MOSCOW -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has outlined a grand vision for integrating ex-Soviet states in his first major policy initiative since he announced his intention to return to the Kremlin.
In an article on the front page of the daily "Izvestiya," Putin called for the creation of a "Eurasian Union" that would include Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Putin praised Russia's existing Customs Union with the two countries, which plans to remove all barriers to trade, capital, and labor movement next year. He said such a union, founded in 2009, must "build on the experience of the European Union and other regional coalitions."
But Putin stressed that it is time to set a "more ambitious goal" and "to achieve an even higher integration level in the Eurasian Union."
Analysts suggest the proposal is partially an effort to boost the authorities' popularity by tapping into society's nostalgia for the Soviet Union.
"Putin is trying to play toward the imperialist sentiment of the electoral majority," said Pavel Salin, an analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Political Assessments. "There is nostalgia for the imperial past. It may not be in the format of the Soviet Union as it is without Central Asia, the Baltics, and the South Caucasus, but still it harks back to the imperial past. Putin is playing on these strings."
'Not Recreating Soviet Union'
Putin, who famously called the collapse of the USSR the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," wrote that "the idea is not to recreate the Soviet Union in some form."
It would be "naive," Putin wrote, "to attempt to restore or copy something from the past. However, a stronger integration on a new political and economic basis and a new system of values is an imperative of our era."
Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the article sought to draw attention to Putin's foreign policy victories as the authorities' electoral campaign gathers momentum, with the State Duma elections on December 4.
"I don't think there is anything new in this view of Russian foreign policy," Petrov said, adding that the article looks like "a rather symbolic gesture to show how effective Putin has been in regard to foreign policy with Russia's neighbors."
"Also, the article is not a program," he said, "rather it showcases his achievements."
Putin hailed the "Unified Economic Space" of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia that will be launched in January 2012 and called it a "historic landmark" for all the ex-Soviet countries that Moscow sees as its "sphere of influence."
He also called for more former Soviet states to join, dismissing Ukraine's protestations that such a move would conflict with Kyiv's aspirations eventually to join the European Union.
The Unified Economic Space, modeled on the European Union, will unite 165 million consumers and act as a geo-economic counterweight to the EU, "have a positive impact globally," and act as economic hub linking Europe and Asia, Putin wrote.
Salin said Putin, who will seek to return to the Kremlin for a third term as president in an election slated for March, is seeking to reverse the ruling elite's sagging popularity.
"[Putin] is in a very difficult situation because the popularity ratings [of the authorities] are on a downward turn, and the same goes for his own personal rating," Salin said. "He needed to find a card to play that would engage the electorate."
Putin's rating is still high, running about 70 percent, although it is down from the stratospheric 85 percent approval he enjoyed in 2008. United Russia's ratings fell to record lows of below 40 percent in June this year.
Petrov said the substance of Russian foreign policy is unlikely to change as Putin returns to the Kremlin, although he said he expects its tone to change as Medvedev, who was seen as more pro-Western, fades from the scene.
"No more will it be possible for them to play this tandem thing and pander to different audiences," Petrov said.