"Bridging Central Asian and Caucasus Area Studies” at the ESCAS-CESS Regional Conference in Bishkek,
Updated: May 9, 2018
Timothy Blauvelt, Ilia State University and American Councils for International Education,
Central Asia and the Caucasus share much in common: a Eurasian heritage in the liminal space between great cultures and language families; the experience as both conquerors and conquered in regional empires, ancient and modern; and conditions and challenges of post-Soviet transformation. Yet the two regions tend to be separately compartmentalized, especially in scholarship and their respective area studies traditions. In the first of two round tables that I organized to discuss this topic (the second will be held at the CESS Annual Conference in Seattle in October 2017), four international scholars who teach about and have conducted research in both regions gathered to contribute their views.
As somebody who has conducted and published research on both Central Asia and the Caucasus, Donnacha O Beachain of Dublin City University started by questioning the degree to which the concept of “regions” is meaningful for each of these areas, as the countries within them are often very different from one another. Azerbaijan, for example, has more in common in many respects with several of the countries of Central Asia than it does with other countries in the Caucasus, such as personality cults, the rise in Islamic religious sentiment, and its Turkic language. Donnacha continued by highlighting several areas in which useful comparisons can and have been made across the regions, such as studies of economic models and oil resource, political regime types, especially hybrid and semi-authoritarian types, methods of manipulations of elections, and the geopolitical orientations of various countries and the pull between Russia and Europe. Such comparisons are rarely made, he concluded, and scholars of both regions lack engagement with one another.
The historian Alexander Morrison, currently at Nazarbayev University, focused his comments on the shared experience of Russian and Soviet colonialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia that arose during the course of his research. In particular, the experience of the Caucasus wars had a profound impact on the conceptions of Islam among the 19th Century Russian military officers who later participated in the conquest of Central Asia, shaping their view of Muslims as inherently fanatical, and of Sufi societies as dangerous and conspiratorial. Many of these officers made their careers in the Caucasus before participating in the campaigns in Central Asia, and a number of the administrative measures that were implemented in the Central Asia, such as the system of military administration (voenno-narodnoe upravlenie) and policies towards Islam (the official “ignoring” of Islam, and attempts to separate and manipulate adat and shar’ia) were directly transplanted from the Caucasus. Similarly, Alexander suggested that Bolshevik ideas about the need to accommodate nationalism in the Soviet period and Stalin’s definitions of nationality may have been derived from the Caucasus, in particular the position of the Armenians and Georgians. The “message for Central Asianists,” Alexander concluded, is that if one wants to understand the way in which Russia’s relationship to Islam and to its “Orient” changed in the 19th century, then the Caucasus is the crucial place to start. In a more general sense, the importance of both the Caucasus and Central Asia in Russian and Soviet history and politics demonstrates some of the ways in which the “periphery” directly shapes understandings and events at the center, to such an extent that historians of the center should be encouraged to pay much more active attention to the historiography of the “periphery.”
For her part, Keti Khutsishvili of Tbilisi State University in Georgia focused on the bridging of area studies of the regions from the perspective of the local scholarly space in the Caucasus. Because of the Soviet legacy, ethnography and anthropology in both Central Asia and the Caucasus share a common intellectual history and outlook, and more generally there are many common experiences and markers that could enable fruitful comparisons and parallel analysis. Yet such comparative studies are rarely undertaken by regional scholars themselves. Scholars in Georgia, and especially the younger generation, are interested in comparisons, but they more often think about Europe, the Middle East and the Black Sea region, while making comparisons with Central Asian countries rarely occurs to them. Many young Georgian scholars have difficulty thinking about a “common cultural space” with Central Asia, which for them implies political connotations. This is ultimately unfortunate, Keti concluded, as there are often rich comparisons to be drawn, and openness to studying other regions can only enhance social science in the region. Young Georgian scholars should be encouraged and inspired to think about new possibilities, to think about different sorts of comparison, to give more consideration to interdisciplinary approaches, and also to develop contacts with scholars in Central Asia.
John Schoeberlein, currently at Nazarbayev University, began by pointing out that the ways in which regions are conceptualized, defined and understood entail assumptions about commonality, and that conceptions of regions can have political implications and reflect larger agendas. The regional definitions themselves have changed over time. Much of our current framework of understanding “Central Asia” and the “Caucasus” as distinct regions comes from the ways in which these areas were incorporated and studied in the Russian and Soviet empires. In the very centralized Soviet academic system, scholars in Moscow could study the different peoples and regions of the USSR, but while local scholars were discouraged from studying other Soviet regions and peoples (“like spokes on a wheel”). This created a legacy for local scholars in the post-Soviet periphery that encourages focusing on their own nations or ethnicity and obstructs them from thinking more comparatively. One of the motivations for the creation of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) was to break of such constraining frameworks, and to create a space for local scholars to understand their regions on their own terms rather than just as peripheries of other regions. The concept of Central Eurasia was also a vague framework, and in itself has had the effect of creating new centers and peripheries. As with area studies fields related to other parts of the world, Schoeberlein argued that taking disciplinary rather than regional approaches is one way to draw connections across the Central Asian and Caucasus regions, and that thematic issues provide a means for both local and international scholars to think beyond borders and boundaries. In that regard, the commonalities and important difference of the countries and people in these regions, the common imperial legacies, languages (including the role of Russian) and religions in Central Asia and the Caucasus continue to provide fertile ground for meaningful comparisons.