Evolving regional values and mobilities in global contexts

The emergence of new (Eur-)Asian regions and dialogues with Europe

by Pierre Chabal (Volume editor) Yann Alix (Volume editor) Kuralay Baizakova (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 372 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Foreword: Nargiza Muratalieva
  • Preface: Brigitte
  • General introduction: Pierre Chabal, Sosorbaram Enkhtsetseg and Janar Turtogtokh
  • The issue of regional integration in Central Asia: lessons from the past: Aigul Kazhenova
  • Russia- and China-led organisations in CA, whose interests do they serve? The case of Kyrgyzstan: Jildiz Nicharapova
  • Regions of the Russian Far-East and pragmatic Eurasian para-diplomatic relations: Maciej Raś
  • Comparing how Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) change political activity in Europe and Asia
  • Obedience-production in Europe and Asia: comparative and historical perspectives: Laure Lesur
  • Regional identity in the Caucasus and the Nagorno-Karabakh tensions: Azerbaijani diaspora’s activities monitoring visions by (pro)-Armenians abroad: Nasrin Suleymanli
  • Geo-economic competition in a China-Mongolia-Russia triangle: Mongolia’s diplomacy in the New Asia: Hermine Durand
  • The Belt and Road Initiative: a catalyst for the development of Russian land-transportation infrastructures: Olivier Faury, Yann Alix and Nicolas Montier
  • The TransArctic Russian Maritime Highway: a perspective about future Eurasian trade patterns: Yann Alix
  • The accountability of Russia on the international stage: assessing critically how experts attribute responsibility: Cindy Régnier
  • Iran in emerging West-Asian geopolitics: views from ‘the New Central Asia’: Zhulduz Baizakova
  • Kazakhstan’s integration policy and economic ‘new regionalism’: Fatima Kukeyeva
  • Towards a new regional paradigm in education. The journey to autonomy and academic freedom of Kazakhstan’s universities: Aliya Akatayeva
  • The influence of a modern European higher education on the youth of Central Asia: expectations and reality: Gulnara Baikushikova
  • Language policy and nation-building in post-Soviet Central Asian countries: Linda Masalska
  • From ‘the young Asia’ to ‘the old Europe’: demographic features as criteria of macro-regionalisation: Violeta Pușcașu
  • The evolving stakes of religious identities in ‘the New Asia’: Philippe Gast
  • The cultural identity-‘differentiation’ of Central Asia: Andrzej Wierzbicki
  • Subdivisions of the Kazakh Zhuz: a cultural and historical ‘identity-perspective’: Kunipa Ashinova and Bibigul Sydykova
  • The European Union’s New Strategy Towards Central Asia: priorities and responses to latest challenges: Kuralay Baizakova and Assiya Kuzembayeva
  • The Eurasian policies of Russia, Turkey and the EU in regional contexts: Esra LaGro and Hakan Cavlak
  • Russia’s Asian-ness and European-ness: building a constructive regional identity in the post-Cold War: Clémence Danguy Des Déserts
  • India’s Eurasian identity rebuilding Asian-ness through postcolonial literature: Mathilde Larive
  • ‘Contented’ inter-regionalism and ‘eager’ multi-lateralism between Europe and Asia: the case of ASEM: Hakan Cavlak and Esra LaGro
  • Reinforcing an identify in the face of world challenges: the values of a federal project for the EU: Michel Bruno
  • General conclusion: Pierre Chabal and Qiqige Tumen
  • Postface: Sebastian Santander
  • Afterword: Philippe Lagrange
  • List of contributors
  • Series index

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This book owes much to the resilience of many colleagues who displayed unwavering efforts, despite the world pandemics of 2019–2020, in order to ensure that this 7th edition of our joint Europe-Asia conferences be carried out to the end. The co-organisers and co-editors cannot express with enough accuracy just how much debt, both human and professional, they have towards the participants and contributors.

Of particular note are two kinds of support received. Institutionally, we wish to thank all universities where participants teach and research for facilitating participation to this conference and book, both in Europe and in Asia, whether it is financial support, moral encouragement or departmental flexibility: Université Le Havre Normandie (LexFEIM), al-Farabi KazNU (Department of International Relations) in Almaty, the SEFACIL Foundation in France, the Center for International Relations Studies (CEFIR, Liège) and colleagues in Galati, Budapest, Warsaw, Istanbul… and in Almaty, Bishkek, Baku and Oulan Bator… Interpersonally, this book echoes the continuous presence and support from colleagues since the early/mid 2000s, without whom nothing would have been possible – they know who they are. It also reflects the constant addition, conference after conference, book after book, of new colleagues, more universities and countries, making our endeavours richer and proactive. Ageing colleagues among us now know they that can count on new generations for taking over these conferences when the time comes.

Over the years, the philosophy of our original scheme – to serve Asian and European joint and comparative research – was trebly successful: to pretend (i) that financial hurdles can always be overcome, similarly (ii) that linguistic difficulties have a solution and (iii) that junior colleagues and even research students can contribute tremendously in enhancing and innovating research. On the whole, each time, about one third of new participants have joined, including about one fourth of junior academics and ongoing students. We thank all of them for their trust.

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Diversity has been our strength; and determination has provided our human energy.

This book marks almost the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the Europe-Asia research initiatives first launched after teaching visits to Korea and East Asia from the very early 2000s and to Kazakhstan and Central Asia from the mid-2000s. We chose to mark this anniversary slightly ahead of time due to the uncertainty bearing upon international travels and therefore research in the COVID and post-COVID dynamics. As the general introduction below will detail, our activities have indeed extended over both sub-continents, in France and in four Asian countries as major hosts, organisers and supporters, and without almost two decades of trust, support and even faith in what is humanly possible, nothing would have been achieved and our universities would have remained all the poorer for lack of initiatives taken to the end, that is publications and collective success.

The final lesson is indeed that success, if it is possible, is always collective.

Le Havre, Almaty Аʌматы, Oulan Bator Yʌаанбаатар

Bishkek Бишкек, Seoul Inch’eon image

Summer of 2020

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Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR
Central Asian Bureau of Analytical Reporting, CABAR
The OSCE Academy, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

The year 2020 marked a dual turning point, due to the pandemic and to the transformation of international relations (IR). China, whose economy is growing despite lockdowns and pandemic, is strengthening its role not only in Central Asia but also in regional and global arenas. USA-EU relations are also changing. The Eurasian project in the form of a Eurasian Economic Union faces deep internal contradictions, the unresolved nature of which can significantly slow down or undermine Eurasia’s integration processes. The growth of protest moods in authoritarian countries points, again, to the necessity of political elite-renewal and the unacceptability of dictatorship, when the principles of transparency and feedback simply do not work.

Whether there is a change in the vector or even in the system of international relations, production chains or the forced acceleration of education digitalisation, in any case, humanity is coming to realize the necessity to stimulate, support and finance scientific researches, the needs for knowledge exchange and publications.

This book makes an important contribution to the understanding and further studying of new regional emergences, the impact of regional values and mobility on global processes. The Eurasian continent and the events taking place there will undoubtedly have an impact on the entire world “history-in-the-making”.

What is the essence and how does competition between regions manifest itself in its broad sense? How are the renewed competition between maritime and continental geopolitical strategies expressed? ←11 | 12→What new values appear on the Eurasian continent? What is the common ground for strengthening cooperation between Asia and Europe? These and other relevant issues are discussed and explored in this book written in the difficult conditions of 2020.

For centuries, Central Asia has played the role of a bridge between two parts of Eurasia – Europe and Asia. In the age of new technologies and transformation of the IR system, the destiny of Central Asia will be mainly determined by the events giving substance to interactions between Europe and Asia. Yet, only few studies based on expert analysis exist that are dedicated to the issues of modern interaction between these two sub-regions, the analysis of foreign policy strategies, initiatives and programmes.

During the pandemic, expert and analytical discourse became largely focused on the problems and consequences of globalisation: will there be a slowdown in globalization due to the lockdowns? a refocusing on the priority of nation-states at the expense of globalization? will regional and global initiatives of leading powers slow down? or will these processes be short- and medium-term? What can change of production chains lead to in the field of geo-economics and geopolitics?

Here, the research and expert-scientific contributions produced by this series of joint Europe-Asia conferences complete a gap and open the curtain on these and other issues.

I would like to wish further success to the editing team, especially to Pierre Chabal, Kuralay Baizakova and Yann Alix, and to all chapter-authors who contribute to these Europe-Asia meetings and offer the opportunity to become readers of this fundamental collective work.

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Centre d’Études et de Recherche sur la Diplomatie,
l’Administration publique et le Politique
CERDAP2 Grenoble University, France

Over almost two decades now, seven editions of joint Europe-Asia conferences have promoted comparative research on steadily changing (inter-)regional patterns and on Central Asian developments as reflecting global transformation, by scholars from several, diverse academic origins and levels of seniority in France, Europe, and Central and Northern Asia, under Pierre Chabal’s enthusiastic supervision.

As the preceding conferences and publications had focused on building the institutional framework of regions in Europe and Asia, on inter-regional competition and cooperation, and on cross-border exchanges in Eurasia, it was only fitting that the seventh book cover values and identities in inter-regional dynamics. The background is highly complex, including institutionalisation processes, great power competition/shifts and geopolitical rivalries, inter-communitarian tensions and new cultural dynamics, and emerging inter-regional patterns.

Three features of the various chapters of Evolving regional values and mobilities in global contexts emphasize the dynamic relationship between regions and inter-regionalism, move beyond narrow understandings of regions and inter-regionalism, and meet usual criticisms against inter-regionalism research.

First of all, the diversity of actors, venues, and disciplinary perspectives underlines that inter-regionalism research is no longer an exclusively Eurocentric research agenda, biased by Western-centric international relations theories.

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Secondly, detailed case-studies and comparative analysis explore how inter-regionalism as a complex social form is developing in Eurasia at different levels depending on issues, and how inter-regionalisms intersect around the world.

Thirdly, inter-regionalism being more than an epiphenomenon of international relations and regionalism, scholars can be expected to act as policy advisors, and to stress the ideational bases and resources of a more inclusive legalised, contractualised, and institutionalised system of global governance in a world of “fragmegration” (in the language of James Rosenau), in and through the practice of multilateral diplomacy (in the context of inequality, hierarchical structuring, and social customs in the international pecking order described in Vincent Pouliot’s critical engagement with contemporary diplomacy).

In other words, this book brilliantly shows that there is still space for innovation in studies on inter-regionalism (following Jürgen Rüland’s insights), taking previous studies as a point of departure, and proceeding towards “research around institutional balancing and hedging, network analysis, and inter-regional relations as norm transmitters”.

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General introduction


Invited Professor, al-Farabi Kazakh National
University, Almaty
Leading international research at Le Havre LexFEIM
Research Center


Professor, National University of Mongolia,
School of International Relations and Public Administration


Professor, National University of Mongolia
School of Social Sciences, Department of Political Science

This book is based on the presentations made on the broad topic of “regional identities” at a 2020 conference entitled Evolving Regional Values and Mobilities in global Contexts: the emergence of new (Eur)Asian regions and dialogues with Europe postponed from May (in Warsaw) to October (in Le Havre) due to international sanitary conditions (COVID-19). Co-organised by four Eurasian institutions (Le Havre university Lexfeim, al-Farabi KazNu university, the SEFACIL Foundation, Liège CEFIR research centre), it benefited from the early determination that, come what may, the book had to see light of day and be published as a tribute to past and present efforts.

Indeed, preceding founding conferences had already taken place over the years in both Europe and Asia, first in France, then in Korea, in France again, in Kazakhstan, in Mongolia and in 2018 in Kyrgyzstan. The present book thus ascribes to a series of previous analyses of (i) “Regional regime dynamics”, published in English in France in 2011 as a book ←15 | 16→Institutionalising Regions: East-Asian and European perspectives; (ii) “The policies of regional cooperation”, published in French also in France in 2011 as a book Régions, Institutions, Politiques: perspectives euro-asiatiques institutionnelles et fonctionnelles; (iii) “Interregional Competition Europe-Asia in the 21st century”, published in French in Belgium in 2015 as a book Concurrences interrégionales Europe-Asie au XXIe siècle; (iv) “The limits of regional cooperation”, published in English in Mongolia in 2015 as a special issue of the Journal Contemporary Political Society; (v) “Can regions understand each other?”, published in 2016 as five special issues of, in Mongolia, World Affairs (diplomacy), Contemporary Political Society (1-policies; 2-Afghanistan) and, in Romania, Public Administration and Regional Studies (1-economics; 2-logistics); and (vi) “Cross-border exchanges: Eurasian perspectives on logistics and diplomacy”, published in English in Belgium in 2019 as a book (Peter Lang, New International Insights).

These 6 conferences and 10 publications 2011–2019 highlight the dedication of a team of researchers engaged in international comparisons, opening up to new colleagues from Poland, Hungary, Azerbaijan… in addition to existing partners in France, Belgium, Turkey, Romania, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, China, Korea… The present book covers both continental and maritime Eurasia1. The eighth and final such conference and book in 2022 will conclude on transcontinental Eurasian dynamics and be held in west Europe in order to symbolise the ports and harbours of destination of the new Eurasian transportation routes.

And so, after analysing elsewhere – as detailed supra – the context and framework of region-building, and its limitations and results, this further book focuses on the cultural basis for identity-building through and thanks to region-building. To be sure, the relaunch of regions in the 1990s and the ensuing expansion of the European construction (Maastricht 1991, its enlargements of 1995, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2018) as well as its hesitations (Brexit 2016+) are superseded by Asian and Eurasian successful initiatives: the Shanghai process (1996 as a Group, 2001 as an Organisation of 6 members, now enlarged to 8), the Eurasian process ←16 | 17→(Customs Union, Economic Community, today Eurasian Economic Union with 5 members, soon 6), and a number of other initiatives, among which the CICA, the Silk road One Belt One Road, and security organisations such as the CSTO or cooperative associations (ASEAN, SAARC…) have added to the panorama formed already by the NATO, the EU, the OSCE, the Council of Europe…

Such a dual “proliferation” of regional (and almost pan-regional) frameworks for cooperation should create a strong incentive to “back up” these multi-state entities with a legitimising adherence on the part of citizens “accepting” this trend consisting of managing international affairs at the regional level. Regional constructions thus tend to modify the nature of identities, from national to international. The book addresses several aspects of the question: the need for regions; regions as formal constructs; values derived from regional (student) mobility; reactive Asian initiatives among regions; European reactive strategies… This is done with a view to better understand (i) post transnationalist achievements, (ii) regions as irreversible constructs, (iii) the geopolitics of education, (iv) the globalisation of Asia, (v) the contemporary adaptation of Europe.

