Argument

Welcome to Stanistan

Welcome to Stanistan

At a signing ceremony in the Kazakh capital, Astana, on May 29, the presidents of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan ratified the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) into existence. An EEU modeled on the European Union was first mooted back in 1994 by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, but took off only after his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, seized upon its potential as a Moscow-centered, Asia-oriented alternative to the EU. The groundwork was laid in 2010 by a customs union among the three signatories.

Armenia intends to join the EEU in July, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are also on the fast track toward membership. Already, though, the three-nation EEU has created a single trade zone of 170 million people with a GDP of $2.7 trillion. Although the integration initially is purely economic, if Putin has its way the EEU could become a more overtly political project over time — like the EU itself.

But whether the fledgling EEU and its first inductees are planting the seeds of a new world empire remains to be seen. Putin’s dream to restore Russia to its former glory may falter at the EEU’s inherent contradictions and shortcomings: Its members themselves seem more interested in trading with Europe and China than with each other, and, even combined, their economies measure less than one-fifth of either the EU or the U.S. economy.

If Putin’s new Eurasia is to be more than re-demarcating the shrunken limits of the Kremlin’s regional influence, it will eventually need to attract a few crucial states on its eastern and western flank as EEU members: China and Ukraine, for example. Or even Turkey, which is officially still waiting for the green light from Brussels to join the European Union. None of those three countries seems likely to accede to the EEU (though Turkey at least has been officially invited by Kazakhstan). So for now, the EEU consists of Russia and the most Moscow-friendly of the former Soviet republics — its nearest abroad, so to speak.

Belarus was always going to be the most willing partner in Russia’s attempts at self-aggrandizement. Having languished under President Aleksandr Lukashenko since 1994, Europe’s last dictatorship is isolated from the West and totally dependent on Russian oil and natural gas, and thus has no other geopolitical options. And like Belarus, Kazakhstan is landlocked and somewhat lacking in democratic credentials — Nazarbayev has been running the show since 1989, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But unlike Belarus, whose main exports include tractors and meat, Kazakhstan is resource-rich. With 30 billion barrels still in the ground, it has the world’s 11th-largest crude oil reserves. Gas, coal, and uranium are also plentiful. The country’s stated aim is to use its mineral wealth to join the club of 30 most developed nations and become a "Singapore of the steppes."

Kazakhstan is neither poor nor insecure — which seem the two main reasons for other former Russian satellites to want in on the EEU. In fact, despite signing the accord, the Kazakhs seem wary of Moscow’s intentions and could strike out for an empire of their own — if only they looked south for inspiration instead of west for reassurance. But that runs counter to the instinct of its present leadership.

In February 2013, Nazarbayev proposed changing his country’s name to Kazakh Eli, to differentiate it from the "stans" on its southern border. The change (which hasn’t gone through yet and might never be adopted) illustrates a mindset popular among the nouveaux riches, be they individuals or countries: Dissociate yourself from your poor, backward, violent cousins.

But what if Kazakhstan did the exact opposite?

What if, instead of becoming a little fish in Russia’s big pond, it dared to dream of being the big fish in a pond of its own creation? A pond comprising all the ‘stans, for example — not just the former Soviet ones, but also the ones further south. That wouldn’t be such a little pond either, for such a power block would unite no fewer than seven countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The total area would be about 2.1 million square miles, roughly half the size of the United States. This would make it the world’s seventh-largest country: smaller than Australia (3 million square miles) but bigger than India (1.3 million square miles). Together, they would comprise a large, crucial chunk of Central Asia, providing the heartland of the "world island" — that interlinked trio of Old World continents Asia, Africa, and Europe.

The Kazakh-inspired superstate would occupy a strategic place on the global map, linking Europe (yes, Kazakhstan is so massive that it’s partly in Europe as well) to the Indian subcontinent. It would also bridge the geostrategic gap between the Middle East and the Far East. One could argue that Afghanistan already does this, thanks to its Wakhan Corridor, tenuously touching China, but the terrain and the security there are less than ideal. The main strength of the new country might be the maritime outlet, via the Arabian Sea, that it would provide for northern Asia’s largely untapped development potential. Pipelines, railways, and other as-yet-nonexistent links to Karachi and other Pakistani ports would be the shortest route to market for the oil, coal, and gas in the Kazakh underground.

The superstate would have an annual GDP of just under $600 billion (2013), which would rank it somewhere between Switzerland and Sweden — though in per capita terms, it would roam the bottom half of the tables, with Kazakhs averaging $12,000 a year (slightly less than Hungarians), and Afghans surviving on one-seventeenth of that ($700, slightly more than Rwandans). In addition to its economic advantages, it would be ethnically and linguistically diverse, with Slavic, Turkic, and Persian influences swirling about. But it would also have a few important unifying traits. It would be predominantly Muslim, and it would share many historical and cultural similarities, from the memory of the Silk Road and the legacy of Genghis Khan to the celebration of Nowruz — the Iranian New Year. They’re not all "stans" — which means "land" or "country" in Persian — by accident.

With an aggregate population of around 280 million, it would be the world’s fourth-most-populous country, after China, India, and the United States. And with a combined force of just under 1 million military personnel on active duty, it would have the world’s fifth-largest standing army, after China, the United States, India, and North Korea, but before Russia. The new superpower’s largest city would be Karachi, Pakistan’s coastal metropolis of 9 million, though for strategic reasons a more central capital could be chosen. One possibility would be the Tajik capital of Dushanbe (population 750,000).

But finding a location for its capital would be the least of the new country’s problems. War — to name the most urgent one. As the West withdraws from Afghanistan, the government in Kabul increasingly faces the Taliban alone, meaning the violence is likely to get worse. Across the Durand Line, the Pakistani government is facing its own Taliban insurgency, plus separatism in Baluchistan and a Cold War with subcontinental rival India. Ethnic strife and religious fundamentalism provide flammable material even in the former Soviet ‘stans, particularly in the Fergana Valley, divided between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Then there’s the grinding poverty: Apart from Kazakhstan, all the ‘stans have a per capita GDP of less than $10,000 (2013).

The list of negative indicators is depressingly long and predictable. Corruption: high. All the ‘stans score high on Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index (Afghanistan is eclipsed only by North Korea and Somalia). Literacy: low. Shockingly, 186 million-strong Pakistan is only 55 percent literate. Afghanistan (28 percent) is again close to the world’s worst performer. (For fairness’s sake, the post-Soviet ‘stans do much better, with near-complete literacy.) Democracy: iffy at best. Afghanistan, for all its other failings, is upholding the process with ongoing presidential elections even in the face of war. But governance on the steppe can be ridiculously pantomime-like in the worst cases — remember the bizarre personality cult around Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen), who renamed the month of April after his own dear mother?

But what would be the name of this new country? Of course, something predictable and boring like the Central Asian Federation would be proposed. But the flash of lightning that could jolt this strangely assembled beast to life would be the epithet that refers to the suffix they all share. And if "Country of Countries" sounds a bit generic in English, the original is of a simple, unforgettable beauty.