Eurasian Unions

A local newspaper warning about the dangers of Putin's proposed "Eurasian Union." Sound familiar?

In the last month and a half I’ve taken three separate trips from Almaty: first to New York (via Amsterdam), then to Hong Kong and finally to Beijing. Besides serving as my excuse for having become lax in my blogging, all this travel, all the ground I’ve covered, also got me thinking about the concepts of “Eurasia” and “Eurasianess.” This will be the first of several posts about these ideas.

Eurasia presents a definitional challenge. In the broadest sense, the term refers to the conjoined landmasses “Europe” and “Asia,” not unlike the idea of “Australasia,” but like Australasia, it is very hard to draw a line around those countries that are included and those that are left out. In the case of Eurasia, how far southwest and southeast do the imaginary borders extend? Are the Middle and Near East included? Where does Eurasia abut Australasia? In short: who’s in, who’s out?

Although I think few people in the US have taken notice, this question is of increasing political significance. The most recent iteration of Eurasianism began with the birth of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO, originally “the Shanghai Five” – a name more befitting a crime-fighting group of superheroes… or their nemeses). The SCO brought together Russia, China and four of the five post-Soviet Central Asian republics in a strategic partnership, touted to become a “counterweight” in a “multipolar world” to NATO. In this configuration, China – an Asian power – joined with Russia – projecting itself as a “European” power because its capital and the lion’s share of its population are west of the Urals in “European Russia” – thereby creating a Eurasian organization.

Although the SCO itself has rarely employed a logic of Eurasianism, it has become the foundation for several organizations and ideas that adopt the Eurasian mantle more readily. Important among these is the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, begun in 2010. In a highly publicized policy speech in October 2011, presumptive returned President Putin floated the idea transforming the Customs Union into a more formal Eurasian Union similar to the European Union, including a shared currency. Of course, unlike in the EU, Russia would be the undisputed senior partner. This gave rise to a spate of articles (like the one photographed above) warning of the revival of the USSR.

It is, however, overly cynical (or ‘Realist’) to dismiss the idea of Eurasian Union as nothing more than another of Putin’s political maneuvers or re-election campaign promises (reportedly, a sizable portion of the Russian population wouldn’t mind reclaiming their pseudo-colonial grandeur). The idea of Eurasianism has a long intellectual pedigree, and the Russians are not its sole champions.

President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan first posited the idea of a Eurasian Union reconstituting the Soviet Union soon after the collapse of the USSR; at SCO summits in April and November 2011, he advocated for the adoption of an international gold-standard-based currency for Eurasia (meaning the Customs Union states plus Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). In fact, acting as a bridge between Europe and Asia, Russia and China has been a central pillar of Kazakh’s foreign policy and public diplomacy for the last several years – it has been a big promoter of infrastructural ties (roads, railways) connecting Eastern China to Europe through Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan stands to benefit from transit and customs fees. It also speaks to Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet confusion as a country between the China and Asia of the future, on the one hand, and the European-oriented Soviet Union on the other.

In the West, “Eurasia” as an idea (other than in the sense of “Eurasian” as a vague racial slur for the mixed-race children of Europeans and Asians) gained traction as part of Halford McKinder’s “Heartland Theory,” presented in a 1904 paper to the Royal Geographic Society. In his formulation, the territory between the Volga and Yangtze Rivers in the west and east and the Himalayas and Arctic in the south and north was the “geographical pivot” of world power. Whichever power controlled this territory (provided a certain degree of “virility, equipment and organization”), he argued, controlled the world. It is a natural fortress within which,  at the turn of the 20th century, lay a huge percentage of the world’s known useful natural resources. But the Heartland Theory was challenged first by a naval-power focused understanding of global hegemony, and later by the dominance of air power and ballistic missiles, which rendered the natural fortress no more or less impenetrable as anywhere else.

Is Putin – or, for that matter, the presumptive Chinese leader Xi Jinping – interested in using the platforms of the SCO or the Customs Union to assert a block unifying the former Soviet space and East and Southeast Asia? Can there be a Eurasian identity akin to a European identity (if we can posit such a thing in the midst of the Euro crisis)? In future posts, I hope to discuss further the intellectual heritage of the current political concept(s) of Eurasianism.

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