More specifically the four main parts that make up this volume on Evolving regional values and mobilities: the emergence of new (Eur)Asian regions and dialogues with Europe look at the link between value-building and dynamics of “free movements”. They do so in the specific context of the post-Cold War that has globalised what social sciences have long known as contextual analysis.

In this direction, Part I on Regions as institutional constructs aimed at organising competition suggests that modern international regions are formal entities with a purpose, not just the addition of procedures and norms. Their formal characteristics are a framework for ambitions to be manifested, for confrontations to be managed and for common interests to become alternatives to zero-sum games of the past. In this way, it becomes possible to see how modern international regions share a similar ambition in their substance despite their marked differences in applied ways of functioning. This ambition is turning past rivalries into cooperation, for example and similarly between France and Germany, or between China and Russia. Rivalries linger on but become competition among partners. An “axis” can even be formed among some of the regional partners, as between France and Germany (1963) within the European construction after 1951 and between China and Russia (2001 and India 2017) within ‘the new Asia’ (1996).

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In order to contextualise these dynamics even more, Part II on The renewal of the competition of continental and maritime geopolitics suggests that not only competitive motives are still driving forces but that these motives echo long-dating realities. Historically, long-term trends (F. Braudel) supports the analysis of how determinants complement rather than replace each other. International (commercial) relations, as the substance of the activities of the international ‘community’ seek economic domination. This has been the case as much on land as at sea and the post-Cold War has only unveiled something quite obvious. When political and ideological obstacles are lifted, economic and commercial determinants take over. Trade between Korea and China, for instance, follows these cycles, from virtually nil before 1991 to main partnership as early as 1992. The maritime/land alternative marked the Eurasian trading since Roman times, Medieval times, urging the circumnavigation from Europe to Asia (India). Today the same is happening with new routes called New Silk Road and arctic passages.

And so, Part III on Regional identities and values in emerging (Eur)Asian dynamics simply suggests that, with the shifts in regional and inter-regional dynamics, cultural habits are also reshaped. This is particularly true with education. Clearly there is a trace of neo-colonialism in regional “models” of (higher) education being suggested. The Bologna process and the SCO university compare in this sense. They both lay the foundations for attracting students’ mobility within the region and limit the process of a brain-drain during the Cold War to either the USA (and Europe and the West) or the URSS (and communist partners). What is particularly true of education is also true of religions and their specific dynamics and of socio-demographic trends such as identities based on ‘clans’, ‘tribes’ or ethnicity. Such identities were suppressed in a systemic and systematic ways in modern overarching and subsuming constructions (empires, colonialisms) and therefore reappear as markers in the post-imperial times.

Finally, Part IV on European and Asian cooperation initiatives and reactions takes into account that regions react to each other. Both Europe and Asia “respond” to progress made in the other region on account of intra-regional cooperation and inter-regional competition. However relevant European or Asia developments are per se, they make sense fundamentally in their “reactive” dimensions to each other. More generally, it could be shown that this is the case also of other regions, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) being a ←18 | 19→“reaction” to the European progress of the Maastricht relaunch of the European construction, almost the same year 1992 for one and 1993 for the other, such as the Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa after that of the Europeans, 1992 for one and 1994 for the other, etc. And the fact that today Asian competitiveness is seen mainly through the lens of the “Chinese” Belt and Road Initiatives is but an imitation of the original silk-roads that were neither Chinese or European but truly – and already – Eurasian…

The reader can now enter more specifically into the substance-matter of this approach of new or renewed identities in Eurasia through the introductions to its various parts, written by Yann Alix and Kuralay Baizakova, and above all though their constituent chapters, written by about thirty colleagues from Eurasian countries.


1 A companion volume Evolving Regional Identities, Values and Mobilities in the Indo-Pacific will be edited by Dorota Heidrich, Robert Rabel and Jakub Zajaczkowski and published by Peter Lang in the series New International Insights co-edited by P. Chabal, E. Lagro, J. Turtogtokh and B. Vassort-Rousset. It will follow some hypotheses suggested by http://www.ris.org.in/towards-make-south-asia-evolving-regional-values-chains.

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The issue of regional integration in Central Asia: lessons from the past1


Discourse on regional cooperation among Central Asian states has again become topical as these recently launched afresh the discussion of the development of multilateral cooperation in the region after a long break since 2005 when Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) merged with the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC). Previous Central Asian integration projects in the 1990s and early 2000s had not yielded meaningful results.

When in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, Central Asian states found themselves in a difficult situation, intertwined from having been republics within the USSR for decades, yet faced with a sudden breakdown of that united system. Challenges ensued, notably these countries were isolated from world markets due to their landlocked location at the centre of the Eurasian continent, far from any open sea or ocean. Devoid of the USSR, they needed to cooperate in order to meet their needs and address open questions, primarily in the water and energy sector, where joint action was required. As a result, several organizations were established to regulate relations between these states on a regional level. Yet, despite the presence of shared issues and initial joint efforts, the Central Asian integration structure, after several transformations, ceased to exist.

A new stage of cooperation between CA countries was initiated in 2016 when a new Uzbek president came to power, Sh. Mirziyoyev. In contrast to the isolationist and protectionist policy of his predecessor ←27 | 28→I. Karimov, the new Uzbek foreign policy of Tashkent is marked by openness and economic liberalisation. From the onset, Mirziyoyev made a priority of enhancing relations with immediate surrounding countries. This intention influenced positively interstate relations in Central Asia and promoted intra-regional cooperation, notably the decision launch annual summits among Central Asian heads of states. This improved dialogue of CA countries has a great potential to boost regional cooperation. In light of this, a review of previous attempts to build effective integration structures is necessary.

Analysis of the past experience (1), notably of its lack of success (2) will offer insights regarding these new trends in Central Asia (3).

1. Reviewing the history of integration projects in Central Asia: CAU, CACEC…

On 13 December 1991, the “Central Asian Five” met for the first time in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Thus, immediately after the announcement of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they adopted a statement agreeing to join the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The condition was equality in membership of all states. Later, dissatisfied with the pace of integration within the CIS, Central Asian states decided to build regional integration separately from the former Soviet republics. As a result, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan signed an Agreement creating a common economic space on 10 January 1994, with Kyrgyzstan joining a week later. Initially, the three countries planned to develop regional integration according to the European Union model2. Their main objectives were to establish mutually beneficial economic relations; create favourable conditions for advancement of economic integration; form a common economic space based on a free movement of goods, services, capital, and labour; and jointly coordinate fiscal, tax, customs and monetary policy3. It was the beginning of an integration processes in Central Asia that was to lead to the eventual establishment of a Central Asian Union (CAU).

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Within the Central Asian Union (CAU) was created an Interstate Council at the level of heads of states4, followed by the formation of the Council of Prime Ministers, the Council of Foreign Ministers, and the Council of Defence Ministers5. Such an establishment of institutions regulating interaction in these various spheres was a key to political collaboration.

The beginning of the CAU formation was characterized by active discussions on regional integration development6. Within its framework, these states signed numerous agreements and established many bureaucratic mechanisms. However, most of the commitments made by the states were not fulfilled within the treaty and further development of integration did not proceed. This resulted in the postponement of the political aspect of integration in favour of expanding only economic cooperation7.

In 1998, when Tajikistan joined the CAU, the Union was modified into a Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC)8. One of the priorities set by the governments was the creation of a free trade zone. After its completion, the countries planned to establish customs, payments, and monetary unions, the final result of which would have been the formation of a single market for goods, services and capital. On the whole, the CAEC was a less ambitious project than its predecessor CAU as it aimed to focus mostly on economic cooperation. However, the CAEC had little impact on the development of regional trade inside CA ←29 | 30→and failed to bring significant practical results9. Furthermore, due to the increasing influence of radical Islamism and the Talibans’ presence at the borders of Central Asia, the issue of regional security became increasingly crucial.

In 2001, the states decided to transform the CAEC into a Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO). The republics emphasised the changing dynamics in the region connected with the growing threats of international terrorism, political and religious extremism, drug-trafficking, and, consequently, the need to develop a joint policy to tackle these issues10. The economic focus shifted to ensuring stability and maintaining peace in the region. Though the CACO Treaty put forward quite ambitious goals, it was not followed by the establishment of efficient institutions11. In 2004, Russia became a fully fledged member of the CACO. In 2005, Uzbekistan joined the EurAsEC. Due to overlapping membership, the CACO merged with the EurAsEC. As a result, there remained no integration structure revolving around only the CA five.

Though the potential value of a Central Asian integration remained relevant, new proposals did not find much support in the region.

In 2005, the President of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev, launched the idea of creating a new integration organisation, a Union of Central Asian States, without the participation of external states. Kyrgyzstan was ready to join the project but Uzbekistan did not support the initiative.

2. Why the first stage of Central Asian integration unsuccessful

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Central Asian states were interdependent in many ways but in these new conditions, their economies were not complementary and rather competing with each other. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are energy-rich countries. Kazakhstan actively developed its oil and gas sector, but the ←30 | 31→Central Asian market alone could not meet the increasing amount of oil Kazakhstan produced. Kazakhstan looked to transport its energy resources to extra-regional partners, primarily to Europe. Astana’s economic relations became more focused on trade with the European countries, and thus became more generally oriented towards developing Western partnerships. Moreover, Turkmenistan also exported oil and gas, while Uzbekistan had its own abundant energy resources12.

Furthermore, in the early 1990s, Central Asian states found themselves in a similar situation: they had to solve economic and social issues along with their transition to market-oriented economies. It was necessary for them to advance their economic potential, which required large financial resources and investments. In order to do so, they individually worked actively to attract direct foreign investments. This accelerated their shift from relying on relations within the region towards seeking relations with outside partners. These factors, non-complementarity and desire for outside investment, worked against integration in the region and partially explains why the large-scale economic plans were not followed by real actions.

Another hindrance points to the dynamic between the two key states in Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The largest countries and economies within the region could have become drivers of integration. However, they tended to view themselves more as competitors than as allies. Relations between them were often described in exaggerated form as a “struggle for leadership in the region”13. Moreover, the two republics had divergent foreign policy approaches. Kazakhstan tended to strongly support and initiate efforts of regional integration, but Uzbekistan later became sceptical about CA integration, and, instead, prioritised development of bilateral relations14. The Uzbek attitude towards Central ←31 | 32→Asian integration had a greatly influence. In the late 1990s and in the 2000s, Uzbek policy was one of the main constraints15.

For the newly independent states, preserving sovereignty was an important element. To the point that “the focus of the Central Asian states on national sovereignty and their regional standing works against substantive regionalist projects or regional institution-building in Central Asia”16. Moreover, the process of establishing integration structures was demanding, especially in parallel with state-building. This can be understood as a dilemma of whether to invest resources into the development of regional integration for mutual benefits or to concentrate on solving a state’s inner issues with the hopes of advancing each state’s individual interest. This inhibited the integration processes in CA.

The unsolved water and energy issues that appeared with the collapse of the centralised Soviet system for managing these resources also hampered the development of integration. Finding a solution for how best to share water resources was a point of contention. Water resources originate in the upstream countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where they are necessary for generation of hydro-energy in Winter periods, and travel to the downstream countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where they are vital for irrigation in Summer. While fair sharing of this valuable resource presents a significant challenge in itself, this was exacerbated by dispute over border delineation and smaller scale inter-ethnic conflicts, which undermined the spirit of cooperation among the states.

In all, a number of factors impacted negatively Central Asian regional integration in the 1990s and early 2000s. Today, the situation has evolved and the region experiences ongoing transformation. The lessons of the previous integration projects, as well as the comparison of the current conditions with those that existed when the first projects took place, offer insights for the new trends in the region.

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3. A new stage of cooperation in Central Asia

A new stage of multilateral regional cooperation is connected with the 2016 change of president in Uzbekistan, Sh. Mirziyoyev, who made a foreign policy priority of cooperation with the Central Asian states. During his first year in office, the new president visited every Central Asian state. Dialogue was revived among the “Central Asian five” after a long break. In March 2018, the first consultative meeting of the heads of the states17 took place in Astana18 (now Nursultan). This was the first meeting held exclusively for and by the Central Asian states since the abolition of the CACO in 2005 where important issues such as water and energy concerns; security; development of trade and economic cooperation; and transit potential of the region were discussed. Moreover, the countries agreed to hold consultative meetings on an annual basis19.

The second summit was held on 29 November 2019 in Tashkent. CA states emphasized the importance of forming a common vision of cooperation in the region. The heads of states stressed the development of trade and economic relations. For instance, the commodity turnover of Uzbekistan with CA countries has more than doubled in recent years. Mirziyoyev proposed the establishment of an Investment Forum of CA states. The importance of security issues, the improvement of transport system in the region, the expansion of cooperation in the energy sector, as well as the cultural, humanitarian and tourism potential of Central Asia were emphasized20. To further such a vision, it was decided that ←33 | 34→foreign ministers would hold regular meetings in the form of political consultations21.

It is significant to note that agreements have been reached on very important issues that were unsolved for many years. For instance, there is a considerable breakthrough in resolving the long-standing border dispute between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan22. Another positive change is the beginning of construction of the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan. Formally, under Karimov’s presidency, this was one of the main subjects of debate between Tashkent and Dushanbe. Uzbekistan strongly opposed the building of the hydro-power station in Tajikistan, asserting that it may result in reduced water-flow to Uzbekistan with a negative impact on the country’s agriculture, an essential sector for its economy. The new Uzbek policy changed its attitude and waived objections to the project. Recently proposed resolutions that foster confidence on all sides, which is evident progress in the building of stronger relations between the states.

The Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan axis will be a driving force for the development of multilateral cooperation in the region. Both key partners are equal in this arrangement, a configuration that resembles the successful European tandem of Germany and France. In addition, if Uzbekistan further enhances trade relations with CA states, as Mirziyoyev has announced intending to do, there will be positive dynamics of cooperation. So far, there is reason to be optimistic: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan plan to establish a Central Asian international centre for trade and economic cooperation on their shared border with the aim to streamline interstate trade and establish a trade logistics hub for Central Asia. This would centralize trade interaction with other countries of the region and improve transport logistics23.

←34 | 35→

As mentioned above, one of the factors that hampered integration was that the CA economies were not complementary. This has somewhat changed today. For example, Uzbekistan currently imports oil, wheat and flour from Kazakhstan, while Kazakhstan imports fruits, vegetables and fertilizers from Uzbekistan24, further increasing the likelihood that both are mutually invested in supporting one another.

The last consultative meeting of Central Asian countries showed that they are keen to further develop cooperation. Now the question of the future of the region and what form of cooperation is the best for Central Asia becomes more relevant. The establishment of new integration structures is not expected but today the focus is reasonably on improvement of relations and cooperation, even without large-scale integration projects.

