Russia as a Guarantor of Security

H22 A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Michael Fredholm, Head of Research and Development, IRI, Stockholm, Associate of SIPCATS

Comment by Bayram Balcı

Russia as a Guarantor of Security

Many political and cultural changes have taken place in Central Eurasia since the conference in Istanbul in 2003, which resulted in the publication of Prospects for Democracy in Central Asia, yet the balance of power from a regional perspective fundamentally remains as it was then. In my chapter on ‘Russia and Central Asian security’, I then concluded that Russia remained the key guarantor of security in Central Asia, despite often heard claims that the United States had assumed this position. Russia would assist its allies with, among others, military support and international diplomacy, particularly when faced with a threat from Islamic extremism.

This now applies to the greater region as well. When Russia in 2015 launched a major air war against opposition forces in Syria, this sent a strong message to Russia’s allies that Russia indeed would be their guarantor of security. There were other implicit messages as well in the Russian military operation, aimed at the NATO and EU member states. However, for Russia’s allies and Russian public opinion, there was little ambiguity. Russia remained a great power, despite sanctions and falling oil prices, and so, the political message suggested, Russia could be relied upon.

On 30 September 2015, Russia began to launch air strikes from Khmeimim air base near Latakia in Syria against targets primarily connected to the Islamic State (IS) but also against those of other armed insurgent groups in the country. Russia had several reasons to strike against insurgent targets. One was the aforementioned political message. Another was to prevent Russian citizens within IS from returning to Russia to carry out acts of terrorism.[1] This was hardly surprising; less than a fortnight before the air strikes, the Russian Security Service, FSB, reported that an estimated 2,500 Russian citizens had gone to Syria to join IS or other jihadist groups. In addition, some 3,000 Central Asian fighters had joined the jihadists as well, and might return to threaten the Central Asian republics.[2] Then, on 31 October, a Russian airliner was destroyed in a suspected terrorist attack in Sinai, causing the loss of 224 lives.[3] Vicious terrorist attacks took place in Paris on 13 November,[4] which focused international, in particular European, attention on the need to fight IS. On 17 November, having determined that the airliner was indeed destroyed by terrorists, Russia extended its air campaign in Syria to include long-range aviation bombers which began to carry out air strikes from bases in Russia.[5]

Above and beyond the need to combat its own jihadists, Russia did not wish to see the Syrian government being overthrown by jihadist-led insurgents. Besides, some observers noted that the Russian initiative also might have been intended to reduce the tensions between Russia and the EU and the United States because of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea and the ongoing unrest in eastern Ukraine.[6]

The United States and NATO protested against the Russian air strikes and remained committed to regime change in Syria.[7] Turkey protested too, and on 24 November shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber.[8] As international tensions increased, it was easy to forget that the threat from Russian-speaking jihadists was real. Many of them had links with the Caucasus Emirate, a terrorist group in the North Caucasus. It was not only for political reasons that Moscow chose not to distinguish between the different insurgent groups. Former members of the Caucasus Emirate could be found in most of them, and they were hostile to Russian interests.

On 14 March 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an order to begin the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Syria starting from 15 March. He concluded that “the tasks set to the defense ministry are generally fulfilled.” Putin added: “With the participation of Russian military, Syrian troops and patriotic forces in Syria have managed to turn the tide in fight against international terrorism and take the initiative on practically all directions.” However, Putin made a point of mentioning that not all forces would be withdrawn. Russian military forces would remain in Syria in the naval base in Tartus and the Khmeimim air base.[9] Clearly, the message was, Russia had not ended its support but would remain as a guarantor of security.

To the Central Eurasia discussion forum

[1] Reuters, 1 October 2015.
[2] Pervyy kanal, 18 September 2015 (
[3] Reuters, 31 October 2015; FSB press release, 17 November 2015.
[4] Reuters, 14 November 2015.
[5] Sputnik News, 17 November 2015, 18 November 2015.
[6] New York Times, 16 September 2015.
[7] New York Times, 30 September 2015; Wall Street Journal, 8 October 2015.
[8] Washington Post, 24 November 2015.
[9] TASS, 14 March 2016.

