From Empires and States to Regional Resiliency
Peaceful neighborhoods are often seen as a luxury in world politics, available only to states that are rich, democratic, and administratively strong. It is only such states that can build stable, prosperous regions and neighborhoods, so the dominant scholarly narrative goes. The European Union has long been the epitome of where evolutionary trends in regional politics around the world were headed. The scholarship on comparative regionalism has already established the great diversity in regional forms outside of Europe. However, the emphasis on statehood as a necessary precondition for strong regions continues to be a recurrent theme in that literature. Peaceful regions are said to have states with integrated economies and societies, boasting regional flows of tourists and trade. Borders in such regions are seamless and “smart,” designed to catch the trafficker and the terrorist without hindering economic activity (Ohanyan 2016).
Regions have also been thought of as security orders, created, managed, and dominated by hegemonic powers. Such regional security orders are viewed by their supporters as a geopolitical necessity: alliance systems without which the middle powers and smaller states would plunge into perpetual insecurity. Some of these regional formations have been more successful than others in taming conflict and providing effective security for their members. Regional formations—whether fully institutionalized regional groupings like the European Union, or loosely formed and organizationally limited institutions like the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Middle East—differ; some are representative and participatory, while others are hegemonic, designed to cement spheres of influence between great powers (Ohanyan 2018c) or use regional hegemony for global power projection.
So far, all approaches to the study of regional orders, which range from integrative and negotiated to hegemonic and coercive, have taken states as constitutive and foundational, an assumption that is challenged in this book. This work highlights the fact that regional ties—both the progressive and the perversive—often predate state formation. The regions-before-states paradigm presented here exposes the deep regional fabric that was already in place at the imperial peripheries at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, up until World War I—the regional fabric that gave rise to the political geography and institutional contours of the contemporary state system when the Eurasian empires formally collapsed. This is a novel conceptualization of regional politics in terms of explaining ongoing armed conflicts on the Eurasian continent and their policy implications.
With this book, I challenge the narrative that strong states make strong and peaceful regions. I argue that a much deeper historical dive than the one currently exercised in comparative regionalism scholarship is necessary, and overdue. The imperial lens, I suggest, is transformative for the study of regional fabric and the nature of regional connectivity. Calling into question the state-centric paradigm in the existing literature, this work argues that it is strong regional ties that make for strong states, rather than the other way around. In the process, the book zooms in on the deeply communal nature of regional engagement at the imperial peripheries, while also examining such regional fabric over time. State formation in resilient neighborhoods, as opposed to fractured regions, has a better chance of institutional consolidation, resulting in lowered risks of armed conflict.
The neighborhood effect, the organizing concept of this book, is multilevel, developed to illuminate the mutually constitutive nature of the societal fabric in regions and the extra-regional geopolitical rivalry between greater powers. Societal connectivity has to do with civic institutions and the nature of the social capital (whether bonding or bridging) between ethno-religious communities at the imperial peripheries. In fractured regions, this societal fabric tends and tended to be clustered, with shallow institutional connections within and between ethno-religious communities. Such patterns of regional connectivity at an imperial periphery made the region vulnerable to extra-regional geopolitical rivalry as well as to stress and attack from the imperial center. In contrast, regions that had balanced connectivity and were rich in bonding social capital, with deep institutional connections between communities in a region, were less vulnerable to extra-regional overlay and geopolitical competition. Such regions were more resilient and more capable of withstanding imperial pressures as well as geopolitical competition.
This concept captures a range of regional connectivity and complexity, from perverse to purposeful and progressive, and from regional resiliency to regional fracture (see chapter 2). In its most resilient forms, regions manifest deeply interdependent and symbiotic societal contacts between communities, often institutionally supported and politically incentivized by external actors. Such a resilient neighborhood effect is possible when there is civic depth in a region; this is expressed in a dense layer of civic organizations within ethno-religious communities and operating across ethno-religious divides. Such organizations—political units in this work—are capable of independent agency and skilled at navigating regional terrains.
In its fractured state, the neighborhood effect manifests in predation upon one community by another and intense zero-sum economic competition between communities, creating opportunities for intercommunal violence. In resiliency, the neighborhood effect manifests in region-wide collective action by all communities that is capable of withstanding stressors and crises, which are often external to the region. Whether at imperial peripheries or in contemporary state formations, the neighborhood effect has an independent impact on the security outcomes of contemporary armed conflicts of various levels of severity and intractability (see chapter 3).
