The multiple and overlapping regional and interregional projects around the world are a challenge for the Russian political elite. In its turn, Russia does not cease to generate projects of regional and interregional importance. Now, the “Great Eurasian Partnership” (GEP) project became a new construct explored by the Russian expert community.
The idea of forming the Great Eurasian Partnership was first announced in the address of President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin to the Federal Assembly on December 3, 2015. During 2016-2018 at various venues and meetings the President actively uses the concept of the “Great Eurasian Partnership”. Nevertheless, there is no clarity about how and with whom this partnership will be built.
Since there is no official program or strategy document describing this partnership, many Russian analytical works are aimed at guessing or predicting what the government of Putin is planning to build in Big Eurasia. There is a problem with terms and abbreviations, beginning with the official discourse, where both Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov use distinct terms. There are three versions of acronyms: All-BEAP (a comprehensive Big Eurasian Partnership), BEP (Big Eurasian Partnership), IEP (Eurasian Partnership Initiative). It is not clear from the President’s speeches, what regional project will be the basis for the development of interregional ties – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), or Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)? The areas of cooperation are not obvious. Which countries and regions will be part of this project? On what principles will they be built? Which tools for building interregional relations will be used? The ideological component of the project is not clear either.
Since the Valdai International Discussion Club (VDC) is an expert center that conducts research for the government of the Russian Federation and President Putin regularly participates in its meetings, we decided to analyze how the experts of this center assess the perspectives of the GEP. With the aim of creating a pool of ideas within the framework of the VDC, a special project “Agenda for Eurasia” was created. This project is interesting as it demonstrates the search for a new paradigm of region-building and interregional-building in Eurasia. There is no conceptualized paradigm yet, but some of its outlines can be identified.
Many papers were published during 2016-2018 concerning the “Agenda for Eurasia”. It is interesting, that 2/3 of the published papers are devoted to sophisticated philosophical issues. This philosophical discourse is a kind of search for Russia’s place in between two worlds. It illustrates the duality within the philosophical discourse, both in respect to the weight of the European Union (EU) in Russian expert discussions, and to the structural implications Russia must deal with in Central Asia, all the while drawing elements from the ‘comprehensive partnership’ with China. And only 1/3 of the papers include the practical/functional discourse, where the emphasis lies in the strategic importance of different trade and investment initiatives in the Eurasian region, the intersecting regional platforms and the interregional potential brought by these projects, and the challenges posed by bilateral non-tariff barriers to regional trade liberalization.
Some key ideas on GEP could be identified.
Firstly, the VDC project demonstrates a deep theoretical elaboration of modern approaches to region-building, including the European experience, with the aim of shaping such a concept that “will not be based on copying or striving to “cling” to the East or the West, but on our own ideas and visions”. Secondly, it is an attempt to learn from the mistakes made over the course of previous attempts at region-building in Eurasia and the post-Soviet space. Thirdly, there is analysis of the opportunity to utilize “a unique emerging international environment in Eurasia that eliminates the possibility and necessity of an unquestionable hegemon’s arrival”. A non-hegemonic model of building the GEP is supported by the specific understanding role of China in Eurasia and the GEP. Since 2016 there is a shift from the “rapprochement” idea, which includes economic integration and political or military alliance building, to more pragmatic or even skeptical approaches to the Russia-China relationship, which suggests “there is no hurry to formalize their allied relations at this historical stage”.
So, building the Greater Eurasian Partnership is still an uncertain enterprise. How to realize the GEP in an effective manner? Most of the analytical papers do not provide an answer to this question, but they indicate the problems that exist within the framework of the construction of Greater Eurasia. Firstly, they address the “European curse”, namely the long history of relations between Russia and Europe, attempts to build common institutions, and reliance on the West-centric world order. The authors are sure that we need to search for new models and partners. Secondly, there is the “Eurasian curse”, which is defined as Russia’s lack of understanding of its regional identity.
The history and philosophy of Eurasianism are ineffective at the present stage. There is a global problem of determining what Eurasia is, conceptually and territorially. Thirdly, the regional institutions on the basis of which efforts are being made to build a mega-region, according to the authors, do not work effectively, and have many internal problems. Fourth, the issue of resources remains relevant: human, financial, political, and symbolic. From a financial and economic point of view, Russia loses both China and the EU. The trade turnover between Central Asia and China is higher than that between Central Asia and the Russian Federation. The sanctions policy of the West functionally restrains the capacity to build economic relations.
The policy of a besieged fortress inside the Russian Federation is not an attractive symbolic model for partner countries in post-Soviet Eurasia. Finally, since its conception the ‘Agenda for Eurasia’ has collected a great number of valuable ideas, but when will this pool of ideas coalesce into clear policy analysis or action? Experts criticize European regionalism as a policy driven by an ineffective theory, but how effective is it to push forward a Russian project equally absent of theory, and can one develop an effective theory in hindsight of previous aimless actions? We believe that the time has come for Russia to cope with the changing world and to devise a clear and effective strategy for its regional and interregional policy.