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“To be a Eurasianist should be cool, it should be stylish.”

“Cool” is not the first word you would use to describe the scene. I am in a small conference room in Minsk, at the Belarus office of a Russian government agency called “Rossotrudnichestvo.” Linked to the Foreign Ministry, you could translate it as the “Russian Cooperation Agency,” and some describe it as the soft-power arm of the Kremlin. The crowd, divided roughly evenly between Russians and Belarusians, is a wonky-looking mix of rumpled middle-aged academics and eager students.

The advocate for Eurasian cool is Yuri Kofner, a fresh-faced 20-something from Moscow. The topic is how to make the Eurasian Union more popular in Belarus. It is one of the five member states of the supranational body launched by Russia in 2014 with great fanfare. Since then, depending on your perspective, it is either becoming a Russia-centered counterweight to Western groupings like the European Union, or drifting into irrelevance,

Kofner is dedicated to making sure it’s the former. “We need to do the same thing that attracts people to Europe,” he tells his audience. A Eurasianist is “a new patriot,” he argues, loyal to the idea of Eurasia, with Russia at its heart. “Europe has become boring for us,” he continues, “but that’s what we need to develop, that style.”

The Eurasian Union did seem to have style, even swagger, in its early days. In the run-up to its launch, Russian President Vladimir Putin called it “epoch-making,” imbuing it with the grand, anti-Western ideology of Eurasianism. Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. Secretary of State, helped feed that narrative by describing the Eurasian Union as a cover for Russian efforts to “re-Sovietize the region.”

But so far, it hasn’t lived up to that billing. No more states want to join its five members — Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Russia. There’s even a faint sense of embarrassment in Moscow over the whole project. And the West is now more concerned about Russia’s cyber-meddling and continuing war on Ukraine. Meanwhile, China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” program, which covers much of the Eurasian Union’s territory, seems to be advancing decisively.

Yet in the meantime the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), as it is formally known, has become a fact of life. At least 1,000 people work at its Moscow headquarters, engaged in workaday bureaucratic tasks like coordinating financial markets and standardizing pharmaceutical regulations across the five member states. It has cut red tape for Kyrgyz labor migrants in Moscow and spawned an ersatz banana export industry in Belarus. But its economic impact has been negligible, analysts say. And Putin rarely mentions the EEU these days. So rarely, in fact, that I thought he had quietly abandoned his grand geopolitical ambitions for the organization.

But when I suggested this to people studying it, I got some pushback. If the Kremlin talks about the geopolitical side, it “only makes people upset,” said one economist I met in Kazakhstan. “They’re still doing this ideological work,” he added, “just more quietly.” And the person leading this effort, I was told repeatedly, is Yuri Kofner.

So that’s how I found myself in the conference room in Minsk.

There are really two Eurasian Unions. One is economic — based on a free trade pact. The other is geopolitical and ideological, driven primarily by Russia’s desire to remain a global power.

Kofner is a standard-bearer for both. He is doing his PhD dissertation on non-tariff barriers to trade in the Eurasian Union, and is the head of a new Center for Eurasian Studies in Moscow. He also runs the Eurasian Movement of the Russian Federation, which is devoted to promoting the idea that there is a unique “Eurasian” civilization in Russia and its neighbors, distinct from both East and the West.

In the corner of the conference room hangs a purple flag with an eight-pointed star, which some Eurasianists have informally adopted as their banner. Kofner’s Eurasian Movement website explains that it is a symbol common to Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, while the colour represents “a synthesis between Europe (blue) and Asia (red), Slavs (red) and Turks (blue), tradition (blue) and revolution (red), the market (blue) and planning (red).”

Kofner explained that his initiation into Eurasianism began while he was a student at the Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), the elite university training ground for Russia’s future diplomats. Reading the writings of classical Eurasianists and Slavophiles was an eye-opener. “They expressed what I had always thought about Russia, but couldn’t put into words,” he said. “It’s not an underdeveloped Europe, but an independent, unique world — a Eurasian civilization.”

