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Apr 21, 2010 | 11:06 GMT

5 mins read

Customs Union Woes and the Russian Resurgence

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT ALEKSANDR LUKASHENKO gave his annual State of the Nation Address on Tuesday, and in it he said that Russia was putting his country "on the verge of survival." Lukashenko elaborated on this point by saying that Russia was imposing curbs on free trade between the two countries, citing the oil export duty that Russia imposes on Belarus as a prime example. Lukashenko added that Belarus was being systematically "squeezed out" of the Russian market. Lukashenko is well known for his verbal outbursts against Russia, which is ironic because the two countries are about as close politically as any other two sovereign states in the world. But the fact that he targeted his criticism against the economics of the relationship seems even more ironic, as Belarus recently joined a customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan, another close former Soviet state. Theoretically, customs unions are supposed to be economically helpful — not hurtful, as Lukashenko claims — to participating countries. But this customs union is not like a Western free trade zone where the goal is to encourage two-way trade by reducing trade barriers. Instead, it is the equivalent of a full economic capture plan that Russia has pressured Belarus and Kazakhstan into, extending Russia's economic reach. It is explicitly designed to undermine the indigenous industrial capacity of Belarus and Kazakhstan, and weld the two states onto the Russian economy. Both countries have their reasons for joining the customs union. Kazakhstan agreed because of the succession issue of who will follow the Moscow-oriented Soviet-era president Nursaltan Nazarbayev, while Belarus agreed because Russia already controls more than half the Belarusian economy. Either way, the participation of both countries is a sign and a symptom of Russia's resurgence and growing geopolitical reach. Lukashenko is essentially right. Russia is threatening Belarus' survival as an independent state. In Russia's mind, the goal for the next few years is to push forward the Russian frontier sufficiently so that when Russia's demographics sour and its energy exports falter, it can trade space for time –- time to hopefully find another way of resisting Western, Chinese, Turkish and Islamic encroachment. It is not a particularly optimistic plan, but considering the options it is a considerably well thought out strategy. And it is one that does not envision a Belarus (or Kazakhstan) that is independent in anything more than name, if even that. The participation of Belarus and Kazakhstan in the customs union is a sign and a symptom of Russia's resurgence and growing geopolitical reach. The strategy is shaping up nicely for Russia. Belarus and Kazakhstan were the first targets, and despite Lukashenko's little fit of pique, those countries are now mostly sewn up. Ukraine had its color revolution reversed in democratic elections favoring the pro-Russian elements of the country, while Russia supported — if not orchestrated — the uprising in Kyrgyzstan. Georgia has learned what Russia can do from the 2008 war, and Moscow is keeping the pressure on the country militarily as well as politically through the support of various opposition groups. Russia is also bringing the often independent-minded Uzbekistan to heel. Uzbek President Islam Karimov is scrambling to prevent the events in Kyrgyzstan from occurring in his country by visiting Moscow and praising the strong relationship between the two countries. Turkmenistan is so paranoid of being invaded by anyone that Russia's Federal Security Service would need few resources to turn it toward Moscow. Azerbaijan has been pulled closer to Russia as Turkey (its traditional ally) and Armenia (its traditional nemesis) attempt to normalize relations with one another. Tajikistan and Armenia are both riddled with Russian bases and troops. That leaves a very small number of countries left on Russia's to-do list. There are a few countries that may not be as easily persuaded. Russia will face a struggle with Romania over Moldova, a former Soviet state that Romania has long coveted due to close ethnic ties and historical influence. Moscow feels that it needs to do something to intimidate the EU and NATO member Baltic states into simmering down. It needs them acting less like Poland, which views Russia extremely suspiciously, and more like Finland, whose relations with Russia are much more pragmatic. Regarding Poland, if Moscow can either intimidate or befriend Warsaw, then a good chunk of the Northern European Plain — the main route historically used by Russian invaders — could even be decided. In fact, that is half of the rationale behind the Kremlin's efforts to befriend Germany. If both Germany and Russia are of the same mind in bracketing Poland, then even that hefty domino will have fallen into place. The one thing that could upset Russia's well-laid and increasingly successful plans is the United States, should Washington extricate itself from the Islamic world sooner rather than later. A United States that has the vast bulk of its military efforts and resources concentrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one eye on Iran, has that much less to commit to addressing a resurgent Russia. But if the United States is not able to shift its focus away from these issues any time soon, when it does get some free bandwidth it will discover that the Russians are back — in Soviet proportions. And that will get a lot more attention than a petulant Lukashenko.

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