BACKGROUND: As mentioned in a paper published by Richard Pomfret in 2009, “regional and bilateral trade agreements have been signed (among former Soviet republics) since 1991 … Their striking feature is the lack of progress in establishing or implementing preferential trade policies.” Such a situation might have forced political leaders in these countries to move ahead with a new treaty. The EEU will be enlarged to Armenia and Kyrgyzstan; Tajikistan is also seen as a potential candidate. Basically, the EEU should create a shared economic space with a customs union. However, the economic rationale for the EEU is rather limited. For instance, when considering the geography of trade of the two main EEU members in 2012 – Russia and Kazakhstan – mutual trade is less important than trade with others; in addition, Kazakhstan’s and Russia’s major exports (oil and gas) are similar, which means there is a lack complementarity between them.
Most importantly, the very poor records of EEU members in terms of democracy, human rights and governance should be expected to deteriorate further due to the “negative synergies” created by the deepening cooperation in the region. In other words, being closer together will make it easier for EEU members to shield themselves further from external influences. Such a view is supported by actual tendencies.
Considering governance, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index locates the EEU3 far below the more developed countries of the West. Their scores are in the range 26-29 in 2013 (“no perceived corruption at all” would imply a score of 100), whereas for the three leading EU countries, namely Germany, UK and France, corresponding scores are 78, 76 and 71, respectively. For the Scandinavian countries and Finland, scores are above 85, namely the lowest perceived corruption levels in the world. Most revealing is the fact that over a ten year period, there is no evidence of improvement.
Moreover, Freedom House reports poor records in terms of democracy and human rights. For Kazakhstan, there is a “downward trend arrow” due to extralegal enforcement with raids by the antiterrorism police on gatherings in private homes, preventing people to practice in peace their faiths and beliefs. Moreover, political opponents are imprisoned following unfair trials or placed in psychiatric institutions –practices reminiscent of Soviet times. In the case of Russia and Belarus, human rights activists and opponents are permanently confronted with intimidation, threats and arrests, and journalists have been assassinated – the latest victim is perhaps Alexei Devotchenko, a well-known Putin critic, who was found dead on November 5.
Last but not least, the work of domestic and foreign-based NGOs is rendered much more difficult with new laws. In Russia, in 2012, the legislators introduced a restrictive law requiring organizations that receive foreign donations to register as “foreign agents,” a cold-war expression with a negative connotation; the new legal framework is fully enforced since 2013. In Kazakhstan, similar changes were already introduced in 2005 and the last repressive measures were adopted mid-2014 – they concentrate on communication means and allow for blocking websites or social networks without court order.
IMPLICATIONS: The possibility of deteriorating freedom and governance in the EEU members must be addressed adequately by the West due to its potential impact on East-West relations and security. At official levels, and despite high tensions created by the crisis in Ukraine, it is essential to maintain permanent contacts with EEU members. In such a difficult and volatile context, both the Council of Europe (CoE) and the OSCE can be seen a key organizations.
A full normalization of relations between the CoE and Russia can help foster basic freedoms and counter negative tendencies in Russia. Belarus should also be properly approached by the CoE – in that respect, it is worth observing that Azerbaijan is a member of the CoE despite a poor record in terms of human rights and democracy.
With 57 “participating states” (or members) encompassing three continents – i.e. North America, Europe and Asia –, the OSCE is uniquely positioned to defend universal democratic values, prevent conflicts and develop bridges between the West and the EEU. In 2010, Kazakhstan chaired the OSCE and reaffirmed its strong commitment to uphold the fundamental principles and values of the organization. Kazakh officials were even supported by a joint Task Force led by the U.S.-based Institute for New Democracies (IND) and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The CSIS-IND final report on Kazakh Chairmanship underlined that, during the Kazakh mandate, human rights issues continued to be addressed normally, without pressure or interference, which underlines the relatively open attitude of Kazakh authorities and their readiness to cooperate, even though the country is showing undesirable trends. Furthermore, Kazakhstan is eager to strengthen economic ties with Russia while at the same time maintaining good relations with the West, which implies that the country could act as an intermediary between the West and Russia.
Besides states and international organizations, NGOs do matter to safeguard the rights of EEU citizens. However, obstacles are increasing for NGOs that criticize too openly the autocratic and repressive EEU regimes, and as a result NGOs may be perceived as threats undermining those in power. For that reason, focusing NGOs activities on less sensitive fields should help them survive in a more hostile environment. Three particular domains of action that may not raise excessive sensitivities in the EEU ruling political circles include minorities, gender and the environment.
Considering minorities in the EEU, their effective representation in parliaments must be guaranteed and controlled by civil society, which requires a strong involvement of both “majority” and “minority” ethnical groups in common awareness raising and whistleblowing actions. Gender problems are the focal point of several NGOs; they help fight domestic violence and related chronic diseases such as alcoholism. Environmental organizations may also enhance the role of civil society by concentrating on important daily life issues (e.g. informing about air pollution and water quality) and perhaps refrain from spectacular actions, with limited impacts.
In addition, it is essential to strengthen linkages with young generations, namely those that are expected to belong to decision-making bodies in the future. Relevant and far reaching activities in the long run relates to education and training, especially in the field of social sciences and law. In other words, more grants must be provided to support studies and tours in universities, private companies, public administration, parliaments and courts of justice, in the U.S. and the EU.
CONCLUSIONS: In terms of governance, democracy and human rights, the forthcoming EEU may signal a further worsening of conditions in member countries, which could have negative impacts on relations with the West and regional security. Nevertheless, there is still room for continuing actions to promote “western values” and East-West linkages. Both the Council of Europe and the OSCE represent key organizations in this regard because of their unique Eastern and Western membership. NGOs have a role to play by addressing specific issues that are not perceived as direct threats by the governments of EEU countries. Working with the younger generations should also be a top priority on cooperation agendas to build new bridges and reduce the risk of conflict.
When considering past performance, any positive outcomes that could be expected from the EEU are limited in scope and following the EU experience, real integration among countries does require legitimacy through democratic institutions, with transparent and fair elections.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Daniel Linotte holds a PhD from Oxford University. He worked as adviser and consultant with international organizations and governments, and held teaching positions at Boston University, the Catholic University Leuven and the Higher School of Economics (Moscow). He is presently leading a key-EU project in the Balkans. His views do not represent any official position.
(Image Attribution: Eurasian Union.co)