Russia, Its Neighbors and EU Expansion

Posted in Russia | 07-May-04 | Author: Nikolas Gvosdev| Source: Moscow Times

The ratification of the treaty creating a Common Economic Space by the parliaments of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan has been greeted with dismay in Western capitals. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction in Washington is that any effort to lower barriers or promote integration between Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union is automatically a bad thing.

While grudgingly acknowledging that the CES does not represent the reconstitution of the Soviet Union, some experts nonetheless worry that Russia will use its position as the preeminent state in Eurasia to exercise "undue" influence over the economic and security policies of its neighboring states. Others go further in viewing the CES as one component in a plot concocted in Moscow to forestall the expansion of Euro-Atlantic institutions into the post-Soviet space.

Writing in a recent issue of The National Interest, Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies lamented that "Putin has concluded he now possesses a free hand to restore a string of vassal states." Allowing Russia to move forward on a policy of greater integration with other former Soviet republics will "reinforce Russia's expansionist ambitions in a region still prone to weakness." Testifying before the U.S. House International Relations Committee on March 18, Stephen Sestanovich advocated that "the U.S. and its allies consistently, and with no apologies, [should] support Russia's neighbors when Moscow muscles them."

But if the United States and the European Union are truly concerned about the rise of a "new Russian empire" on the ashes of the Soviet Union, they don't seem to be in too much of a hurry to do much about it. And it is not for lack of options. Brussels and Washington have more than enough tools at their disposal to peacefully prevent this from happening. With a GDP of $346 billion, Russia is in no position to outbid a Euro-Atlantic community that collectively produces goods and services worth $20 trillion annually.

Russian influence in its "near abroad" could easily be counteracted by giving former Soviet states like Ukraine, Georgia or Uzbekistan greater access to the European and American markets. More favorable visa regimes (including provisions for guest workers from the former Soviet Union to reside in the West and send remittances home) could be instituted. And, of course, the West could dispatch larger amounts of aid and capital.

Don't hold your breath. Yes, there will be scraps: a project here, a program there. But integrating the eight former members of the Soviet bloc into the EU is a task that will take years (and is rapidly removing any remaining enthusiasm in Europe for tackling the challenges that lie further to the east.) And the U.S. penchant for unilateral action dries up when there are no partners to share the burden. The Bush administration found it extremely difficult to steer an $87 billion aid package for Iraq through Congress; there is no will for assuming the costs of rehabilitating Eurasia.

So what's the grand solution? Try to pressure Russia to "back off" while hinting to other Eurasian states that greater integration with Russia might jeopardize their "European choice."

That will be really effective. Try telling a Ukrainian worker that his country might not join the EU in 2029 because of the single-currency provisions of the CES. And then weigh that against economic realities. In 2004, trade turnover in goods and services between Russia and Ukraine is expected to reach $20 billion (and Ukraine right now has a total GDP of $41 billion).

But the attitude is, better Ukraine (or Georgia, or Kazakhstan) be poor than more closely linked to Russia -- a convenient attitude on the part of those who believe themselves that there's no nobility in poverty.

Mikhail Gorbachev got it right when he wrote in the Financial Times last week "The process of regional integration of the four republics [is] based on common economic interests ... ."

If the West believes that a Russian-dominated Eurasia is not in its interests, then it should make its case -- but be prepared to back it up with real resources. Otherwise, it should recognize that a Russian-led union that can serve as an engine for real economic growth is far preferable to continuing economic stagnation.

Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of In the National Interest (www.inthenationalinterest.com), contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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