The Hidden Problems of the EurAsian Union
On 18 November presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia met in Moscow and launched the Single Economic Space. They also signed the Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Commission.
If three countries ratify these acts in the near future, on 1 July 2012 the Customs Union’s Commission will be abolished and all its powers will be transferred to the Eurasian Economic Commission.
The Eurasian Union founders use the European integration experience as a model. However, it is hardly possible that they will form a harmonious union because of a number of political, economic and intercultural problems.
How Is It Supposed to Function?
The main governing bodies of the Single Economic Space (SES) will be the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council of heads and prime ministers and the Eurasian Economic Commission. The Commission will also be the first major supranational institution in the post-Soviet space.
If any member country violates international agreements or the Commission’s decisions, the Commissions’ Board can bring an action against this state in the EurAsEC Court located in Minsk. Nevertheless, it is still unclear how widely its decisions will be implemented given that Russian state institutions are often reluctant to follow decisions of another supranational structure – the European Court on Human Rights.
The Commission staff will be shaped in proportion to the state’s share in distribution of the customs duties so it will consist of 84% Russian citizens, 10% Kazakh citizens and 6% Belarusian citizens. Russian citizens will therefore dominate the Commission. The Commission's first chairperson will be Russian Minister of Industry Victor Khristenko.
It should be noted that member countries are not planning to speed up integration in their respective parliaments, regions, business associations, youth and civil societies, though it is often a crucial point for approval of the integration process by societies.
Real Aims or Demagogy?
The main aim of the SES is to create a common market of goods, services, capital and labour. In order to achieve it, the Commission was given 175 functions in different spheres, including industry, transport, energy, the agrarian sector as well as natural monopolies and competition. Nevertheless, the interstate agreements do not specify the exact content of these wide powers. It means that most likely they will be hotly debated in the future. It took the European Law system over 50 years to develop and mature and it is naïve to hope that 2-3 years will be enough for the Eurasian Union to adopt legislation in these important areas.
Given the importance of ‘champion enterprises’ such as MAZ and Belkali for Belarus or Gazprom for Russia, it is still unclear how the states can agree on regulation of these enterprises by supranational institutions, especially when they are governed not by economic, but political, logic. Previously the Russian authorities had an experience of imposing different decisions on gas and oil companies in order to achieve some political aims and assert themselves as the ‘energy superpower’.
Member states claim that they want to pursue the coordinated macroeconomic and currency policy and to limit the level of external public debt and inflation. However, given the weak rule of law in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, it is difficult to posit that all provisions of the agreements will be complied to by member states.
Prospects for Eurasian Integration
The states plan to introduce a common defense space based on the CSTO as well as a single currency for the Eurasian Union. Alexander Lukashenka said that the Russian rouble could be used as the common currency, but from Nazarbayev’s point of view, it should be a new currency. Actually, it is almost impossible that Russia will drop its rouble and agree to emission centers outside Russia. Thus the situation with the single currency is likely to reach a deadlock very soon, as has happened many times before in the case of the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
On 18 November Victor Khristenko said in his interview with Russia Today that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan can also join the SES in the near future. This may sound good to Russian voters, but in practice these countries are quite poor and not important enough in the regional context to make the Union more attractive to further candidates.
Medvedev stated that the future Eurasian Union will avoid the eurozone's problems, but it is hardly likely, given the fact that Russian economy will play an even bigger locomotive role in the new Union than Germany does in the European Union. There is a high probability Russia will have to lend to and invest large amounts of money in neighbouring economies for the maintenance of coordinated macroeconomic indicators.
Decisions of the Commission will be based on consensus, which means that coordination of the positions of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan will take a long time. This is especially so since the Belarusian presidential administration is not ready for economic reforms and even clashed with its own government on this issue two weeks ago.
Implications of the New Wave of Integration for Belarus
Belarus should approach participation in the Eurasian Union pragmatically and use available opportunities to achieve its own ends, including modernization of enterprises and market reforms. A shift to common policies can further the process of Belarusian modernization due to the forced adaptation to modern norms and regulations that are used by Russia as a consequence of cooperation with the WTO, the USA and the European Union.
Despite popular objections, the participation of Belarus in the SES does not contradict its participation in the EU Eastern Partnership or the development of its relations with Western countries. Moreover, the SES constituent agreements stipulate that the WTO norms are of higher legal force than these trilateral agreements.
It is symbolic that Russian president Dmitry Medvedev left for Bali to take part in the East Asia Summit the day after signing agreements with his Belarusian and Kazakh counterparts. Russia is not retreating from the world market because of Eurasian integration, and there is nothing to prevent Belarus from doing the same, except a lack of imagination.
Participation in the Eurasian Union may help the Belarusian authorities to reduce social tension and improve Belarus' difficult socio-economic situation in the near future if Russia agrees to the substantial cut in hydrocarbons prices. Its decision will be known on 25 November during the Union State’s Supreme State Council's session. According to influential Russian daily Vedomosti, natural gas prices for Belarus in 2012 could be halved to $150 per 1000 cubic meters, with a decrease to the level of internal Russian prices in 2013.
What is the Future of the Eurasian Union?
To sum up, the founders of the Eurasian Union refer to a large extent to the EU experience and have set similar aims, mechanisms and institutions. However, a weak legal culture, the absence of proper democratic mechanisms, and the differences in the economic structure and economic interests of these three countries cast doubt over the future of all agreements.
Today it is difficult to say whether this new Union will stand the test of time or be used by Russian politicians to increase their popularity in Russia, and by Belarusian authorities as yet another rent-seeking opportunity.
George Plaschinsky is an associate analyst at the Centre for European Transformation in Minsk.
Who Rules Belarus?
