What place would you think of if you were asked where the major geopolitical shifts are under way at the moment? Unfortunately, there has been no such survey done for the purpose of elucidating the prevailing public opinion, but what is sure is that relatively few would think of Central Asia,[1] or if they would, would hardly voice this bold presumption. At this point, it is worth recalling the old classical work of former US National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Mr. Zbigniew Brzezinski,[2] whose interest in the post-Soviet space has been as much sincere and science-driven as pragmatic. He was the first person in the post-Cold war era to point out to this vast, but very empty spot on the world map (to which Western scholars generally refer collectively as “stans“, without always knowing for sure how to distinguish between them), and who attributed so much importance to it.

Speaking in geopolitical terms, the Eurasian Balkans, encompassing the whole of Central Asia — which borders quite uncomfortably on the Middle East and quite promisingly on the Caucasus and Eastern Europe (this fact has entitled Kazakhstan to bid for the 2010 OSCE presidency [3] that it has been finally granted, and also allows Kazakh footballers to participate in the UEFA championships) — are the so sought-after heartland [4] of modern times. As geopolitical pressure has shifted gradually eastward; as moderns means of communication increasingly tend to turn the world into one single territory easily linkable from one end to the other; as Asia has consistently demonstrated its readiness to enter the global competition for more influence and standing, the heartland has also drifted.

Western Germany used to be the bulwark of the Free World in the Cold war times; that is why the two American presidents indulged with unprecedented ease in the high-blown speeches proclaiming their attachment to the German free spirit (as in the case of John F. Kennedy [5]) or calling for the “wall of shame” to be torn down [6] and urging resistance to the Evil Empire [7] (in this case, the cinematic habits of Ronald Reagan did much good for the sake of exaggeration). The city of Berlin was the main battlefield of the two opposed camps. The aerial bridge [8] concocted by the Western allies and successfully aimed at sustaining the Berliners’ optimism during the unpredictably harsh winters immediately after World War II is now part of every classical book on the history of international relations since 1945 onward.

What was the reason for Berlin to become an apple of discord for many decades after the crush of the Third Reich? Perhaps, the logic of the then proponents of the Free World and those who extolled the virtues of living under communism was driven by strict geopolitical calculus, making Germany the natural heartland of the European subcontinent. At that time, it was still unclear whether Europe would retain its erstwhile role of a global hegemon entitled to start wars and to end them of its own accord, and purportedly having no second thoughts about whether its colonial territories would be interested in sending their people to where those would definitely die for no explicit reason or benefit. The world was still Eurocentric, but soon learnt the sad truth: the Pax Americana was just around the corner.

The United States of America, breaking out of its centuries-old isolationist cocoon and cognizant of its sudden importance, managed to keep the momentum and to assert itself as the maker of a new world order, where Europe was supposed to be kind of a poor parent under condescending tutelage. With this abrupt shift and the newly discovered interest of the US political elite in the outer world, not only in Europe, but also in East Asia, where the US had defeated Japan and cherished the revival of a nationalist China, the scope of geopolitical ambitions greatly expanded. Those who lived in Europe, the direct witnesses or participants of the deadliest war in human history, continued to regard Europe as the presumable battlefield for all future conflicts arising out of the desire of some bellicose nations to gain political leverage over the most charming region of the globe.

This common understanding shared almost everywhere was the major driving force behind the European integration starting from the Hague Congress of Europe in 1948,[9] where Winston Churchill made public his vision of a new Europe, united politically, with Great Britain as a non-member but a faithful partisan, to the Schumann Declaration of 1950 [10] to the Lisbon Treaty [11] signed in 2007 and ratified two years later. The integrationist course chosen by Europe, on the one hand, was a more efficient tool of appeasement and reconciliation than in the minds of Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, and, on the other hand, put an end to all large-scale ambitions of post-World War II Europeans for global dominance.

This latter presumption may be easily overthrown by the enumeration of all the European achievements that followed, but only in part: as Clausewitz put it, “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means”, so that the peaceful course, so dear to the European founding fathers, is quite incompatible with a yearning for global influence that is only attainable if the velvet glove has an iron fist inside it. The American era in international relations contributed to the extension of the ideological (and also physical) battlefield, breaking with the European tradition of Eurocentrism and inviting the rest of the world to advance their pawns across the Grand Chessboard.[12] This is the starting point for Central Asia’s unprecedented popularity.

The first Russian Emperor Peter the Great, who modernized the country, built the first Russian navy, introduced foreign markets to fusty Russian merchants and founded Saint-Petersburg, once called Central Asia “a door to the East”. What we see now in this tumultuous region is the most visible proof of these words. Central Asia has rebranded itself as a natural linkage between the East and the West, and has become a bridgehead for a number of political and military organizations whose margin for maneuvering is largely based on the prolonged stability across this crucial area. The low efficiency of such organizations, as it has become clear from the past crisis situations, where bilateral talks held behind closed doors were a preferred method of negotiation, stems from the real state of affairs characterized by prolonged instability and insecurity. But even in this insecure ambiance which is hopefully far from being as critical as in Iraq or Afghanistan, there is still much room for coordination and accommodation, and, as history proves, great powers, including those which are prone to mutual loathing, usually tend to have converging interests and condone each other’s foibles.

But before asking ourselves which powers are prevailing in the region of Central Asia, and are hence on the verge of controlling the heartland, it is worth figuring out what has made Central Asia so special.

From the geopolitical point of view, the whole of Central Asia represents a safe springboard for any large-scale military expansion and is frequently compared to a buffer area, the vastness of which is perfect for the smooth dilution of diverse, if not contradictory, interests clashing; or at least intersecting in the same geographical zone. Central Asia has historically been a shield for the Russian Empire against its eastern and southern neighbors. The accession of the north-western part of Kazakhstan in the 1730s and the ultimate inclusion of the whole of Kazakhstan into the Russian Empire in the 1860s, accompanied by a complete defeat of southern adversaries, gave Russia an extraordinarily promising opportunity to play the Iranian card and thus to advance towards the British domain in India. The gyration of all the Central Asian countries around the Russian orbit has proved to be unstable and short-lived, but at present no Russian foreign policy wonk would ever give up the idea of regarding Central Asia as the Russian backyard and enclave into the inimical environment. Despite Russia’s inability to sustain the whole chain of alliances it managed to build up to spite the US whenever the Cold war scenario was about to be repeated, it is still clinging to its one-time Central Asian vassals which have become more (and formally) independent and therefore have more leeway in their relations with Moscow.