hopefuls face stark Customs Union
choice By Robert Coalson
Moscow seems to be growing frustrated with
Ukraine's efforts to pursue closer ties with the
European Union while simultaneously seeking
benefits reserved for members of the Russia-led
Eurasian Customs Union (ECU).
be a little bit pregnant," Russian Foreign
Ministry official Aleksandr Gorban said on January
1, referring to the choice facing Kyiv.
The ECU - Russian President Vladimir
Putin's premier foreign-policy project - has been
developing rapidly in recent years as it heads
toward the ultimate goal of transforming into the
Eurasian Economic Union by the beginning of 2015.
But the ECU's emerging status as a potentially
viable rival to the EU is creating
intense pressure within
countries like Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine to
pick one path or the other.
and Brussels see the choice facing these countries
as a stark either/or decision that will likely
have to be confronted within the next year or two.
Speaking to RFE/RL about the situation
confronting Armenia, EU foreign policy chief
Catherine Ashton's spokesperson, Maja Kocijancic,
ruled out the possibility of simultaneously
joining the ECU and pursuing closer economic
integration with the EU.
"If Armenia were
to join any customs union, this would not be
compatible with concluding a bilateral Deep and
Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between the
European Union and Armenia," she said, "because a
customs union has a common external-trade policy
and an individual member country no longer has
sovereign control over its external-trade
Although Russia's admission
last year to the World Trade Organization will go
some way toward bringing EU and ECU regulations
more into synch, the two organizations remain far
position Rilka Dragneva, a senior lecturer
with the University of Birmingham's law school in
the United Kingdom, who specializes in legal
institutions and harmonization, has suggested that
the EU can do little to reduce the pressure on
these countries because EU external policy is
driven by political forces within the EU itself.
"[The EU] is not necessarily able to respond
to the needs of partner countries such as Ukraine
or Moldova," she said.
((PIC IN HERE))
A young activist wearing a mask of Ukrainian
President Viktor Yanukovych invites passers-by to
go through a symbolic gate with the words "Customs
Union" and "Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here,"
during a protest in front of the presidential
office in Kyiv in December.
former-Soviet aspirant countries, Ukraine has the
most deeply developed relations with the EU, and
so Kyiv is in the spotlight. In a recent report
for Carnegie Europe, analyst Olga Shumylo-Tapiola
wrote that Ukraine is "a defining factor" for the
future of the ECU.
"If Ukraine decides to
join [the ECU], not only will it cause havoc
within the European Union, but it will also mean
that the post-Soviet economic model has been
cemented in the region," she said.
Shumylo-Tapiola argues that, if Ukraine
rejects the ECU and signs an Association Agreement
with the EU - a prospect that is on hold because
of EU concerns about the prosecution of former
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and other
officials from her government - the ECU will be
forced to turn away from Europe and focus its
energies on Central Asia and even the Asia-Pacific
tactics Moscow seems eager to avoid being
seen as forcing its neighbors into the ECU with
heavy-handed tactics. Instead, Putin has argued
that ECU membership would be beneficial to Ukraine
because it would be able to deal with the EU on
better terms as part of a bloc rather than
At the same time, however,
Ukraine's continued reliance on Russian natural
gas is a powerful tool, and Moscow has promised
Kyiv deep rate reductions if it joins the ECU.
The ECU - which currently comprises
Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia - has become
increasingly robust over the last 24 months or so.
Unlike other, much more haphazard post-Soviet
integration projects, the ECU is being implemented
and firmly institutionalized, says Kataryna
Wolczuk, a senior lecturer at the Center for
Russian and East European Studies at the
University of Birmingham.
Union has been put on a new legal footing and it
is much more thoroughly legalized," she adds. "It
is based on law. Very comprehensive. So the legal
basis is much better, very improved. And also it
is [actually] being implemented."
Institutional momentum The
Eurasian Customs Union Commission now employs more
than 1,000 people. As of January 2012, the
Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec) Court became
the official arbitration court of the ECU. It
handed down its first two decisions late last year
- rulings that upheld the claims of private
enterprises against ECU policies.
Nonetheless, according to Wolczuk, it is
still very much a "Russia-dominated organization",
with many key decisions still being made at the
political-diplomatic level where Russia has many
levers of influence. Both Belarus and Kazakhstan
have complained, for instance, that Russia uses
sanitary and technical trade barriers to extract
payments or protect markets.
the ECU clearly has growing institutional
momentum. Moscow's next step, it seems, is to step
up the push for expansion. The Kremlin has
extended invitations to all members of the
Commonwealth of Independent States, and the ECU
has risen to the top of the agenda in Moscow's
relations with most of its neighbors.
result, Wolczuk sees the invigorated and
dynamically developing ECU as a potential
game-changer in Eastern Europe, and she maintains
that the next couple of years will be crucial.
"How it is going to pan out will be very
interesting," she says. "But no doubt the creation
of supranational institutions related to the
Customs Union is clearly creating something new in
The pressure of the ECU-EU
dilemma will play a key role in the presidential
election in Armenia in February, as well as the
parliamentary elections in Moldova in 2014 and the
Ukrainian presidential election in 2015.
RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard
Jozwiak contributed to this report