Recent developments in Central Asia -- with Russian geopolitical influence again rising, while US power in the region wanes stand to invigorate a long-running debate over the philosophical foundation of the Kremlin's foreign policy. The turn of events could breathe new life into so-called Eurasianists, who argue that Russia has a unique identity and should thus embark on a development course apart from the West.
Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, Russian academics and policy-makers have struggled to develop a concept that could guide Russia's revival. Westernizers and Eurasianists have played prominent roles in the ongoing debate. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Eurasianism as a political philosophy was first advanced by leading Russian émigré thinkers in the 1920s, including Nikolai Trubetskoi and Pyotr Savitsky. Today, the concept remains ill-defined a hodge-podge of themes that have guided Moscow's development over the centuries. Inherent in Eurasianist thinking are notions of benevolent imperialism, Orthodox messianic qualities and a belief that a "third way" of economic development is possible a path between capitalism and communism. In addition, there is a vital geographical component to Eurasianism, dictating that Russia should control the Eurasian heartland, including Central Asia and the Caucasus. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Critics of the Eurasianist ideal say that its proponents are selective in their historical memory, tending to romanticize Tsarist Russia's imperial experience. Indeed, Russia's brutal behavior in Chechnya would seem to blow up the notion that Russia can act a benevolent leader of a cluster of states in search of a new development paradigm. Some say few differences separate Eurasianist thinking from the far-right ideology of National Bolshevism.
Modern-day Eurasianists, including Alexander Dugin, have steadfastly predicted that Russia and the US-led West are destined to clash. The two sides have "strictly opposing" interests, Dugin maintained in a June commentary published by the Argumenty i Fakty.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's stance towards Eurasianism remains murky. During Putin's first years in power there were high hopes among Eurasianists that he would steer Russia in a clearly Eurasian direction. After the September 11 terrorist tragedy, however, Putin pursued a moderate policy, Westernizing in its orientation, as the US rapidly expanded its strategic profile in Central Asia. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In 2005, however, the United States experienced a sudden geopolitical reversal in Central Asia, with regional leaders becoming wary, if not entirely distrusting of the US presence. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Underscoring the drastic decline of the United States' regional position was Uzbekistan's decision in late July to evict US military forces from an air base at Karshi-Khanabad. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russia has rushed to fill the geopolitical vacuum in Uzbekistan, rapidly strengthening bilateral ties over the past year. Moscow is now considered Tashkent's chief political backer, as Uzbek President Islam Karimov seeks to stamp out all traces of democratization in the country. Russia's diplomatic success in Uzbekistan is raising hopes among Eurasianists that Putin's Kremlin will press a broad geopolitical offensive to push American forces out of Central Asia entirely, and virtually eliminate Washington's influence in the region. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Putin has offered evidence that he is again leaning in a Eurasian direction. During an August 26 celebration of the city of Kazan's 1,000th anniversary, Putin publicly praised Lev Gumilev, the historian and philosopher who is recognized as a founder of the modern Eurasianist movement.
At this time, when it appears that Eurasianist thinking is again on the ascendancy in Moscow, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the ideological foundation of Eurasianism. The concept has been marginalized in Western scholarship, as there are no English-language books on Eurasianism currently in print. Meanwhile, there has been a steady stream of books on Eurasianism, and related topics, published in various parts of the former Soviet Union.
Two Russian-language books provide a good overview of Eurasianism and its evolution. They are Euraziistvo: Teoriia, Praktika/Sbornik Stati (Moscow, Artogeia Tsentr, 2001), and Eurasia: People and Myths, (Compiled and Edited by Sergei Panarin, Moscow: Natalis Press, 2003).
Eurasia: People and Myths draws on readings from an influential Eurasianist journal called Vestnik Evrazii. The articles included in the book cover a variety of subjects, and deal with all areas of the former Soviet Union, with particular attention paid to Central Asia and the Caucasus. One article by Vadim Tsymburskii is particularly useful in that it provides an excellent picture of how Eurasianism emerged. The article stands in contrast to most publications on the subject, which either condemn Eurasianism as a dangerous illusion or characterize it as a set of quasi-religious thoughts that are designed to pave the way for Russia's salvation.
In Tsymburskii's view, historical Eurasianism and, implicitly, associated political doctrines, is multi-faceted and has changed over time. He states that Eurasianism is not a uniquely Russian philosophy, noting that the term "Eurasia" was used by Western geographers in the 19th century. When the term entered into the Russian intellectual discourse, however, it acquired a new cultural and geopolitical meaning. This proto-Eurasianism, Tsymburskii states, was actually a manifestation of late Tsarist Russia's imperial ambitions. Later, in the wake of the Bolshevik coup and victory in the civil war, Eurasianist thinking shifted. In what was a peculiar historical context, the concept became full of contradictions.
Early Eurasianists, Tsymburskii argues, saw Russia and Eurasia as sharply demarcated both from the rest of Europe and from Asia. In a way, these Eurasianists returned to visions of Russia that were prevalent in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was an isolationist philosophy directly connected to the position of Soviet Russia, which was at the time ostracized from the world community. While placing Russia and Eurasia in an isolationist position, the early Eurasianists at the same time looked at Orthodoxy as a religious ideology that would serve as a guiding influence for the world. Tsymburskii goes on to imply that there was sort of a reflection of this in the conditions in Soviet Russia, where Soviet readers regarded Marxism as the ideology which should be spread all over the globe.
While Eurasianism was implicitly present in Soviet ideology, which emphasized that the Soviet state had forged "a new community of Soviet peoples," it was never officially elaborated upon. Still, it was an important creed, mostly due to the efforts of Gumilev.
The other book -- Euraziistvo: Teoriia, Praktika contains the writings of Gumilev and other traditional Eurasianists. The volume also contains contributions from contemporary Eurasianists, including Dugin.
While accepting the major tenets of traditional Eurasianism, Dugin raised new ideas. First, he place greater emphasis on geopolitics than did early advocates of Eurasianism. Secondly, Dugin branded the United States, not Europe, as the mortal enemy of Russia/Eurasia. He was also forcefully argued that only Eurasianism could resolve Russia's numerous post-Soviet dilemmas.
Euraziistvo: Teoriia, Praktika also emphasizes Putin's early Eurasianist leanings by including two of the president's articles. One, entitled "Russia Has Always Visualized Itself as a Eurasian Power," was originally published in 2000, when Putin had just come to power. In it, Putin proclaims that Russian foreign policy is prepared to make "a decisive turn" toward the Asia-Pacific region.
By including Putin's writings, the editor implied that Eurasianist thinking had substantial mainstream support within the Russian policy-making establishment. Subsequent events suggest that it would be wrong to see Putin as a leader guided entirely by Eurasianist thinking. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Eurasianist influence remains strong, if not predominant to this day.
It would seem that Eurasianism's flaws, rooted in its selective analysis of Russia's past, would preclude its serving as a viable blueprint for Russia's future development. It might be able to address some of contemporary issues, but ultimately seems destined to run into trouble, due to the seriousness and complexity of the region's ethnic, religious and geopolitical problems. The apparent contradictions, however, do not preclude the possibility that Russian policy makers will rely on Eurasianist thinking making future policy decisions. Thus, it is in the best interests of Western policy makers and experts to better acquaint themselves with Eurasianist thinking.
Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor of history at the University of Indiana, South Bend.