On 4 September, the Prime Minister of Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, made an unexpected statement regarding the foreign policy of his country. To a journalist's question about what he thinks of the Eurasian Union, Ivanishvili replied: "I keep a close watch on and study this issue. So far, I have no position in this regard, but if, in perspective, we see that it [joining the Eurasian Union] will be good for the strategy of our country, then why not?"
Bidzina Ivanishvili thereafter had to elaborate on this controversial statement and offer various responses to the criticisms it provoked – he did so in a written statement the next day and in interviews and public comments he made whilst on a visit to the Baltic States in the days that followed. Each time he did so, the prime minister could not hide his dissatisfaction about his statement being misunderstood, however, he then went on to repeat the same thing over and over again – if the Eurasian Union created by Vladimir Putin does not conflict with Georgia's strategy, the Georgian government will "consider this issue in future, why not?!"
When making those statements Ivanishvili also asserted that the country's foreign policy course will not change and that it still aspires for membership of NATO and the European Union (EU). However, he did not convincingly explain how he sees this strategy to be compatible with the Eurasian Union – a union which everyone, be they its creators, supporters or opponents, perceives as being an alternative to the EU and NATO for post-Soviet countries and an attempt to reanimate the Soviet Union in any form. In December 2012, the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the Eurasian Union is an attempt at the "re-Sovietization" of the region, which Washington would resist.
Vladimir Putin formulated the idea of the Eurasian Union in his program article that was published in the Russian newspaper, Izvestiya, in his capacity as a presidential candidate in October 2011. According to Putin's project, the union was to become the next step after an operational Customs Union and a common economic space.
Putin believes this union must become an analogue to the EU in the post-Soviet space and, in addition to removing customs borders, it envisages the abolition of immigration, borders and any other barriers, thereby granting citizens of the union unrestricted rights to freely choose their place of residence, education and employment therein. Businessmen and companies will also have the choice to register in any of the union's member states. This concept, developed by Putin in the run up to the last presidential elections, was seen as the key action plan for his return to the presidency.
The idea of the Eurasian Union has become especially popular among those supporting the restoration of the Russian empire. "We have been waiting for 25 years for our government to pronounce these words," said Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian nationalist and ideologist of the Eurasian movement. He admitted that representatives of his movement also contributed to Putin's program article in Izvestiya in October 2011.
In his program article, Putin noted that participation in Russia's integrational projects would be voluntary. Moreover, members of the future Eurasian Union would also be able to integrate with the EU. However, the steps the Kremlin took thereafter soon proved both of these conditions to be false.
On 3 September 2013, the day before the Georgian Prime Minister's recent unexpected statement, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan agreed to his country's integration into both the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union. This decision came as a surprise to both Armenian society as well as the EU – with which for years Armenia had been conducting negotiations towards signing an association and free trade agreement.
Like Georgia, Armenia had planned to initial this document at the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November. However, after Armenia's decision to join the Customs Union became known, high level officials of the European Commission and various European diplomats explicitly declared that simultaneous association with the EU and membership of the Customs Union was impossible and, consequently, Brussels would be unable to initial its agreement with Yerevan.
The chair of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, Elmar Brok, declared that Armenia had fallen victim to blackmail from Moscow. "We know that Armenia is under incredible pressure from Russia because of the difficult situation towards Azerbaijan and [the disputed territory of] Nagorno-Karabakh. There is all this pressure. A small country like Armenia was blackmailed to make such a decision," the MEP said.
Armenian experts also share the theory about pressure. In mid-September, David Shakhnazaryan, head of the Concord research center, told the Ukrainian newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli that pressure was exerted on several areas: the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the threat of internal political destabilization and the price of Russian energy resources.
Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that also includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The country is a home to a Russian military base, and its border with Turkey is defended by Russian border guards. Consequently, at a time when Armenia remains engaged in a conflict with a neighboring state, Russia is the main guarantor of Armenia's security. In spite of this, Russia has sold several billion USD worth of modern weapons to Azerbaijan in the past few years. Moreover, at the end of July, Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Baku for the first time ever and met with his Azerbaijani counterpart, which must have been an alarming signal for Yerevan.
