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Eurasia

Photo of a young Mugat man taken by Sema Balaman. For more of her work and those of her collaborators, I've provided a link below.

In the American imagination, China is often considered linked to, but separate from, Eurasia. Hence the title of one relatively well-known academic international relations journal: The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly. That “and” joins two discrete entities.  By tradition, Eurasia includes Central Asia, Mongolia and Russia (what Russian’s consider Eurasia – essentially the boundaries of the Soviet Union), while others might also include the Persian world (Iran and Afghanistan. British adventurers and novelists of the 19th century primarily meant Afghanistan when they spoke about Central Asia). The ambiguity reflects the fact that “Eurasia” – as a place, as a political possibility and as an idea – remains poorly defined and understood.

But geographically, at least, China is part of the Europe-Asia landmass, and with time, it is expanding its interests and activities into the more definitively Eurasian countries. It isn’t hard to find mention of China’s pipelines, roads and railways linking it to both Mongolia, Asiatic Russia (Eastern Siberia) and Central Asia. China may even be stealthily funding a pipeline connecting itself to Iran via Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But what is more striking to me is that China is also more or less literally expanding into Central Asia by both obtaining land-use rights and the outright acquisition of more territory through concessions.

In the last year, China has twice gained land from neighboring – and very poor – Tajikistan. In the first instance, China and Tajikistan finally resolved a long-standing land dispute such that the smaller country conceded 1,000 sq km of mostly unexplored and potentially mineral-rich land to the larger; then, just a few days ago, Tajikistan’s parliament leased a further 20 sq km to Chinese farmers. Although initially  only Tajiks were to be permitted to work the Chinese-leased land, the government in Dushanbe subsequently reversed that decision and will allow Chinese to farm directly.

The Chinese proposed a similar arrangement in Kazakhstan several years ago: Beijing wanted to lease 10,000 sq km from Astana for 99 years. Uncharacteristically, Kazakhs took to the streets in response, and the government backed away from the deal. Therefore, China is quite concretely, if slowly, becoming a Eurasian country.

In other ways as well, China’s presence is increasingly felt throughout Eurasia. The bazaars of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are flooded with cheap Chinese-made goods, and Chinese laborers build and rebuild roads, pipelines and other infrastructural projects throughout the region. Moreover, now that Kazakhstan and Russia are joined in a tariff-free Customs Union and Russia has joined the WTO (similarly, WTO-member Kyrgyzstan may soon join the Customs Union), it seems the Chinese goods may soon gain easy entry into Kazakhstan – and capitals as distant as Kiev and Minsk. Therefore, China is also expanding economically – and notionally – across the corpus of traditional Eurasia.

I am unaware if modern China has ever thought of itself as a Eurasian empire or whether there is a Eurasian school in China as there has been in Russia. Russian Eurasianism, for all its Russian exceptionalism, was and is rooted in a Euro-centric mode of thinking. Its aim, as I understand it, was to alter Russians’ perceptions of themselves as European by reorienting their sense of place vis-a-vis neighboring countries and cultures. By contrast, a Chinese Eurasianism would naturally be anchored in the East and urging the Chinese to shift their identity towards the West. The important question is: if so, is Chinese expansion into Eurasia imagined as conquest or collaboration?

On the one hand, although Genghis Khan’s Mongol conquests were undoubtedly brutal, they created a massive Eurasian empire that stimulated trade and movement across great distances and many cultures; certainly the influences of the Central Asian and Persian worlds were felt in Eastern China. One material example is the import of lapis lazuli, with which Ming dynasty ceramicists were able to achieve the stunning hues of blue-and-white pottery. One imagines that this fundamentally transformed East Asians’ sense of their placement on the globe and tied them much more to the cultures to their west. Much later, in the 1920s, Chinese reformist thinking also looked very much to recreating China in the image of the Euro-American West.

However, I feel it is perhaps too optimistic to imagine that a Chinese Eurasianism advocates a syncretic harmonizing of different cultures, of East and West, that one finds in the mystic (if patronizing) elements of Russian Eurasianism. The logic of “the Middle Kingdom,” China’s control of McKinder’s geopolitical “pivot” (Central Asia and Tibet) and contemporary nationalism each in their own way suggest the expansion of China’s political and cultural influence is likely to be conquest.

Which is why many Central Asians (although far from all) are afraid of China’s growth. Not everyone here is convinced they have a place in China’s potential Eurasia.

And finally, here is a link to more of Sema Balaman’s work on the Mugat people of Central and South Asia.

The political concept of “Eurasia,” introduced in an earlier post, is interesting precisely because it is not merely a thin veil masking Russian expansionism or Soviet irredentism – no matter how hard Russia’s presumptive President Vladimir Putin tries to make it appear to be just that. To begin with, as I pointed out in my earlier post, it is likely that Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev is the most recent progenitor and promoter of Eurasia as a political idea – as evidenced by his Kazakhstan-blue book, titled Eurasian Union: Ideas, Practice and Prospects, 1994-1997 and featuring the author himself on the cover.

