Current and desired image of the Eurasian Economic Union in the post-Soviet space

By Jurij C. Kofner
Jurij C. Kofner
non-residential research fellow,
Skolkovo Institute for Emerging Markets Studies;

editor-in-chief, analytical media "Eurasian Studies"
In 2019, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). In the same year, exactly a quarter century was marked from the historic speech of the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in which he was the first of the highest post-Soviet leaders to propose the reintegration of the newly sovereign countries of the former Soviet Union into a new "Eurasian Economic Union".
Despite the unfavorable external environment since 2014 – the Ukrainian crisis, Western sanctions, a crunch in commodity prices, the EAEU has become the undeniable reality of economic processes in Eurasia and is showing first successes. Its goals are clearly outlined in the EAEU Treaty (Article 4, Section II): improving the welfare of its citizens; creation of a single market; joint modernization and development of the competitiveness of member states for the successful integration into the global economy.

According to the latest public opinion survey as part of the (now cancelled) "Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) Integration Barometer" from 2017, participation in the Eurasian Economic Union is supported by the majority of citizens of the Union – from 56 to 83% of the population of its member states. And in two of the potential candidate countries for membership in the Union – in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – the level of popular support for joining the EAEU reaches almost 70% [1].

Nevertheless, the majority of the population is still little or not aware of the existence of the EAEU. An even greater number of citizens do not yet fully understand the nature of Eurasian integration. Even before its formation, the Eurasian Economic Union met with support and was faced with criticism, i.e. with some healthy "Eurasoskepticism". However, too often, it also became the target for unjustified defamation, which is partially actively fueled by Western think tanks.

In this regard, the author of this article would like to consider the desired "image" of the Eurasian integration project. By the concept of "image" we mean, on the one hand, a certain desired (potential) ideal of union building that we would like to achieve in the future, as well as, on the other hand, a real and desired (potential) self-representation of the Eurasian Economic Union in the post-Soviet space and beyond.
Competition of integration narratives in the post-Soviet space

The formation of the image of the Eurasian Economic Union depends on external and internal conditions. Over the past twenty-five years, the post-Soviet space has become the site of a fierce struggle between regional powers and their narratives.
In this regard, the formation of the EAEU's image does not take place in a conceptual vacuum, but in conditions of fierce ideological competition for the preferences of the elites and for popular support from the countries of the former USSR.
In this space, four main political and ideological subjects and their respective narratives (images) can be distinguished:
  1. the European Union and the United States of America;
  2. People's Republic of China;
  3. radical Islam;
  4. the Russian Federation.
In order to determine the most suitable image for the EAEU, we propose to conduct a comparative analysis between them and to consider how these actors and their narratives are perceived by the population of the newly independent countries.
1. The image of the West
Despite growing internal contradictions in the West - the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, the growth of populism and protectionism, etc., the United States and the European Union are still perceived as a model for democracy and the rule of law. They are famous for their high standard of living and civil justice, low corruption, high standards of quality of goods, food and services. From the strengthening of cooperation with America or rapprochement with the European integration project, the leaders and part of the population of a number of post-Soviet states expect to acquire / adopt / educate these qualities at home.

The point is not whether objectively and "as-a-matter-of-fact" these desirable attributes are inherent to the West, but how the USA and the EU are subjectively perceived by the post-Soviet society, including due to the way these powers present themselves to the population. Multibillion-dollar development programs, international partnerships, public diplomacy projects, the media of the European Union and the United States of America are aimed at broadcasting exactly this attractive image.
EU4Youth Programme, European Union. Source: euneighbours.eu/ru
As an example, let's consider the actions of the European Union for 2014. That year, Brussels allocated nearly 200 million euros for various Eastern Partnership programs. As part of its macro-financial support program, the EU provided loans to the countries of the Eastern Partnership in excess of 1.36 billion euros. Further, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia received from 30 to 40 million euros under the "umbrella program" - the financial instrument of the European Neighborhood designed to "provide incentives for progress towards deep and sustainable democracy and the implementation of agreed reforms". Additionally, under the so-called "flagship projects" of the Eastern Partnership another over 100 million euros were given to finance small and medium enterprises in the Eastern Partnership countries. Understanding the strategic importance of the younger generation, more than 30,000 young people were able to participate in educational exchanges thanks to the student mobility program Erasmus +. And the EU4Youth program has facilitated the employment and entrepreneurship of another 23,000 young people. Finally, another 200 "Young European Ambassadors" were selected, who were invited to various EU to strengthen the "European choice" in their minds.

