Eurasia: Doomed to Division?

8 september 2017

Timofey Bordachev - Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, and Director of the Eurasian Program at the Valdai Club Foundation. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: The past two or three years have witnessed unprecedented interest in Eurasia.

The past two or three years have witnessed unprecedented interest in Eurasia. Russia’s turn to the East spurred by the conflict with the West fortunately coincided with China’s new geo-economic initiatives. In 2013 Beijing proposed a large-scale plan of cooperation under the motto of reviving the Great Silk Road. The number of articles on Eurasia is truly impressive. This issue is discussed at all international forums and is invariably present in all public speeches. Politically, the evolution of the Eurasian concept, primarily for Russia, travelled the road from the modest idea of interlinking the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China’s One Belt One Road initiative to a much larger strategy of comprehensive Eurasian partnership. Other countries of the region, including the author of the modern Eurasian concept – Kazakhstan – are trying to emphasize the pragmatic aspects of regional cooperation. China is doing the same. Unlike Russia, China’s concept sounds more abstract politically and more substantive materially. In principle, this is natural for China’s political philosophy and its step-by-step national approach to achieving targets without setting overly ambitious goals.

Russia’s political exaltation over the Eurasian issue is certainly natural and easy to understand. Many analysts see it as an attempt to break away from the historically determined doom of facing the endless choice between Europe and not Europe. This choice is particularly tragic because it is obviously impossible to ever make Russia part of Europe. However, the political events of the past few years give hope that Russia has shed its ambivalence and now sees itself as an independent development center rather than the periphery of Europe or Asia. But it is necessary to harness Russia’s nascent self-identification in collective institutions of regional cooperation and to integrate Russia’s national interest with the interests of Eurasia as a macroregion. In other words, Russia needs to traverse the same road taken by European countries, even such powerful ones as Germany or France, for the sake of joint development and peace in the second half of the 20th century.

The trend of global and regional development shows that at this historical stage Eurasian concepts may go further than general political statements and wishful thinking. Some experts believe the soft division of the world into macroregions may rescue globalization. Countries located in such macroregions will find it easier to reduce losses from the objective exacerbation of the worst trends of modern international politics, primarily, increasing national egotism and disregard of shared benefits for the sake of narrow national goals. This general trend toward macroregions has aligned with Eurasian initiatives in the past few years.

However, many important factors of regional affairs and major political problems demand that we show restraint in assessing the practical potential of Eurasian ideas. At any rate it is important to understand what intellectual tasks must be resolved to make progress along the only path to salvation left – deep and comprehensive cooperation. These tasks may seem abstract at first sight but historical experience shows that unless they are solved it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve purely practical goals. In other words, it is vital to remove mental barriers in the way of closer relations between Eurasian nations on a pragmatic foundation.

This narrative must be universally applicable, simultaneously distinct from any single Eurasian tradition and able to encompass them all. Thinkers from Kazakhstan and Russia made repeated attempts to create a cohesive political construction that would incorporate cooperation and joint development of Eurasian nations. During the past two centuries outstanding intellectuals made repeated attempts to build a common Eurasia proceeding from the unity of its values internally or opposition to other macroregions externally. However, there has been essentially no practical demand for translating these wonderful ideas into reality. Still worse, these ideas have not yet become a platform for uniting Eurasian nations intellectually and politically. Furthermore, the good-hearted Eurasian nations, including Russia, are very susceptible to the words of those bearing Greek gifts from other continents. They allow intellectuals of other nations and civilizations to offer them unifying ideas. In so doing they are often guided by fairly pragmatic considerations and seeking national benefits. However, they forget that by virtue of objective laws of international politics, remote nations are merely a means for external powers to achieve their own national interests. This is why the Eurasian narrative is probably one of the most “polluted” with ideas and geopolitical concepts from afar.

Regrettably, this comes as no surprise. The great Eurasian continent has always been more of a metaphysical than a political or economic concept.

The blurring of physical borders has been invariably accompanied by the erosion of conceptual borders – the inability to delineate Eurasia as a unit on the political and mental map. This is a major component of the “Eurasian curse” – the region’s inability to conceive itself in terms of common values, cooperation and shared benefit, and, as a result, to identify itself as an integral element of the global arrangement. Maybe Eurasia is too big for this. It is impossible to separate from it such parts as Europe – which is fairly good at identifying itself in relation to “others” – South and Southeast Asia or even Western Asia, which is also closer to the cramped Middle East than spacious Eurasia.

Historically all Eurasian states –  and Russia is no exception here – have used Eurasia more as a tool, a space for strategic maneuver and a means of achieving narrow foreign policy goals. They never managed to rise above their national interests as the Europeans did when they built a new Europe on the ruins of the old order in the second half of the 20th century. Their Europe was based on cooperation for the sake of shared benefit and on clearly defined opposition to other regions and civilizations.

The reason is that Eurasia, as the homeland of many nations, has never been home to any of them. In most cases, nations that emerged in parts of Eurasia later left. This was the case with the majority of Finno-Ugric peoples and, to a lesser extent, Turkic peoples. Eurasia’s most powerful states always saw themselves as part of other – European and Asian – civilizations. They considered themselves empires that did not need any other identity beyond their national one. Medium and small Eurasian nations do not have enough resources to develop their space without reliance on external players. As a result, Eurasia has always been just an abstract idea, a dream, and could not become an object of geopolitics. It is possible and necessary to resolve this problem now that the relative fragmentation of the global space into regions and macroregions is gaining momentum and, under certain conditions, could even be the only salvation for globalization and openness. Our goal is to comprehend Eurasia in the categories of regional cooperation to derive benefits and resolve the national development tasks of each of its nations.     

