26 August 2019

The Struggle for Legitimacy in Post-Soviet Eurasia

Our knowledge is limited when it comes to why certain regional powers choose to actively pursue their normative ambitions by leading regional initiatives, while others rely on bilateral/transactional mechanisms. In his doctoral research on the dynamics of Russia’s neighbourhood policy between 1989 and 2018, Kazushige Kobayashi finds that states mobilise regional institutional initiatives to construct a regional order favourable to them. Interview on “Balance of Normative Power: Liberalism, Statism, and the Struggle for Legitimacy in Post-Soviet Eurasia, 1989–2018”. 

How did you come to choose your research topic? 

In my regular interactions with elites and experts in Moscow, I have come to feel a pervasive sense of insecurity among them – the idea that Russia is “threatened” by the West. I heard this argument repeatedly in Moscow, but it was very puzzling to me, as I think (and in fact we know) that Russia is one of the greatest military powers in our world. Indeed, two Russian scholars (both coincidently female) independently told me that no one can threaten Russia – in case of “emergency”, Russia can always use nuclear weapons to defend itself and repel anti-Russian aggressors. Armed with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, Russia is hence militarily secure. But why then do Russian leaders seem to feel so insecure and regularly talk about the threat emanating from the West? Digging deeper, I found that the “threat” they are talking about is not so much of a material nature as of an ideational one – a threat to the “fundamental” values which are envisioned to define the Russian state identity as well as the overall normative orientation of the post-Soviet neighbourhood within which Russia is deeply embedded. Since ideational security is not only about domestic order but also about surrounding regional environment, I came to see the link between feelings of ideational security and the mobilisation of regional initiatives (regional organisations and projects). So I came up with the idea of theorising the interaction between ideational threat perceptions and regional initiative mobilisation.

How did you formulate your thesis questions and what was your methodological approach? 

Why do certain regional powers choose to actively mobilise regional initiatives to spread political values they believe in, while other regional powers do so by mobilising bilateral diplomacy – or are not interested in value promotion activities at all? More specifically, how have regional initiatives in the post-Soviet space evolved over time through the dialectical contestation between Western-supported liberal order and Russian-supported statist (state-centric) order? To answer these questions, this thesis employed a research design of structured, focused comparison with six case periods: (1) 1989–1993, (2) 1994–1998, (3) 1999–2003, (4) 2004–2008, (5) 2009–2013, and (6) 2014–2018. In terms of primary data, I combined multiple sources to reconstruct a fuller picture of discursive and institutional practices constituting neighbourhood policies in the post-Soviet space. This included:

  • More than 300 public speeches, summit declarations, press releases, foreign policy doctrines, organisational programmes, and other relevant policy documents
  • More than 500 media articles, more than 400 area case studies, and a limited number of public opinion polls 
  • More than 40 semi-structured interviews with diplomats, government officials, and leading experts

What are your major findings?

Existing research tends to view that all states are predisposed to promote their internal political values – so liberal countries (such as the United States and Germany) are thought to naturally promote liberal values (participatory/democratic governance, political rights, and so on) and statist countries (such as Russia and China) are thought to naturally promote statist values (state sovereignty, non-interference, hierarchical governance, and so on). In recent years, a number of scholars came to focus on the role of regional initiatives in promoting political values. Carrying the same logic to the regional level, they argue that liberal countries mobilise the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) to promote liberal values, by which these values come to be collectively legitimised as liberal norms, while statist countries like Russia are mobilising their own regional initiatives, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), to promote statist values, by which these values come to be collectively legitimised as statist norms. In my view, this conventional argument omits a critically important element of interaction between liberal and statist norm promotions; for instance, Russia may become more interested in promoting statist values when Russian leaders perceive the ideational threat of liberal norm promotion in its neighbourhood (and vice versa for the West). 