The Role of Language in Identity Formation

H22 A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Azize Güneş, MA Student in Cognitive Semiotics, Lund University, Research Assistant, SIPCATS

In one of the two books referred to in the invitation to the present discussion, Historiography and Nation-Building among Turkic Populations (2014), the role of language in nation-building and identity formation was examined from different aspects. On the one hand, the authors looked at intentionally created products by the state, such as laws, official policies, national ceremonies and public speeches, as well as dictionaries and national history books, all of which could be considered to offer public options for identity formation. On the other hand, individual and collective language use was treated by the same authors, giving an idea of how language is involved in identity formation at a personal level. In this context, notions such as memory, narrativity and performativity were brought up. Rereading the chapters, I began to wonder about the relationship between these notions and their involvement in the formation, maintenance and rejection of social and national identities.

In a chapter titled “Image and Influence: The Politics of Nation-Branding in Uzbekistan”, Anita Sengupta writes that “[l]anguage is the basis for most performative acts” (p. 98). By creating a unified cultural image of language or “[t]hrough the ‘making’ of the language, the state acts as an agent of influence and control not just on performative traditions and their norms but also on the creation of a single linguistic community as the basis for the nation.” (p.98) In this chapter about national and international branding of states and the creation of signs in the public sphere, Sengupta states that commercial branding techniques are used for influencing public opinion and strengthening loyalty by constructing a relationship between cultural images and identity. Through such performative acts by the state, language, history, and nation are made into specific cultural images or signs that are linked to a sense of belonging and identity.

As nation-states create images of language and use them for controlling public opinion, they are engaged in a performative project. In which way can this be connected to individual language use? Individual language use could also be thought of as performative for it often surpasses the main goal of communication. The speaker is not an isolated speaker, and the addressee not an isolated addressee. Rather, language users are situated identity holders. Their identities are continuously being reinforced and challenged in situations of communication, which makes individual language use performative in my mind. While the speaker and the addressee send and receive information, affirming, rejecting, repeating and negotiating different parts of the message, they are simultaneously performing their roles. Messages and identities negotiated in acts of communication must at the same time be anchored in different discourses and images produced by different actors such as the state.

In the chapter titled “On Oral History of the Soviet Past in Central Asia: Re-Collecting, Reflecting and Re-Imagining”, Timur Dadabaev writes about the act of narrating memory in an Oral History project conducted in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In this project, individuals were asked to talk about life experiences from their Soviet pasts. Given such acts of creating a story, fragmented life experiences are re-collected and pieced together to form a narrative, not only to be shared with others as in a negotiating dialogue, but also to be presented to others, as a kind of performance to an audience. Remembering and talking about a lived life is both performative and narrative. Memories as fragmented events and feelings are sequentially ordered against a predetermined theme and told by a narrator who chooses a point of departure as the beginning of his story, which he relates to a particular temporal dimension bringing it to an end that is already known to him.

Summing up life experiences and creating a life story is not a simple project, and as Dadabaev affirms in his chapter, it results in an alternative to official historiographies created by a state or other authorities. How and to what extent is the evaluation and presentation of memory influenced by official narratives and intentionally produced cultural images? And as technology and globalization reaches new levels and enables access to more narratives, will the personal narratives of the public change and adapt? Are life stories and narrated memories important for the formation of individual as well as collective identities?

In her chapter on “The Status of Uzbek as ‘National Language’”, Birgit Schlyter introduces the notion of the ‘narrative capacity’ of language (footnote 7, p.133), suggesting that language in itself has a narrative capacity. Besides looking at the distribution of the language in space and time, and the products of the language composing its corpus, Schlyter analyzes the symbolic value of Uzbek as a national language through the manifestation of language, in which its narrative capacity can be investigated from the point of view of “political agendas and literary traditions as well as everyday language in both private life and public intercourse, having the effect of communicating sociocultural messages and serving as a means of identity formation” (p.133).

