Farkhod Tolipov: A quarter of century on the 1/6th of land: uncompleted geopolitical project
Why don’t the integration associations of post-Soviet countries work? Can labor migration from Central Asia to Russia become a reintegration factor in the Commonwealth? How consistent is the idea of new Eurasianism? Political analyst Farkhod Tolipov (Tashkent, Uzbekistan) discusses these questions.
Post-Soviet geopolitical vacuum
In the Soviet times, we were taught to be proud that the Soviet Union was the largest country in the world, which occupied 1/6 of the earth’s surface. Even the worst school students knew the magic figure. In the 1970s, the then Soviet leadership proclaimed that, for the first time in history, there was created a new community of people – the “Soviet people”. This fact was also a matter of pride. Two things – a huge single geographical area and a huge single multinational people – combined with the socialist ideology were a kind of brand identity of the superpower.
After man-made elimination of the USSR in December 1991, the huge single people, and the vast common territory ceased to exist. At the 1/6 of the Earth, numerous attempts of post-Soviet political, economic, social and cultural arrangement have continued during a quarter century, and the previously united people is now living in 15 independent states. If these processes took place on a much smaller area of the planet, perhaps, the drama would not be so impressive. However, the wreck of a geopolitical Titanic – the Soviet Union – and its construction have probably permanently predetermined what political scientists called a power vacuum in this vast territory. I mean the international power vacuum, or more precisely – the international order vacuum, the mismatch of the relations’ regulation, of the relations, which suddenly transformed from intra-State (inter-republic) into international (inter-State).
Castles in the sand
The experimentation to create various options of interstate associations does not stop at the post-Soviet space, which I call “mini-CIS”. Creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on the night of the 7th to 8th of December 1991 by three Slavic republics – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – and then on December 21 of the same year, joining of the former Soviet republics to it (except the Baltic countries; Georgia joined CIS in 1993) did not solve the fundamental issues, which allegedly led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but, on the contrary, gave rise to many new, even more complex issues. In place of the Soviet Union, there was a union, the international status of which had not been defined at the outset. In fact, its status is not clear to this day! The CIS Charter shows what the Commonwealth isn’t (it is neither a State, nor a supranational entity), but it does not show what it is. The subsequent consolidation of the status of the CIS in the UN as an international organization actually made little difference. In fact, the CIS proved to be a large castle in the sand.
However, the existential problems in the Commonwealth led to its crisis as an effective and viable organization and to the fact that there emerged “mini-CISs”. In fact, the Euro-Asian Economic Community (EurAsEC) established in 2000, the Association of Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Moldova (GUAM) established in 1997, the Common Economic Space created by Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus (CES) in 2012, the Customs Union created by them earlier in 2010, and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) that began to work in May last year, as well as the Organization of Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), are all “mini-CISs”. All of these “mini-CISs” no longer function, with the exception of the EEU, which has yet to prove its viability and efficiency.
Why did these “mini-CISs” fail and turned out to be castles in the sand?
Gathering of lands or of nations?
I think the failure of integration efforts in many ways can be explained by the geopolitical congestion of these efforts. Sovereignty of former Soviet republics had inevitably brought about the geo-politicization of the former Soviet Union, and it could not be otherwise, at least, due to the fact that in all the geopolitical theories, projects and concepts, this space bore the label of “Heartland”. The force, which controlled this vast expanse of “Heartland” during more than a century, was really a world superpower. Disintegration of a geopolitical power, which used to be concentrated, so to speak, in the same hands (in one political center) with the collapse of this power, in a sense, brought the international relations or the status quo back to the days of the so-called Great Game on the 1/6th part of the Earth.
Since then, I regard all projects of recreating some interstate associations in the post-Soviet space as strategic efforts to save the integrity of this geopolitical space. Is it possible to do without these efforts? Why should this integrity be restored? If we recall the history, long and recent, I think, we could note a general trend, a common cause of the formation of this geopolitical integrity, namely: the incarnation of the Russian permanent mission goal of “gathering lands” around itself and into itself. The Eurasian ideology justified it by an idea of protection of small nations. Not only are the CIS, EurAsEC, EEU, following the liquidation of the Soviet Union, failing to compensate for the “geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” and to fill its place, but they are also failing to answer the question of why actually the Soviet Union was dissolved. Was it dissolved just to create other associations without clear goals, ideas and concepts? If we cannot live without associations, why was it necessary to dissolve its predecessor? I would suggest that reforming the Soviet Union with the same goals, which are set within the framework of the CIS and the various “mini-CISs”, would have been much easier and more successful than reforming after each of the former Soviet republics gained independence, because independence made the very possibility of their new unification much lower. The independence and sovereignty will always be a stumbling block on the way of integration, because the state independence and sovereignty will always reproduce the conditions for destructive geopolitics on that part of the globe.