Considering the previous experience, the countries need to adhere to a pragmatic approach without complex bureaucratic mechanisms and unnecessary institutional commitment, at least in these initial stages. In this sense, cooperation in CA could be built taking into account the experience of ASEAN or of the Visegrád Group. ASEAN represents a form of “soft regionalism”25. ASEAN refrained from establishing supranational institutions similar to the EU and has a more informal style based on “compromise, consensus, and consultation”26. The Visegrád Group represents a “light” form of regional cooperation with periodic consultations, but practically no institutional framework weighing it down. For Central Asia, the example of these models of regionalism may be useful.

Today, Central Asian countries have varying models of development and levels of involvement in the global economy. The region is divided ←35 | 36→among trade blocks: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU); Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the members of the World Trade Organization (WTO); while other republics interact only within the CIS27. Therefore, these states should set realistic tasks: on the agenda are the issues of multilateral cooperation including the development of economic relations, the improvement of transport links, and the elimination of barriers to mutual trade28.

Moreover, taking into consideration Turkmenistan’s perpetual status of neutrality, Turkmenistan will be more engaged in the informal integration29.


In conclusion, Central Asian integration projects, launched in the 1990s and transformed several times, have not brought about the expected results. Due to the non-complementarity of the economies concerned, the trade relations among the Central Asian countries were developed separately from one another and with partners outside the region. As a result, the Central Asian economies became more distant from each other. Besides, there were unresolved regional problems as a result of the USSR collapse, which hindered integration. The republics also had to focus on state-building and concentrate on solving inner issues of a state.

After a 10-year break, the new open policy of Tashkent changed this configuration in the region and revived the integration processes. Since Kazakhstan has always supported the idea of Central Asian integration and Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev intends to actively develop relations with all countries of the region, this is proving a positive dynamic as the ←36 | 37→tandem of Tashkent and Nursultan can become the driver for fostering regional cooperation. Moreover, all CA countries are interested in mutual rapprochement. Everyone recognises that developing economic relations and regional trade will be mutually beneficial. This can be the starting point for strengthening and deepening the regional dialogue.

The establishment of new integration structures with bureaucratic mechanisms in Central Asia is not a viable option today. In this sense, the experience of ASEAN or of the Visegrád Group can be a useful guide. The best option for CA is to develop a pragmatic approach when issues in different areas (such as water and energy problems or development of transport system) are addressed step by step. This will create favourable conditions and a strong basis for development of multilateral cooperation that, of course, is not possible without common interests and determined political will.


1 A range of discussions were considered in the previous article “Новый этап центраʌьноазиатской интеграции” (“New Stage of the Central Asian Integration”) co-authored with Andrei Kazantsev, published by the Russian International Affairs Council, December 2019, https://russiancouncil.ru/analytics-and-comments/analytics/novyy-etap-tsentralnoaziatskoy-integratsii/.

2 Pomfret, Robert, “Regional integration in Central Asia”, in Economic Change and Restructuring, volume 42, n° 1–2, 2009, pp. 47–68. doi: 10.1007/s10644-008-9060-6.

3 Agreement on establishment of a common economic space between the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and the Republic of Uzbekistan, signed in Cholpon-Ata on 30.04.1994.

4 Makhmutova, E.V. “Central Asia in Search for its Own Way of Integration”, in MGIMO Review of International Relations, volume 4, n° 61, 2018, pp. 78–91. doi: 10.24833/2071-8160-2018-4-61-78-91.

5 Kembayev, Zhenis, “Legal Aspects of Regional Integration in Central Asia”, in Zeitschrift für ausländisches öffentliches Recht und Völkerrecht. Heidelberg Journal of International Law, volume 66, n° 4, 2006, pp. 967–983.

6 Корабоев Икбоʌжон, От регионаʌьной интеграции Центраʌьной Азии к Евразийскому интеграционному пространству? Меняющаяся динамика постсоветского регионаʌизма”, Евразийская экономическая интеграция, выпуск 3, n° 8, 2010, pp. 5–32. (Qoraboyev Ikboljon, “From Central Asian regional integration to Eurasian economic space? The changing dynamics of post-Soviet regionalism”, in Eurasian Economic Integration, volume 3, n° 8, 2010, pp. 5–32).

7 Makhmutova E.V. “Central Asia in Search for its Own Way of Integration”, in MGIMO Review of International Relations, volume 4, n° 61, 2018, pp. 78–91. doi: 10.24833/2071-8160-2018-4-61-78-91.

8 Turkmenistan didn’t join any integration regional projects adhering to its UN-recognized status of perpetual neutrality.

9 Pomfret Robert, “Regional integration in Central Asia”, in Economic Change and Restructuring, volume 42, n° 1–2, 2009, pp. 47–68. doi: 10.1007/s10644-008-9060-6.

10 Tashkent Statement of the Heads of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Republic of Tajikistan and the Republic of Uzbekistan, signed in 28.12.2001 in Tashkent.

11 Pomfret Robert, “Regional integration in Central Asia”, in Economic Change and Restructuring, volume 42, n° 1–2, 2009, pp. 47–68. doi: 10.1007/s10644-008-9060-6.

12 Махмудов Рустам, Оценка перспектив регионаʌьной интеграции в Центраʌьной Азии, Central Asia Analytical Network, январь 2018. Retrieved from: https://caa-network.org/archives/12111 (Makhmudov Rustam, Evaluation of prospects of regional integration in Central Asia, Central Asia Analytical Network, January 2018. Retrieved from: https://caa-network.org/archives/12111. Accessed on April 27, 2020).

13 Rakhimov Mirzokhid, “Complex regionalism in Central Asia: Local, regional, and global factors”, in Cambridge Journal of Eurasian Studies, volume 2, 2018, p. 5. doi: 10.22261/cjes.j6y3o7.

14 Kazantsev Andrej, “Interstate Relations in Central Asia”, in Dutkiewicz Peter et al. (eds.), Eurasia on the Edge: Managing Complexity, Lanham, MD, Lexington Books, 2018, pp. 197–212.

15 Bohr Annette, “Regionalism in Central Asia: New geopolitics, old regional order”, in International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944), volume 80, n° 3, 2004, pp. 485–502.

16 Allison Roy, “Virtual Regionalism, Regional Structures and Regime Security in Central Asia”, in Central Asian Survey, volume 27, n° 2, 2008, p. 188. doi: 10.1080/02634930802355121.

17 Turkmenistan was represented by the Speaker of Parliament (Mejilis) Akja Nurberdieva.

18 Official Website of the Executive Committee of the CIS, The First Consultative Meeting of Heads of the Central Asian States was held in Astana, March 14, 2018. Retrieved from: http://cis.minsk.by/news/8979 (Accessed on April 20, 2020).

19 Official Website of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Participation in the Working (Consultative) Meeting of the Heads of Central Asian States, March 15, 2018. Retrieved from: http://www.akorda.kz/en/events/akorda_news/meetings_and_receptions/participation-in-the-working-consultative-meeting-of-the-heads-of-central-asian-states (Accessed on 20 April 2020).

20 Official Website of the Executive Committee of the CIS, The Second Consultative Meeting of Heads of the Central Asian States was held in Tashkent, November 28, 2019. Retrieved from: http://cis.minsk.by/news.php?id=12592 (Accessed on April 20, 2020).

21 Official Website of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the United Nations, Joint Statement of the Consultative Meeting of the Heads of the Central Asian States, November 29, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.un.int/uzbekistan/ (Accessed on April 20, 2020).

22 Baumgartner Pete, Tug-of-War: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan Look to Finally Settle Decades-Old Border Dispute, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 14, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.rferl.org/a/uzbekistan-kyrgyzstan-resolving-decades-old-border-dispute/28918059.html (Accessed on April 28, 2020).

23 Yergaliyeva Aidana, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan hope planned border trading centre will boost trade to $5 billion by end of 2020, The Astana Times, April 26, 2019. Retrieved from: https://astanatimes.com/2019/04/kazakhstan-uzbekistan-hope-planned-border-trading-centre-will-boost-trade-to-5-billion-by-end-of-2020/ (Accessed on April 21, 2020).

24 Bohr Annette, “Relations with Other Central Asian States”, in Kazakhstan: Tested by Transition, Chatham House Report. The Royal Institute of International Affairs, November 2019, p. 80.

25 Zhao Suisheng, “From Soft to Structured Regionalism: Building Regional Institutions in the Asia-Pacific”, in Journal of Global Policy and Governance, volume 2, 2013, pp. 145–166. doi: 10.1007/s40320-013-0043-2.

26 Masilamani Logan, Peterson Jimmy, “The ‘Asean Way’: The Structural Underpinnings of Constructive Engagement”, in Foreign Policy Journal, October 15, 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2014/10/15/the-asean-way-the-structural-underpinnings-of-constructive-engagement/ (Accessed on April 20, 2020).

27 Central Asia Analytical Network, Евразийская и центраʌьноазиатская интеграция: вместе иʌи порознь?, декабрь 2017. Retrieved from: https://caa-network.org/archives/10995 (Central Asia Analytical Network, “Eurasian and Central Asian Integration: Together or Separately?”, December 2017. Retrieved from: https://caa-network.org/archives/10995 (Accessed on April 20, 2020).

28 Makhmutova, E.V. “Central Asia in Search for its Own Way of Integration”, in MGIMO Review of International Relations, volume 4, n° 61, 2018, pp. 78–91. doi: 10.24833/2071-8160-2018-4-61-78-91.

29 Moldashev Kairat, Qoraboyev Ikboljon, “From Regional Integration to Soft Institutionalism: What Kind of Regionalism for Central Asia?”, in Nicharapova Jildiz, Peyrouse Sebastien (eds.), Integration Processes and State Interests in Eurasia, Bishkek, 2018, pp. 83–97.

←37 | 38→

←38 | 39→

Russia- and China-led organisations in CA, whose interests do they serve? The case of Kyrgyzstan


This chapter focuses on and generalises from the case of the Kyrgyz Republic while probing into one simple fact. Regional powers use international organisations to forward their politics in world regions. This is clearly the case in Central Asia, where Russia created and leads various organisations in multiple spheres and where China created the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Thus, the question is whether such organisations that serve the interests of these regional powers are equally beneficial for Central Asian states.

Central Asia has long been viewed as a crucible of geopolitics where rival great powers compete for influence. A shifting balance of power, both globally and within the region, is changing the external dynamics and bringing new opportunities – but also new pressures. China’s economic expansion westwards is one such dynamic. Russia’s attempt to reassert its paramount role in the former Soviet territories is another1. Three reasons account for the fact that interests in Central Asia stemming from outside the region are on the rise: (i) Central Asia’s energy resources are of great importance to Europe and Asia; (ii) the geopolitical location of Central Asia is important for great players; (iii) insecurity in Central Asia A can affect the security in other regions.

Are the organisations created by Russia and China acting in Central Asia serving great powers’ interests? Or are they important for Central Asian states also? It seems that the former applies: these organisations mainly serve big players’ national and international interests. In order to ←39 | 40→test this hypothesis, this chapter analyse the goals behind their creation and existence as well as their activities in Central Asia and their roles in the development or not of the region.

Russia and China have common interests in cooperating in Central Asia. For instance, the analysis of how the SCO, as a joint project of these two regional powers, reveals several common interests. V. Mihalache identified the SCO as a tool for fighting terrorism, restoring (normalising) Sino-Russian relations, counter-balancing the USA, mutually balancing between Russia and China2. Russia has created several organisations in various spheres (political, security, economic, cultural). Neither Russia or China is interested in the creation of a properly Central Asian regional organisation whereas in the 2000s Central Asian states tried several times to establish a Central Asian organisation but these attempts but these efforts were absorbed by Russia creating the EURASEC3 and by China creating the SCO that encompasses all spheres (political, economic, cultural, security).

1. China-led organisations in Central Asia: a tool for engulfing the region

Here the chapter analyses the purposes and activities of China-led organisations such as the SCO and the BRI in order to expose their real goals. We will explore mostly BRI activities but the SCO also will be studied.

Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, China has tried to enter Central Asian region for security, economic and political issues. The main goal of Beijing in Central Asia is its own security, the economic development of its Western frontiers, and access to energy resources of CA4. The first multilateral regional project that China proposed and established in 2001 is the SCO. The main goal of the creation of the SCO was to enable Russia and China to increase their cooperation in this region without vexing each other. Through cooperation within the SCO, ←40 | 41→Russia and China could control each other’s activities in this region and influence each other’s decisions5. The SCO also served Russia and China in limiting Western countries’ presence and activities in this region and it was seen as a tool for Russia and China to contest a US-dominated world order. According to Mikhail Konarovsky, “the creation of the SCO was dictated by the international situation”, meaning that an existing “unfair world order provoked China and Russia to create the SCO”6.

After the 2005 SCO Astana declaration by the heads of its member-states, the organisation was viewed both an anti-American and anti-NATO grouping7. At that time, several US military and air bases situated in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan8 played an integral role in the Afghan war. After this 2005 declaration, the SCO came to be viewed as the ‘Eastern NATO’, a ‘Club of Dictators’ and an anti-American organisation. Most people determined that the real reason for the creation of the SCO was to limit American influence and politics in the Central Asian region9.

Despite some divergence of interests among SCO member-states, the main reason for the creation and existence of the SCO is to be a force that is able to balance the western world order. As the heads of states of the SCO have mentioned many times, and according to Sergei Konarovskiy, former deputy secretary general of the SCO, “the SCO is a tool for fair world order in the 21st century”10. Yet, it is not clear if this anti-Westernism or anti-Americanism was beneficial for Central Asian states. Most of the countries of CA declared that they follow a multi-vectoral foreign policy, meaning that they cooperate with all the states of the world11. The SCO nineteen years on … if we analyse its activities, we see ←41 | 42→how each member-State has pursued its own national goal, conducting to the inactivity (or the uselessness?) of the SCO today.

China wanted to enforce economic cooperation and to dominate economically in Central Asia. The interest of China was not limited to economic issues and touched upon security while the Xinxiang province was becoming the common frontier with Central Asia. Beijing wanted to secure its Western borders. As an emerging great power, China also has ideological interests in Central Asia. As for Russia, its two main interests in the SCO are (i) to control China’s activities and not let China dominate this region since Central Asia is strategically an extremely important region for Russia, and (ii) to stop western influence in the region with the help of China. For their part, Central Asian countries were interested mostly in the economic projects and in the financial resources coming from Moscow and Beijing.

