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