December 6, 2013
In recent years, one may have witnessed a widening gap between the discourse promoted by the Russian leadership regarding the creation of a Eurasian Union incorporating Russia, the states of Central Asia, and, presumably, Ukraine and the growing discontent of the Russian public. Despite President Putin’s near-obsessive desire to create such a Union, feelings of discontent have arisen due to the growing number of immigrants from potential Eurasian Union states in Russia that are, in the eyes of some, threatening the integrity of Russian national identity.
Of course, we live in a global world where with each passing day the flow of labor becomes less and less restricted. But in Russia today, the major cause of inward migration moving forward may well be of a political, rather than an economic, nature. Russian foreign policy is drafted by President Putin alone – he of the belief both that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” and that “the Soviet Union itself was, of course, the same Russia, just only named in a different way.” So even if Russian officials pretend they are not planning the resurrection of the Soviet Empire, there is no doubt that Mr. Putin is seeking the establishment of a common space encompassing Russia and the Central Asian nations for primarily political reasons – plans which now may undermine social stability within Russian society.
In the less than fifteen years since the turn of the century, Russia became the most popular destination for immigrants in the entire world. The number of foreigners residing in Russia is estimated at 14 million, up from 2-2.5 million in 2000. The national composition of this group has changed dramatically as well. While in the late 1990s, around 65 percent of the immigrants were Ukrainians, Belorussians or Moldovans, today more than 70 percent originate from the countries of post-Soviet Central Asia. If the ideas promoted by Russian leadership are fully implemented, they will reinforce the processes of regional integration; however, in recent months one may detect a growing dissatisfaction with this Eurasianism even in Bishkek and Astana. Why is Russia’s policy of open borders not fostering greater post-Soviet integration?
The answer is obvious: because it simply cannot. Putin’s project is clearly an imperial one, even though he is attempting to realize it in a post-imperial era by non-imperial means.
For millennia, empires have existed as a political system in which the more developed (and more mobile) metropolis controlled the less developed (and less mobile) periphery. Only under these conditions could the center play a proactive role, introducing cultural norms and economic principles to other peoples and areas. Moreover, it has often been the case that, in order to be admitted into the empire, some nations were supposed to make a common decision in favor of their integration. In Russian history, this is best illustrated by the voluntary accessions of Ukraine in 1654 and Georgia in 1773. In every empire the metropolis sent its people into colonies and dependencies, and not vice versa. From 1846 to 1924, more than 60 million people, or 29 percent of its 1846 population, left Europe for European possessions or former colonies such as the United States, Argentina, or South Africa. It should be noted that only 35 thousand people from these colonies resided in the British Isles in 1900, making up than 0.1 percent of the population. Even in the Soviet Union the move from the center to the periphery was clearly visible. Between the mid-1950s and the early-1980s, more than 8.5 million people moved from the European part of the country to Siberia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, while the flow in the other direction was almost six times smaller. By 1989, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen together made up only 0.6 percent of the population within the present borders of what was then the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
Today we live in a different world. Globalization has reversed migration flows. In order to be incorporated into an advanced society, one must make an individual choice rather than a collective one. The collapse of empires was followed by higher mobility of the peripheries, which have actually turned out to be more mobile than their former masters. First, those who had settled in the colonies returned. In the case of Russia, more than 3.5 million Russian were residing in Central Asia prior to 1991; similarly, about 900 thousand Frenchmen believed (falsely) that Algeria would remain France’s departement forever. Later, the disadvantaged citizens of the newly independent states began to move to more prosperous countries. This is, and will for a long time remain, a feature of our globalized planet.
The difference between the Russia of today and the majority of the Western countries lies in a different understanding of what integration actually means in practice. The Europeans believe in integration based on norms, rules, and values and foster its development between countries that are at least comparable in their economic performance. Russian leaders believe in integration based on some distant historical analog and 19th-century geopolitical thinking (and the dreams that go along with them). No one in the world of today– with the exception of Mr. Putin and his KGB-educated friends and aides – would believe that embracing millions of the needy from one’s former colonies would reestablish one’s imperial greatness. And since the latter assumptions appear to be, in the least, outdated, one should not bet on the success of the Eurasian project.
Mr. Putin is attempting what might be called an “imperial integration” – a project that aims to bring together not nations that are equally prosperous and that share common goals and values, but rather a relatively wealthy former metropolis and some of its failing, poor former colonies. He looks forward to the replacement of the urban middle class Russians that increasingly dislike him and who will leave Russia for Europe in droves with newly conscripted citizens from elsewhere, Abkhazia all the way to Tajikistan, who might become his most fervent loyalists. This may well happen; regardless, Putin’s “integration” has no chance of success. This experiment might have been seen as a curious one, if it was not for the tremendously negative impact it is having and will have on Russia itself, driving the country into collapse the way the Soviet Union was once pushed into dissolution. If this comes to pass, those in Putin’s position in the future will have even more reason to argue that the Soviet Union was Russia and Russia was the Soviet Union. But no such argument will help Russia recover from another historical catastrophe.
Vladislav Inozemtsev is a Visiting Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C.; Director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies in Moscow; and a Professor in the Department of World Economy, Faculty of Public Governance at Lomonosov Moscow State University. In 2012/13 he was a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.
© Author / CSIS