The BRI, today a primary driver of China–Central Asia relations, is in many ways an extension of the pre-existing SCO framework12. Due to the unsuccessfulness of the SCO that was not able to accomplish Russian and Chinese aims in Central Asia, each of the two regional powers created its own integration and cooperation organisations, namely the BRI in 2013 and the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015.

The further analysis of the creation and functioning of the BRI in Central Asia will state whether it serves purely China’s interests or Central Asia’s also. According to Sarah Lain, China’s motivations for increasing the connectivity within BRI are not only development abroad but also economic stabilisation at home13. Paulo Duarte suggests that China focuses its internal efforts on the development of the BRI at the international level. Beijing sees the BRI as a way to find new markets, reduce the development imbalance between its coastal provinces and the interior ones, and preserve national stability14. Another important goal of the BRI is stability. In this sense, the BRI is largely driven by Beijing’s ←42 | 43→strategy for the development and stabilisation of Xinjiang, which the government wants to protect from any terrorist or separatist aspiration15. But there are continuous debates among scholars and politicians about the benefits and threats of the BRI to Central Asian countries16.

Within the SCO and the BRI, China’s aid to Central Asia is driven by a variety of motives, of which the top foreign policy priority is to create a stable international environment that enables its “peaceful rise” and continuous economic development. Scholars agree on three main categories of aid motives: economic, political, and ideological17. (i) Economic motives are closely aligned with China’s development interests in opening up export markets and securing natural resources. (ii) In the political sphere, China is motivated by domestic concerns about separatist movements in Xinjiang, as well as the goal of establishing strategic diplomacy that accompanies China’s rise. (iii) China uses its consistent development assistance to promote the ‘One China’ policy, upholding its strong commitment to non-interference in internal affairs and spreading its soft power and regional influence18. China pursued these goals when created the SCO in 2001 and – so the paper argues – pursued the same purposes when created the BRI in 2013. But within the BRI, China can move freely with its economic intentions while, within the SCO, its movements are limited by Russia.

The BRI is a much-debated topic in the academic, business and political areas in the world, in particular as to its results. Out of 261 Chinese projects in Central Asia, 46 are implemented, with Kyrgyzstan coming just after Kazakhstan with 102 projects. Out of 46 BRI and bilateral China-Kyrgyzstan projects, 17 deal with trade and industrial development including mineral extraction, industry, agriculture, food and finance and IT, 11 deal with rail and road connectivity, 5 with ←43 | 44→energy and 13 are people-to-people projects. According to CADGAT total Chinese investments to Kyrgyzstan is US$5.3 billion in 2019 with US$1.7 billion going to rail and road; US$2.7 billion going to energy; US$676 million to mineral and petroleum exploration, and US$31.5 million to agriculture and food. China possesses more strategic projects (34 in Kazakhstan / 32 in Kyrgyzstan) than commercial ones (12 in Kazakhstan, 70 in Kyrgyzstan)19. According to Roman Vakulchuk and Indra, overland Kyrgyzstan is of less interest to China due to the small size of its market and its geographic location20. According to Paulo Duarte “the BRI qualifies as an instrument for the securitisation of Chinese interests due to the momentum that this mega-project will bring to the Chinese economy as a whole”21.

China’s activities in Central Asia are determined as “Debt Diplomacy”. Central Asian people interpreted this notion as making Central Asia dependent on China by debt. Among Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are assessed as high risk in terms of debt. The two countries have real difficulties in paying back Chinese loans and, seeing how China is returning its debt from countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan, most of the population in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are against Chinese money. What are the purposes of China while aiding these countries? Does Beijing really intend to help or is its real intention to make them dependent on China?

Tajikistan has been described as the “first leg” of the land-based elements of the BRI. One of the poorest countries in Asia, it is assessed by the IMF and the World Bank as representing a “high risk” of debt distress. Debt to China, Tajikistan’s single largest creditor, accounts for almost 80 % of the total increase in Tajikistan’s external debt over 2007–2016. Kyrgyzstan, a relatively poor country, has significant new BRI-related infrastructure projects being constructed, much of it financed by external debt: by the end of March 2017, public and publicly guaranteed debt amounted to roughly 65 % of Bishkek’s GDP, of which external debt represented about 90 % of the total. China’s Exim Bank is the largest ←44 | 45→single creditor, with a total of US$1.5 billion reported loans by the end of 2016 (40 % of the country’s total external debt). Kyrgyz and Chinese authorities are discussing the construction of a chain of hydro-power plants, a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, additional highway construction, and completion of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline22.

On the whole, in order to enlighten whom the BRI serves, one can probe into its impact on Kyrgyz economics. In 2011–2017, total money committed to project-implementation was US$4.1 billion, and US$2.2 billion for infrastructure projects and US$1.9 billion of FDI. However, contribution to aggregated demand was much smaller according to Roman Mogilevski since most of these resources went to imports of goods and services from China: the contribution of these projects to employment in Kyrgyzstan is not significant as it makes up for only 0.1–0.3 % of the country’s total employment. Companies with Chinese participation paid US$53.2 million in taxes to the Kyrgyz budget, a mere 2.5 % of state budget (Finance Ministry of Kyrgyz Republic). Concerning trade, Kyrgyz exports to China in 2016–2017 were 2 % of the country’s total export (mostly gold export) and imports of machinery and equipment from China in 2011–2017 represented 6–10 % of Bishkek’s total imports23. The Chinese companies CRBC and TBEA Co. Ltd have implemented all of infrastructure projects that mostly use Chinese labour force as well as machinery; equipment and materials imported from China24.

2. Russia-led organisations in Central Asia: a tool for regional hegemonism

Here the chapter analyses the economic purposes, activities and role of Russia-led organisations in Central Asia stemming from the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Russia’s overriding concerns in its neighbourhood, including Central Asia, focus on four main areas: (i) military security; (ii) regime consolidation; (iii) protection of the Russian language and ethnic Russians (arguably used as a convenient pretext); (iv) ←45 | 46→and the project of the EAEU. Russia remains the most powerful security actor in Central Asia25.

The EAEU is seen by some scholars as an attempt by Moscow to develop a rival project to the European Union (EU)’s Eastern Partnership26. Many Western academics follow a purely realist approach, defining the EAEU as Russia’s neo-imperial project27. According to Jeffrey Mankoff, the main reason for its integration is to “re-establish Russia as a major global player”28. Elena Kropatcheva, argues that Putin’s political course in the so-called near-abroad has actually been “consistent in pursuing its main realist interests: maximisation of power and security....vis-a-vis the West”29, which is constantly triggered by the exclusion of Russia from international decision-making30. The EAEU is seen as a manifestation of the “post-imperial syndrome”, rooted in “annexationist Pan-Russianism”, alongside “pre-imperial” Russian foreign policy31.

Yet, some western authors analyse Eurasian integration with liberal theories. Accordingly, Eurasian integration is not a product of Russian hegemonism but a tendency for states to form regional groupings for the sake of mutual economic benefit32. This view is dominant in the region, especially in Russia and Central Asia, that is to say that Central Asian and Russian scholars mostly support this view as well.

In order to test these hypotheses, the participation of Kyrgyz Republic in the EAEU in 2015–2018 is analysed: how entering the EAEU impacted Kyrgyz migrants’ rights and lives in Russia as this was the main ←46 | 47→reason for Kyrgyzstan joining the EAEU. Concerning migrants’ rights and remittances coming from Russia, several studies were conducted by various institutes and researchers. Tatiana Zlobina, coordinator of the programme on human rights and migration, summed up the TSPC AUCA33: “One of the conclusions of our study is that the integration processes went with great difficulty, and even the mechanisms for protecting the labour rights of migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan created by entering the EAEU are still functioning with limited efficiency”. According to Anne-Sophie Gast, the situation of Kyrgyz labour migrants in Russia has significantly improved and remittances have increased in 2015–2016 by 22 % to US$1.6 billion34. Remittances for 2018 amounted to US$2.1 billion35.

In economic terms, results are mixed. For the period January–August 2018, the trade volume of Kyrgyzstan decreased by 3.5 % and was US$1.48 billion with other EAEU-states36. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Kyrgyzstan increased by US$9.6 million in the third quarter of 201837. By 2019, the Russian-Kyrgyz Development Fund, out of the US$500 million allocated by the Russian Federation, has already approved 1,657 projects in the amount of US$307.2 million. (49 % for small and medium-sized businesses; 23.9 % for agriculture; 29.6 % in the production sector)38. In 2017, Almazbek Atambaev declared that Kyrgyzstan had received US$800 million to enter the EAEU smoothly39. Almaz Sazbakov, special representative of the Kyrgyz government to the EAEU, stated that, in the first 9 months of 2018, the trade turnover of ←47 | 48→Kyrgyzstan amounted to 4.3 billion dollars in total, an increase of 9.5 %, compared with the same period of 2017. With EAEU countries, trade turnover decreased by 3.5 %, at the same time but exports to the EAEU grew by 5.2 %. Total exports amounted to US$1.37 billion. The volume of imports decreased by 6.2 %40, but the volume of exports increased. A decrease in imports and an increase in exports is a good indicator41.

According to Anne-Sophie Gast, Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies, the results of Kyrgyzstan’s participation in the EAEU are mixed.

“While FDI has increased and the situation of Kyrgyz labour migrants has improved, the desired economic boost and modernisation have not materialised yet. Furthermore, overall export has declined and trade with China, Kyrgyzstan’s largest trading partner, went down. This is due to poor preparations on the Kyrgyz side, difficulties to implement the requirements of the [EAE]Union, but also a general economic slow-down in the Eurasian region and a diplomatic conflict with Kazakhstan”42.

According to Dastan Bekeshev,

“if the EAEU also cancelled the borders following the example of the EU, then it would be beneficial for Kyrgyzstan. But given that our production cannot compete with large companies of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan, the [EAE]Union is unprofitable for us. Our companies cannot enter the 180 million [people] market due to strict rules and standards approved by the EAEU. We cannot compete in prices. And it is clear that we become only consumers of the goods of our partners. It kills our economy. But there was no way out. 700 thousand migrants live in the Russian Federation. It is a powerful tool against us”43.


In conclusion, this article discussed the activities and goals of regional organisations in Central Asia that are created by Russia and China. Central Asia mostly hosts China- and Russia-led organisations and most of them are viewed as tools for big states to achieve their national interest.

←48 | 49→

Their interests do not always contradict those of Central Asian states. Regional security is the common interest for China, Russia and all Central Asian states. The SCO, CSTO and even economic organisations such as the BRI and the EAEU pursue regional security for the first place.

The next interest is economic that is not always mutually beneficial. According to Central Asian analysts, the main goal of the SCO, the BRI and the EAEU in the economic sphere is to serve these regional big countries such as China and Russia. This chapter showed how economic cooperation is not always beneficial for both sides with the case of the EAEU-Kyrgyzstan and the BRI-Kyrgyzstan cases.

The third interest of big powers is anti-Westernism or anti-Americanism, which is not also always beneficial for Central Asian states. The latter are interested in cooperating with all states in the world including the US that contributed to Central Asia in all spheres (security, economic, political – democracy, etc.).

Further research on EAEU-Central Asia and BRI-Central Asia will take further this chapter’s questioning of China- and Russia-led regional organisations’ real intentions and purposes.


1 “Central Asia at a crossroads Russia and China’s changing roles in the region and the implications for peace and stability”, Report by Saferworld June 2015, p. 1.

2 Mihalache Veronica, “Cooperation vs. competition in Central Asia, Challenges of the Knowledge Society”, in Political Sciences, European Studies and International Relations, pp. 828–833.

3 Or Eurasian Economic Community.

4 B. Mariani, China’s role and interests in Central Asia, Saferworld October 2013.

5 J. Nicharapova, doctoral thesis “L’OCS: un nouveau mode de coopération ou une nouvelle intégration régionale?” defended, 2014, Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence, France: https://www.theses.fr/fr/2014AIXM1040.

6 Personal talk with Mikhail Konarovsky, deputy secretary general of the SCO, 2011, Secretariat of the SCO.

7 A. Cooley, “Russia and the Recent Evolution of the SCO: Issues and Challenges for U.S. Policy”, ­chapter 1 in book The Policy World Meets Academia: Designing U.S. Policy toward Russia, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2010.

8 L. Beehner, U.S. Military Bases in Central Asia, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/asia-us-military-bases-central-asia.

9 Ibid.

10 Interview with Sergei Konarovskiy deputy secretary general of the SCO during internship in the secretariat of the SCO in 2011 in Beijing.

11 Foreign policy strategy of Kyrgyz Republic.

12 Hao Tian, “China’s Conditional Aid and Its Impact in Central Asia”, ­chapter 3 in Marlene Laruelle book BRI and its impact on CA, George Washington University 2018.

13 Lain, S., “The Potential and Pitfalls of Connectivity along the Silk Road Economic Belt”, ­chapter 1 in Marlene Laruelle book BRI and its impact on CA, George Washington University 2018.

14 Duarte, P., “China in the Heartland: The Challenges and Opportunities of OBOR for Central Asia”, ­chapter 2 in Marlene Laruelle book BRI and its impact on CA, George Washington University 2018.

15 Zhao Minghao, “China’s New Silk Road Initiative” (paper presented at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), Rome, October 1–12, 2015).

16 Jaborov, Safovudin, “Chinese Loans in Central Asia: Development Assistance or ‘Predatory Lending’?”, ­chapter 4 in Marlene Laruelle book BRI and its impact on CA, George Washington University 2018.

17 Deborah Brautigam, The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, New York, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 15; Lengauer, “China’s Foreign Aid Policy: Motive and Method”, p. 44.

18 Hao Tian, “China’s Conditional Aid and Its Impact in Central Asia”, ­chapter 3 in Marlene Laruelle book BRI and its impact on CA, George Washington University 2018.

19 Amindjonov F. et al., “BRI in CA: Overview of Chinese Projects”, CADGAT Academy of OSCE Bishkek, Central Asian Data Review, 20 (2019) 1–5.

20 Vakulchuk R., Overland I., “China’s BRI through the lens of CA”, in Fanny M. Cheung and Ying-yi Hong, Regional Connection under the BRI, Routledge, TFG, 2019.

21 Duarte, op. cit.

22 Hurley John, Morris Scott and Portelance Gailyn, “Examining the Debt Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative from a Policy Perspective”, Center for Global Development Policy Paper 121 March 2018 in https://www.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/examining-debt-implications-belt-and-road-initiative-policy-perspective.pdf.

23 Mogilevski R., Kyrgyzstan and BRI, UCA, Working paper #50, 2019, p. 13.

24 Ibid., p. 9.

25 Saferworld, op. cit., p. 16.

26 Dreyer I., Popescu N. (2014), “The Eurasian Customs Union: The economics and the politics”, European Union Institute for Security Studies. March. Ksenia Kirkham, “The formation of the EAEU: How successful is the Russian regional hegemony?”, Journal of Eurasian Studies, 7 (2016), 111–128.

