separate civilization opposed to materialistic, hedonistic European values, though he conceded that a uniform Eurasian identity has not been formed.  To conclude, Kozyrev stressed the need for good governance in the EEU’s Central Asian member states, arguing that China could employ its economic clout to incentivize Central Asian leaders to enact anti-corruption reforms. 


Lunch Keynote – The Eurasian Union: Drivers, Aspirations, Realities: Dr. Bobo Lo

            In his address, Dr. Lo outlined the motivations driving each state’s participation in the Union, assessed its results, and gauged its future prospects.  For Russia, the primary motivation is strategic design, with Putin envisioning the EEU as a pole in a multipolar world order that will serve as a bridge between Europe and Asia.  Secondarily, Putin views the EEU as a tool to consolidate political like-mindedness across the former Soviet space and counter the influence of Western liberalism.  Lastly, the EEU can serve as a multilateral cover for the pursuit of Russia’s national interests.  While Moscow envisages multidimensional integration, Almaty favors a less comprehensive association with minimal influence on Kazakhstan’s foreign and domestic politics.  Four factors reinforce Nazarbayev’s aversion to integration: Russia’s disproportionate size and influence relative to other EEU members, historical baggage from Russia’s imperial past, Putin’s determination to restore Russia to great power status, and the conflict in Ukraine.  Belarus’ goals are broadly similar to Kazakhstan; however its economic dependence on Russia, more strategically vulnerable location, and Lukashenko’s weaknesses as a leader render it less able to assert its will.  Armenia and Kyrgyzstan’s membership is largely politically motivated, but both countries had little choice, with Armenia dependent on Russia for military support and Kyrgyzstan dependent on remittances from Russia. 

Assessing the EEU’s effectiveness to date, Lo argued that the EEU has exposed the limits of Russia’s influence in the former Soviet space, revealed its inability to serve as the primary driver of regional economic prosperity, and rendered Russia’s pretensions to be an independent center of global power increasingly dubious.  To conclude, Lo outlined three potential scenarios for the future of Russia’s strategy towards the EEU: broad continuity, imperial activism, and recalibration.  While Lo did not say which scenario is most likely, he argued that the only relative certainty is that Russia will face a difficult process of strategic adaption to maintain its position in Eurasia.  


Panel 2 – The Economics of the Eurasian Union: Chair: Dr. Theresa Sabonis-Helf; Panelists: Dr. Alexander Libman, Dr. Vadim Grishin, Mr. Edward Chow

            Dr. Libman explored the impact of the Russian economic crisis on the EEU, contending that there are few options in the short run for countries to decrease EEU involvement to escape the effects of the Russian economic crisis.  Of the member states, only Kazakhstan has economic alternatives to Russia and is the only state to have reduced its commitment.  To conclude, Libman stressed that the main problem is not the economic crisis itself, but how Russian policy will deal with it.  If Russia introduces a more protectionist economic policy and continues its policy of import substitution, it will create problems within the EEU.  While Dr. Grishin noted that the EEU provides Russia with uninterrupted access to the West through Belarus and facilitates migrant labor flows, Russia’s membership in the Union has prevented it from benefiting from trade liberalization through the WTO, rendering its economic benefits dubious.  Grishin stressed that the economic prospects for further EEU development depend on three main factors: when and if Russia begins structural reforms to alter its outdated growth model, without generating currency devaluation, high-level inflation, and pressure on its internal labor market; whether EEU integration can remain voluntary and flexible; and whether a formula of compatibility with other integration projects can be found.  Dr. Chow argued that the EEU has tremendous potential on paper, particularly in facilitating development of remote oil and gas fields.  However, he acknowledged that the EEU is unlikely to emerge as a unified actor in the energy sector, noting the difficulties the EU has faced in establishing an Energy Union and Russia’s use of its oil and gas reserves for political and strategic purposes. 


Panel 3 – Is There a Grand Strategy for the Eurasian Union?: Chair: Dr. Angela Stent; Panelists: Dr. Andrew Kuchins, Dr. Vasily Mikheev, Ms. Aitolkyn Kourmanova

            Dr. Kuchins argued that there is no shared grand strategy amongst EEU members, with only Russia having an overarching strategy for the union.  However, he conceded that the existence of a ‘grand strategy’ is a high bar for any fledgling organization.  Kuchins argued that the fate of the EEU primarily depends on whether Russia uses it to coerce or facilitate a true partnership with the other members.  However, he noted that Russia’s economic problems will put real constraints on the extent to which it can implement its vision for Eurasia.  Dr. Mikheev largely shared Kuchins’ assessment of an EEU ‘grand strategy,’ arguing that the only existing strategy is Russia’s strategy towards its ‘near abroad.’  He argued that Russia sees the EEU as a response to its two strategic challenges following the Soviet collapse: how to restore its relations with the countries of former Soviet Union and how to respond to the rise of China.  Russia is employing the EEU to counter growing Chinese economic influence in Central Asia, but, Mikheev argued, Russia will also try to get as many economic benefits from cooperation with China as possible.  Ms. Kourmanova examined how Central Asian countries view the EEU, arguing that they will use the organization as another tool in their ‘local games’ to exploit Russian and Chinese interest in the region to their own advantage.  She stressed that China’s long-term interest in Central Asia means that the EEU cannot be an exclusive integration in economic terms; however, the form and scope of Chinese-EEU cooperation remain undetermined.