Dr. Filippo Costa Buranelli from the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom talks about the emerging new regional order in Central Asia, where countries seem to understand that it is necessary to coordinate and cooperate if they want to preserve stability and peace in the region.
How is this sense of regional identity evolving? Does regionalism in Central Asia conflict with the multi-vectorism of the countries’ foreign policies? What roles do China and/or Russia play?
Dr. Filippo Costa Buranelli,
Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at the University of St. Andrews, United Kingdom.
You are an expert on regionalism. Can you tell us a little bit about where regionalism studies currently stand? Are we living in an era of regionalism or globalism?
I would say that research on regionalism increasingly takes into account the role of non-state actors, local norms, and informal practices. Regionalism as a discipline and as a sub-field of international relations and political science has been concerned for a very long time (some people would say for too long!) with state-centrism and formal regional organizations. Until recently, the model for studying regionalism was often the EU; this model was transplanted to other parts of the world, such as Latin America, Southeast Asia, Eurasia, the Middle East, and Africa, among others. Yet I would say that at the turn of the century, let’s say around the early 2000s, the literature on regionalism started realizing that international relations is more than states and that non-state actors, businesses, civil societies, economic actors, local interpretations of global norms, and transnational linkages have also played a fundamental role in the construction and performance of regions in a more autochthonous, indigenous way. And this is where, I believe, the current literature of regionalism stands—increasingly appreciating the role of non-state actors and the role that informality and “locality” play in the construction of regions.
More specifically, I think that an emphasis on formal integration and on the experience of the European Union even when researching other regional domains is very much some sort of Eurocentric prism of analysis. The assumption is that given that we have the European Union here in Europe, which has integrated fairly well over the course of the past seven decades, regions “need” to have a formal regional organization to exist. And according to this line of thinking, we can study MERCOSUR in Latin America, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in Southeast Asia, the African Union in Africa, and the Arab League using the EU as a benchmark. The problem is that any region also has a lot of meaningful political and diplomatic relations that are informal in nature and not integrative in scope—that do not necessarily require the formality of bureaucracy and physical buildings to exist. This is what is happening in Central Asia, which I’ve been exploring in my research—there are ideas of informal regionalism and order that do not necessarily mirror the integrationist dynamics that we have experienced in Europe and other parts of the world. These ideas are indicative of a common understanding around certain norms, rules, and principles that everyone in the region understands and are performed through informal mechanisms, informal meetings, and informal dynamics not only among the presidents, but also among other actors (border agents, elders, families, and transboundary communities).
As to whether we live in a regionalized or a globalized world, I think it’s a mistake to consider these two terms mutually exclusive. I think globalism and regionalism always go hand in hand. Sometimes we may have more globalism and less regionalism or vice versa. But I tend to see regionalism as a product of globalism. You cannot have regions without a global level of relations. I think the pandemic and the economic crisis that the pandemic has created show very well that we still live in a globalized world, but that at the same time, states and societies are taking actions at the regional level to mitigate the harsh impacts of globalization. There are risks of over-globalization and regions are important sites to have more agency—more ownership of processes pertaining to politics, diplomacy, and economy—to foster connectivity and dialogue with neighbors. So we live in an era that is characterized by both globalism and regionalism, but if you were to ask me which one is prevailing right now, then I would say that what we are observing is more attention paid to regional processes.
Central Asia is not always defined as a single region. Some distinguish Central Asia from Kazakhstan; others add Afghanistan or Mongolia to the region. What are your thoughts on the characteristics of the region: Is it shaped by geographical factors or by other identities? And if so, might it change in the future if Kazakhstan, for example, were to become too different from its Central Asian neighbors?
This is a very pertinent question. On the one hand, it touches on how we, as researchers within international relations, define Central Asia in a way that might be different from how researchers in anthropology, geography, archeology or other disciplines define the region. On the other hand, there is also the fundamental question of how people from the area define themselves—about who speaks for what and in the name of whom. My approach to the region is always to pay attention to how the people in the region itself define themselves and how they construct their identities. This is called “interpretivism.” So I pay real attention to how people describe their belonging and frame their sense of commonality with the territory, with the history, with the people of the area in which they live. Something that we need to take into consideration is that despite not being a formalized region, despite having experienced a lot of disagreements, and a lot of competition, Central Asia as a category of analysis and as an expression of a common identity has existed since 1991—since the leaders of the five Central Asian republics gathered first in Ashgabat and then in Tashkent to define as Central Asia the regional space that was previously known as Kazakhstan and Sredniaia Asia. I’m very much aware that other disciplines define this part of the world differently, calling it Eurasia or Central Eurasia. Some researchers and analysts include Central Asia within the remit of South Asia, as some foreign policy departments do in the West, studying these republics alongside Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. That’s the decision of the analyst. In my opinion, when defining a region, there must be certainly geographical commonalities, but we also need to take into consideration history, religion, social ties, families, cultures, and security dynamics. If you take into consideration all these aspects, as if they were different pixels of a digital picture, then the definition of Central Asia still holds.