This book argues that resilient regional fabrics enabled powerful imperial legacies, which reverberated throughout the twentieth century. Regional resilience empowered the ethno-religious groups in such regions to avoid armed conflict in the post-Cold War period, or to temper violence when conflict did erupt. On the other side of the spectrum, clustered and low connectivity in fractured regions eroded the prospects for peaceful conflict resolution when the bipolar, Cold War-era geopolitical stability in Eurasia started to “thaw,” expressed in a chain of armed conflicts in post-Communist Eurasia.
This book argues that regional ties are imperial legacies and that, as such, they predate the state system. Moreover, the chances for regional peace are higher in spaces with historical legacies and civic memories of regional cooperation, which for much of the developing world predate the rise of the state system. Pathways of regional connectivity at the imperial peripheries have shaped the patterns of armed conflict or enabled its prevention (see chapter 7). Resilient or fractured, the regional fabric at the imperial peripheries was also a function of imperial governance. The empirical analysis of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires, in chapters 4, 5, and 6, respectively, examines the patterns of regional connectivity at the peripheries as extensions of imperial governance. To varying degrees, regional fracture, with divide-and-conquer imperial policies at its core, frayed intercommunal relations and eroded institutionalized governance at the peripheries. Indeed, it has been a staple of imperial politics to use paramilitary forces from one ethnic group to attack another (such as in the Ottoman empire) or to support one ethnic group in order to control another (such as in the Habsburg empire). The contemporary forms of such policies are no less insidious. A fraying regional fabric is the shared and historically transcendent outcome in such cases of imperial and neo-imperial contemporary politics. Fractured regional connectivity, mostly an imperial legacy, shapes and influences the onset and severity of contemporary armed conflict.
There are two outcomes of the work detailed in this book. First, on a descriptive note, this study produces a methodology for comparative analysis of regional connectivity between contiguous states and imperial peripheries, detailed in chapter 2 on methods. As a historical comparative study, the framework of regional connectivity elevates imperial peripheries as political regions, showing their legacies for and continuities in current forms of regional engagement in the state system. As such, this work shows that imperial peripheries are politically constructed regions, predating contemporary forms of regional engagement between territorially contiguous states. The imperial legacies of this regional connectivity shaped the strength of the states that emerged from these imperial peripheries. In offering a new approach to the study of imperial peripheries as political regions, this book distinguishes between imperial and Westphalian (contemporary, state-based) regional forms. In the process, it helps to excavate the local agency of nonstate actors in imperial systems, while showing their legacy in contemporary regional politics. This is a step toward deepening regional studies beyond their Euro-centric bias, which has thus far defined regions as integrated states that are administratively strong and overwhelmingly democratic (Ohanyan 2018b; Ohanyan 2021).
The second outcome of the work in this book is a conflict theory, applied in the context of contemporary Eurasian hot spots (chapter 7). Regional fracture theory—a subset of the comparative analysis of regional connectivity—is a conflict theory. As such, this work has shown that patterns of fractured regional connectivity, an imperial legacy, affected the onset and severity of contemporary armed conflicts on the Eurasian continent. The empirical section presents in-depth case studies of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires. For each of these cases there is also an in-depth study of one of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century peripheries of that empire that constitutes a contemporary regional space of armed conflict. The fractured peripheries examined here are the Bosnian province in the Habsburg empire, the Eastern Anatolian province in the Ottoman empire, and the Transcaucasian region in the Russian empire. The associated conflicts studied in chapter 7 include the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the Kurdish conflict in Turkey and its reverberations into the Middle East, and the post-Soviet conflicts in the South Caucasus. The analysis is carried out in paired comparisons, which entailed case studies of the Baltics and central Europe as control cases of peaceful regional rebirth from the Cold War.
