The geopolitics of the steppes


René Cagnat is a writer, academic and researcher whose passion for Central Asia was forged during a long career in the French military and as a military attaché in countries across Eastern and Central Asia. Since retiring with the rank of colonel, he stayed in Central Asia to live in Kirghizia where he was the honorary French consul from 2001-2002 and taught at the national university of Kirghizia as well as the American University of Bichkek. He has a master's degree in Russian, a doctorate in political science and is a Knight in the Legion of Honor and an Officer in the National Order of Merit.

He has travelled extensively in the region and is the author of multiple articles and books about Central Asian history, politics, religion and culture, including a travel guide and two volumes of photography.

Jean-François Fiorina, Associate-Dean of Grenoble Ecole de Management, spoke to René Cagnat about the importance of this often-overlooked part of the world.

On May 9 2015, Russia held a huge Victory Day Parade in Red Square to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. While the absence of western countries was duly noted and numerous observers commented on Vladimir Putin's apparent isolation, some analysts suggested that the event was also a confirmation of Russia's shift towards the East.

Exactly. It's important we avoid having a purely western-centeric view of these events. We should note for example the presence of Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India, and Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, both of whom represent important geopolitical actors in terms of demographics and economics.

As Jean Bodin would say: "There is only as much wealth as there are men." The combined populations of the countries present at this event should give us food for thought. The 9th of May was without a doubt a sign of China and Russia's rapprochement. In fact, there have been a significant number of agreements signed between these two countries to cooperate on financial, energy and trade issues.

The clear intertwining of their regional projects confirms the comments of Pascal Lorot, president of the Choiseul Institute. Moscow's favorable outlook towards Asia, and in particular China, is in fact a reaction to western sanctions. Take for example the agreements signed over gas. Russia is offering its partners the benefits of extremely low prices with long term contracts that sometimes last up to thirty years!

Such signs are not meaningless and they illustrate Russia's gradual shift towards the East. And we should not forget the fact that Xi Jinping was trained during a time when Russia exerted a strong influence on China. Putin and his counterpart in China have thus been able to agree on numerous plans, a collaborative relationship that eludes the bumpy interactions between Russian and western leaders.

The policy of sanctions carried out by the West has pushed Russia into the arms of China and facilitated the creation of a Eurasian bloc. A block from which Europe has found itself excluded as its leaders have preferred to align with Washington. Yet, as John Kerry's recent trips have highlighted, the United States may not stay this course and other options are being considered.

We should also remember that Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, forewarned in his book The Grand Chessboard (1997) that an alliance between Russia, China and Iran posed a major threat for the United States. We can see today that this threat is becoming a reality.

While it may be possible for the United States to change its strategic orientation, Europe cannot and might find itself stranded on the other side of the ocean! As a result, we could lose both our advantages and our credibility. Therefore in light of this new configuration, our geopolitical strategy appears to be all the more inexplicable and suicidal.

In addition to being a specialist on Central Asia, your interests also include the rest of the Eastern world, from Ukraine to Afghanistan and from Russia to Xinjiang, which you called the "heart of empires." One of your recent articles dealt with the question of ‘Eurasia’. But how do you define Eurasia? What does the "heart of the empires" mean?

The concept of Eurasia can been seen from several perspectives depending on the author. Some observers reduce the term to Vladimir Putin's current economic union. I often define the concept in larger terms, in other words: Europe plus the Russian Asia as defined by traditional and tsarist perspectives (European Russia, the Caucasus, Siberia and Central Asia).

The reality of these regions is that they lie far more within the Russian sphere of influence than they do in Europe’s. Of the twenty-eight countries that make up the European Union, only a dozen or so even consider the strategic importance of Eurasia.

As for the "heart of empires," the expression is a reference to a perspective I first developed back in the 80s with Michel Jan in our essay on China, the USSR and Islam ( Le Milieu des Empires, entre Chine, URSS et Islam, le destin de l’Asie centrale). We studied the vast no man's land that is disputed by empires from all directions: from east to west, the Turkish, Iranian and Chinese empires, to the north the Russian empire, and to the south the remains of the British empire (now the Indian empire).

What is your professional experience? How did you become interested in Eurasia and more generally in geopolitics?

I discovered geopolitics during my training as an officer at the French War School. This subject matter was a revelation for me. It allowed me to understand the links between various global situations. Before discovering this way of analyzing various situations I had been faced with many factors that appeared to be distinct and unrelated. I was born in Madagascar in the middle of WWII. I chose a military career as I was heavily marked by the war during my earlier years. I first went to the military academy, Saint-Cyr, and then joined the alpine troops as I was always fascinated by snow, Nordic landscapes and the mountains.

