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The Eurasian Vision: Future of Post-Soviet Integration

By Marlon Struver

Edited by Gigi Kordula & Federico Durante

Since 1991, the post-Soviet sphere has grappled with economic and political uncertainty, prompting Eurasian nations to reconsider previously established bonds. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) emerged as a proposed solution to these challenges. Considering the EAEU encompasses approximately 180 million people across 5 countries, a GDP of 2.5 trillion USD, and 20 per cent of global oil and gas reserves, it warrants closer examination. In the increasingly multipolar world, influence in the Eurasian heartland becomes strategically important.

©Sputnik Globe

From idea to reality

The forming of the EAEU in 2015 was the culmination of over twenty years of failed initiatives to reinstitute some level of political and economic integration in the post-Soviet sphere. Previous initiatives like the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Community failed, due to either an overreliance on historic ties or uneven economic distributions that favoured Russia.

Established by the Astana Treaty, the EAEU aspired for deeper integration than previous failed attempts. The treaty established, for the first time, the concept of the Law of the Union.

It also created the necessary institutions, like the Eurasian Economic Commission, the Court of the EAEU, the Eurasian Development Bank, and the regional version of the IMF: the Eurasian Fund for Stabilisation and Development.

Officially, power is distributed equally across member states with each member having two ministers in the executive body, the Commission, while the heads of states make up the Council, which sets out the Union's direction. 

The Social Contract

If the EAEU institutions mirror the EU’s in many ways, why did they opt for an economic union led by Russia, rather than for closer ties with the EU or with China? The answer lies in the profoundly different underlying social contracts of the EAEU members, compared to the European Union.

Post-Soviet Eurasian societies adhere more to collectivist social values than their Western counterparts, leading to a lesser importance of individual freedoms in the principles of government.

Collectivism, combined with the post-Cold War economic tumulus of the 1990s, created social contracts with a focus on the central government providing stability and social provisions, most notably in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Choosing Eurasia

Having only recently acquired their independence, the EAEU members' citizens emphasise their own national identity and sovereignty. Joining other integration projects, like the EU, would not be an option for EAEU states, considering the degree of sovereignty that must be ceded to supranational institutions.

Therefore, the EAEU, on paper, focuses on economic issues such as macroeconomic coordination and market integration. Such coordination and integration should then lead to decreasing transaction costs between member states and increased productivity.

Economic projects currently underway are the creation of a single market for oil, gas, electricity, and pharmaceuticals and the creation of a single EAEU financial regulator.


Liberal project or Hegemonic Tool?

Western perspectives on the EAEU often polarise into two camps: one views it as a liberal institution with the potential to bring prosperity and liberal reforms, and the other sees the EAEU as a tool for Russian hegemony in the region. However, both views overlook the nuanced dynamics within the EAEU.

The first view equates the political ideology of liberalism with the economic structure of capitalism. A capitalist market structure, however, does not directly equate to a liberal communal structure, as history is paved with illiberal states with market economies. Therefore, the economic aspects of the EAEU, like market integration and legal harmonisation should not directly label the EAEU as a liberal project.

The second view is devoid of Eurasian realities. The social contracts of EAEU members have, so far, hindered an absolute domination of the EAEU by Russia. The priority of national sovereignty has created an intergovernmental system where EAEU institutions are subordinate to national leadership. The Eurasian Commission, for instance, is subservient to the Interstate Council and the Eurasian Economic Council, made up of the heads of state.

Since each decision by the Commission can be appealed at these higher bodies by member states, the power of the EAEU institutions is limited. Appeals happen so regularly that it is already termed the “Belarussian Elevator”, deriving its name from the Belarusian delegation that proposed this appeal structure during EAEU negotiations.

Additionally, the executive power of the EAEU in monitoring members' adherence to Union agreements is limited by the Astana Treaty. The Commission’s only enforcement power is to notify the violating member state that it’s breaching Union law or agreements.

The Astana Treaty explicitly removed the option for the Commission to use the Eurasian Court for enforcement. This makes the EAEU law neither autonomous nor supreme to national laws, unlike in the EU.

The Eurasian(-ist) lens on the EAEU

The gaps between the previous views and the actual reality of the EAEU could, however, be filled by looking at the EAEU through a (Neo-)Eurasian ideological lens. Eurasianism is a socio-political movement in favour of cultural uniqueness, and against liberal universalism and linear views of progress. It views the Eurasian culture as a unique civilisation, distinct from Europe or Asia.

The inclusion of Eurasianism into the analysis seems warranted as both the leadership of Russia and Kazakhstan have quoted Eurasianist thinkers such as Lev Gumilev, with Kazakhstan also naming one of its top universities after him.

Eurasianist cultural pluralism explains the opposition to full integration, but its opposition to certain liberal principles does provide a reason for cooperation between member states.

Neo-Eurasianist thinkers have also proposed alliance-building with Iran and China, who they still consider to be distinct cultures or states like Egypt or Serbia. These states represent most of the free trade agreements signed by the EAEU.

The free market and private ownership are accepted in Eurasianist thinking on pragmatic grounds. It does however distinguish between a market economy, like the West, or what Eurasianists perceive as a society with a market. Again the focus is collectivist in nature, accentuating societies or peoples and their cultures.

While the EAEU appears primarily as an economic project, the influence of Eurasianist thinking in its two most powerful member states provides ideological stability, albeit with inherent weaknesses.

Potential Breaches of Unity

There are certainly tangible ideological gaps between EAEU members. Thus, potential economic interactions with the West or China, devoid of ideological expectations, could still challenge EAEU cohesion, as showcased by EU investment into Kazakhstan, particularly if member states start to move towards the Western perspective on the war in Ukraine. Smaller EAEU members, feeling threatened in their sovereignty, might seek to diversify their alliances. 

More to that,  the ability of EAEU governments to provide stability depends on the condition of the Russian economy. Were Western sanctions to succeed in creating economic turmoil, the region would feel it too, slowly eroding the legitimacy of the EAEU’s governments. In such cases, members could consider other regional blocks or projects. So far, sanctions have already created debates among members regarding the redistribution of customs fees in the union.

The Eurasian Economic Union stands at a critical juncture, navigating the complex interplay of cultural identities and sovereignties, amidst ongoing geopolitical upheaval, and influenced by opposed ideological currents. In an emerging multipolar world, securing influence in the Eurasian heartland is poised to yield significant strategic advantages. The coming years may reveal who will be the dominant geopolitical player in this region.

Sources: CACI Analyst, Chatham House (R. Dragneva, K. Wolczuk), The Diplomat, Eurasian Mission (A. Dugin), European Council on Foreign Relations, Sputnik Globe, VALDAI Club

Written by Marlon Struver

February 2024

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