Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Minus Ukraine, Will New Eurasian Union Live Up to Putin's Dreams?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Minus Ukraine, Will New Eurasian Union Live Up to Putin's Dreams?

Article excerpt

The Moscow-led economic alliance that hopes to eventually rival the European Union was officially created Thursday. But even some of its biggest boosters admit that it's being born under a very dark cloud, despite the economic promise of a bloc with a combined $2.7 trillion gross domestic product.

Ukraine's protracted turmoil has effectively blocked its once- expected participation. And the broader political fallout from Ukraine - both in the form of sanctions against Russia and of Russia's annexation of Crimea - is giving pause to the founding and prospective members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

"This Eurasian Union comes with a lot of built-in problems that are not going away anytime soon," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.

The "epoch-making" treaty signed by Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan will launch, from Jan. 1, 2015, a resource-rich free trade zone of 170 million consumers.

Dynamic economicsIt's the key project of Mr. Putin's presidency. Though he denies it's an attempt to reinvent the old USSR, it is nevertheless a signal that Russia is back as the head of an economic bloc - one that could eventually expand to include several more former Soviet republics.

On paper, the new union has huge economic potential. Russia's efforts to pivot away from its biggest trading partner, the EU, toward China and other booming east Asian economies, could not only blunt the impact of Western sanctions but could also attract Chinese investment into the union.

Tatiana Valovaya, the Russian government minister who oversees the Eurasian Union project, says that the customs union adopted in 2010 between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus has been an immense success. Not only has trade between the three partners more than doubled in that time, but she says the biggest part of it is manufactured goods and engineering products, in contrast to Russia's energy-focused trade with Europe.

"We're very satisfied," Ms. Valovaya says. "Trade among the customs union members has increased much more rapidly that with third countries, and all the conditions for much more rapid growth are present."

Political troublesAs recently as last December there were good reasons to hope that Ukraine, the industrial heartland and breadbasket of the former Soviet Union, might be at today's signing ceremony in Astana, the ultramodern capital of Kazakhstan. …

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