by Selbi Hanova, Marie Curie Fellow at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews.
For more than two decades the research and policy community has become accustomed to view Central Asia as one region, which resulted in the development projects that linked all five Post-Soviet Central Asian states into a cohesive group. However, this research shows that the region is practically absent not merely in the hindered infrastructural projects, but in the ideational self-placement of the countries that each strive to build self-reliant and assertive images of their states. By looking at self-identification mechanisms present through various foreign policy and media texts this research attempts to uncover the additional layer of ideational space that is left unreferenced and under-researched for the policy world. The mere assumption that states in Central Asia do not see themselves belonging to the region in their ideational map inverts the two decades long assumptions on the regionnes of these five states. Through the case study of two states in their self-identification practices this research attempts to answer the question of how these processes influence the status of quo of inter-state cooperation in Central Asia.
The acquisition of independence was fairly sudden for the Central Asian republics, however, the two decades of independence has shown that while the titular nations themselves were Soviet constructs, these constructions have become durable points of referencing placing at the core the significance of the identity. These Post-Soviet nations realized the benefits of calling themselves what they were named despite the Soviet drawing of borders. Consequently, Moscow had a double aspect of treating Central Asian states, either through the paternalism in bilateral relations or it supported and adjusted to the double speak of the Central Asians taking its role after the demise of the USSR for granted. The second factor is that the vision within the Post-Soviet elite in the region and in Moscow does not have a clear model of cooperation. In 2003 during the roundtable organized by the host of the Russian TV show “Chto Delat?” (“What to do?”) Vitali Tretyakov, with invited speakers including President Nazarbayev, Aleksandr Dugin, Chingiz Aitmatov, Aleksandr Panarin, Evgeniy Volk and Aleksey Salmin to discuss the future of the Eurasian Union, Aitmatov remarked:
Certainly, we cannot create a Eurasian union based on the ready matrix. We have our own history, our own characteristics and we should have this all in mind. We must also overcome our internal national egoism, our form and criteria. 
In 2016, writing on the significance of issues related to water management in Central Asia, David Trilling notes:
When they were still a part of the Soviet Union, the upstream republics—Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—which have an abundance of water, would release some from their reservoirs in the spring and summer to generate electricity and nourish crops both on their own land and in the downstream republics, which would return the favor by providing gas and coal each winter. 
The author concludes that today the same five countries are divided by this very issue. This scheme shows the existing cooperation of these five Post-Soviet states within the USSR, which it was thought possible to re-create in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union and the previously existing center-periphery relations. The earlier, somewhat optimistic, quote of Chingiz Aitmatov demonstrates the positive example of the EU, and it calls for the need to join efforts. However, the plethora of regional cooperation initiatives have not produced a new scheme of a genuinely Central Asian cooperation mechanism. The experts were focused on geopolitical, regime security and functionalist explanations and each of these strands of literature capitalize on the material and physical aspects. This research tried to look beyond these analyses to find how the self-imagination of collective identity in the form of a state motivates action towards other neighboring states thus complementing the existing streams of academic and policy literature. The main aim of this research was to demonstrate what characteristics distinguish a Central Asian state in the Central Asian region, and the link the state identity exerts on the region, thus contributing to the literature on Central Asian cooperation and state identification practices. By doing so the state identity self-articulations uncover a new layer of ideational power relations manifested through the discourses and habits (habitual actions) of the state in the region of Central Asia. This ideational layer becomes particularly evident if we consider the logic of seeing the region as one cohesive entity, which is still present in the thinking of many international organizations that try to foster cooperation.
The need for this approach was dictated by the relative absence of discussion in the regional literature of the link between identity-motivated state actions, although “while states may consist of all kinds of bureaucratic structures, institutional mechanisms and other body-like organs, it is – as an entity endowed with an identity – necessarily at the mercy of the interpretations given to it through the stories in which it features.” The stories of the states in the form of narratives served as venues for this analysis. The premise of the need for non-physical security of the states was at the core of the theoretical lens employed to demonstrate that the Post-Soviet states of Central Asia, in addition to their quest for physical security, also act based on ideational factors of the need to fulfill the stable self-identities or their state identities. The rationale for the adoption of this framework laid in the need to trace socialization of state identities within each case and understand the ideational stances of states to the idea of regional cooperation.