Today this goal is fairly difficult to achieve in practice. The major trends in modern development point toward states becoming less and less prepared to consider the categories of cooperation to achieve national goals both internally and externally. National egotism, whipped up by the psychosis of media, particularly social media, is growing stronger. Politicians are becoming more and more dependent on public opinion, less and less focused on common benefit, and increasingly interested in seeking solutions with unilateral advantages.

To understand the rational foundation on which Eurasia can be built, it is necessary to study its past to find ideas and narratives that can unite rather than divide the nations of our macroregion. It is necessary to shift the focus of Eurasia’s historical knowledge from the West to the East, incorporating Byzantine, ancient Chinese and ancient Turkic components: Byzantine-Russia, Turan-Central Asian states, ancient and modern China, and the entire Confucian space. It is essential to assess the development goals of Eurasian nations, to find out where they overlap, where they may clash and need to be harmonized, and where they supplement each other. It is necessary to determine the targets that are achievable through joint efforts at the interstate level.

Modern types of collective security systems must be studied to understand what experience suits modern Eurasia the best. It is necessary to determine a set of basic values for internal and external purposes that are shared by all nations of the region. It is particularly important to identify the values that may play a role in unifying our nations mentally and morally, thereby creating a collective identity for them.

What we apparently need is a Eurasian reimagining of the main principles of the Westphalian system. This system originated entirely in Europe in the 17th century but spread to the rest of the world due to the military dominance of its bearers – the European states of the new time. The unique character of the Westphalian principles is obvious – they are procedural rather than substantive. It is essential to understand how they would work in terms of Eurasian traditions. Thus, the concept of sovereignty and its content emerged and were judicially refined in Europe although the European nations went further than others in voluntarily restricting their sovereignty for the sake of mutual benefit through cooperation. But what does sovereignty mean for the Eurasian nations? And how do their ideas of sovereignty affect their ability to cooperate in the name of mutual benefit?

It is necessary to assess in general the extent to which the most traditional notions and rules of international relations may be applied to the Eurasian political and cultural environment and understand how they change in the Eurasian context. Obviously, each Eurasian nation has formed its own unique political philosophy and culture over centuries, although the most effective mechanisms of cooperation largely emerged outside Eurasia, notably, in its western periphery in Europe. These mechanisms are based on a different but also unique political tradition. The tradition of cooperation based on rational choice can and should be applied to Eurasia. It should not be mechanically transferred to Eurasia but should be adapted to its conditions, which will allow it to work in a different cultural and political environment.

We must look at the strategic prospects and motivation of each major Eurasian player. China is Eurasia’s largest state. It is practically self-sufficient by virtue of its unique demography and, at first sight, does not need to integrate in broader communities. However, even China cannot return to the policy of closed doors that already caused the Chinese people tragic upheavals. This is why China is opening up and entering the world, although it still does not have enough diplomatic experience to do this in the traditional European understanding. Russia cannot count on self-sufficiency by virtue of its demography and has to establish international communities with a more advanced code of conduct and a set of common values for their participants. Central Asian nations along with Mongolia are trying to formulate their development goals with an emphasis on the need to preserve themselves as independent units of international relations. They are seeking to place their bets on cooperation with large players inside and outside the region and balance out their powerful neighbors China and Russia with the help of remote partners – the United States and Europe – although the interdependence of these countries with China and Russia is great. It is understandable and logical that Central Asian states would pursue such a policy. They are used to being wary of their powerful neighbors to the North and the East, which repeatedly proved capable of establishing direct control if not domination over their smaller neighbors in the past. However, such a strategy could become a barrier to the formation of a spirit of cooperation and universal benefit or hypothetically even create dangerous situations in Eurasia. Incidentally, the same applies to the policy of Russia and China, which are also trying to surround themselves with preferential associations. Therefore, one of the most important tasks on the road to a genuinely common Eurasian home is to determine common objective interests and make them a priority for each country of the region.

Eurasia is the world’s largest and most populous continent. If we apply the logic of concentric circles to Eurasia, geographically it consists of a center and three peripheries. The center is represented by Central Asia, Russia, China and Mongolia. The second Eurasian ring consists of Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Korea, while the peripheries are Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Stability in the center, involvement of the second ring and lack of peripheral threats could form the goal of international cooperation in the field of security.

Therefore, one of the greatest challenges is the threat of going down the same path chosen by Europe after the Cold War – to try to establish formally an integration center and determine the place of others by their geographical and institutional proximity to the center. The strategy created new dividing lines and ultimatums. But is it avoidable? A major task of conceptualizing the Eurasian future is determining how cooperation can be compatible with openness and universality.

Regrettably, the relevant experience is negative on balance. A vivid example is the fate of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) where openness led to a crisis of cooperation in relations between participants. The military and diplomatic conflict between India and China over control of small common neighbors threatens to paralyze the SCO for a long time. Even before the 2017 expansion, the ability of the SCO countries to upgrade their cooperation was limited. But this does not erase the importance of the dichotomy – “cooperation inside, openness outside.”

Close values is another major issue. How close should views be on what types of domestic arrangements are fair for successful cooperation? Or is it possible to replace this community of views with a concept of a single community in the world and a set of rules of interstate relations that are shared by all? Here is a conceptual question – to what extent is it possible to apply to other parts of the world the European experience of considering shared benefit while pursuing national goals? It will be necessary to study all these issues in order to make Eurasia a real home for its nations.

Valdai International Discussion Club

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