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Home / Politics / Not Central Eurasia, but Central Asia: Let’s Clari...

Not Central Eurasia, but Central Asia: Let’s Clarify the Terminological Confusion

It has passed more than half a century since the collapse of the USSR and its constituent republics’ attainment of independence. Ever since, discussions continue among scientists and the media on how to accurately and correctly call our region, which is known today in the world as Central Asia. It should be noted that these are not just idle speculations on the title; it is a matter of principle!

Expert discussions that lasted so long (it’s apparently time to come to a single view following 27 years) that they gave rise to such an eclectic of identities, perceptions, political stances, public opinions and academic approaches that we see the urgency and exigency of clarification on this matter.

First of all, I would like to underscore that what we are talking about is the structure, composition, integrity, significance and prospects of the Central Asian region. The pressing nature of this issue is also underpinned by the fact that currently the regionalization of the entire system of the world order is becoming increasingly stronger; there are regional clusters, associations, integration structures. Thus, the definition of one’s region is an identification issue faced by many states of the world. For some regions this problem is relatively easy to address (that is, the outlines of regionalism are quite distinct), whereas five nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – have experienced not an easy choice because of the specific characteristics of their geographical location and factors of historical development.

As you may know, during the Soviet era, these five republics used to be combined (!) in a somewhat awkward title “Middle Asia and Kazakhstan”. For some analysts, this fact serves as a basis for doubts about the initial unity of the region, as well as doubts about its integration prospects, as Kazakhstan is singled out in this name and as it stands alone. But very few people pay attention to the fact that this ‘strange’ title, in which the sense of the indivisibility of the region is hidden in a small union of “and”. Cartographers and those who then gave the name to the region could completely separate Kazakhstan from the other four republics and not link it to them by means of this letter (i.e., just 4 republics under Middle Asia). But they were not able to do this, which symbolizes quite obvious reality.

The situation was corrected after the collapse of the USSR, and the five republics in 1992 adopted the new unifying name “Central Asia”, which seems to leave no ground for speculations about the name and the unity of the region. It is noteworthy that this decision was taken at the proposal of the President of Kazakhstan (!) Nursultan Nazarbayev. By the way, the title was first voiced by the German geographer Alexander Humboldt far back in 1843.

Later, the term “Greater Central Asia” (GCA) emerged among experts. Its initiator was the famed American specialist on Central Asia, Professor S. Frederick Starr. Many people misunderstood that the term GCA implied the inclusion of Afghanistan in the region. It can be said that the concept was put forward not so much to rename the region and designate its wider geographic and integration structure, as it had a project and geopolitical meaning. Rather, it was supposed that it would be a forum for planning, coordinating and implementing a number of economic, commercial, infrastructure, humanitarian programs developed in the United States. The GCA is called on to become part of the American version of the New Silk Road, a kind of American version of the initiative launched in 2013 by the Chinese leader Xi Jinping referred to as “One Belt, One Road”.
In research circles, especially in the US universities, studies of Central Asia are being conducted within the framework of another concept of Inner Asia, which also includes the region of Altai and Mongolia together with the countries of Central Asia into a single research program. But I think, and this concept has more ethnographic, culturological, historical orientation, rather than serving as the basis for the name of a special single region.

Meanwhile, among all possible discussions about the name of the region, the option “Central Eurasia”, which causes the most substantive disputes and ambiguous associations, stands out. At first glance, Central Eurasia, as its supporters claim, does not distort the structure and composition of the region, but only corrects the name from the point of view of a purely geographical dimension. This concept was so seriously competing with “Central Asia” that as a result an interesting integration dichotomy emerged on the surface. Central Eurasia versus Central Asia.
Therefore, it is necessary to clarify this terminological confusion.

The emergence of the concept of Central Eurasia owes, inter alia, to the fact that the geographical center of Asia is outside the region, but from the point of view of the Eurasian approach, the center of Eurasia is located as if within the region called Central Asia. However, this approach is not convincing, since geographical names are almost always conditional and contain a moment of symbolism and free choice of states. Even the name “Eurasia” is just as conditional and symbolic.

From this point of view, Central Asia is located, so to speak, approximately in the Center of Asia, and this is enough for self-identification. There is no need, and even it would be absurd, with a ruler in hand to measure from the north to the south and from the west to the east along the meridians and latitudes the exact location of the center of Asia. It is enough that it was a free choice of the countries of the region themselves and that no one claims this title, nor disputes it.

