Putin bills it as an eastern version of the European Union. Critics see Russia's age-old imperial ambitions roaring back under a new name. Amid the debate, most observers have yet to notice how rapidly Putin's brainchild is moving from rhetoric to reality. Last week, at a meeting in St. Petersburg, eight former Soviet states signed a free-trade treaty that Putin hailed as a first step, possibly leading to full union within 4 years.
"Only in around 2015 may we approach the realization of the idea of creation of Eurasian Union if we work as energetically as we have been," said Putin, who is currently prime minister, but is widely expected to retake the reigns as president next year. "This is the matter of the future."
"We propose creating a powerful supranational union capable of becoming a pole in the modern world, and at the same time an effective bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific Region," Putin wrote.
"A Eurasian Union will differ from the EU in that it will be based on Eurasian values, not European ones," says Alexander Dugin, head of the International Eurasian Movement, a group of right-wing businessmen, officials and intellectuals that is thought to have considerable influence in the Kremlin. He says the EU's reliance on liberal economic institutions to hold it together is its fatal flaw, and that Putin will move to cement the economic integration of the Eurasian Union with strong central authority.
"Economics are important, but we will need to stress the political process of integration," he says. "From what we see happening in Europe it's clear that at times of crisis the whole union can split apart if it is built without strong political and geopolitical values which can transcend the crisis…. The Eurasian Union must be constructed with a strong political horizon in mind."