In order to explore these interactive dynamics, I advance a new theoretical perspective called “institutional realism”, which maintains that states lead and mobilise regional initiatives for competitive purposes. States confer collective commitments to regional initiatives, by which these initiatives acquire what I call “normative power” to selectively legitimise certain regional norms and delegitimise others. By mobilising regional initiatives, states shape their neighbourhoods and institutionally balance against norms that appear to undermine their fundamental values and identity. In this vein, the study demonstrates that ideationally threatened states are more likely to exercise strong regional institutional leadership to enhance their own ideational security and to maintain a favourable balance of normative power. Based on this novel theoretical framework, the thesis offers a number of interesting insights:

  • The gap between Russian and Western visions on how to order post-Soviet Eurasia has widened as a result of the dialectical engagement and competition between the statist and liberal normative visions, respectively advanced by Russia and the West.
  • Although Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin (in the early 2000s) clearly articulated the statist normative visions, Moscow generally lacked an ambition to project these visions into the neighbourhood and its stance towards regional initiatives remained dismissive (in the 1990s) or functionally oriented (in the early 2000s). With the rise of the liberal norm promotion by certain Western actors in the mid-2000s, however, Russian leaders stepped up their value projection activities and came to actively mobilise Eurasian regional initiatives as counterweights.
  • On the Western side, the popular narrative of arrogant, triumphant, and expansionist liberal powers recklessly pushing for the advancement of initiatives in the post-Soviet space is unfounded. Major liberal powers like the United States, France, and Germany have been more modest in the mobilisation of liberal regional initiatives in the post-Soviet space while the Baltic states – which feel the ideational threat of statist norm promotion by the Russian-led regional initiatives – have been very active in shaping the dynamics of normative power politics in the region.

But today Russia is very actively seeking to gain dominance in former Communist countries.

In recent years, a number of Western scholars came to argue that Russia is mobilising Eurasian regional initiatives (like the CSTO, EAEU, and SCO) to “dominate” the post-Soviet space. This argument at glance appears quite sound, but it overlooks the importance of competitive interactions. My study shows that Russian leaders had almost no interest in mobilising regional initiatives before the encroachment of NATO/EU initiatives to the in post-Soviet space in the early 2000s. Indeed, Western scholars used to argue that, since Russia had preponderant material capability compared to its smaller post-Soviet neighbours, Moscow would be less interested in creating and leading regional institutional initiatives, which might unnecessarily constrain its actions. This demonstrates that we need a longitudinal perspective when we attempt to explain the neighbourhood policy of powerful states. 

How can your research findings serve policy reflection and action?

My research entails a number of generalisable lessons. Western scholars used to (and sometimes still) argue that “non-Western” powers like China would eventually try to “challenge” the Western-led liberal institutional architectures in world politics. In my view, what is more likely to happen is that those who attempt to challenge Western hegemony will simply opt for establishing parallel institutional architectures, a trend that we have already come to observe in recent years with, for example, the creation of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

What are you doing now?

After obtaining my PhD degree, I started to work as a postdoctoral researcher for the SNSF-funded research project “Coherence or Contestation: Chinese, Japanese and Russian Approaches to the Transformation of Peacebuilding Practices” at the Graduate Institute’s Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding. Advancing a theoretical framework similar to that of my dissertation, this project seeks to understand the normative and practical underpinnings of the alternative visions of how peace and security are achieved by focusing specifically on Chinese, Japanese and Russian engagements in global peace and security activities. The project is especially relevant for those who are interested in the role of rising powers in peacebuilding and global governance, the (re)shaping of international peace and security architecture, and the dynamics of norm diffusion and change – we aim to keep our research project page interactive and will regularly post updates on the latest developments and new research findings! 

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Kazushige Kobayashi defended his PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in November 2018. Professor Stephanie Hofmann presided the committee, which included Professor Thomas Biersteker, thesis director, and Professor Theodore Hopf, from the National University of Singapore.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Kobayashi, Kazushige. “Balance of Normative Power: Liberalism, Statism, and the Struggle for Legitimacy in Post-Soviet Eurasia, 1989–2018.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2019.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download Dr Kobayashi’s PhD thesis via this page of the Institute’s repository.

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Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image by NVO [CC BY-SA 3.0].