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6 October 2015

'Integration of integrations’: a delusive dream

Economic part of Putin's UN speech

In his address to the UN General Assembly – long awaited, yet forgotten against the backdrop of the onset of military operations in Syria as quickly as the Sochi Olympics against the backdrop of the annexation of Crimea – President Vladimir Putin voiced a number of non-obvious theses and unattainable wishes. One of his dreams should be cited in full, since it has been mentioned more than once or twice in recent years: ‘Contrary to the policy of exclusiveness, Russia proposes (…) the so-called ‘integration of integrations’ based on universal and transparent rules of international trade. As an example, I would like to cite our plans to interconnect the Eurasian Economic Union, and China's initiative of the ‘Silk Road economic belt’. We still believe that the harmonization of the integration processes within the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union is highly promising’. Whether it is a blessing or a curse, Russia stands a far better chance defeating the Islamic state than fulfilling this dream.

How does Putin perceive the ‘integration of integrations’? This concept, put forward by Sergei Karaganov in the mid-2000’s, assumes that in relations between the EU, on the one hand, and Russia with its post-Soviet allies on the other, an approach can prevail whereby the parties consider each other’s experience inherently valuable and themselves – equal partners. In fact, this entails the establishment of ‘the Eurasian Communities’ in the form of the EU and EEU. However, in my opinion, this initiative had no chance of success from the very outset for a number of reasons.

To begin with, mechanisms of the integrations themselves and the operation of the integration alliances are diametrically opposed. Over the course of the last 15 years, 13 countries have voluntarily joined the EU, each undergoing a lengthy struggle for the right of entry. The Union is organized as a community of equals; there exists a Court, the rulings of which are binding, the Commission and the President, bestowed with real powers. In the case of the EEU, out of the six countries which were supposed to comprise the Union, arm-twisting had to be applied to two of them (Armenia and Ukraine), with this tactic even failing in one instance. The Eurasian Union is organized as Russia’s clientele; Court decisions are recommendatory in nature; no real customs union has ultimately been established, and the central bodies are amorphous. Secondly, the unification of the EU is more economically-driven whereas the EEU – rather politically: not to mention the status quo, let me recall: at the beginning of their journey, Europeans united heavy industry (coal and steel) whereas in the Eurasian alliance, the authorities of every state only care about preventing ‘strategic’ enterprises from falling into the wrong hands. Thirdly, the ‘integration of integrations’ is also impossible since every party considers some of its neighbors to be ‘obliged’ to integrate with it in the first place and only afterwards with another major alliance as part of its integration project. One can point to a lot of other aspects – from the extent of democratism of both groups of countries to their comparative economic weight – in order to understand: Putin won’t live to see the equal ‘integration of integrations’. It can also be added that if the Russian President believes that integration is ‘based on universal and transparent rules of international trade’, he is, in point of fact, 50 years behind the times: it was precisely in the second half of the 1960’s that key trade issues were resolved in the EEC, and integration ceased being about trade at all.

A less exotic but equally unrealistic passage is the one about the link between Eurasian integration in post-Soviet Central Asia and the ‘co-prosperity sphere’ promoted by Beijing along the path of the new Silk Road. Indeed, our Chinese neighbors do have such a plan, but here the main problem lies not in the readiness for integration or its usefulness and rationality, but in the feasibility of the conditions which are, in fact, the basis for the potential integration project in the East.

