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On Geopolitical Developments In Eurasia

Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Kazakhstan are going through crises, restructuring the regional geopolitics. In an article published in The Indian Express daily on January 11, 2022, the visiting Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies of National University of Singapore, Chilamkuri Raja Mohan, explained this reshaping of regional geopolitics.

The sudden violent protests in Kazakhstan and the crackdown that followed in the first week of January 2022 claimed more than 160 lives, while 6,000 people were detained. It seems that these were part of a larger crisis that has already engulfed Eurasia, from Central Europe to Manchuria. Although each of the current crisis in Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Kazakhstan have respective specific logics and trajectories, they are reshaping the geopolitics of Eurasia. According to Raja Mohan, Russia is at the very centre of this process mainly because of its geographic spread across the region. The recent Russian military intervention in Kazakhstan, and consequent talks with the US on European security have highlighted the issue of Russian centrality. The author has identified five broad aspects of the rearrangement of Eurasia: The bumpy internal political evolution of Eurasian states, the weaknesses of economic globalisation, the limitations of regional institutions, the constraints on powers to shape the post-Russian space, and Russia’s shifting great power relations.

Eurasia

Firstly, the settlement of the former Communist nations into a stable and sustainable political path has recently been tested. Experts consider the fall of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1991 as the failure of the grand project for the Socialist Modernisation of the Eurasian countries. At the same time, the event had encouraged countries in the region to opt for new political models. Especially in Central Europe and the Baltic region, the transition to Liberal Democracy had taken place at a fast pace, while many of the former Soviet Republics “drifted into rule by strong men”. In recent times, these two models have come under some stress. Furthermore, “Democratic Backsliding” in Hungary and Poland has triggered a sensation in the West, with the governments in Budapest and Warsaw challenging the presumed norms of the European Union (EU).

In Kazakhstan, the ongoing anti-Government protests are basically against the autocratic rule of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who served as President from April 24, 1990 to March 20, 2019. In spite of stepping down formally in 2019, he has retained the control as the Chairman of the Security Council of Kazakhstan, until his resignation in January 2022. Similarly, mass protests challenged President Alexander Lukashenko in 2021 in neighbouring Belarus. President Lukashenko, too, has ruled the country since 1994, and has survived with support from Moscow. It, seemingly, was quite a great mistake for the Western countries to promote Democracy in former Soviet states. At the same time, the triumphant return of the Taliban in Afghanistan has revived the Islamist agenda of the transformation of Central Asia. With this, Religion has started influencing the European Politics, as Islam is challenging the political influence of Orthodox Christianity in Russia and of the Roman Catholic Church in Central Europe.

Secondly, the majority of the Central Asian countries welcomed Economic Globalisation, but have failed to tackle massive economic inequality. Despite its large natural resources and a small population of 19 million, Kazakhstan has failed to ensure an equitable society. Former President Nazarbayev stepped down, but the Autocratic System, established by him, is still there. Hence, Kazakhstan has become a breeding ground for corruption.

Thirdly, the regional institutions, too, have failed to bring stability in former Soviet Republics. Even two decades after their decision to join the EU, regional institutions in the eastern part of Europe are performing in a poor manner. They had whole-heartedly embraced the EU, but did not follow the EU rules regarding many issues, such as the Rule of Law, migration, refugees, energy, and geopolitics. The western half of Europe is still dominating the EU policy-making process. While the Western European leaders are talking about European “strategic autonomy”, their Eastern and Central European counterparts are seeking greater autonomy from Brussels.

For the former Soviet Republics, it has become increasingly difficult to develop credible regional institutions. It is a fact that the Kremlin has launched the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in order to influence the geopolitics of Eurasia; however, neither the EEU nor the CSTO has emerged as a credible institution. Russia has also joined China in setting up the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), but failed to stabilise Central Asia. Many former Soviet Republics respect their newfound sovereignty. Unfortunately, they are not ready to hand it back to Russia mainly because of Multi-vector Diplomacy, as described by Nazarbayev. This sort of diplomacy is aimed at engaging all major powers to strengthen their strategic autonomy. Raja Mohan believes that geography, history, and institutional inertia still bind them to Russia, as when the crisis rocked Kazakhstan, Almaty sought help from Moscow, in spite of the ensuing conflict in regard to dependence on Russia for security purposes and the political aspiration for autonomy.

Fourthly, the EU and China have emerged as the two Great Powers since the fall of the Soviet Union, but have failed to shape the political and security dynamic in Eurasia. These two economic powers have not been able to resolve crises in their respective neighbourhoods… Europe in Ukraine, and China in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. As far as the Ukraine crisis is concerned, Russia prefers to negotiate with the US, and not with the EU. Although Kazakhstan depends on China for its economic development, Russia considers itself as the main security provider of the Central Asian country. Other powers, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India, South Korea, and Japan, are also eager to develop some influence in Central Asia. Incidentally, all of them have failed to overcome their multiple limitations, allowing Russia to reinforce its natural primacy in Eurasia.

China’s proposed Belt & Road Initiative

Finally, even Moscow’s growing political and economic proximity with Beijing cannot compensate for the rapid deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West in recent times. Recent talks between Russia and the West on European security tried to find a common ground. However, the ongoing Eurasian turmoil has changed the scenario, with the West planning to challenge Moscow’s efforts to reclaim regional primacy. The Western nations forget that they are not in a position to secure Russia’s Eurasian periphery against the Kremlin. “Cutting Russia some political slack in Eurasia might help the West to stabilise Europe and focus on multiple other challenges, including those from an increasingly assertive China,” said Raja Mohan.

One should also realise the fact that although Russia is still the weightiest actor in Eurasia, it would not be possible for Moscow to reconstitute the former Soviet space, unilaterally. To strengthen European security, Russia would have to accept Ukraine’s Independence and Neutrality, and to de-escalate the military confrontation in the heart of Europe through arms control, apart from developing a cooperative agenda on global security. These moves could significantly improve Russia’s chances of leading a new geopolitical order in Eurasia.

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