In sum, by utilizing a comparative regional-level analysis, this work shifts the perspective away from the imperial centers, on the one hand, and western Europe, on the other. Instead, it focuses on the select peripheries of three empires. These peripheries have been neglected, due in part to their somewhat fluid political structure and changeability, but, as sites of interethnic conflict and negotiation, they are critical to the geopolitical equation, revealing historically determined and enduring dynamics of interaction (bridging, bargaining, fissuring, and fragmenting) and, unfortunately, of conflict, genocide, and trauma, sometimes on a catastrophic scale, as in the case of the Armenians in the Ottoman empire.
This puzzle of how peaceful or war-prone regional formations emerge is particularly relevant for the Eurasian continent. Here, developmental and participatory forms of regionalism coexisted with hegemonic regional groupings throughout the twentieth century. This continent, along with sub-Saharan Africa, also holds the world’s largest concentration of unresolved armed conflict and organized violence. And nowhere is the rationale for using the imperial lens to examine regional politics more relevant than here, where several land empires have been battling for centuries and where these legacies continue to shape ongoing insecurity, whether in eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, or the Middle East. One major outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is that there has been a slowly emerging process of deglobalization, including a growing chorus of voices advocating shorter, less-globalized supply chains. But regardless how far this deglobalization proceeds, the call for politics and economies to be regionally wired will only intensify. And China’s various regional initiatives may become particularly important for the continent as a whole.
It is also important to understand the regional contours of connectivity on the continent in the context of this moment of shifting geopolitical rivalries and concurrent, albeit shallow, geopolitical accommodations. Against this backdrop, this book argues that the regional fabric binding neighboring middle-sized powers and smaller states is an imperial legacy. It also holds that this regional fabric will be consequential for the great-power reshuffling in this century. The nature of the regional connectivity among small and medium-sized powers will be important in determining whether the great-power rivalries will result in more of the same, repeating old patterns and recreating old great-power habits of regional fracture, or whether a more qualitative and deeply structural transformation of the world system will begin to take place. How will China’s rise affect the contours of the world order, if at all, and how will it impact armed conflicts, large and small, and other issues of global governance? Regional fracture is an instrument that the greater powers have habitually used to control and manage their imperial peripheries and “spheres of influence” following their formal decline as empires. Whether this pattern repeats itself is now contingent on the ability of smaller states and medium-sized powers to come together in somewhat autonomous regional groupings to break the cycle.
Indeed, the Eurasian continent represents the promise and the perils of our global future. It has long been considered central to world economy and geopolitics, dating back to Halford Mackinder’s (1861–1947) writings on geopolitics and geostrategy (Nalbandov 2016; Giragosian 2018). The continent is now viewed with hope and trepidation. It has dominated global political history for centuries. It drove exploration to the New World and the Industrial Revolution (Calder 2019). It has also been the site of the rise and fall of multiple empires over the past millennia. Importantly, this continent was the heart of the physical infrastructure and social networks that drove slavery and exploitation beyond its shores. And it was networks emanating from Eurasia that pushed the diffusion of statehood as an organizational form and a political entity, giving rise to territorially bounded bureaucratic statehood. The spread of statehood as a way of organizing political life has shaped contemporary modes of national governance. At the same time, the continent remains rife with dangerous divisions and persistent fault lines that, if left unchecked, could sap its potential global economic and political power moving forward:
Eurasia, as we shall see, is in the throes of historic transition. Despite its geographic coherence, epitomized by the lack of major physical barriers separating Europe and Asia, together with important cultural continuities, the sprawling continent was long Balkanized into a maze of conflicting jurisdictions. (Calder 2019, 1)
Calder proceeds to caution that connectivity through infrastructure and institutions will determine whether the supercontinent can overcome its vulnerabilities to realize its economic and political potential. Understanding the regional fabric of areas conventionally considered peripheral and marginal in world politics, therefore, is crucial for building and managing greater connectivity in Eurasia. The comparative study of the regional fabric of such peripheral spaces over time is essential to building an inclusive and expansive understanding of Eurasian connectivity.
Despite its formal decline in the twentieth century, imperialism shaped this continent into a core-periphery order (Buzan and Lawson 2015). It stratified relations between the hegemonic, great, medium, and small powers (Cooley 2005). Structural inequalities persisted between the states, metropoles, and cores of former empires, on the one hand, and their peripheries, on the other. The relations of influence that run between them, in the form of developmental assistance, military alliances, and proxy wars, to name a few, continue to shape the contours of the political economy outside of the industrialized world. Conventional definitions of empire do little to capture these ongoing inequalities and political hierarchies.