Could the narrative capacity of language, as seen in e.g. branding and life stories, be understood as the power to enforce temporal and causal sequences out of sociocultural messages available by means of everyday language use? What feature of language enables such a narrative capacity? Ruling out referentiality as the primary enabler of narrative structures, the ability of grammar to order information in time and aspect might be a good candidate.

Moreover, as connotations and ideological values are implemented in language by language users, I would like to suggest that the narrative capacity of language could also be something belonging to the language user. That is, a psychological tendency or an endeavor by the conscious language user to piece together fragments of sociocultural messages into a narrative in order to make sense of the world and position him or herself within it.

Many of the chapters in Historiography and Nation-Building among Turkic Populations (2014), not least the three chapters mentioned here, remind us of the ideological significance of language and a number of intriguing questions could be asked with regard to the performative and narrative functions of personal and official language use. By expanding the theoretical framework for the sake of identifying different levels of narrativity and performativity in signs produced by the state, in everyday language use and in the act of telling life stories, I think we could reach very interesting results.

To the Central Eurasia discussion forum

Regionalism versus Networking in Central Eurasian Space

H22 A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Birgit Schlyter, professor, SIPCATS Director

At least in the first decade of independence after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the then newly-born states in Central Asia were generally and mostly regarded as a region. The five ex-Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan themselves also acted as such on a number of occasions. Most ostentatiously this was done in January 1993, when all states declared in unison that they would henceforth consider themselves as part of “Central Asia” (‘Markaziy Osiyo’ in Uzbek). One year later, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were negotiating the prospects for establishing a common economic zone.

When organizing a conference and editing a volume on the “Prospects of Democracy in Central Asia” in 2003–2005, I was also inclined to view democracy as a “regional” issue, where the prerequisites for a development towards stronger democratic orders to some extent could be considered cross-regionally rather than in a state-by-state fashion. This may have been naïve – or at least unrealistic.

Despite their common past, where they had belonged to the same state and the same ideological sphere, the newly independent Central Asian republics after 1991 were to develop towards greater differentiation and separation – in physical as well as sociocultural terms. Former domestic republican borders with intersecting infrastructures were turned into state borders, where members of the particular state’s titular ethnicity living across that border were redefined as diaspora and citizens of another nation-state.

In the meantime, great changes have occurred in Asian politics as a whole, and today the general trend among both politicians and researchers is to view the ex-Soviet republics to the south of Russia as polities developing in a wider geopolitical context. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was not only a number of newly-born states in Central Asia, but also a new Eurasian discourse, where ex-Soviet Central Asia could become a transit area or connecting area between economically strong states, with Central Asian “regional” borders being more and more blurred.

For me living and working in Turkey since a few years, it is of particular interest to follow Turkey’s endeavors to strengthen and at times also defend its role as a Eurasian geopolitical hub focusing on not necessarily brethren Turkic and Muslim states exclusively but rather a wider Central Eurasian sphere.

The presence of natural resources and centuries-old infrastructures for trade and transportation across the Central Eurasian area constitutes an indisputable potential. The Black Sea area is reportedly the second largest source of oil and natural gas in the world (after the Persian Gulf) and is expected to become the major corridor for energy transports to Europe. Furthermore, a large part of the world trade is carried out by countries along the ancient Silk Road – according to some reports the share is as high as 25%.

Multilateral cooperation is manifested by organizations such as BSEC (Black Sea Economic Cooperation) from the early 1990s and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) operating as a full-fledged organization since 2001.

The BSEC member states have agreed to work together for the improvement of infrastructures in order to promote cross-border trade of natural gas and other goods at the local level as well as at a joint BSEC-EU level. In parallel to such development plans, the BSEC agenda deals with security issues specifying measures for combating organized crime, human trafficking and climate change.

The SCO has developed from a security network combating ”separatism, extremism, terrorism” along the Chinese borders to an organization dealing with other types of security as well, not least as regards the exploitation and transportation of energy reserves. Given such a development the SCO may attract a wider range of states concerned about good and safe energy transportation, either as supplier or buyer or both.

