Friday, May 22, 2009

Window on Eurasia: New ‘Soft’ Eurasian Union Would Involve a Radically Decentralized Russia, Moscow Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 22 – If the countries of the former Soviet Union are to come together in some kind of “soft” union, a Moscow analyst says, Moscow will have to give up its “great power” attitudes and accept the emergence on the territory of the Russian Federation of an EU-style “Russia of the regions.”
And while such a shift in attitudes is not impossible, Yevgeny Ikhlov argues in an essay posted online today, it will be difficult for many Russian nationalists to make unless they come to recognize that efforts to restore a “hard” union like the USSR could lead to the demise of the Russian world itself (
Ikhlov’s argument is important not so much as a road map for where Eurasia is likely heading but rather as a warning of the dangers involved in Moscow’s current course not only for the region as a whole but for Russians in particular. And consequently, it could help shape the debate as to how the Russian government should proceed in the future.
Reacting to a recent article by radical Eduard Limonov calling for the restoration of the USSR and the movement of the new entity’s capital out of Moscow, Ikhlov considers this possibility in terms both of the history of Western Europe and of developments in the post-Soviet space over the last decade.
According to Ikhlov, “the history of the West has involved continuing attempts to restore the Roman Empire,” sometimes in “harsh” and “vertical” forms like the Carolingian world or Hitler’s Third Reich and sometimes in “soft” and “horizontal” ones like the Holy Roman Empire and the European Union.
Given the experience of the last 20 years, he continues, no one can seriously talk about a “harsh” restoration of the USSR. Any attempt to do so, Ikhlov insists would lead to a new “nuclear” edition of “the Crimean War (1853-55) and the final destruction of Russia as a great power.”
But the emergence of a “soft” variant, one that recalls the ideas of Academician Andrey Sakharov about “a Union of the Peoples of Europe and Asia,” is not only possible but in some ways desirable, Ikhlov says, all the more so given that many CIS countries now recognize that they will have to “wait decades” before the EU will take them in as “fourth” class members.
From their perspective, the Moscow analyst suggests, “it would be better to be first or second in one’s own union than eternal supplicants to someone else’s organization.”
But if “a soft variant” of a Eurasian Union might have many takers, it would require several fundamental changes in the attitudes of the Russian people themselves, Ikhlov says. On the one hand, it would certainly require that the new union find a new capital, much as the EU has chosen Brussels.
The capital of such a “New Union,” he suggests, could not be a city on the territory of “the chief power.” Instead, it would need to be somewhere like Minsk, Kharkov, Simferopol, Smolensk, or perhaps somewhere in Siberia or even the Russian Far East, if the “New Union” involved the countries of Central Asia and Kazakhstan.
And on the other, the new Eurasian union would have to be based as was the Common Market, the predecessor to the EU, on “an alliance of former enemies.” In Europe’s case, those were France and West Germany. A “new union” in Eurasia probably couldn’t be based on an alliance of Russia and Georgia but possibly could rest on one of Russia and Ukraine, Ikhlov says.
For that to work, the Russian Federation would have to completely reject “imperial, great power attitudes” and recognize that Crimea is “eternally Ukrainian,” just as the Germans have had to do with respect to Alsace-Lorraine, something they could accept because of the EU’s stress on the formation of “a Europe of the regions.”
In Ikhlov’s discussion, the same thing would occur in the Russian Federation if leaders and peoples in the regions were to get involved seriously in the building of “a new union.” And Russians would have to get used to the idea that “parts of the current Russian Federation, united on an historical and economic principle, must become independent subjects of the New Union.”
In short, a “New Union” would require a new Russia, a “Russia of the regions,” in EU parlance.
Could such transformations happen? Ikhlov asks rhetorically, to which he responds that they could under certain conditions. Twice Western Europe has formed up into “soft empires” out of “fear before a common enemy. Before the Mongol Hordes and the Ottoman advance. [And] before the USSR.”
And Ikhlov says that he is “convinced that fear before Chinese expansion can also again unite Russia and Central Asia.” But such a union will also require the cultivation of supra-national attitudes and the exclusion of nationalist ones not only among Russians but among all others.
That is because, Ikhlov concludes, “there is only one path to a New Union – a rejection of Russian great power attitudes, the recognition of the historical bankruptcy of a centralized imperial policy, and an acknowledgement that the present Russian Federation in fact unites several ‘countries.’”

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