Tilly (1997) expresses skepticism about the perceived decline of empire in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse; he asks whether the requiem was premature and whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) might not be considered alternative imperial designs. Tilly goes on to argue that “we should avoid the smug assumption that empires fail simply because they generally adopt unviable forms of rules” (2) and points out that historically, empires have been quite durable.
Tilly defines empire as a large composite polity linked to a central power by indirect rule. He then highlights the military and fiscal control applied by the imperial core over its peripheries. In cases of indirect rule, empires offer particular and distinct military and fiscal compacts to their clients. Such differential contracting to its peripheries (Nexon and Wright 2007) works to prevent collective mobilization among the peripheries against the imperial core. Tilly (1997) also highlights the power of intermediaries, usually the elites on the imperial peripheries, who assure compliance with, tribute to, and military collaboration with the center.
The lens of empire is highly relevant to the study of contemporary politics on the Eurasian continent, but a more dynamic definition may be more useful to that end. Concepts such as Russia’s “near abroad” and “Eurasianism,” and Turkey’s “Ottoman sphere” (Cagaptay 2020), understood as the “privileged interests” of these states, continue to reflect the persistence of imperial imagery, reasserting it anew in the post-Cold War period (Torbakov 2017). Perhaps the most vivid examples of such imperial imagery among governing elites translating into concrete foreign policy outcomes are the Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine and its Crimea annexation in 2014, as well as Turkey’s entry into Syria in 2019.
Less visible, but equally imperial, is the deployment of geo-economic tools (Blackwill and Harris 2017) by former empires to coerce smaller states. In some cases, shared imperial history catalyzes such transactions, while in others, that shared history creates friction. The conditions under which such imperial pressures are negotiated depend on the ways in which smaller states relate to their immediate neighbors and regional neighborhoods (Ohanyan 2015; Ohanyan 2021). Strong neighborhood ties and foreign policy coordination are key to providing smaller states the ability to push back against or to develop better negotiating positions relative to hegemonic and formerly imperial powers. This has been the case for the Baltics in the post-Cold War period, discussed later in this book, as well as for parts of Latin America vis-à-vis the United States in the twentieth century (Ohanyan 2015).
Against this backdrop, the more dynamic definition of empires offered by Motyl (1997) is particularly helpful for the Eurasian context, which includes modern forms of imperial politics. Motyl’s approach is distinctive because it treats the core-periphery relationship as varied and casts empires within a family of similar political units of multiethnic entities, such as multinational dictatorial states, ethnoterritorial federations, and multinational nondictatorial states. Motyl defines empires as having culturally distinct and often territorially bound cores and administrative units, as well as a dictatorial and coercive relationship between the elites in the core and the elites on the periphery.
This definition leaves the door open to the possibility that internal democratization within the regimes in the core or at the periphery can become a catalyst to adjust, change, and renegotiate the relationship between the core and the periphery. Armenia’s relationship with Russia after its democratic breakthrough in 2018 (Ohanyan 2020b; Ohanyan and Kopalyan 2022) is a case in point. The new government, having led a mass-scale nonviolent disobedience campaign, came to power in a wave of public legitimacy, which enhanced its bargaining power relative to its hegemonic and neo-imperial patron, Russia.
The regional fracture theory elaborated in the Eurasian context calls for unpacking the politics on the peripheries, capturing the range of their regional politics from fracture to resilience. Motyl’s emphasis on the cultural distinction between the peripheries and the core is also useful in analyzing the regional politics of the peripheries. And yet his approach to core-periphery relations, while cognizant of the cultural distinctness and territorial boundedness of the peripheries, is flexible: he allows that some level of territorial boundedness is key to understanding peripheries but recognizes that in contiguous Eurasian empires, in contrast to overseas empires, culturally distinct groups were not always territorially bounded. This heightened their peripheral, minority status within empires, along with the associated security risks. Therefore, the core-periphery imperial relationships analyzed in this work have both a geographic dimension (for example, the Armenian population concentrated in the Ottoman empire’s eastern provinces of Eastern Anatolia) and an institutional one (Armenians as a confessional minority scattered throughout the Ottoman empire, with varied levels of population density around the Ottoman territory).