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cabar.asia: NARBK-geopolitics in Central Asia

“The concept of the Great Silk Road is the intersection of Central Asian geopolitics with the interests of the major powers. Central Asia will become a subject of world geopolitics, when the countries will collectively defend the interests of the region”, says a political analyst from Tashkent Farkhad Tolipov (Tashkent, Uzbekistan).

Manifestation of geopolitics for people

tolipov1Since the countries of Central Asia gained independence, the foreign policy rhetoric of politicians and experts in these countries has always been full of geopolitical colors. Any foreign policy rhetoric often turned into a geopolitical rhetoric. People accustomed to Soviet speeches and slogans suddenly began to hear the post-Soviet speeches and slogans that sounded unfamiliar to them.

When former Russian President Boris Yeltsin suddenly announced on December 8, 1991, that the Soviet Union no longer existed “as a subject of international law and as a geopolitical reality”, the latter phrase, first, discovered that the Soviet Union was still a geopolitical reality, despite that geopolitics wore the label of pseudo-science in this country; second, it introduced a new and vague term in the political and public lexicon. Obviously, Yeltsin himself did not fully understand the meaning of the word “geopolitics”, which he used in his statement. Subsequently, his successor, Vladimir Putin said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and initiated the creation of the Eurasian Union, also attributing to it an explicit geopolitical function.

Both statements were addressed not to the expert community, but to the people who could not comprehend them, as they contained vague and abstract concepts. Thus, the question arises – to what extent, the pieces of the former Soviet Union – the new independent states – could be a geopolitical reality, and whether they share the opinion on the geopolitical disaster.

We have made little headway in understanding the phenomenon of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new geopolitical laws that appeared after the collapse, but already a lot of terms are used in the political lexicon of political science, which are easy to pronounce, but not always easy to understand. Such terms include, for example, global geopolitics, national interest and importance of Central Asia for the international system. But how do we understand these terms? If we speak the language of geopolitics, we must use the whole arsenal of relevant terminology. After all, a surgeon during the operation will not ask for a penknife, he will ask to give him a scalpel. Similarly, we should use our professional language.

Even a slight rearrangement of words in some expressions, denoting topics of conferences, reports, theses, etc., can already significantly change the very problem of the analysis. For example, we can often hear “Central Asia in the global geopolitics”. If we paraphrase this phrase into “Global geopolitics in Central Asia”, we get a different problem. In the latter case, which I am going to consider, I point not so much to how the CA states, so to speak, came into the world geopolitics, but to how the global geopolitics came to Central Asia.

Global geopolitics, or more precisely, its main subjects, with their old and new rules of the game, involved the states in Central Asia into a complex system of world politics. These rules have become an existential challenge for the Central Asian states.

Rules of the geopolitical games

So, what is the content of the geopolitical games in Central Asia, if they are really games, or of the geopolitical struggle, if it is a real struggle? There are, as you know, four conditional scenarios of geopolitical rivalry: a zero-sum, win-win, lose-lose and play with varying degrees of success of each of the players (flux). These scenarios are mutually passing and depend on the goals and interests of the participants. And there are, too, various verbal traps: one can strive for dominance in the region; one can look for a way to gain access to the territory; one tries to achieve the division of spheres of influence in the disputed territory. Domination, access and influence are obviously different modalities of this game that require their determinants and evaluation criteria. But very often, these concepts are used so arbitrary that even ordinary people, who are not experts in this field of research, easily pronounce them.

Further, as a result of the implementation of a script or of a particular modality of the game, the field of competition gets some geopolitical status. For example, it can be: a cordon sanitaire, a buffer zone, a springboard, a transit corridor. What status can we assign to CA? And what status can non-regional powers assign to CA?

