“Turkey and Kazakhstan will be two central countries in Eurasia,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared on February 6 following a meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana. With Russia and Turkey engaged in a tense standoff, the warm welcome for Davutoglu by Nazarbayev, traditionally one of the Kremlin’s staunchest allies, is a sign that Russia’s attempt to exert control over its “near abroad” through regional groupings is floundering and Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian dream is fading.
Russia has created a number of regional frameworks over the past decade to cement its economic and military influence over the former Soviet states – most notably the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a free trade project comprising Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan that took effect little over a year ago, as well as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance of EEU member states that also includes Tajikistan.
But Russia’s recent spat with Turkey over the latter’s downing of a Russian military jet has revealed schisms within these organisations and their members’ reluctance to line up with Kremlin foreign policy when it conflicts with their own interests, despite their high dependence on Russia for trade and remittances.
The most recent example of this was Davutoglu’s visit to Astana. But at a December meeting of the CSTO, member states refused to unanimously condemn Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet, while Russia’s economic sanctions on Turkey were only supported by Armenia, which has not had economic or diplomatic relations with Turkey since 1994, and the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia.
There are several reasons for Russia’s failure to present a united front: Russia's recession and crumbling currency on the back of the collapse in the oil price have weakened its economic hold over its former vassals, while its increasingly belligerent behaviour and growing involvement in armed conflicts – in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015 – as well as increasingly tense relations with the West are forcing its allies to distance themselves from Moscow to avoid being drawn into its conflicts.
Take trade – ostensibly the major driving force behind the EEU. The EEU was set up to boost trade, but trade between the members declined by 25% in 2015, according to official figures. This is part of a steadily declining trend that started from the very inception of the Customs Union, a precursor to the EEU, in July 2010 (with the exception of 2012), according to Russia’s Selskaya Gazeta newspaper.
In addition to falling volumes, trade has been marred by bitter disputes. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan have engaged in trade wars by declaring one another’s food products dangerous for their respective citizens. Russia, which imposed counter-sanctions on Western food imports, has also accused Belarus and Kazakhstan of re-exporting European foodstuffs by repackaging them as their own.
One year after it took effect, the bloc's greatest accomplishment has been the creation of a single labour market, with member countries agreeing to recognise the others’ universities and accreditations, and establishing common regulations on paying income tax.
Ankara and others like the EU and China have looked to exploit these differences. Instead of letting themselves be dragged into the conflict between regional powers, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Belarus and even Armenia are trying to pursue alliances elsewhere that focus purely on economic projects.
In December Kazakhstan signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, while PM Davutoglu used his visit to Astana to discuss the creation of a transport corridor running from China to Turkey across Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan. Another supposed Moscow ally, Belarus, agreed to a €180mn investment project financed by the EU that covers cross-border projects with Poland and Ukraine and with Latvia and Lithuania.
Even Armenia, which spurned the EU in favour of joining the EEU in January 2015 on Moscow’s promises of prosperity, has been agitating to trade more with the newly opening-up Iran, as it is concerned that Russia won’t be able to make good on its previous investment promises.
Armenia’s, and to some extent Kyrgyzstan’s, membership of the EEU marked a line where the planned free-trade bloc increasingly started resembling an attempted political union – an idea fiercely resisted by Kazakhstan and Belarus. The Kremlin, using a mix of carrot and stick, also tried to bring in other former Soviet republics: its attempts drove Georgia and Moldova further into the EU’s embrace, while Ukraine’s refusal cost it its Crimea and Donbas regions. Armenia’s EEU membership also dashed prospects for wealthier Azerbaijan joining the bloc: “How can Azerbaijan participate in the activity of an organisation that envisages an economic and customs union with Armenia?” Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov asked.
That is not to say EEU members are disavowing Russia, their largest trading partner. Rather, they are pursuing their own economic interests while treading carefully with the Kremlin. “I am someone who has worked for many years in order to bring Russia and Turkey closer together, to make their relationship friendly. Since the time of Prime Minister [of Turkey Süleyman] Demirel, starting with President [of Russia Boris] Yeltsin. And all of this that was built over many years could now come to nothing,” Nazarbayev complained in a speech on November 30. “However difficult it is, there needs to be a way to work together to create a commission to identify those responsible, to punish them, to admit any mistakes and to restore the relationship. This is what I am urging our friends in both Russia and Turkey to do.”
As for the future of the EEU, it depends primarily on Russia “as the member state that is both the most interested in its continued existence and with the economic potential to subsidise the economies of the other members”, says Kateryna Boguslavska, an expert at the Zurich-based Centre for Security Studies.
But if Russia fails to bolster trade within the EEU and focus more on the regional economy and less on conflicts elsewhere, the EEU could well follow in the footsteps of the Commonwealth of Independent States, she concludes.