That led him to set up a student “Eurasianist Club.” It is clearly the civilizational side of the Eurasian idea that most animates him, as he repeatedly referred to its economic agenda as “boring.”

But Eurasianism can be a hard sell. For many outside Russia, talk of trying to make Eurasianism “cool” just sounds like a new way of dressing up Russian chauvinism and imperialism. That strain of Eurasianism is exemplified by Russia’s most prominent Eurasianist, the controversial philosopher Alexander Dugin, who is also known for his openly ultra-nationalist and anti-Western views. For many outside Russia, talk of trying to make Eurasianism “cool” just sounds like a new way of dressing up Russian imperialism.

Kofner knows him personally, but tells the Minsk gathering that Dugin “distorts the true ideas of Eurasianism.” He goes further in his writings, arguing that the philosopher is wrong to focus so much on the perceived threat of Western liberalism. The real divide, Kofner says, is between “Eurasian authoritarian liberalism and Western monetary fascism.”

Far from being a Russian imperialist project, Kofner argues, Eurasianism offers a way for smaller Eurasian states to protect themselves against the imposition of foreign, Western values. (He does not address the fact that this could still be seen as another kind of Russian imperialism). To support his case, he points out that the vote of each member — from tiny Armenia to giant Russia — has equal weight. Focusing on Belarus for his audience, he argues that it should maintain “an identity that looks both to the West and to the East.”

Yet even this friendly crowd is skeptical. One young Belarusian academic, Igor Avlasenko, highlights what he sees as the “contradictions” in Russia’s position, ostensibly promoting the Eurasian Union while acting very much as a lone big power. He pointed out that Putin had recently approvingly quoted Tsar Alexander III’s famous line that “Russia has only two allies, its army and its navy.” None “of the other members of the Eurasian Union were mentioned,” Avlasenko adds.

Another participant perhaps unwittingly highlights the central contradiction of the project — as he calls for other member states to have a greater role in driving the Eurasian Union and its ideology. If Russia comes up with an idea, “that is imperial ambition,” says Kirill Koktysh. “But who could accuse, say, Belarus of having imperial ambitions?” he continues. “It’s kind of funny, right?”

Outside of think tank conference rooms, it’s hard to measure the real-world impacts of the Eurasian Union. Its launch has coincided with a number of other large economic trends in the region: an economic crisis caused in large part by low oil prices, Western sanctions against Russia, and many EEU currencies seeing significant devaluations.

It is hard “to decouple” these trends from the effects of joining the EEU, said Roman Mogilevskii, an economist at the University of Central Asia in Bishkek. “If you clean out these major shocks, the effects of the Eurasian Union are not as big as everyone expects. You have some positives and some negatives.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the debate around the EEU is highly politicized, with proponents tending to be pro-Russia, and opponents anti-Russia. The volatile economic situation therefore makes it easy for both sides to cherry pick data to prove that the union is either a great success or a disaster.

A Russian European Union

The EEU is run day-to-day by the Eurasian Economic Commission from a nondescript office park in Moscow. Led by former Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan, the commission is developing plans to further integrate the member states’ economies — a common market for pharmaceuticals this year, electricity by 2019, and financial markets by 2025. It has signed a free trade agreement with Vietnam and has started negotiating similar pacts with Egypt, Iran, India, and Singapore.

The commision wouldn’t give me an interview. So I got a coffee at the Starbucks next to the main entrance instead, and people-watched as staff, dressed in business casual and carrying briefcases and backpacks, bustled in and out of the brick-and-glass headquarters building. The scene would not have looked out of place in, say, Brussels.

That is no coincidence. In spite of its ostensibly “Eastern” ideological orientation, the EEU is explicitly modeled on the European Union and its ethos of integration. Many of its key officials are also steeped in EU thinking, having been educated at European universities in the 1990s, according to Vasiliy Kashin of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “They know the European bureaucracy in detail,” he added. “They are not some Orientalists.”

And for all the political tumult these days over the merits of free trade and concerns about the EU’s long-term viability, its Russian counterpart is not offering anything radically different.

