Thirty years ago, early in the morning on August 19, 1991, Soviet television announced that then Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev had fallen ill in his summer residence in Foros, Crimea, and all powers had been assumed, not by then vice president Gennady Yanayev, but by a suddenly created State Committee of the State of Emergency composed of several senior figures inside the Soviet leadership. The coup, which ended in total failure several days later, actually killed the Soviet Union – a 20th-century version of the Russian Empire that had been slowly disintegrating since the late 1980s. Days before the coup, Gorbachev and the leaders of seven republics almost agreed on the new Treaty of the Union that could have transformed an empire into a confederation – which, I should note, had never ever happened before then and has never happened since.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, as Russian President Vladimir Putin famously noted in 2005, appears to be the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century – and even if one does not agree on the use of the term "catastrophe," very few would deny that it had a profound impact on Eurasian geopolitics and had major global consequences.
On August 19, 1991, the State Emergency Committee tried to take power in the Soviet Union with a failed coup. (Source: TASS)
The Entire Post-Soviet Domain Turned Into A Territory "Between Europe And China"
By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was one of the world's two superpowers and a leading force on the Eurasian continent. Europe was divided with its largest economy, West Germany, being 1.6 times smaller than the USSR. China had just started its reforms and lagged far behind the Soviets in every field. Japan encountered a profound financial crisis in 1989 that nullified its dreams of becoming the world's "number one" economy. Thirty years later, the situation looks completely different: Russia's share in the world's GDP stays at around 3.1 percent, compared to the Soviet Union's 12.1 percent, while the German economy became bigger, and the Chinese economy is more than six times larger than Russia's. Eurasia's former "center" disappeared, while both "flanks" rose, and the entire post-Soviet domain turned into a territory "between Europe and China." The course of events might change, but 30 years ago some stubborn Moscow imperialists took it in a direction we all now know perfectly well.
But what now looks much more interesting is the "post-Soviet geopolitics," or the developments all over the vast landmass that once was the largest empire on Earth measured by a combination of its space and lifespan.
In 1991, Russia was rather a revolutionary force inside the USSR, with Moscow leading the anti-Communist protests and the deputies from the Russian cities making the majority of the reformist group of parliamentarians elected to the Congress of People's deputies in 1989. The new Russian leader, Chairman and later President Boris Yeltsin, played a leading role in defeating the coup and was seen as a staunch supporter of Western democratic values and the principles of the market economy. Russia sided with the breakaway Baltic States well before its sovereignty was recognized by the central Soviet authorities and expressed limited interest in the Central Asian republics, which continuously supported Gorbachev's efforts to save the united country from breaking up.
Russia Seems Fully Dissatisfied With The West
In 2021, Russia now seems fully dissatisfied with the West and tries to at least partially regain control over the former Soviet republics that are looking westward; Moscow has turned into the center-point for all the conservative forces. At the same time, Russia also lost its Westernizing mission, which it fulfilled for centuries vis-à-vis its southern provinces that became free to choose development models of their own. The pro-Western and pro-global Soviet Union of 1991 has been sliced into three different portions. The main two areas are as follows.
The first one, which I would call the "Western realm," stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, consisting of the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are currently part of the EU and NATO), Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. All these nations possess strong historical ties to Europe, and there is little doubt that they will all end up as its constituent parts, in both an economic and a socio-political sense. Here Russia and "the collective West" are the major adversaries, with their conflict intensifying from one decade to another.
The "Western realm," stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, consisting of the Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, (i.e. the Baltic States), Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova.
The second area may be called the "Southern realm," consisting of five "-istans:" Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. This part of the post-Soviet space looks "quieter." This area, ruled by authoritarian leaders and corrupt placeholders, has fewer geopolitical quarrels than the "near-abroad" of Russia and Europe.
Central Asia – The countries of the "Southern realm": Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
At the time of the Soviet collapse, the six countries of the "Western realm" were almost 1.5 times more populous than the five countries of the "Southern realm" (73.9 million people vs. 50.2 million) and contributed with a much greater input to the Soviet economy (24.6 percent of the total vs. 10.9 percent) – but 30 years later the situation is almost reversed: Now, the former Western Soviet republics possess a combined Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) GDP of $1.03 trillion vs. Central Asian ones' of $972 billion (or $804 vs $972 billion if the Baltic states are excluded) and their population declined to 59.1 million while that of the Central Asian states increased to 76.2 million. Moreover, Kazakhstan's PPP GDP per capita in 2020 exceeded that of Ukraine by roughly two times and their economies were comparable in volume while in 1989 Ukraine's was 2.5 times larger than the Kazakh one.
The Post-Soviet "Southern Realm" Is More Complex And Challenging Than The "Western Realm"
Of course, I have no intention of arguing that post-Soviet Central Asia now looks like a prosperous place – Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan remain the poorest countries in the entire former USSR – but I wanted to mention the obvious fact that (except for Russia) there are two large geopolitical regions in the post-Soviet space led by two great nations – Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Ukraine without doubt is pioneering a democratic transition toward becoming a Europeanized society with a democratic political system and free market economy – and there is a good chance that Belarus and Moldova will follow suit. Kazakhstan is following another path: It looks like an example of East Asia-style modernization in the post-Soviet realm, exceeding Soviet production figures in almost all spheres (just to show the difference, I would note that oil production rose by 3.3 times from 1990 to 2020, and gas production rose by 6.3 times, while in Russia the growth was limited to 1.6 and 6.5 percent). But while Ukraine is on everybody's mind, Kazakhstan seems to remain a remote country attracting very limited Western attention.
