Russia seeks economic pact with ex-Soviet states

Peter Leonard, Associated Press

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Russia seeks economic pact with ex-Soviet statesAlmaty, Kazakhstan – Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has a vision for a Soviet Union-lite he hopes will become a new Moscow-led global powerhouse. But his planned Eurasian Union won’t be grounded in ideology: This time it’s about trade.

The concept of regional economic integration may be losing some of its allure in Europe, where a debt crisis is threatening the existence of the eurozone. But some countries across the former Soviet Union, still struggling economically 20 years after becoming independent, are embracing Putin’s grand ambition.

Russia has moved one step toward this goal under an agreement with former fellow Soviet republics Belarus and Kazakhstan that as of Sunday allows the free movement of goods and capital across their common borders.

As Putin envisions it, the still-hypothetical union will eventually stretch from the eastern fringes of Central Europe to the Pacific Coast and south to the rugged Pamir Mountains abutting Afghanistan.

The drive to somehow re-form at least a husk of the Soviet Union has been around since 1991. The Commonwealth of Independent States, which loosely brings together 11 of the original 15 republics, was an early attempt that never amounted to much more than a glorified alumni club.

It was Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev who first raised the notion of a Eurasian Union in the early 1990s, but the idea was too premature for nations busy forging their own delicate statehoods.

Putin was president from 2000 to 2008 and intends to regain that position in a March election. A wave of protests that began after a fraud-tainted parliamentary election in December is posing the first serious challenge to Putin’s authority, but his hold on power still seems secure.

In anticipation of a new six-year term as president, Putin has made forming a Eurasian Union by 2015 a foreign policy priority. He is promoting the union as necessary for Russia and its neighbors to compete in the modern global economy. His broader goal is to restore some of Moscow’s economic and political clout across former Soviet space and thus strengthen Russia’s position in the world.