Histories and Memories of Empire and ‘Illiberal Peace’ in Eurasia

Catherine Owen, Shairbek Juraev, Nick Megoran, David Lewis and John Heathershaw
University of Exeter

The significant decline in the level of engagement between Western countries and the countries of Eurasia is well documented. In the last five years, we have seen the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the closure of its last regional military base in Kyrgyzstan; a sharp decrease in trade between the EU and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan; and the closure or downgrading of the offices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan respectively. The global influence of Western forms of governance – democracy, human rights and the rule of law – are at an all-time low and, with the countries of Europe and North America increasingly looking inward and illiberal, this downward trend looks to continue.

What impact does all this have on how we understand the way conflicts are managed and resolved in Eurasia? What principles – if any – ‘replace’ liberal ideas of getting to the root causes of the conflict, ensuring that all parties have the chance to air their grievances, facilitating internationally brokered peace agreements in ‘neutral’ third countries, and reconstructing domestic institutions along democratic and free market lines? And how do regional authoritarian heavyweights and (former) imperial powers, namely Russia and China, seek to influence the outcomes of conflicts in neighbouring states? Indeed, how novel are these developments given the historical constitution of global politics by imperial and illiberal modes of power?

We explore these questions in our new edited book, Interrogating Illiberal Peace in Eurasia (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2018). We begin our enquiry with the assertion that the withdrawal of Western influence and its associated norms is best seen in light of the broader historical process of the transformation and partial decline of empire in Eurasia over the twentieth century. This withdrawal has changed the institutional and discursive space in two ways. First, it has enabled the proliferation of institutions that mimic the form of Western democratic institutions, but whose practical functions are to sustain existing patronal networks and rubber-stamp domestic authoritarian legislation. Second, it has freed up discursive – or ideological – space for non-Western actors to promote illiberal agendas; the growing prominence of the China-led Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) as a regional norm-promoting institution is a case in point here.

To make sense of this, we conceptualise an alternative approach to handling conflict by non-liberal powers, which we label Authoritarian Conflict Management (ACM). This model captures the ways in which such states seek to control conflicts and manage their outcomes, including the management of post-conflict elections, the co-optation of civil society groups, the construction of new infrastructure and the installation of charismatic strongman leaders.  For the concept to have intellectual value it must extend beyond merely describing recent developments in the increased impact of illiberal strategies by states such as Russia, China and Turkey. ACM may also be viewed in history (as demonstrated in observable practice) and memory (as a mode of interpretation).

ACM operates across three levels: discourse, space and the economy. First, authoritarian conflict managers seek to establish and promote a dominant narrative about the conflict and prevent opponents from influencing discourse. Second, they prevent rebels from shaping public space, hunt adversaries online and overseas, and attempt to ensure that political space is fully controlled by the regime in power. Third, they bar opponents from accessing resources via the capture of assets and businesses while also pouring in resources to selected areas or for selected groups to cement the state’s control. A patronal economic system, where it is impossible for citizens to become wealthy outside the regime, helps the goal. Historians of empires, both European and Eurasian, may note these observations with familiarity as they were integral parts of processes of colonisation and counter-insurgency.

The contributors to our book explore aspects of ACM in various sites and periods of post-Soviet Eurasian history. Chapters include discussions of the antecedents of hegemonic Chinese approaches to security in its far-western province of Xinjiang; the historical evolution of complex pluralism in the Ferghana Valley amidst ethnocentric memories generated by illiberal modes of colonial and postcolonial governance; the ways in which physical space influenced the dynamics of conflict in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh during the 2010 riots; the use of a dominant (or ‘titular’) ethnicity in the nation-building strategies of post-Soviet Uzbekistan; and the economic incentives applied by Russia following conflict in its north Caucasian territory of Chechnya.

Today we see an ensemble of norms promoted by powerful, illiberal states and embraced by elites in power which are already changing the domestic make up of postcolonial states in ways that directly oppose the values of democracy and human rights. Western liberal order – which has for so long dominated social science thinking about conflict resolution and peacebuilding after the Cold War – may soon be (barely) remembered in Eurasia. Indeed, our book presents a wealth of evidence that it is already being supplanted by historical memories and contemporary practices emerging from the illiberal-imperial constitution of the region’s politics. Interrogating Illiberal Peace in Eurasia thus presents a stark reminder to Western policy-makers of both the importance of the histories and memories of empire in Eurasia and the extant significance of authoritarian and imperial strategies of government.