27 Ksenia Kirkham, “The formation of the EAEU: How successful is the Russian regional hegemony?”, Journal of Eurasian Studies, 7 (2016), 111–128.

28 Mankoff J. (2012), “What a Eurasian Union means for Washington”, The National Interest, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/what-eurasian-union-means-washington-6821; April, 19.

29 Kropatcheva E. (2012), “Russian foreign policy in the realm of European security through the lens of neoclassical realism”, Journal of Eurasian Studies, 3, 30–40.

30 Kirkham, op. cit., p. 113.

31 Van Herpen, Putin’s wars: The rise of Russia’s new imperialism, Maryland, Rowman and Littlefield Publisher, 2014, p. 56.

32 Kirkham, op. cit., p. 113.

33 Три года в ЕАЭС: как собʌюдаются права трудовых мигрантов из КР в РФ и РК? (Иссʌедование ТАЦ 2017–2018 гг.) 23 января 2019 https://auca.kg/en/migration_and_social_protection/.

34 Anne-Sophie Gast, “Kyrgyzstan and EAEU: A partnership with Obstacles”, Policy brief n° 45, January 2018, Academy of OSCE in Bishkek.

35 Indirect interview with representatives of Ministry of Economics of Kyrgyz Republic on April 4, 2019 in Bishkek.

36 Объем торговʌи Кыргызстана с ЕАЭС за год снизиʌся на 3,5 % 15.10.2018. Rus.azattyk.org/a/29543835.html.

37 National Bank of Kyrgyz Republic https://tradingeconomics.com/kyrgyzstan/foreign-direct-investment.

38 Indirect interview with representatives of Ministry of Economics of Kyrgyz Republic on April 4, 2019 in Bishkek.

39 Аʌмазбек Атамбаев о российских военных базах, ЕАЭС и Верхненарынском каскаде June 24, 2017 https://24.kg/vlast/55918_almazbek_atambaev_orossiyskih_voennyih_bazah_eaes_iverhnenaryinskom_kaskade/.

40 National Statistic Committee of Kyrgyzstan http://stat.kg/en/.

41 “What did Kyrgyzstan get from EAEU?”, On October 29, 2018 in https://m.gezitter.org/economics/74255_vopros_dnya_chto_obrel_kyirgyizstan_vstupiv_v_eaes/.

42 Anne-Sophie Gast, “Kyrgyzstan and EAEU: A partnership with Obstacles”, Policy brief, n° 45, January 2018, Academy of OSCE in Bishkek.

43 Interview with deputy of Jogorku Kenesh Dastan Bekeshev on April 4, 2019 in Bishkek.

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←50 | 51→

Regions of the Russian Far-East and pragmatic Eurasian para-diplomatic relations


Two recent reasons urged Russia’s regional authorities to engage in international cooperation in order to improve their development: (i) the peripherality of the regions of the Russian Far-East vis-à-vis the political, economic and socio-cultural centre (Moscow); (ii) the social and economic crisis affecting Russia since the 1990s. In the early 21st century, the improvement of Russia’s social and economic situation merged this para-diplomatic activity with the long-term development of the state and the regions. This para-diplomacy then was controlled by the Kremlin and included in the country’s foreign policy. The “Putin era” led Moscow (i) to control effectively the international activity of Russian regions and (ii) use this activity as a tool for improving Moscow’s foreign policy. Today, the international activity of Russian regions, more developed than in the 1990s, is formally limited and strictly supervised by federal authorities.

The crisis between Russian and the West saw, after 2014, the Kremlin encourage Russian regions to intensify contacts with non-Western and non-European partners. Regions in the Russian Far East have benefited from this through the exceptional opportunities offered by their geographic location, their potential, their interests1.

In this chapter, the “international activity of the regions” is used as a paraphrase for the “para-diplomatic activity of the regions”. And “para-diplomacy” is used to describe the participation of the sub-state regions in international relations (IR). Thus the “international activity of a region” ←51 | 52→refers to the “involvement of the regional authorities in establishing both formal and informal, permanent and temporary contacts with public and private foreign entities in IR, and pursue broadly understood interests of the region, as well as other formal competencies that relate to IR”2.

Para-diplomacy goes hand in hand with classic diplomacy, complementing it and remaining subordinated to it3. It may become an element of the state’s international strategy, supporting the doctrines of foreign policy, economic policy, cultural policy, etc.

The entities that carry out para-diplomatic activity tend to avoid issues related to “high politics” and state security. Regions usually indicate economic and socio-cultural interests as the main goals of international activity. Regions’ broadly understood culture is used as an economic asset to attract foreign tourists and investments as well as for the international branding of the region. These sub-state entities also excel at being “goodwill ambassadors” on the international stage, promoting values (peace, understanding, cooperation, rapprochement between states and societies4...

Analysing determinants of the para-diplomatic activity of regions in the Russian Far East (1) highlights the pragmatic development of para-diplomatic contacts in Eurasia (2)

1. Determinants of the para-diplomatic activity of the regions of the Russian Far East

The Russian Far East or Far Eastern Federal District comprises nine subjects: the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Kamchatka Krai, Khabarovsk Krai, Primorsky Krai, Amur Oblast, Magadan Oblast (Kolyma), Sakhalin Oblast, Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. These nine regions spread over 6.2 million km2 (over 36 % of Russia); their population (about 6.2 millions) being less than 5 % of ←52 | 53→Russia5. About 80 % inhabitants declare themselves as Russians; with the largest group of non-Russians are “indigenous” Yakuts (7.5 % of the local population6).

The economy of the Russian Far East rests on the mining industry, particularly the exploitation of oil and natural gas that dominates its exports, primarily to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as well as to Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK)7. Rare-earth metals, gold, silver, platinum and diamonds are also mined and exported. Mineral resources are often a target for foreign direct investments (FDI). Fishing, forestry, agriculture and hunting… are significant sectors of the economy of the Russian Far East. Yet, investments are lacking in mining and processing industries and agriculture, mainly as to modern technologies. This limits the opportunity to exploit the rich potential of the Far East. Poorly developed and obsolete transport infrastructure reduce the chance for greater influence in IR. Under-invested seaports and most of airports require modernisation. These conditions are a factor discouraging foreign investors8.

Among factors with a crucial impact on the nature and scope of the international contacts of regions of the Russian Far East, one finds especially the economy: the geographic location, the dominant position of companies engaged in the exploitation of natural resources, a relatively well-developed agri-food sector.

The leading foreign trade partners of the regions of the Russian Far East are Chinese, South Korean and Japanese9. Most foreign capitals ←53 | 54→invested in the Russian Far East are in fact funds “taken” from Russia, then returned in the form of FDI by businesses registered in “tax havens”. Such capital is typically invested in various small projects. Chinese businesses also frequently use offshore markets; and Chinese investors often apply the tactic of camouflaging the source of their capital and “labelling” it as Russian10.

As for the implementation of significant energy and infrastructural projects, the regional authorities of the Russian far East mainly rely on the China and Japan. Their hopes to encourage Chinese FDI concern particularly the energy projects and transport infrastructures. The Kremlin could thus reduce the significance of the Kuril-islands issue vis-à-vis Japan by separating it from bilateral economic cooperation. Despite the absence of a Russian-Japanese peace treaty and the ongoing territorial dispute, Japan developed cross-border cooperation with the Sakhalin Oblast and the Primorsky Krai.

2. The pragmatic development of para-diplomatic contacts in Eurasia

Among the regions of the Russian Far East, the Sakhalin Oblast stands out in terms of activity in IR. This is a result of its dynamic socio-economic development related to the exploration of energy resources. The regional authorities recognise as their priority the development of the fuel and energy complex, transport, fishing, and food industries. Para-diplomatic cooperation in social policy, culture, science or sports is believed to be “additional”. The major trade partners of the Sakhalin Oblast are entities from the neighbouring countries: Japan, South Korea and China. Energy resources are chiefly exported, particularly oil (mostly to South Korea and Japan), LNG (to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) and black coal (to South Korea, Japan, China, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam and Hong Kong). Leading importers of fish and other marine ←54 | 55→products are China and South Korea. Machines and devices (an effect of investments by domestic and foreign entities) and means of transport are brought to the region11.

Special attention was attached to the issue of the Russian-Japanese economic projects implemented in the disputed southern part of the Kuril Islands. The parties started to work on joint socio-economic projects, particularly related to the fishing industry, healthcare, revitalisation of residential buildings, aquaculture and greenhouses, tourism, wind energy, and waste-reduction on disputed territories12. The patent goal is to obtain Japanese FDI and new technologies; the latent one is the desire to resolve the territorial dispute.

South Korea became an essential direction of Sakhalin’s para-diplomatic activity. The 25,000 Korean minority living in the Sakhalin Oblast is a critical element binding cooperation. The desire of their representatives to maintain ties with the homeland stimulates both business and social contacts between Sakhalin and South Korea. The authorities of Sakhalin have tried to develop investment cooperation with South Korean partners. Korean investments have flown to the construction sector, coal mining, fish processing, trade, and transport. Sakhalin’s capital has invested in Busan in the freight-container terminal. Sakhalin has also begun cooperating with its South Korean partners over air-passenger transport, health protection, education, culture, and sports13.

←55 | 56→

Another active sub-state international actor is the Primorsky Krai. Its economic potential and geographic location serve its ability to influence IR. The Primorsky Krai has focused its international activity on cooperation with partners from China, South Korea, Japan and North Korea. Para-diplomacy is facilitated as Vladivostok plays the role of the Russian Far East’s “capital” with nine Consulates, more than dozen honorary Consulates and regional representation of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Several international events were held there: the 2015 APEC summit, the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum… The region’s exports are dominated by fish and seafood as well as energy resources. These are “supplemented” by wood and metals. Imports are mainly: machines and devices, means of transport, food products, chemical articles, metals, and textiles. The primary source of FDI is Russian business reinvesting in the country. Businesses from South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Japan and the Netherlands have invested money in the region. The purpose of these investments is first transport and logistics, industrial processing, financial and insurance services, agriculture, forestry, fishery, and construction14.

The Khabarovsk Krai has demonstrated considerable international activity. The priority direction of the region’s para-diplomacy is China, especially the Jilin province. The foundation of bilateral cooperation is forestry. Tourism, coal, non-ferrous and rare metals mining, farming, and the building of a cargo terminal in the seaport of Vanino are also mutually advantageous. The Khabarovsk Krai has developed cooperation with both South and North Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. South Korea is the region’s second partner in trade and FDI. The largest joint project is the modernisation of the Khabarovsk airport. Bilateral cooperation relates also to health protection. As to Japan, the region has sought to attract investments: the joint Japanese-Russian enterprise JGC Evergreen was founded in 2015. The firm produces large-scale greenhouse vegetables. Together with the Tottori prefecture, the region has begun to develop trade connections and cooperation in agriculture, culture, ←56 | 57→youth exchange, and social welfare. Vietnam exports several goods to the region, including plastic and leather products. Vietnamese investors have started investing and plan to develop cooperation in biological resources processing, forestry, light industry, and tourism. North Korea is treated as a source of labour and as tourist destination15.

The international activity of a small Jewish Autonomous Oblast is focused on cross-border cooperation with the Chinese Heilongjiang province in trade and investments, tourism, agriculture, and culture. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development is willing to contribute to the improvement of the investment climate in the region16.

As for the Amur Oblast, the most intensive and comprehensive cross-border cooperation is also with the Chinese Heilongjiang province. The issues of trade between commercial entities, acquiring workforce, development of cross-border transport infrastructure, tourism, farming, exploitation of mineral resources as well as care of the memorial sites related to the World War II dominate. The Amur Oblast and Heilongjiang province organise joint festivals and fairs. The universities of both regions also cooperate actively. Most goods of the region’s export (mainly to China) are minerals, as well as agri-food goods, wood, and the products of the pulp and paper industry. Import is based on bringing machines and devices, agri-food, and chemical products. Most investors are Chinese enterprises operating in the construction and trade industries. As a result of established contacts with North Korea, the region has NK workers. Finally, the region promotes the culture of partner countries: as for South ←57 | 58→Korea, the issue of medical care has been dominant with the training of the region’s specialists in the ROK, the so-called medical tourism. South Korean firms have begun to invest in the agricultural sector. Japanese businesses and scientists have also been interested in regional farming. Moreover, in the case of Japan, the exhumation of the remains of Japanese citizens, who died during the internment in the USSR, has been of high importance17.

Among the regions of the Russian Far East located in the most challenging natural conditions of Eurasia, the Kamchatka Krai stands out in overall para-diplomatic activity, especially Yakutia due to the trade volume with foreign partners. Chukotka and Kolyma are less engaged in IR.

China and South Korea are the most important foreign trade partners of Kamchatka. Japan and the Netherlands are less significant in this context. The regional authorities have tried to attract FDI by promoting the region through international events such as exhibitions, festivals, fairs, sports competitions, mainly promoting its unique tourist attractiveness18.

The Republic of Sakha has recognised relations with foreign commercial entities such as the Japan Auction Systems19, Sumitomo Corporation and Mitsui20, and Chinese ←58 | 59→NORINCO21 as the most essential economic contacts. Yakutia’s important directions of para-diplomatic activity are the Arctic – through the “Northern Forum” and the Arctic Council; Eastern Asia – due to participation in the Association of North East Asia Regional Governments and bilateral contacts with importers and investors from Japan, South Korea and China; Europe – in the context of the export of industrial diamonds and jewellery, and attracting investments; North America – to search for investors22 and to import machines and devices. Gemstones, metals, and coal have dominated regional exports. Considering the unit value of the goods, the geographical structure of the Yakut foreign trade has been determined by the export of diamonds and jewellery, mainly to Belgium and India. Imports comprise machines and devices as well as food products from the USA, Canada, and China23.

Kolyma is not an attractive place for life and tourism. Foreign entities, mainly Chinese, invest primarily in the sector of precious metals. The majority of the region’s turnover with foreign partners is with China. Investors come from the USA, Canada, Germany, Britain, South Korea, Australia, Barbados, and Cyprus. Kolyma has been actively promoted abroad, particularly in Japan, South Korea, and Australia24.

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Chukotka’s nature and climate conditions make it difficult to do business and to live in general. Almost the entire export (almost exclusively mineral products) has been directed to China25. In terms of imports (mainly machines and means of transport as well as chemical products and natural rubber), the most significant partner is China. Other imports are the USA and Canada (with a significant share), Japan and South Korea (a much smaller share). Gold, oil, and natural gas exploitation (to the greatest extent) and coal mining, fishery, animal breeding26 and hunting27 (to the lesser extent) have determined the region’s ability to cooperate with abroad. Chukotka is a region that is not attractive and risky in terms of investment. Foreign investors (first and foremost from Cyprus, Canada, the USA, UK) have been interested almost exclusively in the exploitation of mineral resources. The most significant investment has been in gold mines by Canadian Kinross Gold Corporation28.


