The social development and socio-cultural problems that Russia and Kazakhstan are facing today are similar in many ways. The first such challenge is building a political nation. During the Soviet period, the construct of “the Soviet people” was used to represent the political nation, while all other ethno-political communities were viewed with great suspicion. Any attempts by the national republics of the former Soviet Union to transform their titular nations (an ethnic phenomenon) into political nations led to accusations of nationalism and separatism.
As a result, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, political entities emerged that were in dire need of self-determination and whose people had limited awareness of their kinship and community. After all, most of the new post-Soviet states, including the Russian Federation, had never existed within these borders and with this population. That is why attempts to rely on traditional historical contexts that serve to legitimize a nation have had limited success. For example, in Russia, reliance on Orthodoxy is rather disconcerting to traditional Islamic regions, while the conception of Moscow as the Third Rome, which once served as the foundation for the Russian political nation, is rejected and opposed by the countries of the “first Rome” and “second Rome.” Similarly, relying on the traditions of the empire of Genghis Khan, Amir Timur, the Karakhanids, or the Kazakh Khanate creates difficulties in including some of the local communities of Kazakhstan in an imagined community and causes ideological tensions with regional neighbors who also claim this legacy.
Using Soviet experience and Soviet symbolism, including its ethnic aspects, does not so much solve the problem as temporarily pushes it aside. The number of people for whom these symbols are endowed with sacred meaning continues to wane. The cutoff threshold is now 50 years. For people younger than that, i.e. for the majority of the working-age population, the Soviet legacy is becoming less and less meaningful, boiling down to a set of empty rituals, or is imbued with random, often unexpectedly negative meaning.
The Soviet system, after all, legitimized a now non-existent entity – the Soviet people. Joining the “civilized community” of states, a concept that inspired the first post-Soviet generation, had equally limited success. A detailed analysis of such problems exceeds the scope of this brief account. But, on the whole, it is quite clear that the Wallerstein model with its categories of core, semi-periphery, and periphery is turning into a thing of the past before our eyes. New “workshops of the world” and new “global consumption centers” are emerging. Developing a political identity and “political agency” is only possible through finding one's place in this rapidly changing global landscape.
Until very recently, the question of Russia’s or Kazakhstan’s place in the world was viewed as a problem of selecting the project they should integrate into. Even the “turn to the East” declared by Russia was discussed in the expert community in terms of whether Russia should join the “Chinese project.” Probably, there was no other way in a world comprised of stable entities. But the modern world is plastic and unstable. This creates a unique opportunity to formulate one’s own project for a common future, rather than try to fit into someone else’s project, where the country's place would obviously be on the periphery.
One of the less obvious recent changes in Eurasia’s development – not as a geographical abstraction, but as a real economic and political phenomenon – was the emergence of a continental (land-based) economy, which is slowly but surely displacing the “maritime” economy that had prevailed for more than three centuries. Although not yet a global fact of life, this trend is already in evidence. The idea of the Belt and Road initiative is more or less associated with this trend. After centuries of dominance by the European (maritime) civilization and economy, it naturally began to be perceived as normal, and almost the only possible model. Accordingly, continental powers were perceived as basically flawed, disadvantaged by definition. The formation of a continental economy and a Eurasian economic and political space (not only the Belt and Road, but also the Asia for Asia concept) represents a dramatic change.
For thousands of years, the continental economic structure was governed not by production centers (“workshops of the world”), but by a giant belt of steppe stretching from Hungary to the Amur region and Manchuria. All economic chains converged on that belt, and caravan routes connecting China and Asia Minor, Iran and the Baikal region, India and Syria, passed through it.
Within this framework, Russia and the Great Steppe of Kazakhstan emerge as the site of the “assembly” of the new world. The economic heart of the new world definitely beats in China and India. But the veins through which the blood flows are located in the steppe belt. With the investment of some political, cultural and organizational efforts, its brain center will also develop in the Great Steppe region uniting Asia and Europe. This future – Eurasia’s – will become a new and powerful foundation for building a political nation both in Russia and in Kazakhstan that is supported by the past (the Soviet period and before) but looking toward the future.