The Eurasian Economic Union: A Critical Understanding of Recent Expansive Developments
The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) has since its establishment on January 1st 2015 sought different forms of expansion. The Union’s Member States expanded from its original treaty signatories - Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – to include Armenia and Kyrgyzstan in January and May 2015 respectively (Roberts et al. 2016, p. 542). Since then, however, the expansive developments of the EAEU have consisted of new observer states, Free Trade Agreements (FTA), (non-) preferential trade agreements and memoranda of cooperation (Elizbaryan 2019, pp. 30-31). The EAEU, which is marked by Russian domination, has played a key role for Russia in defining its vision of regionalism, as well as protecting its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space.
‘Regionalism’ is a contested concept partly due to the scholarly disagreement of what constitutes a region. According to Pempel (2005), as referred to in Mansfield et al. (2010, p. 147), one way of defining ‘regionalism’ involves “the process of institution creation” as the intentional outcome of inter-state cooperation. In Russia’s case, Kaczmarski (2017a, p. 1040; 2017b, pp. 1372-73) argues that Russia’s vision of regionalism is “exclusionary, closed and defensive” due to its spatial link to the post-Soviet territory (representing the core of Greater Eurasia; Russia’s concept of Greater Eurasia is not clear-cut, but includes Russia, China and Kazakhstan at its axis, the rest of the Central Asian states, and also certain states of the rimland such as India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia and Iran) and its preservation/defence of Russian political influence. However, the EAEU’s Russia-driven expansive developments, involving cooperation with states both outside and inside Greater Eurasia, raises the question of whether the EAEU corresponds to the vision of regionalism that Kaczmarski ascribes to Russia. Consequently, this article asks: In what ways are the expansive developments of the EAEU challenging the spatial notion of the Russian vision of regionalism as exclusionary, closed and defensive? By exploring this question, the article aims to contribute to the understanding of how the vision of regionalism itself is evolving.
As a mild critique to Kaczmarski, this article suggests a critical geopolitics approach and argues that the expansive developments of the EAEU, most notably through new observer states and several agreed and prospective FTAs, challenge the spatial notion of the Russian vision of regionalism as “exclusionary, closed and defensive,” and that a constructed, imagined approach to space, on the other hand, can give an alternative understanding of the Russian vision of regionalism. The next section supports the argument through an evidenced analysis of the EAEU’s expansive developments.
The EAEU Seeking Broader Cooperation
After Armenia and Kyrgyzstan obtained membership in 2015, the expansive developments of the EAEU have materialised mainly through new observer states, such as Uzbekistan and Cuba in December 2020, and FTAs with Vietnam (in effect since 2016), Singapore (signed in 2019), India, and the Republic of Korea; the latter two being under negotiation (Vinokurov, 2017, pp. 65-66; Russian News Agency, 2020). Other developments include the Provisional Agreement with Iran and the non-preferential agreement with China, both signed in May 2018, and other negotiations with countries like Serbia, Egypt, Israel and Indonesia (Kuzmina, 2019). By considering this list, it is evident that the EAEU, driven by Russia’s desire for influence, seeks cooperation that exceeds the spatial boundaries of both the post-Soviet space and ‘Greater Eurasia’. Consequently, the empirical evidence of the EAEU’s expanded area of cooperation indicates, to a certain extent, a deviation from the vision of regionalism as exclusionary and closed when associated with the physical space of both post-Soviet and ‘Greater Eurasia’.
Critical geopolitics, however, focuses on socially constructed and imagined space rather than physical space. Analysing Russia’s vision of regionalism through such a lens provides the opportunity to study the vision of regionalism as “exclusionary, closed and defensive” in ideational terms by looking at factors such as the regional states’ self-perceived ideology and identity vis-à-vis others. Inter-state cooperation based on ideological proximity may also be characterized as ‘exclusionary, closed, and defensive’ by emphasizing the Self’s dissociation from the Other (Rumelili, 2004, pp. 38-39). Although the EAEU seeks to include partners in ‘Greater Eurasia’ and beyond, these states are still ideological allies with a shared vision to counterbalance the West’s liberal order. For example, the strategic partnership with Vietnam, but also the increased cooperation with other ASEAN-states, and the work on convergence with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, stresses the shared values of equality, non-interference and respect for sovereignty to oppose US interventions of democracy-promotion (Giap, 2016). Furthermore, the cooperation with Cuba is built on the nostalgia of the Soviet-Cuba relationship, the promotion of a multipolar world to counter Western hegemony, and Russia’s desire for increased prominence to reaffirm its role in global politics (Bain, 2010, p. 45). These examples demonstrate that ‘exclusionary, closed and defensive’ may still apply to Russia’s vision of regionalism by how Russia uses the EAEU as a vehicle to expand its sphere of influence to states with ideological proximity.
Despite these cooperative agreements, it is reasonable to question their substance and genuine significance for trade development. According to Allison (2008, pp. 187-88), the rhetoric of regional integration fosters political solidarity among the states, evidently through their common resistance to the West’s ‘democracy agenda’, which gives these trade agreements ‘virtual quality’ too. Consequently, the expansive developments of the EAEU, framed as economically motivated, must also be studied as a tool for Russia to obtain solidarity and support from likeminded states to become a key player in the multipolar system, as well as a defensive mechanism to protect Russian influence from the encroachment of EU and China (Dragneva et al., 2017, p. 6, p. 24). In summary, the expansive developments of the EAEU indicate that the Russian vision of regionalism as ‘exclusionary, closed and defensive’ still holds when considering space in ideational terms, but whether the EAEU seeks beyond its ideological allies, for example as a consequence of Russian geopolitical aims to strengthen its position on the world stage, remains to be seen in future.
As this article has demonstrated through empirical examples, the expansive developments of the EAEU challenge the spatial notion of the Russian vision of regionalism as ‘exclusionary, closed and defensive’ due to inter-state economic cooperation stretching beyond the post-Soviet space and ‘Greater Eurasia’. However, by examining Russia’s vision of regionalism through the lens of critical geopolitics, this article has demonstrated that Kaczmarski’s argument of an ‘exclusionary, closed and defensive’ regionalism is still valid when considering space as dynamic, imagined and socially constructed. This is evident by how the new cooperative agreements are still linked to the EAEU’s ideological allies. Finally, this analysis has shown that the vision of regionalism itself is indeed changing both spatially (e.g. the post-Soviet space extended to ‘Greater Eurasia’) and ideationally through shared ideological identities.
Anja J. H. Engen is a postgraduate student at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She studies Politics of the Middle East specialising in international politics of the Middle East, Arabic language, as well as geopolitics of Central Asia. She has broad experience form the Middle East both as a student, in Cairo and Dubai, as well as a professional working as a Political Affairs Officer at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
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