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Vsevolod Samokhvalov

What kind of region: spatial constructs in the populist era

Open Access

Editor's Notes

This journal issue is an outcome of the research project supported BeIPD-Cofund Marie-Curie Fellowship. I would like to express my gratitude to University of Liege for hosting this research and to Prof. Sebastian Santander for supporting this project at all stages.

Table of content

1The rise of populism has often been conceptualized as a major challenge to the contemporary international order. Strong ethno-nationalist drive and xenophobic sentiment undermine liberal values, while deification of nationalist leadership may undercut democratic institutions at home and in the international arena. Consequently, it was expected that the anti-liberal and ethno-centric nature of populism would bring about the end of the liberal rule-based world order. In particular, economic success of authoritarian regimes in emerging markets would make European choices less and less attractive even for European Union (EU) member states and countries in its periphery (Krastev and Holmes, 2018). Consequently, ethnonationalism and economic egoism would simply make it impossible for nation-states to overcome the logic of power politics and national interest. This logic would lead to further fragmentation of regional projects (starting from Europe and Euro-Atlantic community) and result in a new era of Realpolitik, probably expressed in geo-economic struggles between major powers (Haas, 2018). The present issue of the Journal of Cross-Regional Dialogues / Revue de dialogues inter-régionaux sets out to question these two arguments by providing exploratory analysis of the interplay between globalising and re-nationalising drives in the broader Eurasian space.

2One of the underpinning ideological assumptions of regional has long been the fact that various types of regionalism were (as to their nature and performance) against a very high and criterion – the success of the European integration. Indeed, the studies judged unique project of European integration has displayed remarkable progress in terms of preserving peace and creating a community of nations in Europe. Having set the bar high the European experience was often treated as a model for emulation, a final destination for any region-building effort. However, the remarkable success of the European project should not be taken as a universal measure to assess other regional projects. Launched by different actors with varying goals in mind, those projects might have evolved along other trajectories or even were designed as an antipode rather than a replica of a Western system. One of the underlying assumptions of regional integration has been the requirement of geographic contiguity, and the EU, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mercosur comprise geographically adjacent countries. Those examples were often described as macro-regions situated between the nation-state and global levels (Söderbaum, 2004). It is, however, not necessarily granted that regional projects (as a form of spatial organisation) should aim to arrange only contiguous territorial entities. Why should it not go beyond space and territory.

3The paper by Maria Lagutina suggests that an emerging alternative regionalism can in fact reach global and, even, post-territorial level. This new global regionalism is different from macro-regions for several reasons. First, it goes beyond territoriality. Alternative forms of economic interaction were launched by the countries situated in different parts of the world (BRICS). Unlike the European project, the BRICs do not set the goal of creating a peaceful community in a bounded territory. In this regard, the geographic and functional ambiguity of BRICS plays an important role which removes tensions and the need for a certain finalité of this alternative regionalism (Rupnik, 1994). While the EU today faces challenges formulated in the question of Europe’s frontiers, Eurasia or BRICS are either too vast or to fuzzy to be challenged by such questions. Questions of border and territory are simply irrelevant for such projects. Unlike previous forms of regionalism which more or less based on bounded and continuous territory, emerging global regionalism has a global vision in mind and could be better conceptualised as one of multiple global networks. Ironically, one could argue that another example of a globalised network type regionalism could be the rhetoric of some Brexiteers, who called upon Brits to abandon a small non-competitive European project for the sake of global Britain.

4Secondly, BRICS as well as other Eurasian regional projects are built as a competing (rather than alternative) model to Western regionalism and are thus different from (not so) New Regionalism. While Hettne and Söderbaum rightly pointed out that new regionalism would be created as an alternative to European model and based on a bottoms-up approach, the BRICs and EEAU have been formulated in more competitive terms (Hettne and Söderbaum, 1998). The new global regionalism driven by the countries who want to challenge the existing power structures, core-periphery relations and international division of labour. Driven by a neo-Marxist vision of the world as networks of added value Russian, Indian, Chinese and other elites of the less developed world are trying to redefine the terms of global trade by an alternative global vision. This regionalism arguably represents periphery which has united to economically challenge the global core of Western countries. Some of them indeed replicate European institutional frameworks as does the Eurasian Union. This imitative institution-building does not mean that regional entrepreneurs were pursuing a similar goal. In fact, an argument has been made that Eurasian integration is a unique authoritarian modernising regionalism (Libman and Obydenkova, 2018). While in some regards Eurasian regional projects draw on European institutional evolution, the fundamental difference in that the Eurasian regionalism pursues different goals beyond the European vision of establishing peace in a certain bounded territory.