People from the region do acknowledge that there is a Central Asia. This is true even in Turkmenistan, often considered to be secluded from the region because of its idea of positive neutrality and because it is a very closed country. At the beginning of August, Turkmenistan hosted the summit of Central Asian states, for example. So even the Turkmen government and Turkmens realize that there is something called Central Asia.
“My approach to the region is always to pay attention to how the people in the region itself define themselves and how they construct their identities”
Of course, this does not exclude that the regional states can use other identities as well. For example, Kazakhstan is very keen on exploring the idea of a Eurasian country; Uzbekistan speaks of itself as the heart of Asia, because it is located at the very heart of the Silk Road; the Turkmens may speak of themselves as a Caspian country whenever they deal with Azerbaijan, Iran or Russia on matters related to the management of the Caspian Sea. You also sometimes hear Tajikistan being described as a Persian country because they speak Farsi. So this all shows that it’s difficult to pin down a single identity and definition. But I do think that Central Asia still has some analytical value and message in terms of identity for the people there.
In terms of whether the region may change, the answer is: yes, of course. Absolutely. For example, the Europe of 1957 is not the Europe of 2021. And other regions in previous centuries were very different from the regions we have nowadays. So the region can change, because it is not static or monolithic. Your example of Kazakhstan is very important, because I remember some 7-8 years ago, there was the idea of even changing the name of the country—removing the “-stan” ending and calling it “Kazakh Eli.” My impression is that, first of all, that didn’t happen, which says something, but had it happened, it would not have fundamentally changed relations with the country’s neighbors. There is a very important Central Asian proverb that goes along the lines of “a good neighbor is better than a distant relative.” So you can change your name, in the same way you can change the clothes you wear, but ultimately the people surrounding you will still be there and you will have to find a way to relate to them. So here is the last thing to answer the question: the region can change, but at the same time, these societies, these territories, these communities will nonetheless be tied together because of the proximity, their past, and also their social linkages. I think of families, for example, existing on two sides of the border, and this is the case in the whole region. Moreover, what I want to say is that for a region to exist, not all states have to be identical and not all states have to be the same, akin to what in political science is called isomorphism. If you look at Europe, it is difficult to compare a country like Latvia with Germany, or if you look at East Asia you may not easily compare South Korea to Japan or Vietnam to Indonesia. But nonetheless, they may have some similarities, and more importantly some common understandings, norms or sense of being in the same regional order, and they all need to manage somehow to avoid conflict, cooperate, and live together. Ultimately, to me region-making and region-building are not about being, but about speaking and practicing.
Is there such a phenomenon as regional nationalism? Something good about Central Asian countries is that they often feel pride for each other (cultural achievements, etc.) Does this represent a sound basis on which to build a stronger regional identity?
If what you mean here is that Central Asian countries can sometimes be a bit narcissistic, preoccupied with self-praise and self-congratulation, I would say that these things certainly exist in Central Asia, but at the same time, it is important to note that this is not specific to Central Asia; it is also prevalent in other regions of the world. For example, in the past year the states of Europe have competed over who best managed the pandemic. Unfortunately, more often than not, Central Asia is somehow orientalized and described as if it’s something unique, where you have five Napoleons that want to be the leaders. Yet there are similar examples in the rest of the world—this is an aspect of politics.
At the same time, the Central Asian states are still in the process of state- and nation-building. So the idea of self-praise and self-congratulation, I would say, is meant to show the world that they are doing well. Even when sometimes they are not doing well, this is part of the rhetorical and diplomatic process affirming their existence and their sovereign prerogatives: “we are legitimate states, we exist.” It is a logic of performativity. The other important thing that is that there have been instances of the Central Asian states helping each other out, congratulating each other, and praising each other for their achievements. The period of the pandemic was illustrative of how regional states were able to coordinate and help each other out: a few weeks ago, Kazakhstan gave a lot of vaccine doses to Kyrgyzstan, transit routes were opened for the transit of medical goods between the republics, and so forth. Even when a social order is imposed that we sometimes call authoritarianism or repression, presidents often congratulate each other—you know, they say “well done” to each other for maintaining stability in the region.
I recently wrote an open-access article on how in Central Asia there is a sense of what I have previously called “a regional order.” States are very much aware of themselves and they are aware that somehow there is a sense of a lack of a strong regional identity—states do come first. But at the same time, I do think, and my research makes the case, that they also understand that they need to play by some rules, such as non-interference, non-intervention, respect of the diplomatic protocol, basic rules of international law, and respect for seniority, among others. They cannot do exactly what they please—they are in the same regional order and they need to coordinate and cooperate on some things if they want to preserve stability and peace in the region.
