SEnECA Blog Post: The Art of (dis-)integration

The Central Asian countries’ partic­i­pation in the Eurasian integration promoted by Russia under the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is indis­pensable for the full success of this project. The countries of the region, however, carry out diverse foreign policies and depend – to various extents – on good relations with Russia. Therefore, only some of them are inter­ested in integration within the EEU. Kazakhstan is a founding member of this organi­zation, Kyrgyzstan joined shortly after its founding, and Tajik­istan is negoti­ating a membership. At the same time, Uzbek­istan, with its multi-vector foreign policy, and Turkmenistan, maintaining neutral status, are skeptical about the EEU, perceiving it as an instrument of Russian influence – a reluc­tance that prevents Russia from fully realizing the post-Soviet reinte­gration in the region.

The focus of the EEU is economic integration. Despite the fact that the EEU’s compe­tences and goals are limited to economic issues, it is de facto an instrument of achieving Russia’s geopo­litical goals. The Central Asian states are a key link in the reinte­gration of the former Soviet Union and the imple­men­tation of the “Great Eurasia project” by Russia. For the EEU and Russia it is a priority issue not to allow the region’s states to perma­nently rally with other super­powers, and to balance the growing role of China in this region. Apart from its economic dysfunction, Russia’s unspec­ified inten­tions towards those players who are fearing growing Russian political influence remain a key obstacle to the EEU’s success.

Regarding its main field of activity – economic integration –, the EEU did not increase its influence on the global economy, mainly as a result of the economic crisis in Russia after 2014, affecting strongly the Central Asian states. The standard of living is not improving due to reduced transfers from economic migrants working in Russia, the weakening of local currencies, and restric­tions on conducting cross-border trade. Consid­ering the ongoing economic stagnation, the EEU has shown that it does not have adequate instru­ments to effec­tively assist its member states. Russian infra­struc­tural projects in Central Asia have largely not reached the stage of imple­men­tation as Chinese invest­ments do.

A crucial factor that effec­tively limits the EEU’s potential in Central Asia is China’s active economic policy covering a wide range of sectors like infra­structure, energy, finance, the aerospace industry, telecom­mu­ni­cation and others. Russia tries to conceal this situation by claiming a syner­gistic relationship of its Eurasian integration and the Chinese OBOR initiative. But in fact it is only an attempt to mask the growing disparity between China and Russia in creating instru­ments of influence, not a real idea of common vision for this region.

In such a shaped regional environment the EU’s role could be to present itself as an attractive alter­native partner, offering real cooper­ation in such fields as economy, technology, innova­tions, education, social services, and even security and counter-terrorism. Despite the limita­tions of the EU activ­ities’ effec­tiveness in the region, it’s advantage over Russia is the fact that cooper­ation with the EU does not entail increased geopo­litical pressure and the need for difficult political compro­mises. The better the EU demon­strates its idea of real partnership, cooper­ation and support, the more important it will become in this part of the world, and the more Russia’s influence will be reduced. That’s why the SEnECA project is a really needed initiative in building self-reliance and openness in EU – Central Asia relations.

SEnECA Blog Contri­bution by Arkadiusz Legieć from WiseEuropa