Back in 2005, President Islam Karimov stated that there was a situation of strategic uncertainty in Central Asia, when it was difficult to assess the real aims of the great powers in the region. Indeed, the ‘global geopolitics’ is a heterogeneous phenomenon. It consists of geopolitics in the Russian way, American geopolitics, the geopolitics of Europeans, Chinese geopolitics, etc. Today we can even talk about “NARBK geopolitics” – according to the names of the leaders of the Central Asian-countries: Kazakhstan (Nazarbayev), Kyrgyzstan (Atambayev), Tajikistan (Rahmon), Turkmenistan (Berdymukhamedov) and Uzbekistan (Karimov), which is not geopolitics in the classical sense of the term. Geopolitics today cannot be reduced linearly to a confrontation of thalassocracy and tellurocracy, as alleged in the classical geopolitical theory of the 19th-20th centuries. (Thalassocracy – global maritime power, which was Great Britain in the 19th century and the United States – in the twentieth century; Tellurocracy – continental, land power, which was Russia, then the Soviet Union.)

Because of the complexity and unpredictability of the processes occurring in the system of world politics, many post-modernists and constructivists have repeated a thesis: “Geopolitics is what we make of it”, i.e. Geopolitics is what we see or imagine in it. In other words, reducing objective reality to subjective notions of it (the discourse reminiscent of the eternal philosophical question about whether being determines consciousness, or vice versa), this school of thought actually allows any situations, solutions, scripts, etc. and thus relieves itself of the responsibility for more making more accurate, not arbitrary “findings”.

I cannot agree with all justifying perceptionalism, when someone’s policy (geopolitics) is explained on the basis of the ideas, values ​​and identity of the subject of the policy (geopolitics), ignoring its material and objective determinants. There are objective and verifiable facts of reality – both geographical and political – that not only limit the choice of the subject of politics, but also determine its modus operandi. Even, for example, the constant references to the lack of access to the world sea routes in Central Asia indicate, among other things, the recognition of the material and objective fact, defining certain geopolitical patterns. (See more information below). This obvious fact cannot be denied by any school of political analysis.

Subjects of world geopolitics

So, global geopolitics came to the region in multicolored appearance. Some of the new geopolitical trends have gained institutionalized contours: the American concept of “C5 + 1”, European “EU + CA”, Japanese “Japan + Central Asia”, Indian “India + Central Asia”. In Russia and China, there are no such institutionalized contours in which Central Asia would act as an independent regional cluster. By the way, the example of the region clearly manifests the specific features of the global geopolitics of each world power. Let’s have a brief overview.

Thus, the American geopolitics is based on the concept of US global leadership, built on the ideas of global democratic missionary. This statement can be interpreted in two ways: as a geopolitically motivated US desire for world domination, hegemony, and as their regulatory motivated desire for real leadership in the world.

Russian geopolitics is based on the idea of ​​ the Eurasian self-sufficiency of Russia. In essence, the Eurasian concept has served and keeps serving the dual objective of Russian statehood, namely, providing protection to small nations that were part of the Russian Federation, as well as the creation of a buffer zone around its territory by creating satellite republics included in the USSR. With the collapse of the former Soviet superpower, Russian geopolitics is faced with a challenge, whether it is possible to continue this dual existential objective. There was disagreement between the geographical modus vivendi of Russia and its geopolitical modus operandi.

Many people associate Chinese geopolitics in Central Asia today with the strategy of “economic zone of the Silk Road” declared by the current Chinese leadership. In order to assess the geopolitical background of this strategy, however, it should be considered in the framework of the status and scenarios that have been outlined above. This requires a separate analysis; I will only briefly note that China’s geopolitics manages to solve the aforementioned problem, which the Russian geopolitics cannot yet fully solve.

European geopolitics is based on a regulatory asset which has prevailed in Europe in comparison with other world “Leviathans”. Therefore, introduction of this asset, which is not essentially seen as a geopolitical resource, can actually bring a new dimension to the global geopolitical processes.

Japanese Geopolitics, as well as European, turns to the soft power, that is, to the regulatory asset. In modern Japanese geopolitical rhetoric, the Central Asian region is conceived as a “buffer zone to keep peace” due to the fact that it is surrounded by Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan. An intra-regional union of the countries is essential here, the promotion of which is part of the new geopolitics of Japan.

Indian geopolitics seems to be more intricate. As a growing regional power, the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, the largest democracy in the world, and, finally, as a country, burdened with complex historical neighborhood, India is vitally interested in the Central Asian countries as allies. This interest is obviously mutual.