The CIS and all the “mini-CISs” have served the Eurasian idea of gathering land around and within Russia, but it is not enough to form a strong alliance of countries and peoples. All the associations in the post-Soviet space have tried and are trying to build an economic alliance, but such an alliance can’t be purely economic, without the inclusion of normative, value and civilian components. Moreover, paradoxically, even these pseudo-economic integrations were not genuinely economic, because they were not strictly justified by economic calculations that would have been submitted to the consideration of the local peoples.
Remember, even Uzbekistan’s entry in the Eurasian Economic Community in 2006 was motivated not so much by economic or regulatory reasons, but more by geopolitical security interests. It is well known that the decision on the accession was made in the context of the events in Andijan in May 2005, when the government of Uzbekistan suddenly concluded that the revolt was a provocation on the part of the United States and took a protective measure – entry into EurAsEC and the CSTO. But less than a year later, Uzbekistan left the Eurasian Economic Community, and in 2012, it left the CSTO. You can regard such actions of Uzbekistan as you like (it doesn’t matter now), but we cannot deny the fact that the EurAsEC subsequently collapsed, and Collective Security Treaty Organization is not a full-fledged military-political alliance, which cannot be built without a full integration community. Real integration cannot be elitist, it should be genuinely popular.
Migration – not integration
The foundations for such a post-Soviet community have not yet been formed. Some people began to see the mass labor migration from the CIS countries to Russia as a sign of the future union of countries and peoples. There have even been views, according to which this migration is interpreted as part of a global process of the new world migration. I do not share this view of the problem. Multi-million labor migration to Russia cannot be considered as a process of resettlement, so to speak, forever. It is evident that guest workers are planning to return to their homeland.
It is said that migrant workers acquire the features of a new identity, study the Russian language, have more sympathy for Russia, which has sheltered them and gave them jobs. Perhaps, this is true for some of the migrants. But the situation is more complex than it seems at first glance.
The phenomenon of labor migration in Russia cannot be considered as a factor of reintegration of the CIS countries for several reasons:
1) First, the phobia of migrants, which is growing among Russians with all the ensuing consequences, undermines the attractiveness of Russia.
2) Second, all post-Soviet (pseudo-) integration efforts were and are only elitist projects, and ordinary people were practically isolated from participation in these projects. Taking this into account, the factor of migrant workers, who were predominantly politically marginalized in their own countries, can change little in terms of promoting integration.
3) Third, living in harsh conditions in a foreign country, migrant workers are busy and concerned only with earning money, that’s why they have come to Russia; there is virtually no evidence of their inclusion in the Russian culture, art, literature, new way of life, so talking about the modification of their identity is groundless. Moreover, they are living in even less comfort there than at home, where they have family and loved ones.
4) Fourth, there is a prevalent negative attitude towards the phenomenon of labor migration in the home countries of migrants, in particular in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian republics, both at the official level and in society. Migration is seen as something undesirable but inevitable. Therefore, the creation and maintenance of jobs is obviously a strategic objective of the State, in order to not only to curb labor migration abroad, but also to implement the successful nation-building.
5) Fifth, no matter how contradictory this may sound, authoritarian regimes can benefit from migration, because it helps relieve a degree of social unrest; but this is a temporary benefit, because the “returnees” who gained some experience in other countries carry with them some liberal energy, besides money savings.
All these causes in various combinations cannot contribute to the reintegration of ex-Soviet republics and peoples. Among other things, this issue indicates that there are rather fewer preconditions for genuine integration, because any integration will not be fair and sustainable, if it is based on a model of asymmetrical relations between the parties.
The world multi-polarity and post-Soviet unipolarity and vice versa
Thus, all the attempts to unite independent states in the former Soviet territory are just an uncompleted geopolitical project. The internal crisis of the CIS and a “mini-CISs” is complemented by the crisis of the international system. There was not only a mismatch of the regulation of relations between the peoples and countries of the former Soviet Union, but also the entire disintegration of the world order, which after being bipolar, has not become multi-polar, as many people think. The world order has not acquired any certain status. By the way, we are again faced with a rather arbitrary use of terms and concepts here. Having not accurately defined and not fully comprehended the term “bipolar world order”, we started easily speak about the unipolar world, then about the multi-polar world. This is also a topic for another discussion.
Here, I would only briefly note that the world order is neither unipolar nor multi-polar. In my opinion, this is an improper simplified, schematic opinion. Obviously, the proponents of the term “multi-polar”, which is more pleasant to the ear, are using it not so much for strictly scientific reasons, but more for mere rejecting of the concept of unipolarity, which supports the mythical monopoly of one power in the world order.