An example of this is the idea of regional sovereignty, which is a little bit oxymoronic, because sovereignty is something we normally attach to states. Regions do not really have sovereignty. But you can increasingly see the idea that there are some problems between Central Asian countries in which not even the great powers should have a say. Nazarbayev was the first one to endorse this principle, then Mirziyoyev, and then others. What concerns the Central Asian republics should be dealt with only by the Central Asian republics without external interference. I believe it is difficult to do, because there are forces at the global level that bring the great powers to Central Asia very prominently, but the Central Asian states have somehow managed to preserve their agency and their autonomy despite the dynamics of the great powers. So maybe this does not fully answer your question, but there is what you called a form of regional nationalism, but at the same time there is also regional sovereignty, which, I think, is worth exploring and developing.
Do you envision increased regional cooperation—or even integration—in Central Asia in the future? If so, what factors will be influential?
I think this question is really important to defining, studying, and analyzing current trends in the region. In my opinion, the fact that Central Asian leaders decided to meet in Turkmenistan for the Third Consultative Meeting on August 5-6, 2021, is very important. It shows a certain degree of institutionalization, diplomatic resilience, and the fact that trust is being built. I know that some analysts and scholars dismiss it. But in my opinion, this is not the case. I’ve been visiting Central Asia for 10 years. I know how the mentality and diplomacy works in the region. I know the importance of what is said, what is not said—the informal mechanisms I mentioned above. And for me this is all very important and it’s been captured very well by these informal summits. So if you ask me is there scope to increase regional cooperation in the region, I would say that the climate already seems to be better than it was five years ago. In my opinion, the key will be coordination and cooperation, maybe on issues such as security, climate change, economic corporation, and soft sectors like culture or tourism. Integration, if you ask me, is not in sight, at least not in the near future. I know it is a buzzword. I know that every three or four months you have a new article that asks “Will Central Asia integrate? Where is Central Asian integration?” Again, this is a little bit of a Eurocentric narrative, if you ask me. But the states themselves, the presidents, have been very clear that pluralism will be preserved, state- and nation-building processes will continue, and the creation of a Central Asian organization is not on the table. I think for the next 5-7 years what they will seek to do is to build dialogue, to achieve concrete and pragmatic results in the areas we mentioned before, and to rebuild political trust, especially after what happened between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, for example. What is the point of creating a regional organization if two neighbors have a war on a border that hasn’t been delimited for more than 30 years?
The best solution is to continue to have these low-key, low-profile meetings and multilateral and bilateral engagements to foster pragmatism and trust-building. What this will hopefully lead to is a change in the perception of the security dilemma in the region. In this respect, some states are doing better than others. For example, if you were to ask me to alter the security dilemma in the region, I would say that Uzbekistan is doing great. Uzbekistan is now seen as a good-neighborly country by all Central Asian states. Turkmenistan is increasingly involved in projects and in a growing regional dialogue. Kazakhstan has generally enjoyed good relations within the region. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, conversely, have never been more in competition or in conflict with each other. So that would be interesting to see, but this is why I’m more skeptical about integration. Yet I see positive trends for coordination and cooperation on non-sensitive issues.
In a nutshell, is it good to be part of the region and if so, is it better to be part of a region with stronger countries like China and/or Russia? How do these great powers shape regionalism in Central Asia?
With respect to the first question—whether it is good to be part of the region—that is a very difficult question to answer. Because it requires a consideration of what is good and what is bad. That is a normative statement that I do not have an answer to. What I do feel is worth saying is that the people of Central Asia know this much better than anyone else. So even if there are scholars in the West, Asia or Russia that somehow push the regionalist agenda by saying “you have to integrate, being a region is good,” ultimately it is up to the societies and communities of Central Asia to decide whether this is a good political arrangement for them or not. I should say and can say is that there is nothing bad in having good relations with neighbors and in creating a sense of regional commonality that may help Central Asian societies—not just states, but societies at large—navigate the difficult phases of globalization and great-power competition. So if you ask me, it would be a great idea to have an Erasmus Program for Central Asian universities to create spaces for young people to travel, to meet people from other neighbors, to learn more about each other’s history and also about shared legacies. So in my opinion, belonging to a regional space where common ideas and common world views are nurtured is something good. But I am not advancing any agenda here because, as said, it is ultimately up to Central Asian people to decide what to do with their political arrangements. With respect to great powers, I think that Central Asian governments and diplomats are very pragmatic and very realistic in this respect. The presence of great powers in the area is unavoidable, and this is also why I think the current form of regional dialogue we have is informal—is in the shape of summits—because ultimately great powers will be there anyway. Great powers, by definition, have special rights and special responsibilities. And Central Asian states know this very well; they are very pragmatic, reaping the benefits of the presence of great powers. Alexander Cooley wrote this insightful book Great Games, Local Rules to show how the Central Asian states acknowledge the presence of the great powers, but also have agency and know what to do with the great powers. So you asked me “How do they shape regionalism?” I would say that they try to shape regionalism by fostering a sense of security and economic community. So Russia pushes much more for security cooperation, especially now with the problems on the borders with Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. China is pushing more for economic cooperation and infrastructural and financial convergence in the area.
