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Central Asia’s hidden integration

August 22, 2013

In early August I participated in the 13th Biennial Conference of the European Society for Central Asian Studies (ESCAS). ESCAS is an organization formed back in 1985, when the Cold War was at its peak, and initially it was mainly a forum for Western scholars of Central Asian affairs and Central Asian researchers in exile. Conferences have so far taken place in Europe only, but this year was different: for the first time the event was organized inside Central Asia itself, in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

A new English-language university, named after Kazakhstan’s enlightened despot Nursultan Nazarbayev, has recently been founded in the city’s outskirts, and it hosted the conference. By offering well-paid academic positions and actively recruiting globally, this institution, intriguingly, has managed to attract numerous Western experts on Central Asian affairs, who by now have become residents and in some cases even citizens of Kazakhstan.

Astana has attracted international attention as an architectural mecca of futurism, see, for example, a recent article in The Economist. The new capital started to be built in the late 1990s next to the formerly Soviet city of Tselinograd, the centre of Khrushchev’s failed “Virgin Lands” agricultural campaign.

But, to what extent is Astana actually a Central Asian city? Defining large regions such as Central Asia is notoriously difficult, and my own contribution to the conference related precisely to the academic (and political) debate about Central Asia’s external and internal borders. I suggested to look at infrastructural systems – such as railway networks, electricity grids and natural gas pipelines – to discern such borders. One of my conclusions was that the northern half of Kazakhstan, including Astana, does not really belong to Central Asia. Its infrastructural links with the other ex-Soviet “-stans” further south are generally very weak, whereas its connections with Siberia, the Urals and the Altai region are very strong. Essentially, northern Kazakhstan is thus part of the lands to its north. President Nazarbayev knows this, and it is perhaps the reason why he talks not so much about “Central Asia”, but more about “Eurasia” in the context of Kazakhstan’s geographical position. In my conference paper I develop these thoughts further.

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