“IT IS like you’ve been dating a girl for a long time,” grins Pavel Andreev, an editor at a state-controlled broadcaster, Rossiya Segodnya, explaining why it has taken so long to press ahead with the Eurasian Union. “You’ve met the parents, you’ve spent a weekend with the families, and now you want to get engaged…Eurasian integration has been painfully slow, but it’s moving forward.”
Often seen as an artefact of Vladimir Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union, the Eurasian Union has been largely ignored in the West. Yet it is in the margins of a Eurasian Union summit in Minsk next week that Mr Putin will meet the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko. And it was the decision by Mr Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, to embrace the project, rejecting a deal with the European Union, which touched off last winter’s protests in Kiev. That decision was not simply a capitulation to Russian empire-building, for this is not what Russia wants. Rather, says Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, it chafes over the lack of a big group that gives it more standing with the EU.
The offices of the Eurasian Union, or the Eurasian Economic Commission as it is officially known, are in a swanky Moscow high-rise building festooned with gold letters. In the lobby, clocks showing the time in the union’s three capitals—Moscow, Minsk, and Astana—cluster together, leaving plenty of room for more. Besides Belarus and Kazakhstan, Russia is keen to add Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, has said he will join. But Mr Poroshenko is just an observer.
Russian officials tout the union’s potential—trade could include everything from Belarus’s heavy machinery to Kazakhstani beef (see article). Trade within the union has grown by over 30% since 2011, they say. Yet Mr Trenin says the economic benefits of expansion are questionable. Discounting the initial burst after the removal of trade barriers in early 2011, annual trade growth has been more like 1.5%. Some officials say it will pick up, as it did with the EU. But the union’s own trade minister, Andrey Slepnev, does not think it will pull Russia’s economy out of stagnation.
With expectations so low, you might wonder what the Eurasian Union is for.