This fascination is also what drew me to the position of military attaché for our embassies in Eastern countries. Throughout my career I also continued my university studies, which were focused on geopolitics, in particular Central Asia and the Eastern regions. I inherited this passion from my mother, who was always intrigued by Russia.

To gain a deeper understanding of Eastern and Asian countries, which are often perceived very differently, you chose to live in Central Asia for many years. What did you learn during your stay?

The gigantic territory of Central Asia appears to me as a region where time and space fuse. The people of these lands often turn our classical view of the world upside down as they mix many various categories together.

For them, green and blue are the same colour. Distances are measured as they were in the past - in hours or days depending on how long it takes to walk a distance. The societies in Central Asia are fascinating in many ways.

Their code of politeness, which is most likely inherited from Persian civilization, is very refined and is followed by settled and nomadic people. We can also observe a very strong respect for older generations and their experience. Courtesy towards others is a basic tenet of their society.

There is also a code of hospitality, and I would even say, a code that requires support be given to those in difficulty. While this habit has waned in cities, it's still alive. It's a practice that's beneficial for all, both the rich and the needy. During my many solitary travels through the region I was able to see and appreciate the authenticity of this code.

Exchanging with local people is an essential part of travelling. Once, when I was isolated and in a region filled with bandits, I asked for hospitality in a yurt. I was welcomed by the mistress of the household, who had previously been a professor of French at the university. She spoke our language fluently and read Maupassant!

Talking about French literature in the middle of Kyzylkoum was a surreal experience. Yet this story reveals the reach of French culture throughout the faraway lands of Central Asia.

The role of women in this region can appear to be discreet. But, their place reveals itself as one of power in the complicated game that is the private life of the family and the clan.

What is the role of religion?

That's an important question! In Central Asia, I discovered that there cannot be any culture without religion. Even for the bezbozhniki, or atheists, religion is always hidden somewhere, in dogmatism or civil ceremonies, for example.

It's important to differentiate between settled populations and nomadic ones. Settled populations are steeped in the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam, which is both rigorous and moderate. On the other hand, Islamic influence on nomadic populations has long been superficial. They eat pork, drink vodka and raise their glasses to the health of Allah.

However, over past decades, travelling preachers have led both settled and nomadic populations to follow a more orthodox version of Islam. These preachers were trained in Pakistan, the Gulf, Egypt or even Saudi Arabia. As a result, we see a stricter form of religion which in some cases has called into question their society.

Despite this, it's also important to realize that the roots of Islam in Central Asia date back to the beginning of times. Believers are steeped in shamanistic traditions that perceive God through nature and they have death and spirit cults.

In fact, the campaign carried out by Muslim preachers was orchestrated to eradicate this pagan heritage. In addition to destroying menhirs (ancient standing stones which can be found all over Central Asia where they are worshipped as sacred locations), the preachers built thousands of mosques and Koranic schools.

The Central Asian populations all react differently to Islam and the religion's success is not always guaranteed, especially among the Kyrgyzs, Kazakhs and other Turkmens, who are all nomadic people. On the other hand, the reaction is not the same with the settled Uzbeks, Uyghurs and Tajiks as these populations are structured on reasoning that is far more influenced by Islamic traditions.

And today?

Today, power relations in Central Asia seems to be moving towards a triangular game. Despite the gradual withdrawal of the United States, a 'mafia-like Islam' is inserting itself opposite Russia and China. That’s why the alliance between China and Russia continues to strengthen - to face not only the United States, but also this growing Islamist threat.

As a conclusion, what would you, as a military man, traveller and academic, like to say to younger generations to encourage their interest in geopolitics?

We only succeed at life if we follow a great passion. I encourage students to discover their passion through their research, reading and past-times. If they discover it in a region, country or civilization, then they will have to enter into geopolitics to decipher its subtleties, logic and secrets.

After they’ve done that, they should go to see for themselves whether what they discovered through academics and books is true. In a way, travelling equates to training. It's about learning to know yourself all the while discovering others. It's a wonderful way to discover the richness of geopolitics.


About The Author

Jean-Francois Fiorina
Jean-Francois Fiorina

Jean-Francois Fiorina is Associate-Dean of Grenoble Ecole de Management and director of the Grande Ecole (ESC Grenoble), one of the four entities of Grenoble Ecole de Management. A graduate of INSEEC Bordeaux and an MBA graduate of the University of America, San Francisco, he began his career as an international consultant before becoming a professor of international trade.