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CIS government heads at a gathering
Vladimir Putin has told CIS members the focus should be on innovation and a modern economyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Former Soviet Union

August 18, 2011

Russia's newest integration project is a customs union for the post-Soviet area. Moscow has been trying to establish strong regional groupings since the Soviet Union's collapse, but success has been elusive.


The customs union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, which came into existence in January 2010, became fully operational on July 1 and removed all customs borders between Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Moscow would like to see other states get on board, but the union was sent reeling earlier this year by the devaluation of the Belarusian rouble and could suffer the same fate as previous attempts at regional integration which often were launched with high hopes, but eventually descended into irrelevance.

One early such attempt was the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), founded in December 1991 by Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, just before the official end of the Soviet Union. Eight additional former Soviet republics soon joined although the three Baltic nations stayed out - they were already looking firmly in Europe's direction.

Georgia has been a sporadic affiliate and Ukraine has always considered itself a participant rather than a full-fledged member, never having ratified the CIS by-laws.

The CIS states
The CIS statesImage: DW

"The CIS acted as something of a liquidation association for the Soviet Union and increasingly lost any kind of political importance," Hans-Henning Schröder of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Deutsche Welle.

But since then, he added, Russia has repeatedly tried to unite at least a few of the region's republics into an economic or political alliance and has created a series of regional organizations in recent years.

"But none of them have really functioned as was intended," Schröder said.

Economic and security alliances

Other regional groupings include the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC), formed in 2000, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) from 2002, the Union State between Russia and Belarus, originally formed in 1996, and the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, which brought together Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova in 1997.

The EAEC's aim is to reduce trade barriers and customs requirements between its member states, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Belarus. The CSTO, which counts Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Belarus among its signatories, is tasked with guaranteeing the security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of its member states.

GUAM, which was meant to be a counterweight to Russia, serves as a security alliance among Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, with Turkey having observer status. But due to the changing geopolitical orientations of its members, it has lost significance as have most other regional groupings.

border between Russia and Belarus
The union between Belarus und Russland has suffered due to bilateral disagreementsImage: DW

The most ambitious integration project in the post-Soviet region was the Union State, a far-reaching agreement between Russia and Belarus. It was founded by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in 1996 and its goal was to harmonize the political and economic differences between the two nations, leading to a federation like the Soviet Union with a common president, parliament, flag, coat of arms, anthem, constitution, army, citizenship, and currency.

Lukashenko at one point had his eyes on the union's presidency, but distanced himself from those plans after Vladimir Putin become Russia's leader in 2000. The bilateral relationship in the meantime has suffered in the wake of conflicts between the countries.

"Closer Russian integration with Belarus will not happen in my opinion," Eberhard Schneider of the EU-Russia Center, a Brussels-based think tank, told Deutsche Welle. He also thinks there are slim chances of a reintegration of the former Soviet republics although constellations of three or four nations might be possible, he added, including tie-ups between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and, as Moscow hopes, Ukraine.

The recent Moscow-led customs union is such a three-state association, which Moscow would like to see enlarged to include Kiev. But Ukraine has been negotiating since 2008 with the EU over a free-trade zone that could soon become reality.

According to Eastern Europe expert Gerhard Simon, Kiev could not sign a free-trade treaty with the EU at the same time it joined a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In the end, said security expert Karsten Voigt, the large political parties in Ukraine are more interested in developing an orientation toward the EU rather than looking east.

Peering toward the EU or China

Besides the three Baltic states, several former Soviet republics are now members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), including Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. They will not likely be interested in exchanging the global trade advantages that WTO membership brings for a place at the table in a customs union dominated by Russia.

WTO headquarters
The WTO is a more interesting group for some than a Russian-led customs unionImage: AP

But could Russia one day become a magnet for ex-Soviet states? If so, it would have to further develop its economic potential, according to CIS expert Schröder.

Russia's economy is now largely dependent on exports of oil and raw materials. Technologically, the country is not attractive and badly needs to modernize. In addition, Europe and China are more economically successful.

"The western nations of the CIS - Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova - are keeping the EU in mind," Schröder said. "In turn, the Central Asian states are eyeing China."

Author: Markian Ostaptschuk (jam)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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