In conclusion, economic, socio-cultural, scientific, administrative and other ties that the regions of the Russian Far East established abroad, have strengthened the Russian Federation’s influence in Eurasia and significantly enriched its foreign policy instruments. Due to the nature of this para-diplomatic activity, these ties improved the international image of Russia. Importantly, such relations created another trade and investment platform, which is now difficult to replace with “classic” economic diplomacy implemented by the federal authorities.

←60 | 61→

Moreover, cross-border cooperation is often a tool for solving problems and decreasing tension between Russia and the neighbouring countries. Particularly, cooperation between the Sakhalin Oblast and Japanese entities has positively influenced the reduction of the international dispute related to the Kuril Islands.

Still, few reasons suggest that the Far Eastern subjects of the Russian Federation will shortly become a dynamically developing regions and, as a consequence, drive Russia’s economic growth, or increase Russian influence in Eurasia. The Russian Far East has a vast potential. However, currently, numerous Russian opportunities maintain the status of a resource base for China and other Asia-Pacific countries. Nevertheless, it is clear that the para-diplomacy practiced by the above-mentioned regions contributes to their development, even if not to the extent that the local elites and communities would expect.


1 More on the evolution of Russian regions’ para-diplomacy: Raś Maciej, “Aktywność międzynarodowa regionów Federacji Rosyjskiej” (“International Activity of the Russian Federation’s Regions”), Warsaw, 2018, 426 p.

2 Cornago Noe, “Diplomacy and Paradiplomacy In the Redefinition of International Security: Dimensions of Conflict and Cooperation”, w: Aldecoa Francisco, Keating Michael J. (eds.), “Paradiplomacy in Action. The Foreign Relations of Subnational Governments”, London-Portland, Oregon, 1999, 232 p.

3 Modzelewski Wojciech T., “Paradyplomacja regionów. Studium województw Polski wschodniej” (“Paradiplomacy of Regions. The Study of Eastern Poland’s Voivodships”), Olsztyn, 2016, 416 p.

4 Raś, op. cit.

5 Federal State Statistics Service (Russia), http://www.gks.ru/wps/wcm/connect/rosstat_main/rosstat/ru/statistics/population/demography/, access: 01.01.2019.

6 Federal State Statistics Service (Russia), http://www.gks.ru/free_doc/new_site/perepis2010/croc/results2.html, Attachment 2, access: 10.05.2020.

7 Kardaś Szymon, “A Region with Special Needs. The Russian Far East in Moscow’s Policy”, Centre for Eastern Studies, Warsaw, June 2017, 50 p.; “Russian LNG: Progress and delay in 2017”, The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, March 2017, 19 p.

8 Bardal Anna B., “Транспортный компʌекс России в период реформ: даʌьневосточный ракурс” (“The Transport Complex of Russia During the Reform Period: The Far Eastern Perspective”), Пространственная экономика, 2017, n° 4, pp. 101–129; Sergeev Aleksandr S., “Вʌияние экспортного товарно-сырьевого бизнеса на развитие экономики морских портов Даʌьневосточного региона” (“The Impact of the Export Commodity Business on the Development of the Economy of the Seaports of the Far Eastern Region”, Известия Даʌьневосточного федераʌьного университета. Экономика и управʌение, 2014, n° 3 (71), pp. 107–114.

9 Prokapalo Olga M., Isaev Artiom G., Mazitova Marina G., “Экономическая конъюнктура в Даʌьневосточном федераʌьном округе в 2015 г.” (“Economic Conditions in the Far Eastern Federal District in 2015”), Пространственная экономика, 2016, n° 2, pp. 123–157.

10 Ivanov S.A, Savtchenko A. Ye., Zuenko I. Yu., Kozlov L. Ye., “Китайский капитаʌ на юге Даʌьнего Востока России: ожидания государства и реаʌии взаимодействия. Анаʌитический докʌад” (“Chinese Capital in the South of the Russian Far East: State Expectations and Interaction Realities. Analytical Report”), Center for Asian and Pacific Studies of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladivostok, 2016, 29 p.

11 “О международных и внешнеэкономических связях Сахаʌинской обʌасти” (“On International and Foreign Economic Relations of the Sakhalin Oblast”), 11.02.2020, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), https://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/4033664; “Внешнеэкономическая деятеʌьность” (“Foreign Economic Activity”), 21.02.2017, Governor and Government of the Sakhalin Oblast, https://sakhalin.gov.ru/index.php?id=152.

12 “Abe and Putin Likely to Sign Off On Economic Projects On Disputed Isles”, The Japan Times, 06.09.2017, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/09/06/national/politics-diplomacy/abe-putin-likely-sign-off-economic-cooperation-disputed-isles/#.WocG05Vy5PZ; Kubasik-Kobiałka Ewa, “Japonia i Rosja rozpoczynają współpracę ekonomiczną na Kurylach” (“Japan and Russia Begin Economic Cooperation in the Kurils”), Japonia-Online.pl, 26.03.2017, http://japonia-online.pl/news/5444.

13 “О сотрудничестве Сахаʌинской обʌасти и Респубʌики Корея” (“On cooperation between the Sakhalin Oblast and the Republic of Korea”), 15.03.2016, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), http://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/2142540.

14 “Приморский край” (“Promorsky Krai”), 11.02.2020, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), https://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/2836008; “О нешнеэкономической деятеʌьности Приморского края в 2016 году” (“On the Foreign Economic Activity of the Primorsky Krai in 2016”), 26.04.2017, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), https://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/2737655.

15 “О международных связях и внешнеэкономической деятеʌьности Хабаровского края, Еврейской автономной обʌасти и Магаданской обʌасти” (“On International Relations and Foreign Economic Activity of the Khabarovsk Krai, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and the Magadan Oblast”), 25.07.2019, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), https://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/2416864; “О международных связях и внешнеэкономической деятеʌьности Хабаровского края и Еврейской автономной обʌасти во втором квартаʌе 2016 года” (“On international relations and foreign economic activity of the Khabarovsk Krai and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the second quarter of 2016”), 31.08.2016, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), http://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/2416864.

16 “Согʌашения Еврейской автономной обʌасти” (“Jewish Autonomous Oblast Agreements”, 20.04.2014, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), http://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/74614. See also footnote 13.

17 “Международные и внешнеэкономические связи Амурской обʌасти” (“International and Foreign Economic Relations of the Amur Oblast”), 11.02.2020, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), https://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/3055318; “О международных и внешнеэкономических связях Амурской обʌасти” (“On International and Foreign Economic Relations of the Amur Oblast”), 15.08.2017, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), http://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/2836564.

18 “О международной и внешнеэкономической деятеʌьности Камчатского края в 2019 году” (“On International and Foreign Economic Activity of the Kamchatka Krai in 2019”, 18.03.2020, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), https://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/4089937.

19 Cooperation in the sale of diamonds produced by the local company Sakha Diamond on global markets. Danilov Ju. G., “ОАО ‘Саха Даймонд’” (“Sakha Diamond Plc.”), Rough&Polished, 14.10.2013, http://www.rough-polished.com/ru/analytics/82891.html.

20 Coking coals supplies to Japanese manufacturers of steel and the exploration of rare earths. “A Russian Republic Sakha/Increasing of Coking Coal Mining at Nerungri Mine Project”, NEXI-Nippon Export and Investment Insurance, 28.04.2005, http://www.nexi.go.jp/en/topics/newsrelease/002090.html); “Mitsui and Sumitomo to Invest in Siberian Rare Earth Deposits”, Russia Briefing, 14.02.2011, https://www.russia-briefing.com/news/mitsui-and-sumitomo-to-invest-in-siberian-rare-earth-deposits.html/.

21 Deliveries of coking coals from Yakutugol. “Про Якутугоʌь: Журнаʌ ChinaPRO” (“About Yakutugol: ChinaPRO Magazine”), Strana-Yu-Ya.narod.ru, 16.08.2010, http://strana-yu-ya.narod.ru/index-old/news2yau/news160810yau.html.

22 A significant investor is Canadian company Silver Bear Resources Plc. exploiting silver.

23 “Респубʌика Саха (Якутия)” (“The Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)”), 23.05.2017, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), http://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/2291549.

24 “Государственная программа Магаданской обʌасти ‘Развитие внешнеэкономической деятеʌьности Магаданской обʌасти и поддержка соотечественников, проживающих за рубежом на 2014–2018 годы’” (“The State Programme of the Magadan Oblast ‘Development of Foreign Economic Activity of the Magadan Oblast and Support of Compatriots Living Abroad for 2014–2018’”), 13.03.2014, Government of the Magadan Oblast, https://www.49gov.ru/common/download.php?file=2_197_13.03.2014_1.pdf&obj=document; “О международных связях и внешнеэкономической деятеʌьности Магаданской обʌасти в 2018 году” (“On international Relations and Foreign Economic Activity of the Magadan Oblast in 2018”), 19.03.2019, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), https://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/3578383.

25 Some export goes to Taiwan and the ROK.

26 It is a place where the world’s biggest herd of deer lives.

27 The export of expensive leather and so-called hunting tourism.

28 “Внешнеэкономическая деятеʌьность Чукотского автономного округа январь-сентябрь 2017 года” (“Foreign Economic Activity of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug January-September 2017”), Portal of state bodies of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, http://чукотка.рф/region/branches/ved/, access: 14.12.2019; “Паспорт Чукотского автономного округа” (“Passport of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug”), 27.08.2012, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), http://www.mid.ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/145918; “Kupol Gold and Silver Mine”, Mining Technology, http://www.mining-technology.com/projects/kupalgoldandsilver/, access: 16.04.2020.

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Comparing how Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) change political activity in Europe and Asia


Public protests throughout Eurasia, late 2018 and early 2020, demonstrated a fundamental, common characteristic: political activism has ‘digitalised’. The borderline between street- and online-activity has ‘blurred’. Comparative analysis of protests in Paris (yellow vests), Moscow (municipal elections), Hong Kong (anti-government)… point to the rapidly growing digitalisation of protests, i.e. ‘high-tech’ means of battling governments.

The first such wave of Twitter or Facebook revolutions occurred during the 2014 ‘Arab spring’. The ‘Umbrella revolution’ in Hong Kong or the ‘Snow revolution’ of 2011–2013 in Russia already used remarkably Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) but were no match for recent ‘digital’ revolutions in Eurasia. Recent protests were covered by a myriad of independent media, including popular bloggers and other opinion makers, live-streamed, created abundant content such as memes.

Most importantly, they mobilised a wide range of new technologies such as cryptocurrencies, offline messengers, new communication platforms. Another new trend of ICT-based political activity is a ‘digital protest’ during self-isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This chapter details the effects of new ICT on protests in various countries of Europe and Asia in order to understand how technologies change politics in the broad context, successively the crisis of ‘offline politics’ and digital response to it (1), ‘digital protest’ in Eurasian societies (2) and digital protest as challenge or opportunity (3).

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1. Crisis of ‘off-line politics’ and ‘digital’ response to it

Elections were for centuries the traditional instrument of representative democracy and mass demonstrations were also a form of political dissent demonstrating freedom of speech and freedom of self-organisation. Social media, messengers… simplified the organising of mass protests. With tools provided by modern social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, activists of common cause can instantly feed each other’s indignation by exchanging detailed information. Yet, these modern demonstrations often lack leadership and coalition-building skills that can transform collective grievances into real change.

Growing digitalisation of protests might thus be perceived as a response to the crisis of participatory democracy.

It became recently evident that widespread protests can help promote public agenda and start public debate. Yet, even in developed democracies, mass protests might not be sufficient to influence governmental policies. This is partly due to this lack of a clear leadership. Before social networks appeared, the organising of effective mass demonstrations took more time and effort. Leaders and activists had to plan, raise funds to address public opinion. In many cases such activities were underpinned by concomitant government or law-enforcement pressure. All this required strong leadership in order to instil confidence in people who invested time, money and connections in a protest.

By contrast, the new ad-hoc-cracy driven by social media, with all its flexibility and effectiveness, often lacks leaders who can mobilise people in the direction of a well-defined and achievable goal1.

An important, distinctive characteristic of modern protest is its using ICT, that is various high-tech tools for the visualisation of the protest using carnival-techniques and vibrant characters. Besides means of communication that are widely used to mobilise citizens, among which the first place goes to digital media. Political protest can be expressed in various forms: legal or illegal, planned or spontaneous, active or passive, traditional or innovative, etc. In the situation where social media and other ICT became available for masses, when one is easily informed of ←64 | 65→various political activities by information and communication channels, there is less need to attend rallies of many thousands. Social networks, unlike traditional media, enable ICT users to set up their own information feed, find associates and like-minded people in the network space, and thus feel ideologically quite comfortable without going outside. The growing opportunities of communication and mobilisation, via network communication and information exchange in social media, provides new instruments of and for political action and participation. These new instruments often ignore or even deny traditional forms of participatory democracy. The shift is from ideological platforms based upon political-leader-centric form of political activity to a ‘one issue voter’ form of democracy where significant numbers of voters express their will through online instruments that are more adequate to them. Among these are online petition platforms such as Change.org and instruments of digital protest. A positive correlation connects the use of social networks and social involvement, including such components as social capital, civic activity and political participation. Nowadays, social media are more used for political expression than traditional media coverage. In the past, people used ample traditional means and mechanisms of political protest such as collective petitions, demonstrations and rallies both sanctioned and unsanctioned, strikes.

The key questions is why protests have become digitised.

One of the most important aspects of ICT influence on political activity has become protest mobilisation and protest activity. The widespread use of ICT in organising protests is determined by its technical characteristics. The importance of digital media is expressed in the speed of information exchange, which can cause mass discontent of the population and thereby bring it to streets under banners, inform it about of mass actions, as well as share information, which covers events on the battlefield, provides multimedia support for protests in real time. Such a dynamic circulation of information flows reduces more and more the period between the emergence of protest moods to conducting demonstrations. The specificity of the Web’s information-content is also that data is transferred not only from professional entities (news sites, government agencies…) but also from anyone who owns information and prefers to convey it to the people. Anyone with their own account in social networks can inform the general public about certain events, confirming them with their own photos and videos that can cause ←65 | 66→powerful public response. It follows that, even in anti-democratic societies, censoring the Internet is almost impossible.