Several Armenian experts assert that the country's aspirations towards economic integration with the EU had been agreed with Russia. Yerevan never expressed any ambition of joining the EU or, even more so, NATO. A free trade regime with the EU cannot inflict any harm on Russia; conversely, it benefits the Russian capital, which is the main source of investments in Armenia. However, as the Russian newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, wrote, the main motive behind Russian pressure on Armenia is not of an economic, but of a political nature – Moscow "could not allow the precedent" of its closest ally integrating with the EU.
"The integrational aim of Russia is not small-size Armenia at all, but rather the more 'interesting' post-Soviet states. Whilst the issue of Ukraine is ambiguous, providing a 'trump card' to those countries which oppose the Eurasian Union by allowing Armenia to go, would be tantamount to suicide," explained the newspaper in an op-ed entitled "A Small Necessary Victory."
To gain the necessary victory over Ukraine, the Kremlin went on the offensive and turned the EU and the Eastern Partnership format, which emerged after the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008 and under which Brussels offered several countries the opportunity to sign association agreements, into its key adversaries.
Vladimir Putin has repeatedly pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to join the Customs Union. Starting from 2010, the new government of Ukraine, which had pledged loyalty to the Kremlin, turned its back on NATO integration and extended the stay of the Russian naval fleet in the Crimea, has made futile attempts to obtain a decrease in the "unfair" prices they pay for Russian natural gas.
The key condition that Putin poses to Kiev is for it to reject the free trade agreement with the EU and join the Customs Union. In return, the Kremlin promises to give certain concessions to Ukraine. If Ukraine refuses to do so, Putin is threatening it with sanctions.
With the EU Vilnius Summit approaching, at which Ukraine intends to sign its already initialed agreement on association and free trade with the EU, the Russian President has started to step up his activity. At the end of July, on the 1025th anniversary of Ukraine's adoption of Christianity, Vladimir Putin paid an unofficial visit to the country. In speeches he made in Kiev and Sevastopol, Putin repeatedly emphasized the traditional ties between the two countries and outlined the "advantages" of the Customs Union over the EU.
However, two days after his visit Russia banned the import of chocolates manufactured by a Ukrainian company, Roschen, citing poor quality as grounds for the move. Kiev perceived this move as a form of political pressure. On 13 August, the Russian customs administration placed all Ukrainian goods under the category of high-risk products, which entails the obligatory unloading of cargo at the border and the heightened inspection thereof. This caused impediments across the border of the two countries and inflicted harm on Ukrainian companies. The Russian government made no comment on the move, whilst Brussels expressed concern. One week later, the border restrictions were lifted, although representatives of the Russian government unambiguously declared that if Ukraine signs the agreement on free trade with the EU, the border regime will be toughened.
Thus far, Moscow's attempts to pressure Kiev have borne no fruit. This is not because Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions are so devoted to European values, but rather because of the financial interests of the groups that they represent. For them, trade with the EU is way more profitable than integration into a common economic space with Russia.
Moldova, yet another candidate for association and free trade with Europe, has also come under pressure from Moscow. On 10 September, Russia's office of sanitary inspection banned the import of Moldovan wines and alcoholic beverages for being of low quality. Moscow has traditionally applied such levers of pressure on Moldova in the event of political disagreement.
hisinau denies that there are any problems with the quality of those products because similar products are also exported to EU countries, and has called the ban politically motivated.
On 7 September, Russian Patriarch Kirill arrived in Moldova. He prayed for "Moldova's future" and talked about the necessity of Moldova strengthening its ties with the common-religionist Russia. The Moldovan Orthodox Church, which is subordinated to that of Moscow, is a more highly respected institution in Moldova than the Diocese of Bessarabia of the Romanian Church, and it openly opposes European integration and the country's incumbent pro-European government.