Last summer over half of Belarusians polled by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies said that Alyaksandr Lukashenka based his authority primarily on the police, the military and the KGB. A closer look at who actually runs the security services and other governmental agencies in Belarus reveals interesting facts and trends.
It appears that those who were born outside of Belarus and educated in Russia heavily dominate the leadership of the police, the military and the KGB, while most 'technocrats' were born and educated within Belarus. Another notable fact is that most Belarusian officials are old and age is an important indicator in predicting their views. Younger ministers tend to be more liberal and less hawkish than their older colleagues.
Mercenaries in Charge of Security Services?
Nearly all top officials of the Belarusian security services were born outside of Belarus and came to the country following their studies in Moscow. In this respect Belarus is a unique country.
Yury Zhadobin, the current Minister of Defense and a former KGB chief, was born in Ukraine. In 2004, he obtained his most recent degree at the Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Federation. According to his official biography he has never studied in Belarus. The current KGB chief Vadim Zaitsev was also born in Ukraine. He has three degrees from various Russian military institutions and none from Belarus.
Anatol Kulyashou, the Minister of Interior who is also in charge of the police, was born in Azerbaijan. Although he has lived most of his life in Belarus, his most recent degree is also from a Moscow-based institution – the Russian Academy of the Interior. The head of the Presidential Security Service Andrei Vtiurin was born and educated in Russia and has never studied elsewhere.
Belarus is an ethnically homogenous country where Belarusians constitute over 85% of the population. An even larger majority of the current population was born in Belarus. This majority is clearly underrepresented among the leadership of the security services.
Many in the opposition call those who lead the security services in Belarus Lukashenka's mercenaries. It is not surprising – all officials mentioned above are on the EU travel ban list because of their active involvement in human rights violations and political repression.
According to a popular theory, the Russian/Belarusian security services manipulated Lukashenka and provoked the post-election crackdown on 19 December 2010. Many think that Moscow was the main beneficiary of last year's crackdown and subsequent imprisonment of hundreds, including nearly all opposition presidential candidates. As a result of the crackdown Belarus has become more internationally isolated and dependent upon Russia.
But the influence of the Moscow loyalists may soon diminish. Although Lukashenka granted additional powers to the KGB recently, he also established a new security agency – the Investigations Committee of the Republic of Belarus, which is supposed to keep an eye on all other security services. Belarusian-born and educated Valery Vakulchyk was appointed as its head last month.
Lukashenka's son Viktar was sitting next to Vakulchyk as his father announced the appointment. The influence of Viktar, who acts as Lukashenka's senior security advisor, is growing, often at the expense of other players.
Belarusian ministries not in charge of security are a mixed bag. Ministers of emergency situations, architecture, labour and information were born in Russia. Sergei Martynov – the Foreign Affairs Minister – was born in Armenia and completed his university education in Russia.
It is interesting to note that the ministries of information and foreign affairs – the most ideologically charged agencies – are under control of those who were born outside Belarus.
But the Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich and sixteen other ministers were born and educated in Belarus. These include the "technocrat" ministers of economy, finance, tax and industry.
In stark contrast with the Belarusian security services and those in charge of ideology, all seven regional governors were born and educated only in Belarus. The governor of Mahiliou region also has a degree from Dresden Technical University. All regional governors except one are in their 50s and 60s.
The other notable Belarus-born and Western-educated official is the head of the Presidential Administration Uladzimir Makey. He studied at the Diplomatic Academy of the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the early 1990s.
According to independent public opinion polls, older people are the main support base of Lukashenka. Not surprisingly, they are overrepresented in the country's leadership.
According to the Belarusian independent weekly Nasha Niva which suveyed the top 60 Belarusian officials, their average age is 54.4 years. Belarus can lay claim to having the oldest leadership of any country in the region. According to Nasha Niva, the average age in Russia is 45 years and in Estonia many ministers are younger than 40.
Belarus has only one minister under 40 – the Minister of Culture Pavel Latushka. He is also the only minister who uses primarily Belarusian in his official speeches. Other younger officials are concentrated in the Government – Deputy Prime Minister Siarhei Rumas and Minister of Economy Mikalai Snapkouski were born in Belarus and are in their early 40s. They all have a reputation as liberals.
At the other end of the spectrum is the head of the upper chamber of the Belarusian Parliament Anatol Rubinov. The 72 year old is known to have almost Stalinist political views.
The Bigger Picture
When earlier this month British historian Norman Davies presented his new book "Vanished Kingdoms," he used Belarus as an example of a nation without a mature elite. According to him, a fragile Belarusian state emerged after World War I, but Stalin purged nearly all its national elite in late 1930s. In his opinion this is the main reason why today Belarusians cannot govern themselves other than by a "teapot dictator" such as Lukashenka. Norman Davies added that it usually takes time to form a demos and a self-sufficient political entity.
Today the new Belarusian-born elite is almost absent in the leadership of the security services. In terms of its age, the governing elite looks more like a Soviet Politburo. But this may change soon. Despite obstacles which the Belarusian government and Western visa barriers create, many Belarusians can travel abroad and get uncensored information on the Internet. And the current level of political repression is incomparable with Stalin's purges.
It means that in the future the Belarusian authorities may not have enough properly Sovietized people to run the country. The younger Belarus-born bureaucrats tend to be more liberal and market-oriented. Some even openly speak Belarusian. They are gradually replacing the older generation who still have sentimental feelings about the Soviet past.
Those who want to see Belarus respect the rule of law and human rights need to think about how to influence and engage the new and future generations of the Belarusian elite. Sometimes Western governments and donors focus solely on how to punish or change the current political regime and forget about the bigger picture. Putting pressure on the regime is important but so is implementing concrete measures to integrate Belarusians into the rest of Europe.