In Eric Ambler’s masterly interwar thriller, The Mask of Dimitrios, the puppet master pulling the strings as a seedy Europe slides hopelessly into war is the shadowy Eurasian Credit Trust. The name was deliberately chosen. For most of the last century, Eurasia was scarcely a neutral term: it evoked the whiff of racial degeneration, the prospect of civilisation overrun by eastern hordes.
But now comes the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, perhaps looking to lift the attention of a restive public at home to something more elevated than a peremptorily staged presidential succession, supporting the idea of creating a Eurasian union of former Soviet-bloc nations that could become “one of the poles of the modern world, serving as an efficient link between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region”.
Putin explicitly denies that this is about rebuilding the USSR. Nevertheless, there has been a lot of talk of Eurasia since the collapse of the USSR and there is a close connection between the Eurasia concept and Soviet history. Belarus and Kazakhstan have already embarked on commercial integration and the new union will hope to take that further, perhaps attracting other former Soviet republics into its orbit: Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are mentioned. And in a world where EU membership is effectively barred to Russia, and where the EU is promoting its own eastern partnership, led by Poland and Sweden to intensify European links with other former Soviet republics – including both Belarus and the Ukraine – one can see the logic in Russian efforts to extend internal markets, remove barriers to labour mobility and at the same time win the fight for the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of its western gateways, above all in Ukraine.
Politicians like the occasional grand vision, especially one with historical resonance. Yet will all this be worth the effort? The precedents are not reassuring. If the EU’s eastern partnership smacks of an effort to reshape the region in the image of the early modern Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth – a time of Polish and Swedish regional power when merchants and ideas travelled easily between the Baltic and the Black Sea – Putin’s Eurasian union seems stuck in the Soviet era. Of course, Soviet ambitions went far beyond Eurasia; they wanted influence in the Middle East, Africa and south-east Asia. And this became clear after 1945, when Stalin’s Russia really did become a world power thanks to its defeat of Nazis and the Kremlin got its chance to build a second world of socialism around the globe that united eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Soviet republics with other socialist partners further afield. Ideas and technology – above all, ideas about technology and the modernisation of peasant societies – circulated across the borders of the countries in this second world, as far away as Cuba, Angola, Ethiopia and North Korea. Today some historians remind us that the “third world” was so called precisely because of the sustained tussle for its allegiances in the 1950s and 1960s between the first and second worlds. Yet all of this can be exaggerated. The second world was concentrated on eastern Europe, and other member states came and went. The rise of China weakened the ideological prestige of Moscow. And none of it was ever a match in purely economic terms for the astonishingly powerful global alliance system put together by Washington, linking the powerhouse economies of western Europe and east Asia with the oil-producing states of the Middle East.
The first world definitely won that particular struggle and globalisation – by which I mean the extraordinary combination of industrial productivity growth in American partners such as Japan and South Korea with the financial flows that reshaped finance after the 1970s – ultimately brought the Soviet second world to its knees, both because it simply could not compete internationally and because much of eastern Europe had become addicted to western debt. Overall, the effort of sustaining this vast sphere of influence probably cost the USSR far more in purely economic terms than it got back. It had one great achievement to its credit – the industrialisation along late 19th-century lines of its own backward periphery, but by the late 20th century, that was not enough.
There is a lesson here to be learned, surely, from an earlier foray into a kind of Eurasianism by Turkey. In the early 1990s, the then president Turgut Özal imagined a coming “Turkish century” based on a new union among the Turkic-speaking states of the Eurasian heartlands. After his death, it became abundantly clear that the choice between orienting the Turkish economy east or west was no kind of choice at all. Having learned that lesson, the Erdogan government is pursuing a sort of post-imperial foreign policy of its own. But what makes it much more powerful than the earlier Özal model is not only that it is oriented to the former Ottoman lands in the Balkans and the Middle East rather than to the post-Soviet Black Sea and Caspian republics, but more importantly that it is intended as a complement rather than an alternative to the increasingly European and global orientation of the Turkish economy.
In short, it is no wonder Putin stresses his new vision of deeper integration is not meant as a return to the Soviet past. The question is whether there is any alternative model that makes sense for his proposed union. If the coupling of the Russian economy to the southern Stans brings with it a decoupling from the more powerful regional dynamos to its west and east, it will end up as a drag, not a spur, to growth and Russia will pay a heavy price for an old-fashioned dream of imperial glory.
Mark Mazower, who teaches history at Columbia University.