During the Arab Spring, activists found ways to avoid government control of Internet traffic by using proxies, dating sites, navigators, game chats…

However, it is important to distinguish between (i) virtual political protests in social media, that address the personal pages of politicians and ‘celebs’ in social networks, and (ii) street protests that use digital instruments. The task in the latter is to identify the protest mood, inform of the place and the time of the action and provide information-support for the protest. Thus, after the 17 September 2012 Occupy Wall Street campaign in New York, protesters campaigning against growing social inequality went on a global scale. Due to the widespread use by participants of social media and other ICT, similar movements spread to other American cities, then to other countries. At the same time, not only the ideology of the movement but also the methods of organising actions developed by the participants, communication with the media and law-enforcement agencies, etc. was shared among activists around the world.

Here, clearly, the use of the Internet is not just a platform for protest but a technical means to increase the scale of the action.

Digital communication, in particular social media, make it much easier to organise and mobilise protest activity in terms of spread of information, coordination and addressing interest groups along with the general public. The relatively low cost of access has transformed high-performance social media channels into alternatives for providing political information, invitations and coordinating the participation of others in protest activities as well as the distribution of multimedia content related to promoting protest. Of note is that the ICT did not September become the cause of protests but a mere tool for their implementation. The ICT makes information available and thus dangerous to undemocratic regimes as it erodes borders between countries, regions, it eliminates the difference between urban and rural areas, it educates the population. The effects of social media on the Arab spring is often over-estimated.

Social media were used there only as information exchange as several social media users grown rapidly.

Social media platforms also help channel emotional and motivational messages both in support of and against protest activity. These include messages that emphasise moral indignation, problems of social justice, ←66 | 67→voices and hardships, as well as clearly ideological questions. Social media activity correlates with large-scale decentralised coordination of protests that has important implications for the future balance of power between activated citizens and governments. Digital communication became a key element of mobilisation of modern protest, largely determining its time frame and organisational capabilities. This conclusion is based on the connection of online discussions with activist actions offline, features of solidarity groups emerging in social networks.

The study of protest movements starting from the Arab Spring shows how digital environment changes the very nature of political activism. Such elements as ‘smart crowd’, ‘hactivism’, ‘slactivism’, ‘memes’ indicate a minimisation of organisation costs, participation risks and fund-raising and fund-distribution. Now social media and virtual reality are considered as an effective informational, mobilisation, solidarity and synchronising resources, in terms of time and of financial and emotional costs. In the context of the indicated approaches, it is assumed that the protest activity is fundamentally a new form of political participation with following characteristics: high intensity of network interactions (establishment or participation to political groups, participation in online discussions, distribution and approval of information…), engaging the general public to protest rhetoric, instant reaction to current/emerging social problems.

The influence of social media on civil protest activity has an ambivalent character. If there are opportunities for expressing civic positions, collective actions, forwarding political agenda, yet there are also effects of alienation from ‘off-line’ protest movements: growing concentration on virtual interaction, de-anonymisation of leaders of the protest, thus establishing power control. Digitalisation of a protest became evident during the Arab Spring. Since then, the arsenal of digital tools has expanded greatly. Social networks have indeed been used for a long time in protests – in the Arab Spring, the Bolotnaya Protests in Russia and the Umbrella revolution in Hong Kong. The main difference between the 2018–2020 protests in Paris, Hong Kong and post-Soviet countries is that it uses digital tools, social networks and messengers on a much more extended level and becomes even more digitalised. Earlier protests relied more on traditional ‘physical’ institutions – mainly through party organisations or trade unions.

Now we see a qualitative development in the direction of this horizontal protest, with no institutional organisations behind it.

There were still, naturally, some organisations within the core of protesters in Paris, Hong Kong or Moscow supporting these protests. But in general, ←67 | 68→modern protesters strongly rely on horizontal coordination, mobilisation of participants, now loosely connected with each other, with different political views, but united by a common goal. And all this, probably, has become possible because of the digital instruments that they used. This use of social media had also developed into coordination of the protesters, actions that had separated from information coverage and propaganda, and now these are two different areas in which different tools are used.

Social media are now used more for media coverage while messengers and other encrypted messaging apps are used for coordination.

2. ‘Digital protest’ in Eurasian societies: some examples

In 2011 both the coordination of actions and the information agenda ‘transpired’ via traditional social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Today, these two have separated. Activists became aware of the dire risks of de-anonymisation in social media where it is simply very difficult to withhold one’s personal data and digital footprints. Activists moved to messaging applications. Protesters in Hong Kong, Russia and Iran widely use Telegram and its advanced message-encrypting tools. Actually, using Telegram is even an indicator of various forms of digital protest, differentiating protests in democratic and non-democratic regimes. In democracies, protesters mostly rely on social media as instruments of broadcasting and media coverage; while in non-democratic regimes, where it is easy for governments to de-anonymise protesters, there leaders ‘turn off Internet’ and use more secure tools of communication. Also, after the Arab Spring, non-democratic regimes began to develop means of control over social media or simply banned them. At the same time, messaging apps such as Telegram can provide services in situations of poor signal or even work without Internet: Bridgefy or Airdrop.

Protesters in France, Hong Kong and Russia use different digital instruments in their struggle.

The Yellow vests used mostly Facebook and were a movement characterised as ‘leaderless’. Hence the central role of Facebook for coordination and media coverage2. The protest demonstrated how ←68 | 69→certain social groups use social media instruments in their attempt to formulate a best response to the limitations of current political and media systems. Both the protesters and the public believed that mainstream media ignored their claims and that so did also the government3. The Yellow vests movement represents a new type of protests, not just digitalised but also leaderless, spontaneous, without clear political ideologies. This explains why for the government, it was challenging to address such protests. Yellow vests had no leaders to negotiate with or arrest, no central committee or other official representative body. It was organised and coordinated via Facebook groups. The social media became a protest platform. The social network’s semblance of transparency and the unparalleled sense of immediacy it provides, has fed the movement’s urge to play by its own rules4.

In Hong Kong, by comparison with the Yellow vests, protesters relied on a wider set of digital tools. The 2014 Umbrella revolution’ was notable for its massive social media component5. The main difference with the current protest in Hong Kong is that it relies entirely on those digital tools, social networks, primarily Telegram, and other service applications, i.e. FireChat or Bridgefy or IPhone’s AirDrop, which enables its users to exchange messages without Internet if mobile communication is blocked or if connection is poor. These Hong Kong protests also display an element of ‘gamification’. Participants draw maps with supplies, checkpoints, mark captured territories, apply tactics used in video games. This is a trend related to the prevalence of video games of popular genres. People are simply more comfortable and familiar when they see a map that is similar to what they see in ←69 | 70→video games. Therefore, this is probably in part just such a symbol of our era6.

The information agenda still relates to traditional social networks as Telegram in the West is not used widely. This distinguishes among digital protest: it adapts to the current reality and can give a new answer to almost any challenge. And it is also ‘interesting and fun’ to form such cards. For many people who attend such rallies, this can partially offset the seriousness of the situation, which is real: police violence in Hong Kong is quite serious and everyone participating in protests is aware of risks of being arrested or seriously injured7. Looking at it through the prism of a game it makes easier psychologically to participate as protesters follow the usual course of actions that pertains to playing video games8.

In Russia, political protest also uses digitalisation. A Smart vote emerged in the opposition during the 2019 municipal elections and became quite successful9. Despite the fact that it was not so effective outside major cities, this new form of digitalised protest is significant of change in Russia’s public policy. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the most politically and IT developed cities, clearly, the digitalisation of both politics and protests is happening.

With seriously limited opportunities to influence government policies through voting, opposition in Russia is trying to develop digital protests. People reluctant to Airdrop go out to streets gather online at popular map services and express their attitude to the current situation in the country. A new type of activity comes from Rostov-on-Don, where the authorities, fighting the coronavirus, introduced passes and called people to obtain them at several delivery points, arranging predictable crowds. ←70 | 71→Then, users of various map-and-delivery-services began to post messages massively using the text-messaging options of these services10.

In Russia, protests are opened not by protesters only, but also by those who do not participate. It is no coincidence that (i) an underestimation of the number of demonstrators (or suspicion of their lack of independence) and (ii) an overestimation of their numbers are an indispensable element in discussing the outcome of the action. Clearly, this special attitude to the rallies has strong historical backgrounds. People of older, Soviet generation still remember how disintegration of the Soviet union was accompanied by demonstrations of several hundred thousand people, at which new initiatives were formulated, new leaders appeared. That is why many share belief today, both in government and in the opposition, that if a protest of one million is gathered, then any conditions can be dictated.

However, huge rallies are from another, non-digital era. Nowadays, they are simply impossible since digital protests provide instruments to mobilise millions without taking them to the streets.

3. ‘Digital protest’: challenge or opportunity?

These illustrations show that, in situations of socio-economic problems, virtual protest may prove a serious challenge for governments. A state’s growing dependency on digital technologies together with upsurges of popular protest might be costly, as events in France and Hong Kong show. If mobilized groups see the state is unable to adequately cope with or react to digital protests, this may lead to consequences beyond control. In the era of Internet, rally activity has acquired novel features. This concerns foremost the information coverage of the rallies, when every second participant takes pictures and publishes information about the most significant moments of the rally. The Internet also influences the organisation of protests, when social networks become a tool for coordinating action-organisers and at the same time a source of information for law-enforcement agencies. Rallies are increasingly reminiscent of reality shows, in which, unfortunately, there are too ←71 | 72→violent scenes. The use of social networks is often fetish, believing that it is network technologies that are to blame for the wrongdoings of the youth or others. Logically, public authorities want constantly to limit and control social networks and messengers. This is however due to a misunderstanding on their part as to the nature network-socialisation. Strange as it may seem, network technologies reduce the mass of street rallies. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, people needed to go out to make sure that their opinions coincide with those of others. Today, they no longer need to go outside.

Beyond this paradox for governments, there is less need to fear street protests thanks to digital technologies. Street protests will be less numerous. Yet, prohibitions and police actions may lead to a renewed desire or justification for protesters to go outside and take to the streets again. France with the Yellow vests is a good example of this. At times, it even seems that police actions, such as in Hong Kong, aim for this: build up consciousness and take more people to the streets. Governments should understand that digital technologies per se are not threatening but useful, but for this they must be used, not fought against. It is foremost necessary to regulate the procedure coordinating meetings and demonstrations, and to automate it through the portal of public services, just like any service. So that every citizen can organise a public campaign, and know exactly what opportunities he has. At the same time, it is possible to organise, through the same portal, the collection of signatures in support of the proposed action in order to understand what support it enjoys and what format can be agreed upon.

The digital era leads to the fact that the number of self-employed people engaged in intellectual work is growing and grows further. These are contingent people who have a will and are ready to participate in self-governance at the grassroots level. A wave of ‘colour revolutions’ in the world, especially in the former Soviet republics, created in some top governmental officials a fear of uncontrollable and unstoppable destructive protests. The opposite, however, is happening: the admission of active population, including non-systemic opposition, to self-government reduces the severity of the struggle for power at the upper level. It is the lack of self-government that takes all manifestations of discontent to the national level. History shows that the fear of the colour revolutions and regime change gave rise to such revolutions: either (i) the choice of people is manifested on the streets or virtual platforms, or (ii) their demands are denied and there will occur a demand for regime change.

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The ICT allow citizens to protest against the state but also the individual. The digital media provides the opportunity to express people’s opinions, remaining anonymous, hiding behind the virtual personality or encrypted message. The ICT give an individual the right to invent a new virtual personality in society. If this was available earlier to an elite stratum of society (artists or writers with pseudonyms), it is now available for everyone. In combination with sophisticated data-encryption technologies, this creates a situation when governments find a growing number of citizens moving to ‘shadow’, from which they can initiate various protest activities.

For political participation in the digital era, new factors are important rather than those typical for pre-digital politics such as time spent online, individual creativity as well as social media skills rather like social or economic status or education.


In conclusion, despite the fact that ICT including social media are created and run by private sector entities such as private companies, they have a limited capacity to control them due to their open and horizontal structure. Also, these companies cannot risk the trust of their users by openly cooperating with governments, with the exception of Chinese and Russian IT giants such as TenCent, Weibo, Yandex or VK. They are however focused on the national level and can afford higher affiliation with their respective governments.

The development of social media in the world is happening spontaneously, often chaotically/Blogs and social media sphere still lack in-depth analysis and clear vision of development strategies. And to the ICT, the user community is at the very beginning of developing a common culture. Social media are a powerful new tool of social and political technologies. They can unite people of different beliefs, cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, professions, ages, genders, professional fields… in a vastly expanding dynamic combination.


1 Timothy E. Dolan, “Revisiting adhocracy: From rhetorical revisionism to smart mobs”, Journal of Futures Studies, November 2010, 15(2), 33–50, https://jfsdigital.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/152-A03.pdf.

2 Tracy McNicol, “France ‘Yellow Vest’: Why is Facebook such a popular tool?”, Interview with Taise Parente on France 24 English, https://www.france24.com/en/20181204-france-yellow-vests-facebook-macron-fuel-tax-mouraud-protests-social-media.

3 Georgina Lee, “Is the mainstream media ignoring the yellow vest protests?”, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-is-the-mainstream-media-ignoring-the-yellow-vest-protests.

4 Tracy McNicol, “France ‘Yellow Vest’: Why is Facebook such a popular tool?”, Interview with Taise Parente on France 24 English, https://www.france24.com/en/20181204-france-yellow-vests-facebook-macron-fuel-tax-mouraud-protests-social-media.

5 Aza Wee Sile, “Hong Kong’s digitized fight for democracy”, September 22, 2015, https://www.cnbc.com/2015/09/16/social-media-key-to-hong-kongs-occupy-central-fight-for-democracy.html.

6 “The protestors in Hong Kong and Moscow are full of brilliant ideas – and may inspire our own democratic activism”, August 16, 2019, https://www.thealternative.org.uk/dailyalternative/2019/8/17/hong-kong-moscow-inspirational.

7 “‘An eye for an eye’: Hong Kong protests get figurehead in woman injured by police”, August 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/16/an-eye-for-an-eye-hong-kong-protests-get-figurehead-in-woman-injured-by-police.

8 Zheping Huang, “Video game shows what it’s like inside Hong Kong’s protests”, November 01, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-01/now-you-too-can-experience-hong-kong-protest-violence-virtually.

9 Sergei Kiselyov, “Russia’s elections: ‘Smart voting’ successes, alleged tampering and more”, September 09, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/09/09/russias-elections-smart-voting-successes-alleged-tampering-and-more-a67204.

10 Maxim Edwards, “Trapped in lockdown, Russians are repurposing their satnavs to hold virtual protests”, April 23, 2020, https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/11762/trapped-in-lockdown-russians-are-repurposing-their-satnavs-to-hold-virtual-protests.