Meanwhile, there is an interesting paradox in this discourse regarding the post-Soviet space, arising from the mechanical opposition of unipolarity and multi-polarity. Supporters of the idea of a multipolar world system are themselves often inclined to deny the geopolitical pluralism of the post-Soviet space, (objectively) giving the palm (leadership, hegemony, etc.) to Russia. Conversely, proponents of geopolitical pluralism of this geographical area often themselves assert the primacy (leadership, hegemony, etc.) of the US on the world stage. Thus, we are dealing with a paradox: the multipolar world order versus the unipolarity of Eurasia; or the unipolar world order versus the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia.
Geopolitical pluralism of the former Soviet Union, inevitable after 1991, came into conflict with the strategy of establishing a unipolar order in this part of the world. But this conflict is directly connected with the contradiction between the unipolarity and multi-polarity of the world order. Moreover, all of these “mini-CISs” have actually been and are the varieties of the post-Soviet unipolarity, serving as a response to the West, a defensive measure against the geopolitical advancement of the West – real or mythical. The above example of the one-year membership of Uzbekistan in EurAsEC was an eloquent proof of this thesis.
There is an interesting question: can the de facto geopolitically pluralized / polarized polity in the territory of the former Soviet Union gain any geopolitical integrity in the short or medium term? In my opinion, oddly enough, the lack or absence of basic ideas prevents it. The economic or rather pseudo-economic background does not count.
The idea of joint opposition to the advancement of Western countries/ NATO does not work, because not all the parties share it. Cooperation with NATO’s of post-Soviet states, which began in the framework of “Partnership for Peace” (PfP) program in 1994 and continues today, as well as the opening of NATO’s office in Tashkent in 2013, also eloquently speak about the non-hostile perceptions and attitudes toward the North-Atlantic Alliance by the CIS countries. These countries still do not share the Russian perception of the threat coming from NATO.
Another idea, which claims to be the motor of integration in the Commonwealth, is the Eurasian idea. Some people speak about the so-called “new Eurasianism“. This, of course, is the subject of a separate discussion. I note only that the neo-Eurasianism can no longer accept the ideological content of the “protection of small (weak) peoples” by Russia, as it was before. The new Eurasianism can have a chance to become a reality as a doctrine and a regional model only after recognizing that these small nations are already independent states, and that they can get protection not only from Russia. The issue of Eurasianism is not only and not so much an issue of protection and security of the countries located in this territory, but rather an issue of a modern arrangement of the territory itself. It is an issue of transport, communications, trade and cultural exchanges. This is a huge landlocked area that needs a new geopolitical arrangement. China’s presence in Eurasia, on one hand, and openness of the Eurasia to the West, on the other hand, makes the idea of Russia’s “overlay” of this zone vulnerable.
But if the Eurasianism is offered as a principle of creating a “common home”, as a principle of shared identity, i.e. as a principle of interstate integration, it must not be created on the geopolitical basis, it must be created on the regulatory substance. It will be recalled that, in fact, the creation of the Commonwealth, among other things, was designed to keep Ukraine in, which had refused to join the new union in the former Soviet Union, in another integration structure. Moreover, Ukraine even became a co-founder of the CIS. But what should the new Eurasian Union do without Ukraine (and possibly without Georgia, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and so on)? Of course, even if some kind of Eurasian union of states is created, Russia is destined to be the nucleus of this union, and to do it, Russia will probably have to revise some of its Eurasian principles and doctrines. Russia was once the originator of ideas that led to the creation of the Soviet Union; and Russia was the originator of ideas that destroyed the Soviet Union.
But such a unifying idea exists, when we look at Central Asia. This is the idea of the historical community of the peoples of the region. CACO is the only “mini-CIS”, which was not an artificial structure, and its closure was an artificial solution. The Central Asian integration structure was the longest-living structure at the former Soviet Union, and its progressive evolution from 1990 to 2005 was suddently interrupted, despite the absence of any serious structural and intra-political crisis. This, among other things, by the way, again points to the geopolitical background of the destruction of the CACO.
It is interesting to note the contrast: the geopolitical background of the construction of the CIS and various “mini-CISs”, on the one hand, and the geopolitical background of destruction of the CACO, on the other. That is why the idea of Central Asian integration can be revived (well, it did not disappear), and the CACO can be restored. Concerning the 1/6th of the land, where the uncompleted geopolitical project is still going on, the question of its institutional and ideological substance remains open.
Farkhod Tolipov, political scientist
The opinion of the author does not necessarily represent the views of CABAR