First of all, as a point of departure, one should consider precisely ‘the Silk Road’ as the main bridging link in this situation – i.e. a powerful infrastructure project: a highway and railway connecting Xinjiang and (South-) Eastern Europe. Xi Jinping announced this project in Astana in September 2013, although the Chinese had been developing the corresponding plans for a long while: modern routes running to the border checkpoint of Dostyk in Kazakhstan and efficiently operating customs terminals have been built. But there is nothing of the kind on the Russian side. According to official estimates, the Central Ring Road at an estimated cost of 300 billion rubles ($8.1 billion at the time of its public announcement) should be completed by 2022 and the section joining it with the Kazakh border costing 760 billion rubles ($21 billion) – by 2023. Are these deadlines realistic, taking into account the pace of construction of the road to Saint Petersburg, for example? And are the investment figures, taking into account twofold devaluation and the rapid increase in expenses? The answer is obvious. Secondly, it is noteworthy that China, traditionally, has focused on cooperation with the countries which are conspicuously weaker than it. And this is why everything goes so well with Latin America and ‘not very well’ at all with Japan or India. Hence, Beijing will rather build a corridor not across Russia, but which spans Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries, the Caucasus and Turkey. Constructing such a route is not easy, especially taking the Caspian factor into account – but then Iran’s sanctions were suddenly lifted and the reconstruction of the historical Silk Road – the road along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea – became very realistic. In this case, the integration of Central Asia may become integration not with Russia, but in some ways against Russia. Thirdly, and this is something I have written about extensively, Putin is elliptical about the fact that China is evolving the concept of ‘two Silk Roads’ - over land and over sea - and the latter stands every chance of being more advantageous, should the Chinese finalize the construction of deep-water ports at the Myanmar’s coast in the Bay of Bengal and link them via modern highways and railways running from Sichuan.

It is also worthwhile recalling the passage in which Putin criticizes ‘Some countries which have chosen to form closed exclusive economic associations, the establishment of which being negotiated behind the scenes, unbeknown to those countries' own citizens and to other countries’. One can sense clear resentment of the fact that not only is Russia uninvited, but not even notified of the ‘integration of integrations’ currently known as TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). But what can one expect since the volume of non-oil and gas trade between the EU and USA amounted to $694 billion in 2014 while Russia supplied goods (excluding energy supplies) in the value of $56 billion to Europe and $8 billion to the USA? That being said, the President obviously paints a dark picture: the majority of TTIP documents under discussion are published in a fully official and timely manner on the official website of the European Commission.

However, Putin’s words, articulated from the UN’s tribune, should not be viewed as meaningless statements. There is a deep meaning to them – ‘a great and bright dream’ – to be more precise. I believe that the Russian President has indeed fostered large-scale integration projects for many years and he, as of yet, has not lost his enthusiasm for them completely. He is convinced that integration is the modern day imperialism and this is why he has a ‘default’ positive attitude towards this phenomenon. In his speeches, one can repeatedly observe his attitude to the European Union not as a community of equals, but, in actual fact, as a ‘sphere of German influence’. And, as a German by nature, Putin, it seems, is somewhat amazed by the fact that the project under the leadership of Russia ‘similar in all respects’, as described by him in a pre-election article of 2011, has not produced equally impressive results. The Kremlin does not believe that integration in Europe was, to a large extent, brought about by a grassroots movement and is governed in a democratic way. It considers references to democracy as ‘cover ups’ – and it is precisely due to such incredulity and a deep misunderstanding of the way life is organized west of the Russian border that dreams of the ‘integration of integrations’ arise - sincere but unattainable.

And this is, of course, sad. Simply because, having ‘played hard-to-get’ and having played for time, Europeans will ultimately have to finalize their European project: and this will happen at the borders of the Smolensk and Rostov oblasts, the Stavropol Krai and Chechnya. For Russia, this will be the end of ‘the European dream’ and will revive not the ‘Eurasian’ but the ‘Asian’ dream. Then there will remain no alternative to a union with China, unequal by very definition (China, mind you, unlike Europe, does not advance integration projects; it promotes ‘co-prosperity’, that is: certain benefits for neighbors paid for by its own rapid growth). Then Russia – even without much zeal – will slot into Asian manufacturing and sales chains, adopt Asian political practices, compete not with the Czech Republic or Spain but Malaysia and Thailand in the best case scenario.

I would obviously like to be wrong. However, it should be noted that these developments may not take place if only Russia suddenly changes its point of view of the European integration project and shows a desire to integrate into united Europe with no exceptional conditions. On its own, such a proposal would be an outstanding step in foreign policy since it would put European leaders in a deadlock and would most probably restore the political weight of Putin on the world stage in a far more radical way than haphazard bombing in Syria ever will. But the Russian President is a traditionalist or, as he himself says, a conventionalist and thus, he better understands the language of war, not peace; the language of imperial ambitions; not democracy. And consequently his New York maxims should not be taken seriously after all. 

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