Russian Asiacentrism has a future filled with meaning and real projects. For their successful implementation, it is important to understand and accept the principle of superposition in relation to Russia as a state-civilisation, which, however, does not detract from the merits of the Eurasian concept, writes Kubatbek Rakhimov, Executive Director of the Applicata – Center for Strategic Solutions Public Foundation, for the 13th Asian conference of the Valdai Discussion Club.
One of the most popular topics of both political and media discourse in recent years has been Russia’s turn to the East and the analysis of the historical and cultural ties between Russia and Asia. They became especially relevant after February 2022 amid the increasingly tense situation in Europe, when Asian countries have begun to look like the most stable and promising partners, both from a political and an economic point of view. The transformation of the international security architecture, in turn, has influenced the building of new economic and investment ties, trade chains and, accordingly, changed the logistics systems, which are now even more focused on the Asian region.
This idea is confirmed by the sharp increase in trade turnover between Russia and the Asian states this year. One can also observe the intensification of contacts between the Russian Federation and Asian countries. However, it should be noted that the basis for them has been formed over the past ten years.
Asia is also attractive to Russia due to the growth of international activity in this region, as evidenced by the creation of new regional projects and initiatives related to Asian countries, as well as the strengthening of new organisations whose members are mainly Asian states. BRICS, the SCO, and the EAEU, of course, have stepped up their activities this year, and South Asian or Central Asian countries have played an important role in all these associations. Properly, the Asian states today contribute to the interaction of various international organisations and prefer to resolve political processes through dialogue, rather than sanctions pressure.
Strengthening cooperation with Asia causes significant changes in the definition of Russia’s identity, where, by the way, the question of self-determination on the topic “Europe or Asia?” has been on the agenda since the time of Peter the Great, when Russia began to assert itself as a European state. At the same time, there is a paradox: most of the territory of Russia was already located in Asia, which gave rise to discussions between Westerners and Slavophiles about the positioning of the country.
In the early twentieth century, these disputes were continued in connection with the emergence of the concept of Eurasianism. This concept can be called, perhaps, one of the most specific civilisations, but right now it demonstrates an undeniable set of advantages for modern Russia. The fact is that Eurasianism within the framework of the Russian identification discourse can be viewed as a certain degree of equivalence for Russia of two parts of the world – Europe and Asia.
As an example confirming this thesis, one can cite the Golden Horde period, when Asia, in the truest sense of the word, influenced the development of Russia for several centuries. Nevertheless, Russia retained its focus on Europe, as evidenced by the formula of national-cultural self-determination that arose in the early 1830s: “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” One can understand why Russia did not proclaim itself as a bearer of Asian culture, and here it was not only a matter of positioning the West as the centre of education. Despite the fact that the Russian Empire included such Asian spaces as the Urals, Siberia and the Far East, in terms of culture and customs they differed from the same states that we today call Central Asian. This is noticeable even in the essays of historians, scientists and creative figures, who much more often classified Central Asia, which became part of the empire, as the East – for example, it was then that one could observe another surge of interest in Orientalism in the field of Russian art.
A similar opinion was expressed by Pyotr Savitsky, who wrote in his 1922 article “Steppe and Settlement” that Russia continues the heritage of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, being “the unifier of Asia.” Russia, by the way, plays the role of a mediator in the Central Asian region and today, for example, Moscow has become the venue for a meeting on the border situation with the heads of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
However, not only has Russia throughout its history paid close attention to the issue of identity. The history of the formation of any state includes the process of defining itself as the bearer of a certain civilisation and the subsequent development of its inherent ideologies. Asian states are no exception in this case. For example, Turkey considers itself “Avrasya”, a state linking Europe and Asia, due to its geographical position. The Primakov Readings, held in early December of this year, demonstrated the role of modern Turkey as a civilisational country that occupies a special place in geopolitics.
At the sessions of the Primakov Readings the following noticeable phenomenon was noted – the intensification of the foreign policy of the Republic of Turkey. Ankara did not remain indifferent to the transformation of the world order and made a bet on a multi-vector course in order to increase its “global status”, trying to combine ties with traditional partners and allies and developing new areas of cooperation. As a member of NATO, Turkey was the only country in the alliance that did not join the anti-Russian sanctions, since Russia is an important partner for the country. Ankara continues to “deepen its multifaceted cooperation with Moscow.”
If we talk about India, it maintains the image of an independent state in every sense, including diplomacy, economy and social development. It is a culturally distinctive country, which also pays great attention to building up defence capacities and scientific potential. As Alexei Kupriyanov noted, the basis of India’s national interests is the well-being of Indian citizens, national image and influence.
At the same time, India does not abandon the past associated with British colonisation, and shows that it was able to remain an Asian country and use the Western heritage in its own interests. With other states, including Russia, India builds relations on the principle of complementary interests, or, at worst, the search for a compromise when the interests of the other side do not contradict the Indian ones.