5While the EU demonstrated a great record of peace-building in Europe, it would still be worth reminding that the European project also had some security concerns, which looked fairly justified after WWII. While the vast post-Soviet imperial space is experiencing significant spatial rearrangements, it would be logical to expect new regions to emerge while old ones may vanish. Akram Umarov applies the concept of a regional security complex to analyse geopolitical shifts in Central Asia, i.e. the opening of a major regional player in Uzbekistan, evolving security issues in Afghanistan and the involvement of China. The paper argues that security interests of the countries of the region can drive the countries to treating their region as an emerging security complex. One could argue that the security concerns of Central Asia and the interests of China have led to the emergence of a new sub-region – Central Eurasia, a spatial construct which includes Afghanistan and its Southern neighbours and clearly goes beyond the concept of Central Asia (which dominated the research of this space for the past two centuries).

6Similarly, in their paper Peter Braga and Kaneshko Sangar mention Russian-Chinese relations, where some of Russia’s concerns about the Chinese expansion into Russia’s closest periphery resulted in the launch of new regional project – Greater Eurasia, which again leads to dissolution of the former Soviet space. In the same spirit, Valentin Naumescu discusses the discourses of Euro-Atlantic and regional security around the Black Sea articulated by Romanian, Bulgarian and Turkish elites. The paper implicitly suggests that the Black Sea (while lacking major regional institutional framework or common trade) nevertheless becomes a region when some international actors start to associate certain security challenges with a certain space. By thinking about security as linked to a certain space and by acting towards it they talk and enact this imagined ‘region’ into reality. Importantly, the paper reminds us that the Black Sea region can be a geopolitical space, economic project (Black Sea Economic Cooperation), and locus of Western normalising discourse, which links the Black Sea to international terrorism, migration and trafficking networks. While some analysts might be tempted to discard the above as examples of deviations coming from the pre-modern European periphery (to use classical Euro-centrist term (Cooper, 1994), today even leading experts in European studies argue that the post-modern European project is not immune to geopoliticization of adjacent regions (Youngs, 2017). The examples above suggest two conclusions. Firstly, the post-Soviet space has been gradually dissolving into several major regions, something that has been suggested by the author some years ago (Samokhvalov, 2016). Secondly, new regions can be born or created out of security concerns.

7Another expectation cast on regional projects has long been that each and every one of them should develop only as a forward-looking altruist of post-modern thinking. This assumption stems from the success of the European project over the past two decades. However, proponents of this vision tend to omit the fact that the European project itself emerged from, and as antipode to, the devastating experience of the two world wars. Therefore, the use and/or ‘abuse’ of history was unduly excluded from our analyses of regional integration. Clearly, emerging Eurasian regionalism heavily draws on various historical narratives and does not necessarily reject its often controversial past. The Polish-Ukrainian Intermarium discussed by Margaryta Khvostova in her review of Ostap Kushnir’s volume analyzes how far geopolitical project of the 19 th -20 th century can be reinvigorated and imbued with new meaning of connectivity. The idea of Intermarium was popular in the late 19 th -early 20 th century in Polish and Ukrainian elites. Today’s Poland and Ukraine draw on this concept to promote the idea of a shared space from the Baltic to Black Sea. A paper by Ivanna Machitidze shows how Moscow draws on the historic presence of the Russian Empire and uses the ethnically-based concept of the ‘Russian-world’ to promote its presence in the shared EU-Russian neighbourhood. In some cases, Russian officials also described break-away republics in the East of Ukraine as NovoRossia (a province of the Russian Empire founded in the 18 th century by Russian Empress Catherine the Great). The China-led concept of the Silk-Road Economic Belt, an overland corridor of the Beijing-promoted mega-region Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), echoes several efforts to use this unique historical imagination to project its economic presence and connectivity-based power to broader Eurasia. It is clear however that the project (mis)uses history in different ways and to different degrees. A general conclusion may be drawn that by imitating certain historical spatial imageries (even those focusing on ethno-nationalist narratives) one can drive new past-national projects in a post-modern world.