The whole of the twentieth century took place in an atmosphere of international opposition between the US and the Soviet Union, and it (the confrontation) was, on the one hand, geopolitical, and on the other – ideological, i.e it was normative. It was a global dispute about the value and the best way of development of the countries and nations. This dispute, as we see today, was not completed by the fact of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It continues in particular with regard to our region. It is symptomatic that the current presidential candidate, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated a few years ago that the United States would not allow the Eurasian Union to revive, as it would resemble the Soviet Union.
So the contemporary world geopolitics has its constants and variables, with which it came to Central Asia, whose countries, in their desire to assert their independent statehood, suddenly faced with ambiguous geopolitical perspectives.


Here we come to the question of the relationship between the interests of non-regional powers and the countries of the region themselves. When people talk about the situation in Central Asia, most often they mean the interests of the major powers, the intersection, the collision of these interests. And the countries of the region are assigned the role of followers, destined only to join a world leader. The interests of the countries in the region are evaluated less often, if at all.

Moreover, the leaders of the Central Asian countries always correctly argue that they pursue their policies on the basis of national interests, but they almost never indicate what interests. I call it “the burden of national interests”: leaders do not know what it is, but they must express it. As a result, we often see an eclectic framework of foreign policy behavior of the countries concerned, instead of a coherent strategy, which should be dictated by the doctrine of national interest.

Indeed, the geopolitics of “NARBK” (Nazarbayev, Atambayev, Rakhmon, Berdymukhamedov, Karimov) on the one hand, has become a derivative of, so to speak, world geopolitics, which has taught them a little the intricacies of maneuvering between the world powers, and on the other hand, as a side effect of such practices, it has become a game exercise in relation to each other intra-regionally.

For example, one such exercise was the return of the expression “Great Silk Road” (GSR) into the political lexicon. Almost all of the five newly independent Central Asian states have accepted this concept, emphasizing each its importance as a country on the Silk Road. Appealing to the GSR to raise the newly acquired geopolitical status has become almost a part of their national ideologies.

In Central Asia, the leaders have become too much carried away by, so to speak, “bridge”, “Road”, “corridor” or “crossroad” rhetoric. Heritage and the revived memory of the Silk Road have possibly caused the self-representation (self-perception) on the international arena as a bridge linking the major geographic areas of the world, or intersection, through which important international communication arteries pass.

In general, NARBK-geopolitics is essentially an attempt of each Central Asian country, or rather its leadership, to geo-politicize themselves in the eyes of each other, rather than in the eyes of world powers.

Is Central Asia in the center of global geopolitics?

What determines the value of CA for the international system? What prevails in the determination of this value – the availability of natural resources, especially energy resources, or a particular geographical location? However, there is also another side of the coin: when experts mention that it is a locked geographical area on the continent, surrounded by land, the right response to such a statement could be expressed like this: so what?

Today this objective geographical fact cannot be considered as a big disadvantage or hindrance to overcome the situation of ‘land-locked country’. Anyway, the global geopolitics reached Central Asia, and Central Asia reached the global geopolitics. Why, for example, is the concept of the Great Silk Road in its various incarnations so much discussed? Hence, the isolation on the land is not a geopolitical sentence, which, so to say, not subject to appeal. Virtually all trade in Central Asian countries is conducted by rail, road and air routes, so the fact that Central Asian is land locked is a geopolitical myth.

The question of whether Central Asia is in the “center” of global geopolitics also indicates to that myth. In order not to speculate on the term “center”, I can say that Central Asia is in the midst of global geopolitics. Almost all the most important events taking place today in the world have a direct or indirect impact on CA.

When 9/11 happened, CA was virtually a front-line area in connection with the operation in Afghanistan. When the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan via the northern route took place, CA was also an important artery. When the SCO was created, nobody doubted that this organization was also focused on Central Asia. There even appeared the term “Russian-Chinese condominium in Central Asia”. When the situation in the Middle East had worsened in connection with the emergence of the ISIS, CA again became an object of attention of the USA and Russia.

Thus, both in peacetime and in times of global turbulence, Central Asia remains a major component of the process of formation of a new world order. But so far, it remains an object of global geopolitics. There remains the question of geopolitical subjectivity of Central Asia in the new world order, which, in my opinion, can only be achieved in the form of the collective performance of the countries in the region on the world stage.

Farkhod Tolipov, political scientist

The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of CABAR