Another example: in 2016, USAID's operating expenses in Kyrgyzstan amounted to almost $2 million. An in addition to all kind of support programs for the civil society, anti-corruption, education, etc., the expenditure item "Gifts and other contributions" amounted to 1 million 62 thousand US dollars.

These financial contributions and assistance programs gave a good result: in 2018, 61% of the population of the Eastern Partnership countries considered the European Union "the most trusted foreign organization". The EU countries still cause the greatest sympathy among Moldovan citizens, where in 2017 a growth of 10 pp was recorded - up to the maximum for all years of observation (57%), and also of Armenia - a growth of 5 pp (34%) [1].

Against the backdrop of this European and US activity, the relative inertia of the Eurasian supranational bodies seems erroneous, including the Eurasian Development Banks's decision to stop issuing the annual public opinion survey "Integration Barometer", as well as the fact that the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC) does not conduct its own opinion polls. It is also surprising that the EAEU Business Council still does not have an official portal on the Internet.
2. The image of China
Source: TASS
The fast-growing Chinese economy is perceived in the post-Soviet countries as a rich source of relatively easy foreign investments, albeit with its own "specific" conditions. This is despite the fact that Central Asia is dominated by historical concerns about Chinese influence. In this regard, Beijing is taking steps to improve its image in the Eurasian space. A case in point is Bishkek, where the PRC as a gift build new roads in the city center. As a result, in 2017 trust of Kyrgyz citizens in China increased by 8 pp to 10% [1].

The main flagship for expanding the economic, political and ideological influence of China in the region is the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (Silk Road Economic Belt) announced in 2013 in the capital of Kazakhstan. According to various sources, financial liabilities officially laid down for this century project currently range from 0.5 to 1.4 trillion US dollars. In 2015, the total volume of FDI of Chinese companies in the EAEU member states amounted to 25.7 billion US dollars [2].
3. The image of radical Islam
Source: Alwaght.com
Radical Islam, with its strict but clear rules of personal and social living, can also be considered as one of the main concepts competing with modern Eurasian integration. The political concept of the Muslim "Ummah" (community) offers a parallel legal world from the secular state. Until recently, the spread of radical Islam in the post-Soviet countries was unofficially supported by forces from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This form differs from the more moderate forms of Hanifite Islam, traditionally practiced in the Volga region and in Central Asia. Moreover, coupled with such near-Islamic concepts as pan-Turkism, radical Islam excludes equal relations with the Orthodox Slavic and Transcaucasian states of the former USSR.
4. The image of Russia and of the EAEU
Source: Portal.Eaeunion.or
Against this background, modern Russia is perceived in post-Soviet states, unfortunately, not in the best way. In the best case, Russia is perceived by its closest neighbors as a market for migrant labor, as a potential source of cheap energy and as a counterbalance for maintaining the military-political balance in the region. In the worst case, it is perceived as an authoritarian power and a large unpredictable neighbor who, for political reasons, manipulates gas prices or the rules of importing food products.

Moreover, despite the fact that the president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, was the first to come up with the idea of Eurasian integration, that all member states have an equal voice and decisions are made by consensus in the interstate bodies of the bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union by other member states and other CIS countries is still perceived in many ways precisely as a Russian and even Russo-centric integration project.

On the one hand, this perception is due to objective reasons: firstly, by the size of Russia's population (146.8 million people or 80.1% of the population of the EAEU), its GDP (1267 billion US dollars or 86% of the GDP of the EAEU) and territory (17 thousand km2 or 84.5% of the territory of the EAEU). Russia objectively prevails in comparison with other countries of the region. Secondly, mutual trade in the Eurasian Economic Union is fixated on Russia, which is an important market for its partners. In fact, the EAEU members trade mainly with Russia, but not with each other. For example, Russia is Belarus's main foreign trade partner. It accounts for 39.2% of the republic's exports and 59% of its imports. Thirdly, over the past 300 years, it was Russia that initiated the large territorial "integration initiatives" of the Eurasian space (Russian Empire, Soviet Union). There is no cunning intent of Moscow that the Russian Federation naturally "dominates" the EAEU by its weight. A similar situation is observed in other integration organizations of the world: NAFTA (from 2018 it became USMECA), the South African Customs Union, MERCOSUR and others.

On the other hand, Western and pro-Western post-Soviet think tanks are trying to present the natural predominance of Russia in the EAEU as alleged "neo-imperial ambitions of the Kremlin".