The routinization of these identities is a multi-sided process involving the narrators, which are often Presidents, whose formulations are repeated by the respective ministers, historians and diplomats. The process of intertextualization of the narratives takes place through speeches, media appearances and addresses to the nation. Certainly, this is not new and to Central Asia. The most cited example is the influence of Rebecca West’s 1941 novel Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia, in which the author famously aimed “to show the past side by side with the present it created” and its subsequent referencing in the media and foreign policy circles during the war in Bosnia is just one example of this process. Lene Hansen points to the intertextual construction by the author of “a reading which emphasizes her use of narrative forms of knowledge as well as her appropriation of a nineteenth century Romantic representation of the Balkans”. The representations of states takes various forms and shapes in the states of Central Asia. They are present not merely in the narrative accounts, but also in performing the “spectacles of culture”, in the architecture, in the national symbols, in the history textbooks and in finding ideas for branding the states. However, this thesis intended to look at the effects of the production of narratives of the states rhetorically through the speeches and in the public discourses, through internal channels of socialization and diplomatic routines. The process of narrative creation is an abstraction that could be studied only through the discourses and narratives which subsequently create ontologies, thus routinizing these constructs to a degree when they transform into habits.
The state-region nexus was at the base of this research that attempted to deviate from the traditional geopolitical and functionalist explanations into the area of habitual relations between the Central Asian states, and look at the influence of state identities on these habitual relations. Using the metaphor of the region as a conversing table, this analysis looked at each state as a narrator of its distinct identity. By doing so it also attempted to unveil the social contractedness of the concept of the region of Central Asia as an imagined community, and move away from looking at it as a pre-given region. Karin Fierke notes that dialogue has been instrumental for NATO since the end of Cold War and notes that there have been two ways of looking at the ‘talk’ between the states in IR: dialogue and negotiation, where the former belongs to “an adversarial model, constructed on a ‘we-them’ relationship” with the aim on each side to maximize their gains, and the latter “is part of problem solving approach that requires actors to step outside their own position”. Christopher Browning states that this approach of dialogue is used in the construction of the European North alongside the creation of political space, European ideals and the othering of Russia. This is particularly insightful given that one of the ways in which region-building in Post-Soviet Central Asia is done is through alignment with Russia, an Other to Europe, with Central Asia as a subject to trials of EU-like regional cooperation. In a nutshell, however, the key message of the constructed nature of the region which fosters “a particular vision of future regional relations and prescribe for that region adherence to a particular construction of social norms and relations” was the base from which this research departed.
This observation of this process required case study research, where the phenomenon could be studied in a given social context, and, consequently, the case of Kyrgyzstan was chosen. The state was populated by people socialized to be Soviet citizens, and in the years after 1991 Russia and other former Soviet republics were not willing to leave decisions about history instruction up to individual teachers or schools. Like any other nation-state, they had a fundamental interest in producing and distributing officially sanctioned narratives about their past.
Kyrgyzstan as “a common home” was a project by President Akayev that was simultaneously paralleled with the introduction of the Kyrgyz national Manas epic. While the latter was a civic-based policy and enjoyed support within the state, it was also seen as “attempt to embrace all the country’s ethnic groups into a common idea about the Kyrgyz nation-state” which went against the vision of the nationalist groups for which the Manas epic was proposed as a base for ideology. The move was eventually criticized by the non-Kyrgyz population and, therefore, the routinization and the embeddedness of these ideas never followed. President Bakiyev was not known by any grand narratives, notorious mostly for “limiting freedom of speech and curtailing domestic opposition”  and hence the images came from the Ministry of Culture, such as “Kyrgyzstan-Land of Wonders”, which were targeted as a branding message. The period of President Atambaev is characterized by further lack of a coherent narrative. Sally N. Cummings, through the example of the use of Lenin’s monuments, writes in relation to post-2010, and the quote summarizes the context of the current period:
No new national monument has as yet significantly altered the properties of either Bishkek or the Kyrgyz Republic. The absence of such a reconfiguration may have created the lack of cultural safety valve, the political erupting even more starkly in reaction to a symbolic and ideological vacuum.
The absence of a coherent narrative yields routinization of that absence and instability, while the logic of ontological security suggests that such a state is ontologically insecure. However, argued from the perspective of critique of ontological security, the fluctuation allows change and development and a wider repertoire of action.
Key Research Findings
Any long-term research opens doors to further inquiries and their relevance to the policy world. While using the concept of state identity this research tried to illuminate the existing socialization mechanisms of foreign and domestic policies. Who produces state identities? What motivates the choices for historical and cultural references? What is the role of culture in the formation of state identities? Finally, how do these abstract notions contribute to the state actions towards the region?
Simultaneously, the presence of strong narratives (in the case of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazkahstan) or their absence (in the case of Kyrgyzstan) become habitual in the cooperation of these states because of the socializing elements of their narrative recitations, with certain linguistic structures that carried the relevant structures of meanings. The logic of habit further substantiates the analysis by arguing that a state has some form of prior identity relationships, as the state identities “may already have been established mostly at home, in interaction between the state and its own society, rather than only between the state and another state.” Timur Dadabaev writes that the approach to constructing history has a long tradition in Central Asia, which “was practiced with both in the Soviet period, with the aim of beautifying Socialist society (well documented by the Communist-era archives), and in the post-Soviet period by criticizing the Soviet past and praising post-Soviet society building (demonstrated by current historical literature in CA).” These historiographic endeavors, as the thesis demonstrates, are carried out everywhere in Central Asia, although to varying degrees.
