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.

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