It is important to remember that the EEU was also borne out of rejection by Europe — as the Kremlin sees it. In the early years of his presidency, Putin tried to persuade the EU to allow Russia to integrate on its own terms, recognizing its special size and influence. This was “a really sincere” goal, according to Alexander Gabuev, a Russian foreign policy analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

But as the 2000s progressed, Putin decided such efforts were futile, and that the West had no intention of treating Russia as an equal. President George W. Bush’s unilateral invasion of Iraq cemented his view that the U.S. wanted to monopolize global power instead. And he saw the revolutions in neighboring states like Ukraine and Georgia — leading to anti-Russian leaders gaining power — as the start of a Western conspiracy aimed ultimately at Russia. He cracked down on domestic opposition in response, further alienating Europe.

The Kremlin concluded that Russia needed to be “the center of gravity in the post-Soviet space,” says Gabuev, enabling it “to talk on an equal footing” with the EU and the wider West. And this became the major political idea behind the EEU.

Gabuev was wearing a hoodie when we met. He is a former journalist who used to cover Russian foreign policy and speaks fluent, American-accented English. He reminded me of a 2011 piece Putin wrote for the newspaper Izvestiya — during his brief period as prime minister — in which he laid out his vision of the EEU as a “supranational union that could become one of the poles of the modern world.” It would be a bridge, he hoped, “between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.”

Yet even those hopes for the Eurasian Union’s role faded, as Putin saw new threats coming from the West. By 2013, he had returned to the presidency, and the EU was preparing to sign “association agreements” with Armenia and Ukraine. The Kremlin concluded that Russia needed to be “the center of gravity in the post-Soviet space,” enabling it “to talk on an equal footing” with the EU and the wider West. — Alexander Gabuev, Moscow Carnegie Center

Moscow responded by announcing a major arms deal with Armenia’s enemy, Azerbaijan, and floated rumors that it might increase the cost of gas supplies to the country. Yerevan got the hint: it abandoned the EU and said it would join the Eurasian Union instead.

Putin also began to put more emphasis on the concept of a Eurasian identity and civilization. In a landmark speech in 2013 — only two weeks after Armenia had turned its back on Western Europe — he said the EEU was not just about mutually beneficial agreements, but “a project for maintaining the identity of nations in the historical Eurasian space.” But his efforts to woo Ukraine into the Eurasian fold ended in disaster.

When Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yanukovych, announced that he, too, would turn his back on the EU in favor of the EEU, the Maidan protests erupted. That led to his ouster in 2014 and a new anti-Kremlin government taking over. Putin responded by annexing Crimea and backing the war in Eastern Ukraine, destroying relations with the West but also any hopes of luring Ukraine into the Eurasian Union.

For Eurasianists, the geographic boundaries of “Eurasia” are pretty hazy. But one thing they are sure of is that Ukraine is an integral part of it. So as they see it, a Eurasian Union without Ukraine is no Eurasian Union at all.

“We lost someone along the way,” quipped the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, when the EEU was formally launched in May 2014. “I mean the Ukraine that started this hard work together with us.” Putin was visibly annoyed. And Gabuev says he has heard some senior Kremlin officials say privately that launching the EEU at that point was “premature.”

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Putin still sounds bullish about the project when he mentions it—most recently in his annual marathon news conference. It is “our huge joint achievement,” he told his live audience, before adding: “there is always a lot of criticism, but the numbers show that our decisions were right and that we are moving in the right direction.” But gone now are the lofty references to identity and new civilizations.

Some believe the EEU has become as much a defense mechanism as a mask for imperialist expansion. A key reason for its launch was to prevent “another Ukraine,” according to a “Kremlin-connected insider” quoted in a study of the Eurasian Union for an EU-linked security think tank. The goal is to lock member states into a Russian orientation, even when their leaders change. Putin’s nightmare is the death or removal of Lukashenko in Belarus and Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, the EU report’s source said. They are both strongmen leaders, but presiding over weak institutions and Putin wants to ensure their successors “have no choice” but to stay inside Moscow’s embrace.