8Another major theme in Eurasian regionalism is the growing rôle of ambiguity as a political instrument. In Greater Eurasia, ambiguity has been used by China when it promoted its BRI. Similarly, the new geopolitical contour of Eurasia – the Arctic, which is becoming more and more visible and attainable for various great powers – is being currently shaped by the ambiguity of the plans of these actors. On the one hand, there is clearly growing interest in the countries of Arctic region and China is exploiting Arctic navigation routes. Russia bargains tough to secure its exclusive rights in the region. On the other hand, major powers and countries of the ‘region’ including Russia, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland seek to demonstrate reconciliatory moves 3 . Similar dynamics seems to be present in EU-Russia relations. On the one hand the EU adopted a series of sanctions against Russia. On the other hand, some EU Member States continue collaboration with Russia. It seems that ambiguity has become another outcome of the new forms of international interaction – hedging. Hedging features interaction between the countries that – despite conflicting attitudes or pursuits – seeks to reap benefits of cooperation and avoid conflict. This pursuit of mutually exclusive goals prompts them to ‘shelve’ some of the most conflicting issues and refrain from formulating clear positions on potentially conflicting issues. This creates ambiguity, which may be both constructive and counter-productive. The paper by Nina Lavrenteva is a good application of policy of hedging to the analysis of regional dynamics in the case of the Arctic.

9Overall, the papers that follow suggest that the populist age did not bring the end of past-national spatial constructs but changed them significantly. Several emerging projects display features antithetical to those of conventional regionalism. Articulating grievances of the emerging countries can lead to the rise of competing non-territorial regions pursuing alternative global visions. Regionalism based on security and geopolitical concerns creates new sub-regions (such as Black Sea region or Central Eurasia) and is leading to the dissolution of the post-Soviet space. Misuse of history by Russia creates foundations for re-integration of bits of the post-Soviet space into a more informal ‘ethnically-based’ association with Russia. Inter-Marium is based on historical nostalgia, which presents an alternative future based on a romanticised past which looks more appealing than the post-modern EU-centric project. Finally, there is one feature that makes all the above-mentioned regional projects similar to Europe. Namely, despite their ethno-centric, nostalgic and even competitive nature, most of the regional entrepreneurs prefer to abstain from open conflict. They prefer to exercise a degree of ambiguity, which allows more space for manoeuvring and negotiation. The features above suggest that new forms of regional projects will lead to new and competing forms of spatial arrangements, which might comprise various (until recently mutually exclusive) characteristics of regionalism.


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12Haas, R. (2018), Liberal World Order, R.I.P., Council for Foreign Relations Brief, 21 March 2018, available at: (accessed September 30 2019).

13Hettne, B. and Söderbaum, F. (1998), “The New Regionalism Approach”, Politeia, Vol 17, No 3.

14Krastev, I. and Holmes, S. (2018), “Explaining Eastern Europe: Imitation and Its Discontents”, Journal of Democracy, 29(3), pp. 117-128.

15Libman, A. and Obydenkova, A. (2018), “Understanding Authoritarian Regionalism”, Journal of Democracy, pp. 151-165.

16Rehn, O., “Europe’s Next Frontier”, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, 27 October 2006; available at: (accessed September 30 2019).

17Rupnik, J. (1994), “Europe’s New Frontiers: Remapping Europe”, Daedalus, 123 (3) 1994, pp.

18Samokhvalov, V. (2016), “The new Eurasia: post-Soviet space between Russia, Europe and China”, European Politics and Society, 17 (sup1), pp. 82-96.

19Samokhvalov, V. (2018), “Russia and its shared neighbourhoods: a comparative analysis of Russia-EU and Russia-China relations in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood and Central Asia”, Contemporary Politics, 24(1), pp. 30-45.

20Söderbaum, F. (2004), “Exploring the Links Between Micro-Regionalism and Macro-Regionalism” in Mary Farrell, Björn Hettne, Luk Van Langenhove (eds), Global Politics of Regionalism: Theory and Practice, London: PlutoPress.

21Wiarda, H. J. (2005), “Where Does Europe End Now? Expanding Europe’s Frontiers and the Dilemmas of Enlargement and Identity”, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, 12 (1), pp. 89-98.

22Youngs, R. (2017), Europe’s eastern crisis: the geopolitics of asymmetry, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 91-114.

To cite this article

Vsevolod Samokhvalov, «What kind of region: spatial constructs in the populist era», The Journal of Cross-Regional Dialogues/La Revue de dialogues inter-régionaux [En ligne], 2020 Special Issue, 7-13 URL :