Moreover, “Eurasia” and “Eurasianism” have long intellectual histories among Russian, Kazakh, Soviet and post-Soviet thinkers, and these histories (in very brief) are the subject of tonight’s post. I consider “Eurasianism” to be sufficiently fascinating – and sufficiently important for contemporary and future politics – that for a while I seriously considered making it (broadly understood) the subject of a PhD. (Then I decided not to pursue a PhD for the time being, at least, and shelved “Eurasianism” as another facet of [intellectual] history to be examined as an amateur at a later date.) In any case, what follows is a brief and far from comprehensive introduction to what I understand to be “Eurasianism” past and present.

As far as I can tell, one of the earliest proponents of Eurasianism, and one of the men who lent prominence to the idea, was the Russian linguist Prince N. S. Trubetskoy (1890-1938). During the 1920s, he led a group of Russian émigré intellectuals in arguing that that Bolshevism was a perversion of Russian development brought about by the country’s mistaken association with Europe. In their conception, Russia’s is a unique culture and as such must be developed independent of outside influences. These early Eurasianists were also optimistic: they believed that the Soviet Union, though misguided, would in fact morph into an Orthodox Christian national state. Such an argument was an odd mix of cultural determinism and Hegelian (and thus also, in a sense Marxist) dialectics regarding the development and transformation of states. It was also, of course, wrong.

Though initially anti-Bolshevik in conception, the Soviets also developed their own self-serving counter-conception of Eurasianism. As articulated by the Soviets, Russia’s “peculiar” civilization “had “centralist authoritarianism at its heart – and the communists were seen as having continued that tradition,” thus justifying Soviet totalitarianism (Service, Comrades).

Interestingly, as time passed and various intellectuals contributed to Eurasianism, the idea seems always to have remained close to its foundation, laid by Trubetskoy, in linguistics. The most famous recent Eurasianist is Lev Gumilëv (1912-1992), a historian, ethnologist and anthropologist. The son of anti-Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova, Gumilëv spent nearly 20 years as a young man in the Gulag prison camps. This experience was perhaps the germ of his later academic interests in the history of the ancient steppe peoples and the interaction between “ethnoi” (ethnic groups). Drawing heavily on linguistic evidence, he famously argued that the period of Mongol rule in European Russian (1240-1480, often referred to as the “Mongol yoke”) was a time when Russian culture was in fact protected from European influences and developed some unique and some Asian characteristics.

Gumilëv is often consider the father of “Neo-Eurasianism,” which is to say the revival of the Eurasian idea in the late Soviet, post-Soviet periods – and not only in Russia. An important non-Russian intellectual proponent of Eurasianism is Olzhas Suleimenov (b. 1936), a very famous Kazakh poet-politician. His 1975 Az-I-Ya (Аз-и-Я, which translates as “As[ia] and I”) again draws heavily on ancient (and speculative?) linguistics to root Russian identity in Asia and as developing peacefully alongside those of the Turkic world rather than the European. Despite the fact that this book could have been used to justify the Russian presence in Central Asia, the book was banned (and therefore became incredibly famous) in the Soviet period.

As this last observation makes clear, the facts of Russian history mean that Eurasianism as an intellectual idea, rooted in linguistics, has never been far from politics, and this remains true. As the Wikipedia page on Eurasianism points out, Eurasianism has also been adopted by nationalist Russian politicians – most prominently by Aleksandr Dugin, who is rabidly anti-American and more-or-less openly advocates that Russia should reclaim its imperial holdings.

At the same time, Suleimenov’s book and the ideas of Eurasianism generally could also be leveraged to advocate for neighborly relations between “ethnic Russia” and its mostly Muslim southern neighbors – not only Kazakhstan, but also Chechnya, Georgia, Ingushetia, etc. At heart, Olzhas’s Eurasianism is about the historical closeness of these cultures and the possibility of their synthesis.

It is no accident that Suleimenov is Kazakh. Contemporary Kazakhstan is a very important test of how possible it is to merge Russian and “Turkic” culture – or at least whether these two cultures can live in productive symbiosis. After all, by unofficial estimates, up to 7 million of Kazakhstan’s 16 million citizens are ethnically Russian – and the meshing of two cultures is everywhere evident: bilingual signage; Kazakhs who can’t speak Kazakh, only Russian; and my favorite: cappuccino in a bowl, pictured as served at the best  local coffee place, 4A. (Incidentally, 4A is run by a white Bostonian married to a Kazakh woman, but I don’t think the American chose to serve the coffee this way.)

In sum, Eurasianism has a long and complicated history, but also deep contemporary resonances. The present problem, to my mind, is that Eurasianism is not coherent. Depending on who employs the idea, it can be either a justification for Russian exceptionalism or a vision of Russia (and Kazakhstan) as bridges between East and West, separate from both, but hostile to neither; it is both a dream of coexistence and a battle-cry for nationalists. The lack of clear definition allows those who use it’s rhetoric (namely Putin) to have it both ways, simultaneously appeasing and appealing to the Russian hard right and luring Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine (for now) into a illusory “partnership” between related nations. For my money, Eurasianism is an idea to watch.

(I’ve not yet read it, but one of the very few books on the subject of Russian Eurasianism is by Marlène Laruelle.)

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.