The three leaders at an intimate meeting on April 29 in Minsk.
Vladimir Putin’s project to launch a political union of former Soviet republics – which has assumed even greater significance in the eyes of the Russian president as Moscow engages in a bitter struggle to retain influence in Ukraine – has run into trouble. A summit of the three prospective founding presidents wound up inconclusively on April 29, with the leaders making it clear that the ambitious undertaking is in danger of coming off the rails.
As Putin met in Minsk with Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, the three founding members of the existing Customs Union were expected to set a date set for the signing of a landmark treaty to transform that free trade zone into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) next month.
Instead, the summit appeared to collapse in disarray, with only one point agreed: The three disagreed on too much to be able to finalize the union treaty as hoped.
“We still have questions,” Putin said in laconic remarks quoted by ITAR-TASS. “But I’d agree with my colleagues that we can always jointly work on them to find compromise solutions.”
Nazarbayev likewise stressed his conviction that “we have always found consensus and I am sure it will be this way in the future, too.”
Lukashenko, however, was characteristically blunt, reportedly saying that the agreement to form the union should either be implemented now, or set aside for a decade or so. “Some suggest implementing certain agreements in 10 years, that is by 2025, which sounds odd, to put it mildly,” BelTA news agency quotedLukashenko as saying. “If we are not ready to do it now, we should openly admit it.”
Nazarbayev is a staunch Putin ally. But the statement from his office also made it clear that he is not satisfied that the draft EEU foundation treaty meets Kazakhstan’s interests: He “emphasized the need to carefully observe […] the interests of the states taking part in the formation of the union,” the statement said.
Nazarbayev has previously voiced his frustration over the Customs Union and indicated that he believes Kazakhstan is not getting a fair deal. Moreover, he is currently fending off opposition to the EEU at home, where some 500 activists gathered at a forum in Almaty on April 12 to urge the government not to sign the union treaty and accused it of betraying Kazakhstan’s national interests if it does.
The three leaders had pledged to have the union treaty finalized by May 1, for a signing ceremony to take place in Astana toward the end of May. Armenia is expected to join the bloc at the same time – and the absence of its president, Serzh Sargsyan, at the Minsk summit only added to the image of a project that is losing direction.
The substance of the differences remains unclear, but the leaders may yet resolve them in time to sign a treaty next month. Putin has been keen to show that plans to form the EEU have not been derailed by Russia’s geostrategic setbacks in Ukraine, where a government that favored integration with Russia has been replaced by a more Western-leaning administration.
There are “some nuances” unresolved, Putin said in remarks quoted by Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti. But “substantial progress” was made at the Minsk summit and “there are grounds to believe” that the agreement will be signed on time.