MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has proposed forming a "Eurasian Union" of former Soviet nations, saying the bloc could become a major global player competing for influence with the United States, the European Union and Asia.
Putin, who has lamented the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," denied that his proposal represents an attempt to rebuild the Soviet empire.
But he said in an article published Tuesday in the daily Izvestia that the new alliance should emerge as "one of the poles of the modern world, serving as an efficient link between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region."
Putin, who is all but certain to reclaim the presidency in March's election, has been accused of rolling back Russia's post-Soviet democratic achievements during his two terms as president in 2000-2008. He has remained Russia's de-facto leader after shifting into the premier's job due to a term limit, and his protege and successor Dmitry Medvedev proposed last month that Putin run for president.
"There is no talk about rebuilding the USSR in one way or another," Putin said. "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."
Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan already have formed an economic alliance that has removed customs barriers in mutual trade during the past summer. They are to introduce unified market rules and regulations starting Jan. 1. Putin said that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are expected to join the grouping.
"We aren't going to stop at that and are putting forward an ambitious task of reaching a new, higher level of integration with the Eurasian Union," Putin said. "Along with other key players and regional structures, such as the European Union, the United States, China and the Asia Pacific Economic Community, it should ensure stability of global development."
Russia has long called for stronger cooperation between ex-Soviet nations, but earlier attempts at forging closer ties between them have failed due to sharp economic differences. Many former Soviet nations have looked westward and remain suspicious of Moscow's intentions, setting a rocky path to Putin's "Eurasian Union."
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, considered more Russia-friendly than his pro-Western predecessor, has continued to focus on closer relations with the European Union, shattering Moscow's hopes for luring Ukraine into its orbit. Yanukovych complained last month that the Kremlin was trying to coerce Ukraine into joining the customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and said that he wouldn't yield to pressure.
Even Russia's ties with its closest ally, Belarus, has been marred by tensions. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whose government is struggling with a spiraling financial crisis, has staunchly resisted Moscow's push for controlling stake in Belarus' top state-controlled industrial assets.
Putin's plan also comes in potential competition with the Eastern Partnership, an initiative launched two years ago by Poland and Sweden, which aims to deepen European Union integration with six ex-Soviet nations: Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Putin argued that deeper integration between ex-Soviet nations shouldn't contradict their aspirations to forge closer ties with the EU.
Some observers said that Putin's article heralds what could become a top policy goal after his return to presidency. "From the geopolitical viewpoint it represents an attempt to revive the USSR," Alexander Dugin, a political scholar and a longtime proponent of Russian expansionism, said in comments in online news agency Nakanune.
Others were skeptical. Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political expert, said on Ekho Moskvy radio that Putin's proposal was merely a campaign trick aimed at voters nostalgic about the Soviet past.