What is Eurasia? An oxymoron, a conglomeration of civilizations, which are absolutely incompatible with one another? Or a field for cooperation, a unique political association? Is there a Eurasian community in general and what challenges does it face? These were the questions, which were discussed by participants in the first panel of the Russian-Kazakhstan expert forum of the Valdai Discussion Club, held in Astana on May 10-11 in cooperation with the Kazakhstan Council on Foreign Relations.
According to Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, the main issue was how much the Eurasian space can be integrated, and how the globalization process is refracted in this region. In an interview on the results of the first panel (which was open to the media), Bystritskiy accurately formulated the essence, the cause of the disputes that broke out between the panelists. Some of them, he said, believe that the civilizational differences are too deep and the current Eurasian cooperation is situational, while others are sure that a new narrative appears, enabling us to form a new entity, Eurasia.
So does this “essence” exist and how new is it? Georgy Toloraya, Executive Director of the National Committee for the Study of the BRICS, believes that there is no Eurasia in terms of a single space. It is an oxymoron, a conglomeration of civilizations, which are absolutely incompatible with one another.
Europe, Russia, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia are all examples of different civilizations that interact with each other not like liquids that mix in one vessel, but as gears of different power, of different sizes. Therefore, when we talk, for example, about negotiations between Europe and Eurasia, we mean the EU and different gears in the Eurasian space. And nothing else.
The expert recalled that the Soviet Eurasian project disintegrated as soon as the ideological base disappeared. The European Union emerged on the wave of unification against a common enemy – the USSR, and now the EU is trying to “resurrect” it – with Russia’s help. The countries of the Eurasian space do not have such motivation and common interests for formation of the Eurasian community.
However, not everything is hopeless. According to Toloraya (who called himself a pessimistic optimist), there is no Eurasia, but there is a Eurasian project, where two approaches dominate – the Russian and the Chinese ones. How to connect them? Toloraya believes that since China is becoming a strong player, Russia should fit into the Chinese project, as it has no chance to become the engine of the Eurasian integration.
Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics, “vindicated” Eurasia and Russia before the audience. He reminded Toloraya of how the American-European community was created. In the nineteenth century, the idea that the United States and Europe would represent a single cohesive community seemed incredible. Now, despite a number of problems, the existence of this community is undeniable. A parallel arises: the Eurasian space is already showing special rules, the Eurasian countries have a special quality of relations. An example is the unique nature of Russian-Chinese interaction. Russia and China are not engaged in the division of the Eurasian space, but on the contrary – they are trying to develop it jointly. The confluence of the EAEU and Belt and Road projects is a concrete example of new rules of the game and qualitatively new relations between the great powers with participation of medium and small powers. This already makes it possible to talk about the existence of a political community in the Eurasian space.
Appealing to Toloraya’s speech, Dmitry Suslov also said that Russia does not need to “fit in with the Chinese project.” Russia does not need to fit anywhere at all – Eurasia allows us not to do this, because it is a joint venture, which is a colossal advantage.
The Kazakh panelists did not question the existence of the Eurasian community. But they wondered to what extent Kazakhstan should be committed to this project in a rapidly changing “new normal.” Iskander Alykbayev, executive director of the Kazakhstan Council on Foreign Relations, talked about the problems of integration. He noted that Kazakhstan is still trying to answer the question of what kind of community it belongs to – Central European or Eurasian? Undoubtedly, the Eurasian aspect is more attractive and promising.
According to Alykbayev, the main challenge for Eurasia is “being in ourselves” – the external threats are less significant. Eurasian countries need to develop culture, economy, joint projects. Moreover, we need to keep the course for rapprochement, and it is important to interact at the “people to people” level.
Askar Nursha, a political scientist and expert on foreign policy and security, noted that after “the world came into motion,” it became unclear how to position oneself in it. On the one hand, there is a sense of stability, but on the other – in recent years – Russia became a force transforming the space around itself (Ukraine, Syria). The question is how possible changes will affect Kazakhstan and how to adapt to the new rules of the game. “I would like to see,” Nursha said, “that the existing island of stability should be preserved in the next 10-20 years.”
“The main thing,” joked back Andrey Bystritsky, “is that this island should be flying like Laputa in Jonathan Swift’s The Adventures of Gulliver.” In continuation of the literary duel, Askar Nursha remembered the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (from the essay “How should we rebuild Russia?”), that for Russia only an alliance with Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan is really important. This, as Nursha noted, is the “last line of defenses.” To avoid geopolitical problems, Russia must take care of the smaller nations that surround it. However, the economic factor is also important. “We are raw material economies,” Nursha noted. “And if we do not develop the real economy, then we will not have anything to integrate. The project must give something.” According to the expert, for the successful development of the Eurasian project, it is first of all necessary to work on real economies, and not to introduce a common currency in a hurry.
At the very beginning of the panel discussion, Georgy Toloraya (pessimistically optimistic) noted that Eurasianism is not an acquired, but a constructed narrative. An artificial entity. Responding to this remark, Alexey Kupriyanov, a researcher at the sector of international organizations and global political regulation of the Department of International and Political Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ IMEMO Institute, objected that Eurasia, is, albeit constructed, “not such a bad narrative.” Gradually, the field for competition becomes a field for cooperation. Now Eurasia is undergoing a process of transformation, and this is a positive development. Many facts speak about this. For example, the forecasts of the collapse of economies, including Russia and India, did not materialize, and the security sphere is developing, which encourages Eurasian countries to interact with one another, there are strong leaders (Xi in China, Modi in India, Putin in Russia), the very existence of them presumes the peaceful, stable development of countries, and hence – for Eurasia as a whole.
The experts did not come to a consensus, but most importantly, the Russian and Kazakh sides heard each other’s opinions. Opening the forum, Yerlan Karin, chairman of the Kazakhstan Council on Foreign Relations, said that although “we are neighbors and doomed to an eternal partnership,” nevertheless, many processes require dialogue.
On May 10, within the framework of the expert forum, three more sessions were held according to Chatham House rules, which means that no names of discussion participants will be disclosed. The final (and also closed-door) session of the forum will be held on May 11. Panelists will discuss new contours of cooperation in Central Asia. More information about topics and participants you can learn from the Programme on valdaiclub.com or wait for our detailed analytical report.