Newspaper article International New York Times

Putin Signs Pact with 2 Ex-Soviet Republics ; but without Ukraine, Economic Alliance Is Pale Imitation of Original Plan

Newspaper article International New York Times

Putin Signs Pact with 2 Ex-Soviet Republics ; but without Ukraine, Economic Alliance Is Pale Imitation of Original Plan

Article excerpt

The two countries joined Russia in creating the Eurasian Economic Union, a pale imitation of what had been envisioned as an eastern version of the European Union.

The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus formally signed an agreement on Thursday to create a limited economic union, an alliance hobbled by the absence of Ukraine but one long pursued by President Vladimir V. Putin to confirm Russia as a global economic force.

"Today we are creating a powerful, attractive center of economic development, a big regional market that unites more than 170 million people," Mr. Putin said during the ceremonies. He underscored the significant energy resources, work force and cultural heritage of the combined nations.

The geography of the alliance, the Eurasian Economic Union, means that it has the potential to create a global transportation hub joining the trade flows of Europe and Asia, Mr. Putin said, sitting at a table with his two fellow leaders in front of their respective flags.

But the alliance that comes into force on Jan. 1 will be a pale imitation of what the members first envisioned, an eastern version of the European Union, which has 28 members.

"Three weak economies getting together and integrating, how much good can come out of it?" said Nargis Kassenova, the director of the Central Asian Studies Center at Kimep University, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and part of a small but vocal opposition to the union in Kazakhstan. "Now it is even worse because one is under sanctions and drifting away from the West," she added, referring to Western economic sanctions against Russia.

The missing guest at the party was Ukraine. The previous government in Kiev tacked back and forth on whether it would join the European Union or the new Eurasian group, eventually prompting enough public anger to bring down the president last February.

"We lost someone along the way -- I mean Ukraine," said Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the president of Belarus.

Mr. Lukashenko, who received a $2 billion loan and energy concessions from Russia just before the signing, also said the union was less than anticipated.

"Unfortunately, it is not the agreement that our partners originally announced," he told Belta, the official Belarus news agency.

He also called for economic unity to be followed by political and military unity, a concept that Kazakhstan flatly rejected.

"We are not creating a political organization -- we are forming a purely economic union," Bakytzhan Sagintayev, the first deputy prime minister and lead negotiator, said in an interview. "It is a pragmatic means to get benefits. We don't meddle into what Russia is doing politically, and they cannot tell us what foreign policy to pursue."

The agreement coalesced with great fanfare -- and quickly, with members changing trade laws in a matter of years that required decades for the European Union. But in the end it became less about promoting economic development than providing Russia with a diplomatic victory, analysts said.

Like the huge natural gas agreement Russia signed with China this month, the Eurasian Economic Union is a way for Moscow to show that it is pivoting to Asia and that the Western sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Crimea will not succeed in isolating it.

"It is meant to signal that these Western programs and opprobrium are not having an effect on the economy and that Russia is developing into a distinct pole in the multipolar system," said Alexander Cooley, a political science professor at Barnard College, in New York. …

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