* Putin dreams of bloc to rival China, EU, U.S.
* Three ex-Soviet republics sign up for union
* Ukraine and several countries wary, stay out
By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW, May 28 It won't exactly mean going back
to the USSR, but Vladimir Putin is laying the foundations of a
huge trading bloc which opponents see as an attempt to recreate
at least part of the lost Soviet empire.
The Russian president and the leaders of two other former
Soviet republics, Belarus and Kazakhstan, will sign a treaty on
Thursday that brings to life his dream of uniting like-minded
countries in a Eurasian Economic Union.
With a market of more than 170 million people, the customs
and trading bloc is intended by Putin to challenge the economic
might of the European Union, the United States and China.
That looks like a distant dream but, despite the former KGB
spy's denials, critics see the signing ceremony in the Kazakh
capital of Astana as a part of a much bigger plan.
"Mr. Putin has made no secret, and he said it publicly on
more than one occasion over the years, that the demise of the
Soviet Union was a terrific mistake," U.S. Defence Secretary
Chuck Hagel told U.S. public broadcaster PBS.
"Now, I think that's a premise that he truly believes and I
think that's where he starts."
Opponents see Russia's reclaiming of Crimea from Ukraine in
March - which deepened the worst standoff with the West since
the end of the Cold War - as another part of an effort to
reassert Russian control of former Soviet territory.
Putin dismisses such talk as a misconception and denies the
creation of the Eurasian Economic Union has anything to with
reviving the Soviet empire.
"Our ambition is to integrate within the post-Soviet space
but not because we want to restore the Soviet Union or an
empire, because we would like to use the competitive advantages
of these states that are now independent," Putin told
journalists in St Petersburg on Saturday.
PUTIN'S PERSONAL LEGACY
What is not in doubt is that the new union has become one of
the big ideas of Putin's third term as president and will be
part of his personal political legacy.
Putin sees it as a crucial part of his attempts to make
Russia a great power again, if not to restore the superpower
status lost when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.
"It's hardly worth talking about recreating the Soviet
Union, as many things have changed in 20 years, but the policy
of collecting lands that Russia is now pursuing is obvious,"
said Dosym Satpayev, a political analyst in Kazakhstan.
He said Russia's political elite was on a geopolitical
mission to strengthen the country by forging Moscow-led
alliances in the "post Soviet-space".
Putin struck a chord among many Russians in 2005 when he
described the Soviet Union's collapse as a geopolitical
catastrophe and said "old ideals" had been destroyed.
His dream of a "powerful supra-national union" of sovereign
states based on the EU model, connecting Europe and the
Asia-Pacific, capitalised on nostalgia for stable prices,
predictable government and open borders.
Thursday's treaty, which comes into force on Jan. 1, deepens
the ties forged when the three countries took the initial step
of creating a customs union in 2010. It will guarantee free
transit of goods, services, capital and workforce and coordinate
policy for major economic sectors.
The union covers about three-quarters of the post-Soviet
region - the Soviet Union minus the three Baltic states - and
the combined gross domestic product of the three economies is
around $2.7 trillion. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have also expressed
an interest in joining.
But Putin has been forced to water down his dream just to
get as far as the signing ceremony.
OBSTACLES ALONG THE WAY
Ukraine dealt a severe blow by deciding not to join the
union after its Moscow-backed president was ousted in February,
depriving the union of a huge market, a bridge to the EU and the
country that is the cradle of Russian civilisation.
Oil-producing Kazakhstan has also fought to ensure the union
is a purely economic affair, and does not give its former Soviet
overlord any chance to regain political control of it.
"The most important thing is that we got away from the
politicisation of the agreement," said Kazakh Deputy Foreign
Minister Samat Ordabayev, whose country is led by a wily former
Soviet-era leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
"Thanks to Kazakhstan's consistent position, items were
excluded such as common citizenship, foreign policy,
inter-parliamentary cooperation, the passport and visa section,
and common border and export controls."
Even largely loyal, cash-strapped Belarus, under
long-serving President Alexander Lukashenko, has put up some
resistance on issues that might affect its sovereignty.
Like Ukraine's new leaders, other former Soviet republics
see better economic prospects elsewhere or are wary of being
sucked in. Azerbaijan, an oil and gas producer, is staying out
and Georgia and Moldova are expected to sign agreements next
month deepening political and economic ties with the EU.
"For Russia the Eurasian Economic Union is a primarily a
political project. All three members pursue completely
different, unarticulated goals that are far from the needs of
ordinary people and markets," said Aidos Sarym, a political
analyst in Kazakhstan.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Almaty and Alexei
Anishchuk in Moscow, Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Janet