Citizens of the post-Soviet countries still perceive the Eurasian Economic Union as a Russian project. Despite the fact that on average 76% of the respondents in the CIS countries (except for Ukraine and Georgia) call Russia their most friendly country, it is difficult for Moscow to win the public relations competition with the EU-USA, China and radical Islam.
One should not compete "in an unfamiliar sport"
When choosing the right image strategy for the EAEU in the post-Soviet space, it would be a mistake to try to compete with these other political centers in those areas where it is perceived that they traditionally have a competitive advantage.
Despite the fact that the EEC is trying to implement the best governance practices from around the globe, it would be too ambitious to present the EAEU as an institution for democratization or as a panacea for corruption, as the EU and the USA are presenting themselves in the region. Moreover, such activity is not within the competence set forth in the EAEU Treaty. It is worth noting that the fight against corruption is indirectly mentioned in two segments laid down in the EAEU Treaty: the creation of a single financial market (Section XVI), as well as ensuring cross-border competition (Section XVIII).
Ministry Buildings, Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo by Frank Herfor. Source: NationalGeographic.com
Also, the EAEU cannot fully compete either in the volume of development investments, nor in the volume of financial support programs received by post-Soviet states from the European Union, the USA and China. Thus, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) implements investment projects not only in Europe, but throughout the post-Soviet space. In comparison, the Eurasian Development Bank is limited both financially and territorially. It has the right to implement projects only in the member states of the bank (EAEU + Tajikistan). The authorized capital of the EBRD is 11.8 billion US dollars, that of the Silk Road Fund - 40 billion US dollars, of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank - 100 billion US dollars. The authorized capital of the EDB is only 7 billion US dollars.

Further, without giving any normative assessments of the USSR and its inherent ideology of socialism, it is obvious that the EAEU does not have such a deeply ideologically thought-out construction. If Marxism was the "soul" of the Soviet Union, even formally, the modern Eurasian Economic Union has only a rather indirect relation to the philosophical concept of classical Eurasianism. In addition, the transitional economies of the member states of the Union are characterized by a market economy, albeit with a significant state involvement.
Competitive advantages of the EAEU
Given the above said conceptual competition in forming the image of the EAEU, a model is needed that is alternative to what the narratives of the United States, EU, China and political radical Islam offer. In this regard, first of all, it is necessary to pay attention to the already existing competitive advantages of the Eurasian Economic Union. And here it is necessary to refer to the original goals, objectives and principles of Eurasian integration, voiced by Nazarbayev in 1994 and then later laid out in the EAEU Treaty.

Firstly, the Eurasian Economic Union is a purely economic integration bloc. The Union does not involve itself in security, politics or even humanitarian cooperation. The primacy of economic gain over political considerations is a fundamental principle.

Secondly, the formally supranational Union is, by its nature, more likely an intergovernmental organization. Participation in the integration processes and their deepening takes place on a voluntary and step-by-step basis. In the interstate bodies of the EAEU, each party has an equal vote and decisions are made by consensus. The EEC does not interfere in the internal political processes of member states. Equality between member states and the supremacy of national sovereignty are also fundamental principles.

On the one hand, this specificity of Eurasian integration can be considered as a limitation. On the other hand, according to the author's option, it is worth considering it as a chance and an attractive feature of the integration project.
The desired image of the EAEU
Having carried out the above analysis, we can formulate an attractive image of the EAEU and its main competitive advantages. This can be done in three areas: in politics, in economics and in culture.

In the political sphere, we can note that the EAEU:
  1. is the first ever project to unite the countries and peoples of Eurasia on a completely voluntarily and peacefully basis.
  2. does not interfere in internal political processes and is aimed at protecting the supremacy of national sovereignty of the participating countries and the countries surrounding it.
  3. provides equal relations between small and large countries of the integration bloc.
The key words of the EAEU's political slogan could be: peace, sovereignty, equality.

