Economic Statecraft
Eurasian Economic Union: New Prospects for Humanitarian Cooperation

The key mistake in the perception of our partners in the EAEU and the CIS as a whole is the opinion that they think the same way as we do, because we are all “originally from the USSR”. Practice shows that this is far from the case. Each country has its own specific features, which must be taken into account, in addition to economic indicators, writes Ekaterina Chimiris.

This year Russia is chairing the Eurasian Economic Union. Amid difficult conditions which have seen increasing confrontation in the world, this role imposes special obligations on Moscow. One of the main tasks within the EAEU, as the leaders of our country see it and formulate it, is to use the potential of the Union to the fullest extent to develop new areas of cooperation. However, until recently, the issues of humanitarian and cultural cooperation within the framework of the EAEU remained on the periphery of the integration agenda. We would like to draw attention to how individual areas of integration in these areas can contribute to increased efficiency and accelerate economic integration.

In 2015, the Eurasian Economic Commission, as the main institution of Eurasian integration, avoided any mention at all of additional integration initiatives, opting for a purely economic agenda. This was due to several aspects. First, to the pragmatic ones — the process of integration and the coordination of positions was considered “expensive” in terms of transaction costs; additional resources weren’t provided for thinking about other areas cooperation to be established. Second, immediately after the emergence of the EAEU project, it was portrayed as a reincarnation of the USSR in the Western press, and the EAEU had to distance itself from that image. Now that the processes of economic integration have reached a stable plateau, it is important to find additional factors to stimulate the progressive growth of cooperation in the field of trade, industry, and information technology. Strange as it may seem, such additional incentives are by no means in the political plane, but in the humanitarian sphere.

Moreover, taking into account the new international conditions, the EAEU integration project faces a number of challenges that will be difficult to cope with without establishing additional areas of integration. These include more systematic cooperation in the field of science and culture, the establishment of a favourable institutional climate for business cooperation, as well as interaction between NGOs.

The desire to distance as much as possible from any other subject, except for the economy, played a “cruel joke” with the EAEU. The general desire for rejection of any agenda, except for economic integration, fell not only on the political issues, which really at this stage do not seem so relevant and too sensitive, but also on a wide range of cultural and humanitarian areas. On the other hand, Eurasian integration has become so deeply immersed in economic determinism that it has become customary to describe any difficulties and obstacles in integration processes only in terms of economic methods and look for possible solutions in the same area. This phenomenon is most clearly seen in media publications, when the most private news about the EAEU contains data on the growth of mutual trade, and no more. This does not take into account the growing language barrier, the socio-cultural peculiarities of doing business, the peculiarities of the political culture of partner countries, etc.

Why is economic determinism so dangerous when it comes to analysing the reasons for the slowdown of the integration processes? In this case, understanding the interconnectedness of all areas of life plays a key role. It sounds banal, but every time when it comes to the prospects for development of Eurasian integration, this indisputable fact is forgotten. Economic development is directly related to the characteristics of culture, daily practices, values and traditions. Rational arguments are not always the key factor in concluding an agreement or business deals. Often the decisive factor can be mutual understanding at the level of socio-cultural aspects. When forming a long-term partnership, it is important not only to understand the rational benefits, but also establish a common space of trust.

The key mistake in the perception of our partners in the EAEU and the CIS as a whole is the opinion that they think the same way as we do, because we are all “originally from the USSR”. Practice shows that this is far from the case. Each country has its own specific features, which must be taken into account, in addition to economic indicators.

The issues of additional aspects of integration are becoming increasingly relevant now. An analysis of open data from public opinion polls shows, if not an increase in negative attitudes towards the EAEU, then an increase in the proportion of the population that is disappointed in integration as a whole, or is not ready to express the attitude towards the EAEU and keeps silent about the position on this issue. In particular, such results are provided by the surveys of the Caucasus Barometer for Armenia and the Central Asian Barometer for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Let us outline the main areas that are capable of stimulating economic integration through non-economic methods, but at the same time do not pretend to be an active political agenda. At the moment, the issue of developing an integration agenda in these areas has become most acute.

Let us make a reservation that within the framework of the development of non-economic areas of integration, directions can be identified in order to achieve the necessary state of the system, in which economic contacts will become beneficial for the participants in the integration process. It is also necessary to identify the mechanisms and methods for achieving these goals.

The development of human capital is an issue that is quite acute in all EAEU countries for a number of reasons. For Central Asia, this is primarily the problem of increasing proportion of young people among the population and the need to give these people a decent education. In this regard, academic mobility is a tool that has shown its effectiveness. The maximum task in this area is the formation of a single educational space. Studying in another country provides not only the necessary level of education, but also allows one to accumulate social capital.

The development of integration in the field of education is also becoming relevant against the backdrop of the activity of the EU, China, the USA, and Turkey in the space of Northern Eurasia. These countries are developing language teaching policies and forming joint educational programmes. It is significant that in Kazakhstan, one of the master’s programmes in Eurasian studies is conducted in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In this regard, it would be logical to develop such partnership programmes between the universities of the EAEU member states.

Building trust is one of the most important aspects of economic development. Institutional economists and experts in the field of political processes point out that trust is the most effective way to reduce transaction costs in the process of economic interaction. Trust is formed in several ways. First, the experience of positive interaction and the predictability of the partner’s behaviour. Second, a detailed full knowledge about the partner. It is intensive and real cooperation in the field of culture and public diplomacy that can form knowledge and mutual understanding between the agents of economic integration in the EAEU countries.

The formation of a single integration discourse, not only in the format of a specialised language of officials, but also at the level of the public and the media is another important task at the current stage of integration. In this regard, the de-politicisation of the language issue also becomes important. The desire of the national elites of the countries of the post-Soviet space to dissociate from the Russian language as the dominant language is understandable — it is much easier to form an identity through denial. However, the Russian language is necessary as a language of interethnic communication; communication between member states. Possible solutions in this area could be the development of bilingualism, and the support of national languages through the issuance of texts in two or more languages of the Union.

At the same time, it is important not only to teach the Russian language and culture of the EAEU states, but also to open up the culture of the member states for Russians, to translate the literature of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus into Russian.

The implementation of these areas is a separate long-term goal, which is now being updated by Russia and is designed to bring the integration processes to the new level.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.