The EEU also helps the Kremlin block member states from pursuing bilateral relationships that it regards as threatening its interests. For example, if Armenia wanted to sign a free trade deal with its neighbors Georgia or Iran, it couldn’t. That authority is now vested in the Eurasian Union. Being a member is “not allowing us to develop our economy, our ties with other countries,” complains Edmon Marukyan, an Armenian MP leading a campaign to pull out.

But by the same token, Russia’s freedom of manoeuvre is also constrained. The group operates on a consensus basis, with every state getting a veto, a concession the Kremlin agreed to because it thought that was the only way it could get Ukraine to join. It means, for instance, that Armenia has veto power over Russia’s trade policy. “For me that’s insane,” Gabuev says, before adding this telling caveat. “Ok, Armenia is not a problem because you can always pressure them and they literally never object to anything.”

Belarus, however, is different in Gabuev’s view, because it has “tough, nationalist-oriented people on the commission who are pushing the interests of Belarusian industry.” This, he says, “definitely limits Russia’s ability to do stuff it could be doing on its own.”

In fact, member states have proved frustratingly independent from Moscow at times. When the West imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin tried to get the EEU to impose its own counter-sanctions. But the other member states refused to go along, forcing Russia to go it alone in blocking certain Western products. Belarus responded creatively, importing Western goods and re-exporting them, duty-free, to Russia, resulting in “Belarusian” bananas and salmon appearing in Russian supermarkets.

Even the structure of the union represents a major Russian concession to the demands of its other members, particularly Belarus and Kazakhstan. Both states demanded that it was only a free trade agreement, specifically excluding any political component, and this was enshrined in the formal name: the Eurasian Economic Union. From Russia’s point of view, Ukraine is an integral part of the historical Eurasian space. And so from a pure Eurasianist perspective, a Eurasian Union without Ukraine is no Eurasian Union at all.

But the Kremlin has not given up on turning the EEU into something bigger. One proposal that regularly comes up is to start a common currency, in spite of Belarus and Kazakhstan regularly insisting that they want to keep with their own money.

Less than three years into its existence, proponents of the Eurasian Union say it is still too early to judge its record. “The EU has existed for 60 years and only this year has it eliminated mobile phone roaming charges,” says Yuri Kofner.

His work is a sign that the Kremlin still harbors big ambitions for the union, even if they have been put on hold for the moment. Kofner is one of the Kremlin’s “intellectual entrepreneurs,” says Yuval Weber, a professor at the Higher School of Economics. They are people who can be funded relatively cheaply and kept in reserve in case they are useful one day. The government may need another “Dugin-like figure” in the future, says Weber, but someone who is “cleaner and more presentable to foreigners.”

Kofner barely hides his impatience for the Eurasian Union to move faster and be bolder. He acknowledges the anxieties of other members, but argues that working with Russia is in their long-term interests. “Russia in its bigness, in its vastness, is of course taking bigger steps than other countries,” he told me, trying to distil his thinking. Russians “want to go forward, but they know if they go forward at the normal Russian pace the other countries will say wait, it’s imperialism again. And Russia doesn’t want people to think that, Russia doesn’t need this. It just wants to go forward normally.”

And this new face of Eurasianism says he is not alone. Kofner tells the Minsk gathering that many of the EEU’s top technocrats have Eurasianist sympathies. And his Eurasianist Movement includes a cross-section of business-people, NGO staff and civil servants, as well as people working directly for the EEU.

“We have people wearing their insignia under their jackets,” Kofner says. “This is a long-term effort to promote ideologically patriotic Eurasianists, not oddballs but people who really want to make this happen.”

Eurasia may not be “cool” yet, but it still has plenty of life in it.

Illustrations by Aleksandra Krasutskaya

This piece is produced by Coda Network — a collaboration of independent newsrooms. Its partners include Coda Story, Ukrayinska Pravda, Spektr.Press, Kloop, Hetq and TOK.TV.