In the economic sphere, it can be noted that the EAEU:
  1. creates a large single market for the free movement of labor, goods and services, capital and enterprises.
  2. creates a huge single economic, legal and transport space all the way from Europe to Asia.
  3. introduces common rules, approaches, regulations and standards into the economic sphere, which, on the one hand, are based on the best world practice, and, on the other hand, are adapted to the level of economic and legal development of the member states.
In the future, when implementing new areas of Eurasian economic integration (the so-called "flagship projects" of the EAEU), it could also be argued that the Eurasian Economic Union:

  1. creates new high-tech production through industrial and research corporation between enterprises of the member states (examples already include the joint production of tractors, transformers and even satellites).
  2. promotes the digital transformation of its member states to ensure their competitiveness in the 21st century.
In addition, in the future it would be necessary to increase the EEC's budget and the EDB's capital fund and give them the authority to implement development programs, both in the member states of the Union, as well as in the neighboring CIS countries, provided that relevant deep and comprehensive economic partnership agreements are concluded with them.

The keywords of the EAEU economic slogan could be: a large common market, a common space of opportunities, join development, digitalization.

As mentioned above, according to the EAEU Treaty (Section II), the Eurasian integration bloc does not yet address cultural issues. Nevertheless, some representatives of the expert Eurasian expert community would welcome the addition of humanitarian cooperation to the existing areas of economic integration. The addition of such areas of integration as sports, tourism, educational and scientific cooperation has already become one of the priorities of the Russian chairmanship in the EAEU bodies in 2018.
In a famous speech given at the plenary session of the Valdai Club, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in 2013: "Today we need new strategies to preserve our identity in a rapidly changing world, a world that has become more open, transparent and interdependent. This fact confronts virtually all countries and all peoples in one form or another", and expressed the opinion that "Eurasian Union is a project for maintaining the identity of nations in the historical Eurasian space in a new century and in a new world".

Russian President Vladimir Putin attending the 10th anniversary meeting of Valdai International Discussion Club in the Novgorod Region, 2013. Source: RIA Novosti
Therefore, with the addition of a humanitarian integration track some time in the future, and provided that it continues to focus on the development of the cultural identities of the member countries, it would be possible to say that in the cultural part of the EAEU:

1. aims to preserve the distinct cultural identities of the member states.

The key words of the EAEU cultural slogan could be: development of national cultures.
In connection with all of the above, the positive image of the Eurasian Economic Union could be formulated as follows:
"The Eurasian Economic Union is a unique integration project. As an exclusively economic organization, it is based on the principles of voluntariness, equality and the supremacy of national sovereignty. In the vast space from Europe to Asia, the EAEU creates a large single market for the free movement of labor, goods, services, finance and enterprises. The best international rules and standards, which are introduced by the Union are also adapted to our specific needs. Its development programs are aimed at creating a competitive economy of the future. By combining tradition with innovation, the EAEU in the future can contribute to the preservation of the cultural identities of its member states".
If desired, this image of the Eurasian Economic Union can also be represented as a kind of "European Union light" or as an "alternative European Union". According to such a narrative, the Eurasian Economic Union provides in Eurasia the best qualities of European integration, while avoiding all the mistakes of the European unification project:

  • Instead of imposed "democratization" from the outside and interference in the internal affairs of its member states, the EAEU provides democratic relations between states.
  • The Eurasian Economic Union does not intend to introduce its own currency and will therefore not repeat the eurozone crisis.
  • The Eurasian Economic Union offers common standards, rules and approaches based on best international practices. At the same time, they are adapted to the historical conditions of the Eurasian economies, and they are not as tough as that of the European Union.
  • In the future, the EAEU may offer other CIS countries various investment projects, development programs and industrial corporation, but without the political conditions inherent to a partnership with the EU.
  • Setting the task of preserving the cultural identity of its peoples, the Eurasian Union does not want to repeat the questionable "Americanization" and "open borders policy", experienced by Europe.
It must be emphasized that, being an alternative project, one should not consider the Eurasian Economic Union in as a counter-project set against Europe, China, the United States or the Muslim world. On the contrary, the ultimate goal of wider Eurasian integration is the creation of a Greater Eurasian partnership - a common peaceful space for free trade and economic cooperation from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans with the participation of the EAEU, China, India, Iran, Turkey, the European Union and all other interested countries of the continent.
Literature and sources
1. Integration barometer EDB - 2017. - SPb .: SRI EDB, 2017. - 108 p.
2. Vinokurov E. Introduction to the Eurasian Economic Union. Palgrave Macmillan. 2018 .- 229 p.

First publication: Intellectual culture of Belarus: cognitive and prognostic potential of socio-philosophical knowledge: materials of the Fourth Int. scientific conf. (November 14-15, 2019, Minsk). In 2 t. T. 1 / Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus; editorial A.A. Lazarevich (previous) [and others]. - Minsk: Four quarters, 2019 .-- 328 p.
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