Indeed, to analyze "post-Soviet geopolitics" is a huge challenge for Western policymakers. The post-Soviet "Western realm" looks much more familiar, not only because it is located in Europe where the global politics have been concentrated for centuries, but also because it represents a clear-cut Russian-European, or East-West, confrontation. The fight for Ukraine seems to be a struggle for depriving Russia of its imperial status and for expanding the historical boundaries of Europe. The sense of the game looks obvious in this case – but in fact Russia will remain an empire even without Ukraine, and Europe will not enlarge itself without admitting new European periphery into the EU, which, in the case of the Ukraine, will not happen in the coming decades.
The post-Soviet "Southern realm," in Central Asia, looks instead much more complicated and intricate to analyze than the "Western" one, since several powers have political and economic interests in this region. Russia has been a leading force there for at least a century and a half. However, the local people belong to the Turkic tribes and in recent years Erdoğan's Turkey has demonstrated more and more interest in their fate. Furthermore, even though China has been seen as an existential threat for the locals for a long time, Beijing is trying hard to have the Central Asian republics embrace the "One Belt, One Road" initiative. In addition, the region is strongly tied economically to the West (more than a half of Kazakhstan's foreign trade is conducted with the EU while more than 70 percent of its accumulated FDI comes from the U.S. and Europe). The Islamic fundamentalists, who have become a separate and unpredictable force, are now, after almost two decades of Western control, on the brink of recapturing Afghanistan, which, on its north side, borders Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Russia lost several "cold wars" with the West – and it will lose the current one as well – but no one knows for sure what will happen in what English geographer and politician Sir Halford Mackinder once called "the Eurasian heartland," which consists not only of Russia, but also of the "Southern realm," i.e., the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Russia Is Unable To Restore Its "Spheres Of Interest"
For most of the post-Soviet period, the Central Asian countries, especially Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, tried to maintain close relations with Russia. Kazakhstan's first president and national leader Nursultan Nazarbayev had been President Gorbachev's crucial ally in his efforts to save the USSR, and later proposed to reestablish a common "realm" through Eurasian integration.
Russia's response to establishing a Eurasian organization became positive after Moscow grew disillusioned with its relations with both the U.S. and Europe, especially after Ukraine took a pro-Western turn in 2005. Since the early 2010s, Russia engaged two Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) into the Eurasian Economic Union, which was launched in 2015 and now seems to transcend purely economic issues, and may soon include also Uzbekistan (which now has the role of observer) and Tajikistan. Instead, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an intergovernmental military alliance in Eurasia founded in 1992 that consists of selected post-Soviet states, also includes three of five regional states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).
However, I would argue that in the 2020s, Russian influence in the area will fade for the following reasons: Moscow's economic weaknesses compared to China's advantages; Moscow's unwillingness to secure the region from Islamist threat, due to the increasing Russia-Turkey competition in the whole southern periphery; Moscow' reluctance to consider its Central Asian neighbors as fully sovereign states (e.g., several Russian politicians have voiced their doubts about Kazakhstan's rights to sovereignty, and Russian President Putin himself mentioned that the Kazakhs have never possessed a statehood).
In addition, all the Central Asian countries have been squeezing the Russians out in a much more intensive way than, for example, the Baltic states ever did (the share of ethnic Russians in the overall population of Latvia decreased from 33.9 percent in 1989 to 25.8 percent in 2020, while the same figure for Kazakhstan fell from 37.8 to 18.4, and in Kyrgyzstan from 21.5 to 5.1 percent during the same time period), and rising nationalism will certainly make relations with Russia more problematic in the future.
Therefore, I would suggest that after 30 years of analyzing the "post-Soviet space," experts and politicians should probably finally abandon the term. Post-Soviet history has already ended: Russia is unable to restore its "spheres of interest," and there are no common features that might bring Moldova and Tajikistan into one category of states.
The West should be ready the reconsider its policies concerning the Eurasian realm and to shift its focus from Eastern Europe, where the "battle" with Russia looks to be almost finished, to Central Asia, where the West may face not so much another "grand chessboard" with only two players but a new kind of a geopolitical game involving almost all great and regional powers as well as the most influential non-state actors. In this problem-rich area of Central Asia, Kazakhstan should be viewed as the West's most promising ally, which holds the key to Central Asia's economy and geopolitics, as in an even greater sense Ukraine dominates the situation between Europe and Russia.
Thirty years ago the Soviet Union, or what could have become an alternative to it, was actually killed by a bunch of political adventurers who mistakenly believed they could regain the control over the disappearing empire. A couple of weeks ago Oleg Baklanov, the last member of the failed coup against then USSR leader Gorbachev on August 19, 1991, died in Moscow – but I would say that the hopes for the restoration of the Soviet/Russian empire had diminished well before then. Some imperial constructs might be, of course, restored – and the Bolsheviks themselves proved it in the early 1920s – but nothing similar can be rebuilt after the several decades since the Russian empire has gone.
Today, not only the Soviet Union but also the post-Soviet reality is dead – and Western politicians should finally recognize this fact and shift their focus from the declining Russia to the leading nations on its flanks: Ukraine in Europe and Kazakhstan in Asia. As Indian-American international relations specialist Parag Khanna once famously observed, the current world crucially depends on "second-world" powers – the states that cannot become the leading nations by themselves but can shift the balance between the global players. Such a realistic approach is badly needed to be applied to the domain that once was – but forever ceased to be – either the Soviet Union, or, as President Putin calls it, "the historical Russia"
*Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev, Ph.D. in Economics, is a Special Advisor to MEMRI's Russian Media Studies Project.
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