Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has called for the creation of a "Eurasian Union" of former Soviet republics along the lines of the European Union.
Mr. Putin's comments come as Russian and United States officials held high level meetings in Washington DC on Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.
A Eurasian Union?
Mr. Putin, who recently announced he is running for President, wants the bloc to become a major global player and "an effective bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region".
However, he denied wanting to re-create the Soviet Union, saying a new bloc would have different values.
"There is no talk about rebuilding the USSR in one way or another," he said in an article in the daily newspaper Izvestia.
"It would be naive to try to restore or copy something that belongs to the past, but a close integration based on new values and economic and political foundation is a demand of the present time."
The new union will be part of "a greater Europe with common values of freedom, democracy and market laws," which will provide a faster integration into Europe for its members.
Mr. Putin said the new organisation would welcome accession of other countries, though former Soviet countries would have priority.
According to Mr. Putin, the new Eurasian Union would be built on the base of the existing Customs Union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, an alliance that removes customs barriers that may soon expand to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The proposal gives a hint of Mr. Putin's foreign policy priorities if he is re-elected as President next year. Last month, Mr. Putin confirmed plans to stand for President in March 2012 with the backing of current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Mr. Putin previously served two terms as President before Mr. Medvedev took over in 2008. Given his prominence and popularity most observers agree Mr. Putin stands a high chance of winning the vote.
Report: Putin calls for 'Eurasian Union' of ex-Soviet republics [BBC, 4 Oct 2011]
Report: Putin Calls for New ‘Euroasian Union’ of Former Soviet Countries [Moscow Times, 5 Oct 2011]
Russia and the World Trade Organization
Russia has long called for stronger cooperation between ex-Soviet
nations. But earlier attempts at forging closer ties have failed because
of sharp economic differences. Russia's desire for greater economic links with its neighbours has also caused problems in its talks to join the WTO, which the country has been involved in almost since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is the biggest economy still outside the trade body.
About two years ago, Mr. Putin shocked the WTO by saying his country would apply to join the trade body as a group with Belarus and Kazakhstan, but the plan was eventually dismissed.
Report: Russia's Putin promotes 'Eurasian Union' in rare article [AFP, 4 Oct 2011]
Report: Putin Calls for Eurasian Union [Wall Street Journal, 4 Oct 2011]
But Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said this week that his country is on the brink of a deal to allow Russia into the World Trade Organisation, with support from the US.
Russia’s accession to the WTO has been a key foreign policy goal of the Obama administration, though the future of the US-Russia relationship is uncertain amid political change in both countries. However reports this week have stressed optimism from both sides.
"We are trying to complete the deal by the end of December and, I am pleased to say, thanks to the leadership in the United States, we are closer to that goal," Shuvalov told a US-Russia business group after talks with US Vice President Joseph Biden in Washington DC.
Mr. Biden's office also issued a statement in which he "affirmed US support for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization" and urged "the successful conclusion of ongoing talks between Russia and Georgia with respect to Russia's WTO accession".
Hostilities between Russia and Georgia have remain a crucial sticking point in negotiations. All WTO members must unanimously agree to admit new countries to the body, meaning Georgia effectively wields veto power over Russia's entry. Georgia and Russia fought a five-day war in 2008 over two breakaway Georgian regions.
Russia's US$1.2 trillion economy is by far the largest still outside the 153-member WTO. According to the World Bank, joining the trade body may boost the country's gross domestic product by as much as 11 percent in the long term, though noncompetitive industries might suffer in the short term.
But Mr. Putin's new plan to create a new Eurasian Union raises questions as to Russia's future within the WTO. Mr. Putin did not explain in his article how unification with other post-Soviet states would affect Russia's accession to the WTO.
The existing European Union is an unusual case in the WTO. The European Union is considered a single WTO member, yet the 27 individual member states of the EU are also simultaneously members in their own right. But the EU's executive arm typically speaks for all the member states at WTO meetings.
Analysis: Russia Declares It Is Close to Joining the World Trade Organization [New York Times, 4 Oct 2011]
Report: US backs Russia's WTO bid: Biden (Channel NewsAsia/AFP, 4 Oct 2011]
Report: Russia close to joining WTO - Russian Deputy PM [Reuters, 4 Oct 2011]