I think ultimately both Russia and China have an interest in preserving peace and stability in the area, especially in light of the recent events in Afghanistan. And this is why they have managed so far to coexist, more or less peacefully, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and other platforms. What we need to keep in mind is that great powers are not angels that do good for the sake of good; they also have their own interests. And this is why I think that, even if in two different ways, Russia and China are both promoting a view of regionalism that I would define as hegemonic. So Russia is pushing for a version of regionalism that formalizes its role as an economic and military power through the Eurasian Economic Union and CSTO, in which the principle of sovereign equality is not always acknowledged. You may remember how many times Russian politicians—not just Zhirinovsky, but also Putin himself—have made, I would say, part jokes, part statements that “Kazakhstan has never been a state,” forgetting Kazakh history, among other examples.
So the issue of sovereign equality with Russia is always a little bit a stake. Conversely, at least on paper China is paying much more attention to this and makes Central Asian republics feel equal, even if economically they are not. But there is nonetheless a sense of equal standing and close partnership. This is also done to enhance its own image in the region, for China is facing backlash at the societal level: sinophobia and mistrust of Chinese businesspeople and economic projects are somehow creating a suspicious atmosphere in Central Asia.
How much influence do political regimes have on international regional organizations, theoretically and in practice? What are the mechanisms for spreading autocracy through regional organizations?
That is a very good question on which I recently did some research. In my opinion, regional organizations in Eurasia serve a lot of purposes. They do not exist only to promote authoritarian rule. But at the same time, they may perform certain mechanisms to consolidate authoritarian rule in their own environment. The first is to provide a venue for the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes. If you have a seat in a regional organization, you can claim to be the legitimate leader of a country, however authoritarian you are. And if you are treated as an equal, you are received as the most important person from that country, you are acknowledged as an international legal diplomatic interlocutor, then this by default means that your rule is legitimate. So that’s one.
The second is the fact that within regional organizations, states can mimic and emulate each other’s practices. So within regional organizations, leaders and their diplomats can update each other on the legislation they’re adopting, the practices they’re implementing, political trends with respect to internal security or regime preservation. They can also exchange experiences, data, information on reciprocal threats or perceived threats.
And the third mechanism that I investigated in my article in International Studies Quarterly is called “praise.” Leaders congratulate each other, praise each other, and reinforce a shared sense of legitimate expectation about how to rule. Holding a tight grip and preserving a form of illiberal governments that prioritizes socio-economic rights over political and civil rights, and creating a sense of order, paternalistic protection for society, I would say, is a norm in Central Asia centered on what I have called illiberal solidarism. It is institutionalized. It is something that every single political leader understands and knows they must present to the others. I somehow anticipated it in my article: I was writing the article right before there was political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan, and I paid attention to the idea that Japarov would win following the lines of regional governments around centralization of power. Because, among other facts, the social pressure that comes from the neighbors and regional organizations somehow allows these mechanisms to exist and be legitimate.
Does regionalism in Central Asia conflict with the multi-vectorism of the countries’ foreign policies? Will regionalism restrict the flexibility that Central Asia currently has?
The short answer to this question is no, I don’t see a contradiction between multi-vectorism and regionalism. If anything, I see complementarity. If you remember, we discussed regionalism in Central Asia at the moment as something very flexible, very informal, very capable of adapting to local circumstances, and very pragmatic. Multi-vectorism is part of this idea of keeping relations pragmatic and informal. So on the one hand, regional leaders understand that they need to consult each other, and this is why you have this informal regionalism—or I prefer the term order-making—in Central Asia. But multi-vectorism is a fundamental part of this order-making process, and this is why I think they are complementary. Because one of the principles of the Central Asian regional order is the idea that no single great power should take over the region.
Great powers exist, but at the same time, the Central Asian states need to preserve their own autonomy as much as they can. So as part of this order-making set of practices and narratives, the idea of multi-vectorism serves exactly this purpose, allowing this regional dialogue in Central Asia to take place without necessarily being too constrained and too directed by external great powers. Then the fact that regional states have other interlocutors—such as the European Union, Japan, Korea, India, Iran, the US or АSEАN—is, in my opinion, absolutely normal. And don’t forget that these are landlocked countries that need to expand their markets, their outreach, their connectivity. Also, they have an interest in having more people coming to balance great powers against each other. So no, I do not see a contradiction here; I only see complementarity.