By Angel Millar
Western intellectuals tend to think in terms of economics, not culture – perhaps because the former is universal, and most Western intellectuals tend to be post-cultural in relation to their own nations. Economics and culture can be related, of course, but for much of the world, it is the latter – whether religious, national, linguistic, etc. – that is of true importance. Economic integration suggests cultural integration.
The European Union (EU) did not, it should be acknowledged, attempt to draw its member states together by capitalizing on its long history, but, rather, it attempted to create a new abstract “culture” through the drafting of legislation and the establishment of certain “rights” – many of which have proved highly contentious, and even widely unpopular.
Even if the worldview is different, the attempt to create – and impose – a new, homogenous culture has been tried before, for example, in the USSR.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said “that the Soviet Union’s collapse was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” The question, then, is whether his new project, the creation of a Eurasian Union, is merely an attempt to revive the USSR – as Hilary Clinton recently suggested – or whether, having lived through the collapse, Putin grasps why?
Earlier in December, EurActiv.com reported that the Russian president would visit Brussels not as President of the Russian Federation but as a representative of the Eurasian Union. The news site also reported that, at a debate organized by the Centre for European Policy Studies recently, Tatiana Valovaya, (representing the Eurasian Economic Commission), suggested that it would only be possible to create a “common economic space” between the EU and the Eurasian Union, and not between the EU and Russia. Her statements were apparently applauded by Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, as well as other Russian high officials.
The Eurasian Union – which will officially come in to being in 2015 – is an extension of the Custom’s Union (or Eurasian Customs Union) in the same way that the European Economic Community provided a foundation for the EU. The Eurasian Union will be initiated with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as member states, and the former constituting its center.
Even at this early stage, Russia is appealing to other former member states of the USSR.
In December, Putin met with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan. Despite having expressed reservation in the past about joining the venture – due to Armaneian lacking a border with any of the member states – speaking to the Armenian Parliament the following day, Sargsyan said that Armenia must “deepen and expand ties with the Eurasian Union,” and that, as such, it would begin to “cooperate” with the Customs Union.
For the border of the Eurasian Union to be contiguous with Armenia, it would require Azerbaijan or Georgia to also join.
Despite some consideration of the prospect of joining the Eurasian Union, Azerbaijan has so far declined to join the Customs Union. Russia fought a five-day war with the latter, after it sent troops into South Ossetia, which had appealed for independence from Georgia. Russia quickly and easily reversed Georgia’s advance, and recognized South Ossetia as an independent state. It then broke off diplomatic relations with Georgia – considered an ally of the USA – and banned Georgian imports, hurting the much smaller country economically.
While even a close working relationship between the Russian Federation and Georgia looks like a distant reality at the moment, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has recently expressed interest in “normalizing” relations.
In a recent meeting in Geneva, mediated by Switzerland, the two countries agreed to regular talks on a range of issues, toward “normalization.” Zurab Abashidze, Ivanishvili’s envoy to Russia told reporters: “We defined those issues that we plan to start negotiations about: trade, humanitarian and cultural ties and restoration of regular flights between the two countries.”
These may be small steps, but any movement toward Russia by any one of these neighboring states will put pressure on the others to do likewise. Georgia is a relatively small country, whose only other neighbor is Turkey (which has some – although waning – interest in joining the European Union). As other former Soviet states close to Georgia cultivate greater ties with Russia, Georgia will be under enormous pressure to do likewise, regardless of its relationship to the USA.
The US is nervous about the Eurasian Union. Yet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent description of it as “a move to re-Sovietize the region” is overblown and over simplistic, although there are fringe elements in Russia who undoubtedly hope for precisely that which she dreads.
Drawing on the ideas of neo-Eurasianist thinker Alexandra Dugin, who is a popular commentator on Russian television, leader of Russian Communist Party (KPRF) Gennady Zyuganov called for Russia and the countries of Asia to form a united front against “American-style globalization.”
Such words may sound ominous, but the EU itself was also intended, in part, to be a permanent challenge to the US in world affairs – although few Eurocrats would admit that openly.
“We propose to restore in a new shape the ‘Eurasian bridge’ with the closest and most efficient cooperation between our peoples, countries and continents,” Zyuganov said at the Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) in Baku, Azerbaijan. “Russia – which for millennia has been actively participating in the life of both Europe and Asia – is ready to fulfill its historic mission and be a link between the main centers of modern civilization in this most difficult moment of its development.”
Putin denies that the union will constitute a new Soviet-like bloc, remarking only that its member states, “have a common language, to a certain extent a common mentality, a common transport infrastructure, energy infrastructure.”
Earlier in 2012, Putin spoke of Russia needing a “leap forward” – a phrase designed to invoke memories of the “great leap forward” under Joseph Stalin. Although not mentioning Stalin by name, Putin told Russia’s Seurity Council, “We should carry out the same powerful, all-embracing leap forward in modernization of the defense industry as the one carried out in the 1930s.”
Such rhetoric alarms Western liberal pundits in particular, who see Putin as undemocratic.
While Stalin was responsible for millions of deaths, through gulags, work camps, starvation, etc., of people in the USSR, many Russians romanticize the Soviet dictator, and regard him as the man who dragged a backward, agrarian society into modernity, and made it one of the two major world forces for many decades.
Putin is an extremely astute politician, who knows how to appeal to the Russian people. His invocation of the “leap forward” is part of that – and it is also part of his attempt to remind Russians of their past as a great power.
Western intellectuals are uncomfortable with Putin, precisely because, in contrast to the West, he does not find moral currency in apologizing for the things of the past. Nor does he value individual expression above the nation state. In effect, he wants Russia – and the Eurasian Union of which Russia will be the beating heart – to be a great power, but its culture will be different to the of the USSR, as it will be different to the EU and the USA. The Russian President has carefully cultivated his close relationship to the Russian Orthodox Church, and his image as a believer. (Putin still wears a cross given to him by his mother when he was a child.) Russia, for Putin, is a great culture, stretching back into antiquity, not just six or so decades of the twentieth century. Whether it is prohibiting insulting institutions, or prohibiting the promotion of “non-conventional sex relationships”, the laws of the state, or the Eurasian Union, are likely to reflect tradition and conservative tendencies, in sharp contrast to the Western proclivity for idealism and progress.
A more conservative worldview will not prove an obstacle, though, when it comes to forging relationships in Asia or the Middle East, as Putin is certainly aware. Belarus, one of the Eurasian Union founders, recently signed an extensive package of agreements on trade and investments with Bangladesh. Belarus also agreed to help train Bangladeshi personnel in the nuclear power industry. But, for Belarus – and potentially, therefore, Eurasian Union states – there exists the possibility for export to South Asian states under the South Asian Free Trade Area agreement (SAFTA).