By Emre Tunc Sakaoglu
The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is expected to maintain its priority in the Russian foreign policy doctrine during Putin’s presidency for the coming six years. The consolidation of the economy and reconciliation of energy policies of the regimes cooperating through similar grounds such as the Eurasian Economic Community (EURASEC ) will be the focus of Russian efforts as Putin replaces Medvedev.
In the Russian newspaper Izvestia, Putin recently wrote that the “Eurasian Union” should be built on the inheritance of the Soviet Union:”infrastructure, a developed system of regional production specialization, and a common space of language, science, and culture.”
The issue of CIS integration is clearly important for Putin. Just two weeks after the Izvestia article appeared, he hosted a meeting of prime ministers from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Ukraine in St. Petersburg and triumphantly announced an agreement to form a free-trade zone after years of fruitless negotiations in October 2011.
After the collapse of the USSR, especially together with the rise of Putin, Russia directed its policy priorities toward re-establishing a so-called “sphere of influence” in strict realpolitik terms. Putin’s efforts at further economic consolidation are considered to be in a similar vein to the mercantilist approach of nineteenth century powers within the international system.
Putin sees Eurasian economic integration as a whole primarily as a way of cementing Russia’s international status, says Kyrgyz political scientist Mars Saryiev. He also adds:
“If Russia fails to embrace us — the CIS countries — then Russia itself will fail. It will be just the backyard of Europe or a source of raw materials for China. There is no other way for Russia.”
Indeed, young ex-Soviet states had celebrated the twentieth anniversaries of their independence last summer. Most of these states still lack sufficient institutional structures, financial resources and sustainable funds for development. Such abstinences require these states to seek continuous foreign economic support which means dependence upon Russia or the West. Therefore the economic burden of such demands needs to be thoroughly assumed by Putin in his next term if he wishes to keep these states committed to Russia’s “Eurasian vision.”
On the other hand, economic tools and political deterrence measures, as usually devised by Putin previously against regimes not complying with Russia’s demands for further economic consolidation via related organizations, may also occupy headlines in this new era as Putin is considered stringent and harsh in implementing what Russia’s Eurasian vision entails.
The target of Russia’s sanctions was Ukraine after the “Orange Revolution,” through which the latter shifted its focus toward the West. The Ukrainian government in 2009 insisted on lower prices for Russian gas imports and refused to pay its debts. As a response, Russia cut off gas supply to this country, and the trade of gas between the two states could reach its former levels only after the pro-Western government was replaced by a pro-Russian one in the elections of February 2010.
Still, many experts such as Ukrainian lawmaker Oleh Zarubinsky, a member of the Russia-Ukraine inter-parliamentary group, expect that Moscow will continue its tough dealing with Ukraine. According to Zarubinsky:
“Over the last few years, Dmitry Medvedev has been in the Kremlin, but the key questions of Russian politics — both domestic and foreign — were de facto determined by Putin,” Zarubinsky says. “So we can’t say there will be some sort of fundamental changes or, as some people are saying, tectonic shifts. Putin has his own style — harsh, pragmatic, and sometimes raw politics, including in foreign relations.”
Together with Ukraine and Georgia as part of an alternative organization named GUAM, a body resistant to Russian economic and political impositions to some extent, Azerbaijan had been compelled to maintain balanced economic policies between the West and Russia during the Medvedev era. However, Azerbaijanis will face a more difficult challenge under Russian political pressure in the forthcoming years according to political analyses.
In recent months, Baku has turned its attention to the West, seeking direct markets for its natural gas in Europe instead of, as Moscow wishes, selling all its energy to Russia’s Gazprom. The carrot-and-stick approach to be devised by Putin will show how this new era will influence the Azerbaijani government’s future energy policies, especially when the sensitivity of the Karabakh issue is considered. Many Azerbaijanis feel that Medvedev previously made sincere efforts to make progress in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In contrast, they think Putin views the festering conflict as a way of increasing Russia’s leverage over both countries.
Unlike Azerbaijan, energy-poor countries such as Armenia, Tajikistan, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan risk retaliation in the form of higher tariffs and fees for Russian gasoline, which caused chaos in Tajikistan last year. The other risk for these countries is a forced return by Russia of tens of thousands of labor immigrants back to their home countries, which would add to the number of unemployed in those countries and risk causing a social explosion.