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Obedience-production in Europe and Asia: comparative and historical perspectives


The existence and functioning of a political regime rely on a level of obedience of the people, no matter the type of regime: democratic, authoritarian or totalitarian. Any regime needs legitimising if it is to be maintained. This legitimising can relate to the Weberian ideal-types of legitimacy: traditional, charismatic and rational1. Production of consent as a necessary condition can proceed from more or less extreme ways. Most regimes have authoritarian roots, even in Europe. In a way, the Holy Alliance was a coalition of monarchies (Prussia, Austria, Russia) aiming at first to maintain post-Napoleonian peace, then protect themselves from internal popular uprisings, i.e. increase their legitimacy against threats of collapse. The notion of such an Alliance was used for Asia2, suggesting a comparison of the process of obedience-production.

In Asia, two cases studies spring up: North Korea and China, two communist regimes but with varying destinies3. Pyongyang with the “self-reliance” became an isolated regime. Beijing with its doctrine of “market socialism” reached the second world economic power. Yet, both rely on a high degree of popular consent to maintain their power.

Authority requires the people’s consent. Coercion of a whole nation is unfeasible for a single group unless citizens are willing to submit. ←75 | 76→Obedience implies consent. Why a nation would consent to its own coercion, restrict his own freedom for the purpose of the regime deserves analysis. A basic distinction when discussing processes of obedience is that of force (the individual cannot physically disobey) and manipulation (he can disobey but has lost the reason to do). Force is about the body; manipulation about the mind (brainwashing). “Pure force” can exist and be a major tool for obedience but cannot per se produce obedience. Consent of the individual is something within the self that presides over self’s reaction toward force.

This chapter analyses the individual’s psychological subjectivity of accepting a regime through two dimensions: conscious factors (incentives and fears developed by people toward the regimes) contrasting with subconscious dimensions (narratives implemented in their brains: people do not control or even believe to control their attitude toward the regime). It studies mainly the regime structures, how its elements influence the individual to “resign his/her humanity” to an “ideology”. For La Boétie4, the real scandal is not about power and its abuses but about abusing obedience.

How regime characteristics affect the efficiency of obedience-production is explained through the Bowtie mode of production of consent, from conscious incentive to subconscious narratives (1), then through assessment criteria of the efficiency of these techniques (2).

1. Influencing the subjectivity of a people

The way to influence an individual’s subjectivity is to create either conscious incentives or unconscious narratives. Both means to create consent are modes of obedience as consequence of regime the characteristics.

A. Conscious incentives: controlling the motivations

1. Law and social contract – The formally simplest way to create a conscious incentive is law, which is an expression of a social contract. Regarding criminal law, both the North Korean and Chinese regimes apply the death penalty. Numbers confirmed ←76 | 77→by China give numbers of execution as higher than in the US. Exact figures are unknown, kept secret by Beijing even classified as “state-secret”5. Public executions are broadcast on TV, with a marked influence effect as an example and an incentive for the right behaviour. This spreads a feeling of fear. As for North Korea, absence of official statistics is probably worse for North Korea and the number of crimes punished by capital punishment higher as anything contradicting the Juche ideology6 is a capital offense. In all, there is an apparent link between the ideology ruling the system and the judiciary creating constant fear and attention for the respect of an ideology. In North Korea, the system is arbitrary and punishment can “spread” over three family generations: responsibility is not only that of an individual’s life but also his family for generations to come.

As to the climate of fear, a 2017 South Morning China Post article “Thought-police create climate of fear in China’s tense Xinjiang’s region”7 explores mass disappearance in detention camps and the installation of a Chinese new narrative in Xinjiang. The presence of these two elements suggests there is not such a strong causal relation between fear and obedience but only a temporary one. To make it strong and lasting, it has to be turned into a narrative, a subconscious element, discouraging people from any kind of rebellion. The same paradox of fear exists in North Korea: a 2013 BBC article “Execution prompts surprise, fear inside North Korea” shows how an execution changed the mentality without the effect expected by the regime. As defector Jang Jing-sung claims, “They seem to really suffer from fear: it resonates in their voices”.

Fear does not create obedience but awareness. For the 2013 BBC article, Chang-song Taek’s execution did not reinforce the authority of the regime. “The deification of the North Korean leader has completely changed with the purge of Chang Song-Taek, There is no longer a god-like aura around the country’s leader”8.

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Another approach suggests that fear can be created by control. In China, the surveillance system is effected by street cameras that check the behaviour of citizens, coupled with online surveillance forbidding the use of certain social networks (Facebook…), monitoring any sign of political contestations10: digital manners for a “massive police state” with a vast network of informants11. North Korea strives to observe the thoughts of citizens, ensuring their devotion to the regime: making citizens write letters of devotion explaining their love for the leaders.

B. Subconscious narratives: controlling the mind

1. The creation of a common legacy – Beyond conscious causes of obedience, the State must find a way to remain legitimate. To that extent, political regimes also tend to (i) build their own narrative of the event, (ii) then more or less spread and implemented in people’s mind (depending on the regime type). China and North Korea both construct subjective narratives, planting ideology into people’s mind. They deprive citizens of a capacity of rebellion. ←78 | 79→A distinction between their methods echoes Althusser’s distinction between “repressive state apparatus” (repression imposed on the people by the administrative structures) and “ideological state apparatus”12 (implying the social “superstructures”: school, religion, the media..). It is psychological bias that influences the way to perceive reality.

Hence, regimes create narratives and spread them among their people. In China, it is impossible despite censorship to prevent the population from accessing all external information due to Internet and globalization. In North Korea, legally, “listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts and possessing dissident publications are considered crimes against the state that carry serious punishments, including hard labour, prison sentence and the death penalty”13: if North Koreans received information, this would destroy the false narratives. The authority of the regime depends on these false narratives. For now, the regime’s grip is such that it made people believe that: leaders were immortal (gods); South Korea sparkled the 1950 Korea civil war; North Korea is a paradise on earth; the USA want to start a war with North Korea… Evoking these narratives points to the theory of the subconscious and psychoanalysis. Freud claimed that individuals repressed their censored impulses into their subconscious. The control of the regime should cause a desire to escape, a desire for liberty but the individuals, who lost their individualities, “repressed” these desires into their subconscious because these are then felt to be bad, shameful and dangerous. Still, the possibility of civil disobedience exists in their subconscious: false narratives are not eternally efficient.

In China, the implementation of false narratives exists. It featured highly with the recent myth of the Chinese dream image. This claims to describe equally wells the role of the individual in society and the nation’s objectives. In 2012, Xi said: “Dare to dream; work assiduously to fulfil the dreams and contribute to the revitalisation of the nation”14. The risk is to confuse willingly individual dreams with a collective goal. The regime controls, not the action, but the thoughts, which is even trickier. People are under the rule of an ideology embedded in their own mind.

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2. The role of ideology – A major manner used to influence thoughts is ideologies. An ideology is a predefined system of ideas, conveying a representation of the world and often an ideal of society. M. Berman, distinguishes between an idea and an ideology: “An idea is something you have. An ideology is something that has you”15. V. Park in the Hidden Persuaders talks about the omnipresence of influence in advertisement and public relations in European countries16. There is effectively an influence over the ideas that produces consent. This is also happening in Europe. In comparative historical perspective, Weber views the “spirit of capitalism” through the protestant ethics leading to the establishment of a capitalist economy, which legitimised this system in Europe17.

Ideology is a source of legitimacy. North Korea is ruled by the single Worker’s Party of Korea and the Juche ideology of self-reliance. Juche, based on the marxist-leninist doctrine, adopts the postulate that “man is the [independent] master of his destiny”. Propaganda and the cult of personality (leaders as “immortal gods”) are used to spread this ideology. An ideology creates consent and alienation, even devotion, on the part of the individual to the regime. In China, the Communist Party spreads the ideology of Communism with Chinese characteristics. The role of this ideology is to convey ideals and convictions to the people. Xi’s policy on strengthening convictions claims: “Revolutionary Ideals are Higher than Heaven-studying. Ideals and convictions are the spiritual banners for the united struggle of a country, nation and party, wavering ideals and convictions are the most harmful form of wavering”18. Central power supports the spreading of convictions to create unity for the regime. Some even defended China’s neo-authoritarian techniques as a phase of neo-authoritarianism necessary for the economy and the markets; yet democrats criticise this as some aspects of Chinese authoritarianism do ←80 | 81→not concern the economy19. This shows how regimes can use nationalist arguments to justify their interests.

Ideology refers to more authoritarian types of regimes and is not a Chinese or North Korean speciality. Our comparative and historical perspective mentioned the Holy Alliance in Europe that relied, from 1815 onwards, on clear ideological principles: a monarchical order, conservatism with rejection of all border modifications. This is ideology as a way to reinforce regime authority.

Despite these arguments, an element still can be contested: obedience defined as depending upon a relation to consent. We analysed how regimes acted to enter people’s mind and make them obey. Is this real obedience? (i) Yes, according to classic definitions: Dahl defined power as the “capacity of making A do something he would not do otherwise”20; when B responds to that power, without any physical constraints, he obeys as a result. (ii) But when does consent cease to be consent? Influence, even if not physical echoes coercion and ceases to be obedience and becomes constraint. On which criteria is obedience an efficient process? We turn to the “measurement” of obedience.

2. Assessing the obedience process

Here the analysis explains obedience dynamics through criteria which can access what efficiency is and whether it yields real obedience.

A. The impossibility of civil disobedience

Analysing the measurement of obedience, one answer would be that obedience ceases to be obedience when the individual realises that he/she is manipulated. Given that the individual does not live for ever in illusion or obeys blindly for ever, but comes up with political awareness and realises the abuses of the regime.

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1. Hidden transcripts: a first step out of obedience21 – In North Korea, civil disobedience seemed a mythical concept, given the high degree of the regime’s ascendancy on individuals. In North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: how the information underground is transforming a closed society, Ji-eun Baek defines North Korea as a country with only one freedom: the freedom to be born and where there is no thinking about freedom to escape. However, there are forms of “hidden transcripts”, J. Scott’s concept designating the infrastructural political sphere where discrete signs of civil disobedience appear, even if not directly affecting the regime22. Scott’s 2016 webinar (the International Center of Non-Violent Conflict) led to Subtle Acts of non-violence in North Korea: Civil resistance in the making23. This existence of hidden transcripts shows that no government can exert absolute control on its population. Through subtle actions, citizens initiate a form of civil resistance. Five ways North Koreans are defying the regime24 illustrates these actions: sending balloons full of cash to challenge the US and North Korea rivalry; filming secretly what the regime does not want to see revealed; watching foreign television... Or, simply, forms of contestations in the private sphere, even if hardly measurable25. To defect is a risky enterprise: borders are kept by soldiers to prevent people from leaving the country (as in East Berlin during the Cold War). For Victor Cha, ideology was “seared into the mind of every North Korean everyday through repetitive indoctrination sessions. There were almost a biological and anatomical rationalization for loyalty that went with the spiritual”26. Civil disobedience became almost impossible due to this process where the spiritual delimitations become physical.

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2. Toward contestation: when obedience fails … – People cease to consent when they rise against the regime’s authority. Civil disobedience appears throughout European historical examples (the Commune of Paris in 1871…) and contemporary contexts as people demonstrate against laws and reforms.

In our study, it seems impossible for North Koreans to rebel. In China, however, civil disobedience is less limited. It goes beyond forms of hidden transcripts. In China, the number of annual protests grew 10-fold 1993 and 200527, mostly called “mass incidents” as a “planned or impromptu gathering that forms because of internal contradictions”28. In China’s Communist Party, D. Shambaugh shows scholars think they are not a threat to the CCP existence because they lack “connective tissue”29 and recent events in Hong Kong confirm this. Going back in history, massive protests marking the Chinese regime’s history are seen in the 1989 Tienanmen protest (demonstrations were organised by groups of students, intellectuals and labour activists): the regime reacted with oppression. The fact that people came to awareness from political unfairness after a decade of “market socialism” and demanded more liberalisation shows that the regime’s power in maintaining obedience was weakened and its reaction that its legitimacy was tainted. Later, the regime attempted to hide this 1989 fact, removing it from its history, creating a new narrative, not including it in history textbooks. When obedience fails, the reaction of the regime is to recreate it, to consolidate it in order to avoid a breach to be opened again.

Nowadays, freedom of expression is limited in China. Political dissent is banned and censored. For example, writer Ma Jian was censored after he criticised the regime as in China dream where he exposed the absurdity of the ideal, advocated by the regime, to ensure control over its people. Here, censorship is a reaction to political issues expressed through art.

In all, this shows one thing. The possibility to become aware of an injustice and the possibility that this revelation implies an act harming the authority of the regime mark the ending of the process of obedience.

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B. Diverging evolutions of regimes

Individuals are influenced by the context in which they evolve. When addressing conditioning, the first thing that comes to mind is behaviourism: behaviour simply observable by the reflexes probed by the environment, that is a very primitive form of obedience. To mention conditioning usefully leads to various criteria of evolution. Conditions influence the efficiency of obedience and these conditions change due to modernisation.

1. Diverging contexts of conditioning – Before exploring modernisation, reference can be made to conditioning with what Durkheim said of obedience “It holds its efficiency in the intensity of the mental state in which he is ordered to and this intensity represents the moral ascendency”30. Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, explained the concept of docility adapting to a system of external determinations31. In our comparison with Europe, we could think, since the dominant political regime is democracy, that this process of obedience is no longer used because democracy is the expression of the general will, that there would be no “moral ascendency”, to use Durkheim’s terms. Yet, as the population still needs to consent to the regime, there exists still a form of obedience.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (February)
Bruxelles, Berlin, Bern, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 372 pp., 8 fig. col., 11 fig. b/w, 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Pierre Chabal (Volume editor) Yann Alix (Volume editor) Kuralay Baizakova (Volume editor)

Yann ALIX, PhD Dr in Transport Geography, is General delegate of the SEFACIL Foundation, an affiliate of Fondation de France. A long-time scientific attendee at these Europe–Asia conferences, he is Senior manager at Abington Advisory consultancy firm. Kuralay BAIZAKOVA, Sc. Dr Habil. in History of International relations, former Dean of the Faculty of International Relations of al-Farabi Kazakh National University, is director of several programmes in Security Studies, the EU and NATO, and invited professor at the University of Le Havre. Pierre CHABAL, invited professor at al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Sc. Dr Habil. in International Relations, is founder of the international research networks Europe–Asia (international relations) and the French-Kazakh-Korean (law) at University of Le Havre (Lexfeim).


Title: Evolving regional values and mobilities in global contexts