Several days before this, Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister and the Kremlin's special representative for Transnistria, arrived in Moldova. According to comments Moldovan diplomats gave to the media on the condition of confidentiality, Rogozin tried to influence Chisinau to dissuade it from initialing its agreement with the EU. They reported that Rogozin directly told his hosts that initialing the agreement would be "a serious and costly mistake."
In particular, Russia threatened Moldova with trade restrictions, the closing of its borders for migrants and losing Transnistrian conflict region for good.
The European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle, has expressed his indignation about such forms of pressure and called on Russia to honor the sovereign choice of the EU's partner countries. On 12 September, in a special resolution the European Parliament condemned the pressure Russia has exerted on its neighbors. In this resolution, the MEPs called on the European Commission and the European Council to undertake effective measures for the protection of the choices and European aspirations of the partner countries.
Since the new government came to power, Moscow has not exerted such direct pressure on Georgia. Quite the opposite, it has even opened its market to certain types of Georgian products. However, at the same time, Russia has not ceased its hostile and aggressive actions with regard to the occupied territories. In particular, it actively started shifting the administrative borders deeper into Georgia-controlled territory and has erected barbed wire fences along them. Bidzina Ivanishvili reacted to this development by saying that he could not believe the Russian leadership was doing that and that such a development "did not fall within his analysis."
On 12 September, however, Vladimir Putin issued an order for signing an agreement on "the state border" with the Tskhinvali regime.
An indication that Georgia's problems with the occupied territories might be settled through the country's integration into the Eurasian Union was made by the leader of the Eurasian movement, Aleksandr Dugin, in June. According to him, in the event of joining the union, Georgia and South Ossetia would no longer need a border between them.
After the new Georgian government came to power, several Russian experts expected that the country's foreign policy would turn towards Russia. Certain statements made and steps taken by the Georgian government had provided them with sufficient grounds to think that.
One such "promising" statement was the one made by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili while visiting Armenia in January. He said that he "envies" Armenia because it manages to simultaneously keep good relations with Russia and the West.
As the government explained back then, with that statement the prime minister did not mean that he was denying the country's foreign policy course of Euro-Atlantic integration or returning, like Armenia, to the sphere of Russia's influence.
The prime minister's recent statement about the Eurasian Union has become yet another instance giving rise to doubts, both inside and outside the country, about the sincerity of the Georgian government's pro-Western rhetoric. This might make the Kremlin feel that its pressure on Georgia is working and that, with the continuation and enhancement of this policy, it may be able to achieve its goal of derailing Georgia from its Euro-Atlantic course once and for all.
Armenia has become an example of the pressure that the Kremlin applies to even its closest ally. Just last month, Moscow threatened yet another ally – Belarus, which is geared up towards joining the Customs Union – with disruptions in the supply of energy resources. The reason for that move was the arrest of a Russian businessman whom Belarusian law enforcement bodies accused of having attempted to misappropriate one of the country's largest enterprises – Belaruskalium. On 10 September, the Belarusian President even said that the situation created in the enterprise was a result of the activities of "those Russian scoundrels."
On what the Eurasian Union represents and on what kind of future the association may have, the US edition, The National Interest, writes: "But as it is a Russian vision, the Eurasian Union would bear the flaws of modern Russia: neglect of human rights, selective justice and omnivorous corruption... This understandably engenders fears and doubts among the potential members for the integrity of their sovereignty."
The authors of that article believe that, despite the pressure placed on it, Ukraine will not join the Eurasian Union. Ukraine's absence will make the union devoid of any sense as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will become burdens for Russia, whilst the leaders of Kazakhstan and Belarus, who have been running their own countries for quite a long time now, do not intend to share power with Putin.
According to analysts of The National Interest, the Eurasian Union is Putin's unrealizable "dream" and the sooner the Russian leader admits that, the better it will be for the stable development of the region.