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Putin turns east to build Eurasian dream

Vladimir Putin aims to erect a Eurasian Union of former Soviet states

Vladimir Putin. Picture: AFP.

ALMATY - With his biggest prize escaping his grasp in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is likely to turn to the autocrats of Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, to further his aim of erecting a Eurasian Union of former Soviet states.

The Russian president's swift annexation of Crimea has earned him huge popularity at home but ends his dream for now of bringing the rest of Ukraine voluntarily into the new structure he plans to build on as much as possible of the ex-Soviet space.

"Having lost Ukraine, Central Asia will be much more sought after by Moscow in striking its integration plans," said Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.

Kazakhstan in particular was one of two ex-Soviet countries, along with Belarus, to join a customs union with Russia. Members plan to sign documents this year to form the Eurasian Economic Union, a regional bloc within former Soviet borders intended eventually as a counterweight to the EU.

While the other four former Soviet republics in Central Asia will not be founder members of the new body, all are likely to be drawn closer into Moscow's orbit as it restores influence in a region it ruled for most of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Central Asian states - which cover an area the size of Western Europe stretching from the Caspian Sea to China - have responded to the events in Ukraine by staying silent or issuing cautiously worded statements to avoid irking Moscow.

Putin's distrust for Western-style politics is familiar here: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have rulers who keep tight lids on dissent, with only chronically unstable Kyrgyzstan making a go at parliamentary democracy.

Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev - whose country is the richest of the five, the closest to Russia and the one with the largest population of ethnic Russians - told Putin on 10 March he understands Moscow's stance on Crimea.

He said on Tuesday work on the Eurasian Economic Union would continue.

"Integration allows us to remove customs barriers and boost competitiveness. Therefore, we have a purely pragmatic interest - to develop our country, modernise the economy and increase the size of our GDP," his press service quoted him as saying on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in The Hague.

INDEPENDENCE IS SACROSANCT

But he also felt the need to point out that his country has no intention of once again falling under Moscow's rule.

Although Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union more than 22 years ago, produces oil and natural gas and is holding accession talks with the World Trade Organisation, its economy has remained closely intertwined with Moscow's.

Nazarbayev, a 73-year-old former steelworker, has for more than two decades steered what he calls a "multi-vector foreign policy", manoeuvring between Russia, China and the West to guard his country's independence. He describes the proposed Eurasian Union as similar to the EU, not a new Russian empire.

NO "FIFTH COLUMN" IN KAZAKHSTAN

Putin's 1 March declaration of Russia's right to invade its neighbours to protect ethnic Russians would have raised far greater alarm in Kazakhstan 20 years ago.

At independence in 1991, Kazakhs accounted for only about 40 percent of the population, about the same proportion as Russians. But today, thanks to Russian emigration and a higher birth rate among Kazakhs, Russians account for only about 22 percent of the population and Kazakhs around 65 percent.

Back in Moscow, some Russian nationalists, led by firebrand populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are still calling for a takeover of northern Kazakhstan, which includes historically Russian cities like Petropavlovsk on the Trans-Siberian railway.

But Nazarbayev's firm grip on power means there is little sign of overt Russian separatism, like that espoused by Crimea's Russian Unity party, which took power there after armed men seized its regional parliament building at the end of February.

Occasional outbursts of ethnic tension in the 1990s are now largely forgotten. Nazarbayev, a former member of the Soviet politburo, gives his speeches in both Kazakh and Russian.

A 2010 cable from the US embassy in Kazakhstan said there was no threat of pro-Russia separatism in Kazakhstan.

LOYAL AND RESTIVE NEIGHBOURS

Kazakhstan's much poorer regional neighbours Tajikistan and Kyrgzstan have expressed their willingness to join the customs union, but due to their dire economic plight it may take years before they can join the new Eurasian Economic Union.

Uzbekistan, the most populous Central Asian nation with 30 million people, has invited Russian energy firms to help tap its promising but underdeveloped hydrocarbon deposits.

President Islam Karimov, 76 a Soviet-era holdover in power for a quarter of a century, is largely shunned by Western countries because of a reputation among human rights bodies as one of the most repressive leaders on earth.

He has nevertheless managed to cooperate with NATO countries on security matters, but is likely to be drawn more towards Moscow as the Western alliance exits Afghanistan this year.

In much of Central Asia, the main rival to Putin for influence is not the West at all, but China.

With the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan still depends on a Soviet-era pipeline through Russia for exports, but a new pipeline commissioned in 2009 has allowed Beijing to supplant Moscow as its biggest buyer.

Last year, Chinese President Xi Jingping helped inaugurate the world's second biggest natural gas field at Turkmenistan's Galkynysh. China's hunger, not Western outrage, may be the biggest obstacle to rebuilding Moscow's Asian empire.

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