What this discussion shows is that the Central Asian region, in addition to being geopolitical, requires further assemblage of its region-ness as an area of constructed structures of meanings where states would share common ways of resolving issues, and common identification markers that would speak of their Central Asian-ness beyond the mere references to common culture, language and history. In the meantime, the region is at the periphery of Russia, Afghanistan and China, each of which do not belong to a larger regionally functioning system. In this space the states develop their own state narratives and ontologies that capitalize on the states’ distinctions or maintain absent narratives with competing images. The states in Central Asia, despite their shared geographic space, adopt vague stances since there is no strong meta-narrative that provides state with a sense of being in the region. The co-constitution of the region and the state is unequal therefore. Central Asia does not only exist in the worldview of the outsiders, but it comes into reality when Kyrgyzstan and other three states refer to it as their geographic home and enact it through their representations. Yet, as evidenced earlier, the degree of the co-constitution varies. For Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia exists as an immediate neighborhood, while for this might not be relevant to all other neighboring states.
At the same time, the analysis of the states’ self-articulations reveals that while there is still very little of ‘Central Asiannes’ present, the states in the region have avoided to antagonize each other and Russia (albeit criticizing the Soviet past). The degree of interconnections within the region through the membership of the multilateral frameworks and especially through the new Chinese initiative of One Belt, One Road shows that despite the centripetal ontological constructions and their sub-sequent self-articulations the states in the region are linked. The mutual co-constitution of Central Asia and each of the five states reveals the socialization mechanisms that also reflect the actual possibilities and capacities of the states. The state identities are extremely insightful constructs which could be viewed beyond the traditional inside/outside perspectives of serving as continuations of the official foreign policies. Robert Walker notes that borders of inside and outside are not found simply and still less should we expect to be able to understand contemporary borders, and the political possibilities and impossibilities they imply, where the discourses of either the sovereign state or the system of sovereign states insist they must or must not be.
These ideological and ideational borders of the region could be solely traced through the state identities that are performed in that region. Self-articulations of the states tell us what value systems and what identification mechanisms they require to be able to accommodate their ontologies and worldviews within larger regions of the international system. While the Post-Soviet Central Asian states continue to construct their biographical narratives for internal and external consumptions they also become entrapped in these choices and the routine repeats continuously. The research attempted to reveal this additional layer of identification and mutual co-constitution of the state and the region. Consequently, there were important theoretical and methodological implications in the epistemological design of the inquiries in the region.
 “Budet li sozdan Evraziyskiy soyuz?” (“Will Eurasian Union be Created?”), “Chto Delat?” TV Programme, 28 March 2003 http://www.evrazia.org/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1252
 David Trilling, “Water Wars in Central Asia”, Foreign Affairs, 24 August 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/gallerys/2016-08-24/water-wars-central-asia?cid=soc-fb-rdr
 Erik Ringmar, “On the ontological status of the state.” European Journal of International Relations 2.4 (1996): 439-466, p. 452.
 Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p. 1089.
 Lene Hansen, Security as practice: discourse analysis and the Bosnian war (Routledge, 2013), p. 132.
 Karin M. Fierke, “Dialogues of maneuver and entanglement: NATO, Russia, and the CEECs.” Millennium-Journal of International Studies 28, no. 1 (1999): 27-52, p. 27.
 Christopher S. Browning, “The region-building approach revisited: the continued othering of Russia in discourses of region-building in the European North.” Geopolitics 8, no. 1 (2003): 45-71.
 Ibid, p.53.
 James V. Wertsch, “Narratives as Cultural Tools in Sociocultural Analysis: Official History in Soviet and Post‐Soviet Russia.” Ethos 28.4 (2000): 511-533, p. 520.
 Erica Marat, “Imagined past, uncertain future: The creation of national ideologies in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.” Problems of Post-Communism 55, no. 1 (2008): 12-24, p. 15.
 Erica Marat, “Nation branding in Central Asia: A new campaign to present ideas about the state and the nation.” Europe-Asia Studies 61, no. 7 (2009): 1123-1136, pp. 1132-1135.
 Sally N. Cummings, “Leaving Lenin: elites, official ideology and monuments in the Kyrgyz Republic.” Nationalities Papers 41, no. 4 (2013): 606-621, p. 628.
 Ted Hopf, p. 17.
 Timur Dadabaev, Identity and Memory in Post-Soviet Central Asia: Uzbekistan’s Soviet Past. Routledge, 2015, p. 1.
 Rob BJ. Walker, “The double outside of the modern international. “Ephemera: theory and politics in organization 6.1 (2006): 56-69, p. 66.