The title “Central Eurasia” a priori means that Central Asia is an integral part of Eurasia. Is it so? In terms of accounting for geographical, i.e. spatial parameters, Eurasia also covers the area of Central Asia. But from this point of view, it can be argued that Eurasia encompasses China, Vietnam, and Japan in Asia, as well as France, Sweden, Greece, etc. in Europe. This is an exaggerated approach to the title, which is caused by a semantic and meaningless game in the mix of terms Europe and Asia. In this approach, the meaning of the unity and integrity of Eurasia itself is eroded, on the one hand, so is the geopolitical self-value of Central Asia, on the other.

It should be recalled that the conceptualization of Central Eurasia takes us to the domain of the Eurasian ideology that was born in the 1920s and was a heterogeneous philosophical trend. With all the diversity of the philosophical and political positions of Eurasianism, it, on the whole, is a Russian-centric (or Russo-centric) model of the political, social, economic and territorial development of the Eurasian continent. Eurasianism has undergone several stages of development – from Slavophilism to classical Eurasianism, to neo-modern Eurasianism (the latter is attributed to Nazarbayev and Putin).

The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdiayev (a contemporary of classical Eurasianists) offered a rather critical evaluation of this ideology: “Modern Eurasianism is hostile to any universalism, it represents a Eurasian cultural-historical type statically – closed. The Eurasianists want to remain nationalists, isolated from Europe and hostile to Europe.” But at the same time, Berdiayev himself did not go far from Eurasianism in his assertion that the mission of Russia is to be the protector of small nations.

The modern interpretation of Eurasianism not only does not eliminate its programmed inferiority, but also introduces new elements of obstructionism into the processes of transformation of the post-Soviet (Eurasian) space on the basis of liberal, democratic principles. This concept (and ideology) of Eurasianism still needs to be updated and adapted to the conditions of the present and to overcome the great-power asymmetry.

Finally, the name of the Central Asian region of Central Eurasia contains a geopolitical connotation. Whether Central, Western, Eastern, whatever it is, it remains structurally tied to the political space of Eurasia, by definition, with all the geopolitical consequences that follow from the Eurasian concept. And geopolitics is really present here. Let us recall Putin’s statement that the disintegration of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and his initiative to create a new integration structure – the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

Thus, the self-identification of the region as Central Eurasia ascribes to it a permanent geopolitical function. It is no coincidence that, since the first years of independence, all countries of the region are experiencing an obvious or not obvious geopolitical tension, which is often expressed in the popular cliché “New Great Game in Central Asia”. This notorious Great Game does not finally form the regional integration of the five Central Asian countries – integration, officially proclaimed back in December 1991.

Are the two integration models – Central Asian and Eurasian – compatible? This is a complex and fundamental issue. Those reasons and prerequisites for Central Asian integration, which exist as a primary substratum for the union of the five countries under consideration, are either absent or weakly expressed in the Eurasian space, if it is embedded in Central Asia. But this does not mean complete incompatibility of the two models. Rather, the Central Asian model should finally be realized as such before it is viewed in a larger, continually stretched, geopolitically overburdened and still more blurred structure.

Even with the compatibility of the two integrations, Central Asia cannot be called Central Eurasia for the sake of preserving its international actorness, not only within the framework of post-Soviet Eurasia, but in the world system. But the integration process in Central Asia is not easy. Two states of the region out of five – Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – joined the EAEU. What this means for the prospects of intraregional integration of Central Asian countries is still an open question. The new impetus that was given to region-wide affairs last year on the initiative of the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, testifies to the availability of a latent and explicit integration potential in the region, which constantly generates such unifying impulses. This hidden power in the region constantly returns its countries to a normal integration state when they deviate from it.

Thus, the ‘harmless’, at first sight, title of Central Asia is a question not only of its local (regional) identity, but also the question of its international (global) actorness. In this regard, I would like to note that the issue of such names as Turkestan or Turan is even more topical and relevant than the question of Central Eurasia. It is more in line with the post-Soviet (post-Eurasian) agenda for the countries of Central Asia. Concerning these variants of the title, interesting discussions are held among scientists, experts, journalists. I think they should be talked about separately. But at the moment, on the scales of history, identities and geopolitics, the concept of Central Eurasia is obviously outweighed by that of Central Asia.

Farhod Tolipov,

Director of the non-governmental scientific institution “Bilim karvoni” (Caravan of Knowledge)

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