This focus on Eurasia in particular owes itself to recent developments that have been accumulating over the past several years and decades. While the relative importance of dominating the Eurasian ‘Heartland’ has long been a concern of geopolitics, focus on the challenges facing the so-called ‘liberal international order’ has hitherto caused much analysis to be focused on the global level (see for example, Ikenberry 2018; Acharya 2018; Lebow 2018; Buzan and Schouenborg 2018; Reus-Smit and Dunne 2017; Sørenson 2016). And while questions surrounding the rise of regionalism have featured prominently in the field of international relations since the end of the Cold War, the gradual redefinition of Washington’s global role—taking its fullest form thus far under the Trump administration—and the late rise of Central Asia and the Caucasus (as a gateway to the Middle East) suggest that the future of the Eurasian supercontinent may lie, to a large extent, in the hands of its indigenous (and yet previously neglected) actors, and a need to shift to the local level, to understand better the emergent ordering dynamics there. It is instructive to observe how the microcosm of domestic relations and their external projections by local actors—e.g. Kazakhstan as evidenced in Pieper’s article, or Azerbaijan as referred to by Valiyev et al., or indeed the EAEU difficult integration dynamics as discussed by Korosteleva and Petrova in this volume—impact the hitherto seemingly ‘stable’ great powers’ status-quo vis-à-vis the region. Notably, Russia’s recent assertiveness has emphatically coincided with the perceived further consolidation of the European Union and its extended outreach to the ‘neighbours of the neighbours’ following the launch of a new EU Strategy towards Central Asia,Footnote 11 as well as with the initiation of China’s BRI effectively targeting the same space.Footnote 12 And while much of the EU’s continued dependence on American security guarantees may alter the shape of Eurasian integration, the launch of the EU’s Asian connectivity strategy indicates a willingness to respond in some form to China’s entreaties, even if the norms and standards surrounding these projects may remain a matter of contestation, as argued by Lukin, Paikin and Nitoiu et al. in this volume. To this end, the EU Global Security Strategy (2016) explicitly reflected on the need to develop cooperative orders across the region and beyond; and yet, it proves difficult to put it to practice as posited by Korosteleva and Petrova in this special issue. Furthermore, Sakwa’s contention (2016, and in this volume) that a ‘clash between norms and spatiality’—between clashing regulatory and political orders and the reality of countries’ geographic location—was largely to blame for the onset of the Ukraine crisis may suggest that a focus on ‘spatiality’ and the role of indigenous and (order-making) actors in shaping that space is imperative, with implications for understanding international and global orders.
Engaging with this new imaginary of Eurasia brings the need to redefine the term Central Eurasia as a new emergent ordering locality, with a global appeal. This special issue treats the Eurasian space as an evolving construct consisting of several ‘nested’ identities, which was reflected by a series of contributions to this volume. The space has been traditionally viewed as a rough location where Eurasia’s three principle powers—the EU, Russia and China—and other actors are jockeying for material and normative influence. It is in this broad region where the Russian-backed EAEU is attempting to consolidate its presence, and also where several of the corridors of the BRI connecting Asian and European markets lie. It is defined by a mixture of collaboration and contestation between actors, ranging from the nominal promise made by Russia and China to harmonize and coordinate the EAEU and BRI projects, to the EU’s cautious embrace of the BRI so long as it adheres to a list of economic, environmental and other standards.
At the same time, the translation of this globality of wider EU-Asia interaction into the locality of many powerful and still emergent actors has begun to shape and challenge the status quo of the traditional space for great power politics. And although much of the future of global affairs will also be determined by events in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ or Asia–Pacific or indeed African regions, the confluence of the emergent indigenous players in Central Eurasia—all of which are in transition in various ways—on issues such as transport, institutions, security, culture, religion and the philosophy of being (hamsoya, meaning life in the shadow of your neighbour)—that comes to designate this region as a composition of smaller entities forming a system of a rising collective ‘player’, with many voices, aiming to affect the supercontinent-wide and global equilibrium. It is in this locality that many contributions of the volume view Central Eurasia—as a region roughly spanning Belarus in the west, Afghanistan in the south, and Mongolia in the east—an immensely rich space, a configuration of domestic politics, and intra- and inter-regional dynamics, presently contested by the EU, Russia and China, that comes to set its own voice and ordering arrangements.
This is why discussing the future of Eurasian order(s) requires one to engage with both ‘the local’ as well as what constitutes an international and even global order, as argued by Haukkala’s and Paikin’s articles in this volume. Lebow (2018:305–306) defines order as ‘legible, predictable behaviour in accord with recognized norms’ that requires a degree of solidarity to remain robust. From an English School perspective, an international order can range from mere patterns of behaviour to an integral component upholding the stability of an international society of states (Reus-Smit and Dunne 2017:31–33). On the other hand, order could also be viewed as a very local effort to turn hitherto fragmented communities into powerful ‘peoplehood’, making them more ambitious in a strife for good life and resilient in the face of adversity, drawing on their ‘inner strength’ and future aspirations (Korosteleva and Flockhart 2020). This kind of ‘local order’, if shared through cultural affinity, language, religion and philosophy of being, could challenge any geographical border (especially in a nomad culture), and shape the future of Eurasia in another, bottom-up and potentially more sustainable way.
This wide range of definitions is useful, as the term ‘order’ could be interpreted as requiring stability or alternatively as merely representing the status quo at any given time. Tang, for example, argued that order, if anything, should be defined as a ‘degree of predictability of what is going on within a social system’ (Tang 2016:32). This certainly makes sense, when applied to local dynamics within the complex system of Eurasia, to understand what is likely to emerge in the future as part of the Eurasian space.
In other words, as this volume attests to through its various contributions—examining the emergence and reshaping of Eurasia, bottom-up, horizontally through various integration initiatives, and top-down via the still dominant great power politics—contestation is now an essential and constitutive part of any order and its maintenance. What matters is to stay attuned to internal dynamics and be responsive to change in an adaptive way (Flockhart 2020) which would necessitate not just the emergence but cohabitation of new orders, to be potentially hosted by a complex Eurasian space. With contestation between the EU and Russia in the eastern neighbourhood having become particularly apparent in recent years, contrasting with the mixed rapprochement and joint Sino-Russian attempts at regional stabilization in Central Asia, exploring the foundations of the existing and emergent order(s)—particularly in Central Eurasia—has become an important and timely task. This debate over contestation and order juxtaposes itself with questions surrounding the nature and facets of resilience in the international order, covered by several articles in this issue as well. These questions are particularly of conceptual interest, as they shed light on how processes of change affecting an international order can—perhaps counterintuitively—indicate elements of its robustness, durability and strength.