Vladimir Putin is back. And with him are the most primitive foreign policy initiatives. At the beginning of his first term as Russia’s president, Putin sought contacts with Cuba, Libya and North Korea. As he prepares for a third term, he has expressed interest in creating a “Eurasian Union” with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Putin insists that these nations have a common history and that mutual cooperation could bring their people “direct economic benefit” and “allow all of them to integrate into Europe more rapidly and from a stronger position.”
Putin knows that more than half of Russian voters recall the Soviet past with affection. He understands that the idea of reviving the empire entertains many of his fellow citizens. And so he seems ready to ignore facts in favor of ideology.
The facts, however, are formidable. Based on International Monetary Fund figures, Russian per capita GDP last year was $10,360; in Kazakhstan, it has not exceeded $9,000; in Belarus, $5,770; and in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, $840 and $730 respectively. All these states are ruled by authoritarians: Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in office for 22 years; Tajikistan’s Imamali Rakhmonov for 19; Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko for 17; and authoritarian rule in Kyrgyzstan is from time to time replaced by chaos. The economic divide between members of a Eurasian Union would be 2.7 times bigger than that between European Union nations.
So what is gained by attempting to unite Russia with its authoritarian and mostly unsuccessful neighbors? Putin insisted last month that integration might produce a “powerful supranational unity” that can become “one of the poles in the contemporary world” and play an “effective ‘bridge’ between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.” But this would be a $2.7 trillion GDP union sandwiched between the European Union (GDP, $15.6 trillion) and China (GDP $11.2 trillion). How can Russia be a “bridge” if, with its aging infrastructure, less than 1 percent of trade between the European Union and Asia travels through Russia (down from 11 percent of this trade in 1989, during Soviet times). In 2007, 62 percent ofChinese goods imported by Russia came via Helsinki and other European ports.
For whom is such a union attractive, except totalitarian Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan?
Putin’s plan suggests that Russia is not interested in the World Trade Organization but will build its own customs union from neighboring rogue states. Putin’s Russia considers itself an independent “power center” that does not intend to strengthen ties with modern democracies but to rally around countries with political systems less advanced than its own.
This path leads nowhere. Following it, Moscow would shed power and influence. In a world orchestrated by three centers of power and wealth — the United States, the European Union and China — Russia can play a significant role only if it strengthens the beleaguered European “pole.” Russia and the E.U. nations share common history, culture and civilizational traditions; they also complement each other economically. Only as a unified community of E.U. nations, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Balkan countries — which have a combined GDP of nearly $19 trillion, great technological potential and extensive natural resources — can the broader Europe look with confidence into the future.
Accordingly, leaders in Brussels should rethink certain myths. Russia is big, but not too big for Europe; as an E.U. member, it would be the second-largest national economy and add one-fourth to the E.U. population. Half of Russia’s trade is conducted with E.U. nations. Sixty percent of Russian tourists head for Europe, not China or Central Asia.
Russia has a kind of a European people but, unfortunately, not a European-type government. But Europe has for decades sought to transform former autocracies — Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1970s and 1980s; Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Baltic republics in the 1990s — into decent, Western-style states. Russia must be next.
E.U. leaders should tell the Kremlin elite that full integration into the European Union is possible. They should tell all Russians that their country is perceived by Europeans as European — and it could become an E.U. member state if it reaches the level of democracy and the rule of law common to other members. These declarations would take from Putin one of the main arguments for “Sovietization” of foreign policy — the stereotype that no one in Europe is waiting for Russia.
The European Union has historically considered applications for membership, not sent invitations. But Europe will never achieve its potential if it leaves Russia out. And Russia will never realize its potential while being excluded from the European family. If European politicians want to be the true heirs to Monnet and Spinelli, they should act first and offer Russia a full-scale integration plan. Paris and Rome are more attractive than Bishkek or even Astana. The European Court of Justice looks much better than Basmanov-style criminal justice. The power of E.U. practices today is the most significant asset of the united Europe — and it should shape Russian foreign policy.
Politicians in Brussels and Washington often debate about “who lost Russia.” But Russia is not yet lost. It must change from within. As its ruling plutocracy seeks to turn back to the Soviet past, the attraction of a European future looms brighter. For history to shift course, deeds, not words, are required.
The writer is a professor of economics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and a member of the Presidium of Russian Council for International Affairs. He is running for a parliamentary seat from the Pravoye Delo (Right Cause) party.