Turkey is engaged in both organizations and has through them access to both of the Asian great powers Russia and China. Turkey and Russia are not friends any more. The normalization of relations after the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet last November seems still to be out of reach.[1] Instead of turning back to normal, the clash of interests in Syria may as well lead to widened animosity and greater insecurity in other parts of the near abroad of the two countries, especially the Black Sea and Caspian regions.

Turkey’s warming to China, on the other hand, is of another concern for Inner Asian states, as they are thereby integrated in a broader economic, cultural as well as political, and perhaps even military context. The desire for stronger and broadened bilateral relations between Turkey and China is evident – commercially as well as culturally and politically. Today China is Turkey’s 3rd biggest trading partner, after the EU/Germany and Russia, though still with a great imbalance between imports and exports. Bilateral trade initiatives have been bolstered with exchange programs in the cultural and political fields. In recent years, China has featured as “country of honor” at international Istanbul fairs for literature and art, and official state visits have been exchanged between the two countries. After a visit by the then Vice President Xi Jinping to Turkey, the former Prime Minister and would-be President Tayyip Erdoğan went to China in 2012. On his way to Beijing Erdoğan stopped by in Xinjiang, which has a large Turkic-speaking Uighur population. This was the first visit ever to the region by a Turkish prime minister. During his 3-day official visit to China, Erdoğan spent the first day in Urumchi touring the Uighur sections of the city.

The Black Sea region with Turkey developing into an energy transportation corridor could be attracted by an expanding SCO network, as is also argued in one of the chapters in a book on the SCO published from my Stockholm program for research on Central Asia and the Turkic world.[2] In 2012, Turkey was acknowledged the status of ”dialogue partner” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has among its full members 4 out of 5 ex-Soviet Central Asian states.

To these two organizations could be added the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as the founding members. This, however, goes beyond my horizon at present, though it would be interesting to try and see what may have been the basic aim of this initiative taken by Vladimir Putin in 2010. Perhaps it was an attempt by Putin to create a new supra-national union without being stuck with the stagnant CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). Or was the main impetus to such unification rather of a civilizational character, with these countries – at least Russia and Kazakhstan – identifying themselves both as Asian (geographically and historically) and as European (in terms of European values and the Soviet legacy)?

In 2012, BSEC and the forerunner of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC; 5 member states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Russia, Tajikistan) celebrated their 20th and 15th anniversaries, respectively, in Istanbul. Expressions uttered in the great number of speeches delivered in honor of these occasions were phrases like “Intercultural dialogue along the Black Sea Silk Road”, “Bridge of hearts”, “Peace culture”, etc. Allusions have been made to the Eurasian sphere and the potential of interconnected regions in Eurasia. One example from 2013 is a comment by the Turkish Minister of Transportation in connection with the opening of the Marmaray railway in Istanbul on 29 October – the national day and the 90th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. The Minister called the new tunnel under the Bosphorus a modern “Iron Silk Road” interconnecting civilizations and fostering trade relations between continents.

Against this background, it may be more relevant for the social and political analyst to view young Inner Asian states not as a region or regions per se but rather as polities becoming more and more deeply embedded in a greater Eurasian, or Central Eurasian, sphere delimited first and foremost by economic networks and infrastructures sustained by surrounding and partly overlapping strong powers, such as Russia, China, India, and Turkey.

To the Central Eurasia discussion forum

[1] Toni Alaranta (Finnish Institute of International Affairs), “Russo-Turkish Relations: Completely in Tatters for the Time Being”, in “Russian Analytical Digest”, No. 179/12 February 2016, pp. 5–8.
[2] Anita Sengupta (Maulana Abul Kalam Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata), “Rethinking Regional Organizations: Turkey and the SCO”, in Michael Fredholm (ed.),“The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Geopolitics”, Copenhagen: NIAS Press 2013, pp. 176–198.