Let’s consider the self-identification of Iran, which is increasingly asserting itself as a West Asian state that manages to successfully cope with sanctions pressure. In particular, Iran stated this at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Samarkand, in September this year. Iran joined the SCO not so long ago; today it plans to introduce free trade with the Eurasian Economic Union, where it singles out Russia and, in addition to the lines of integration associations, it develops a special bilateral cooperation with the Russian Federation.
Iran’s actions always attract the attention of the international community, given its special position – Tehran’s loyalty to any of the great powers clearly affects the balance of power in the world. The development of relations with Russia, for example, provides both the Russian Federation and the Central Asian states with a short and inexpensive transport route within the North-South corridor, which can also be used to transfer energy resources from Russia abroad, both through the swap system and directly through a pipeline. The loyalty of Iran is also influenced by the awareness of commonality with Russia under Western pressure, because both states face and overcome international sanctions.
China, meanwhile, decided on its identity a long time ago – it is a great Asian power. Speaking specifically about Russian-Chinese relations, Beijing perceives Russia as a close country, with which it is united by common views on key international issues and similar opinions on the necessary changes regarding international politics and the world economy. The following fact testifies to these shared views: over the past six months, not a single example of disagreement between the two countries on significant political issues can be named.
That is why political scientists note the diplomatic activity in relations between Russia and China, as well as the high level of development of the dialogue between the two states. It is important that the reason for the deepening of interaction between Beijing and Moscow was not the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The events in Ukraine only stimulated certain processes in the political, trade and economic relations between Russia and China. According to a number of analysts, the official position of Moscow and Beijing is that their tandem ensures stability in the international arena. Moreover, the interests of both states coincide in many “strategic important sectors of the economy.”
Similarities in views on the international agenda, cultural ties, a common historical past and linguistic space – all these factors ensure a more successful integration of states within the framework of regional trade and economic associations, as well as international institutions. All of the above examples explain what the effective activation of Russia’s relations with Asian countries is grounded in.
Enough has already been said about all of the aforementioned spheres, with the exception of “our own Asia”, which is developing very quickly and dynamically. For the past two centuries, the Asian part of Russia has been larger than its European counterpart, but right now we are witnessing the strengthening of the role of the Asian space of Russia in the context of the reorientation of trade and logistics flows between the Russian Federation and China, as well as the Asia-Pacific countries. For example: the economic power of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Sakha-Yakutia is quite comparable to the GDP of several nations. The activity of other eastern regions is also growing today as they are betting on the development of trade and humanitarian ties, primarily with Central Asia.
Returning to the topic of Central Asia, we should not forget about migration flows. According to a research of the Higher School of Economics, by 2030-2035, every tenth resident of Russia will either come from a Central Asian state or have some Central Asian ancestry (by the way, the second generation of migrants, judging by sociological data, adapts much faster to life in Russia – children of foreign workers born in Russia can already be considered active Russian citizens who fit into the socio-cultural context of the Russian Federation).
The Eurasian Development Bank is also becoming more and more Asian. At the moment, the EDB is discussing the possibility of Uzbekistan joining its ranks, and after the republic joins the bank, its “Asian” part will become dominant: there are now three Central Asian countries among the members of the EDB – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – as well as “European” Armenia and Belarus and Eurasian Russia investing heavily in Central Asia. It is no coincidence that economists testify that the level of economic interaction between Russia and the Central Asian countries is currently at a historical maximum since the collapse of the USSR.
The Valdai Discussion Club attaches particular importance to the Central Asian region and hosts a Central Asian Conference every year. At the last such conference, in May, the following point was clearly stated: “In relations between Russia and the countries of Central Asia, the security of each member is an integral part of the security of the rest.”
That is, a radical change in the entire landscape of the region creates challenges and threats that can enter into “dangerous interaction with the existing prerequisites for internal destabilisation and undermining the political and socio-economic systems that have developed over thirty years.” The dangers include the threats of terrorism, and challenges to biological security, and the consequences of economic instability on a global scale. However, Russia and the countries of Central Asia have mechanisms to repel these threats; they have been worked out both at the bilateral level and via the SCO and CSTO.
Therefore, we can conclude that the Russian Asiacentrism has a future filled with meaning and real projects. For their successful implementation, it is important to understand and accept the principle of superposition in relation to Russia as a state-civilisation, which, however, does not detract from the merits of the Eurasian concept. Russia can position itself as both a great European power and a great Asian power. Therefore, the Asiacentrism of the current stage of development, clearly and unambiguously was designated at the Annual meeting of the Valdai Club in October 2022 as “A World Without Superpowers”.
It organically fits into the rethinking of the current identity of Russia and, accordingly, leaves an imprint on the actions of the country and its allies at the continental level of all of Eurasia.