REVIEW: Central Asia–A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game by Rein Müllerson

by Laurence on 5/5/2008 · 12 comments

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For quite some time I have meant to review Rein Müllerson’s Central Asia–A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game. It is simply outstanding, the most perceptive analysis I have read to date concerning the significance of Central Asia to geopolitical games in the 21st Century. It’s not cheap–$144.50 at Amazon.com in the USA, £85.00 from KeganPaul.com in the UK. (I had my university library buy a copy so that I could read it.) It’s not a fast read, there’s a lot of detail on each of the 370 pages. But don’t worry, you certainly get what you pay for. It is quite simply the best survey of contemporary Central Asian political dynamics that I have read to date. Müllerson’s goes inside the Central Asian mind and soul, as well as outside to the explore the motivations of various state and non-state actors in the drama surrounding what Mackinder called the “pivot point” of the Eurasian landmass.

Unlike some commentators who may indulge in emotionalism, name-calling, or blame-gaming, Mullerson takes a cool, calm and penetrating look at the ways Central Asians view their role in world affairs, and how other countries treat Central Asia. This book is deeply personal, filled with anecdotes and humane observations based on personal experience. No doubt his biography has made Müllerson uniquely qualified as a political analyst. Today, he is Professor and Chair of International Law at King’s College, London (where he directs the MA Programme on International Peace and Security). Yet this is a book with heart. Müllerson understands the difficulties former Soviet republics have faced in adapting to change following the collapse of Communism. In 1991-92, he was First Deputy Foreign Minister of Estonia. And before that, Müllerson was Head of the International Law Department of the Institute of State and Law of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and Adviser to President Gorbachev. No wonder he appears to know the Russian mentality more clearly than any American author I have read. (He may also understand the Chinese, as the first review I found on Google of this book was by Sienho Yee, in The Chinese Journal of International Law). Finally, he understands the concerns of the international community and NGOs. For, Müllerson spent 2004 as UN Regional Adviser for Central Asia, and his published works include International Law: Rights and Politics (Routledge, 1994); Human Rights Diplomacy (Routledge, 1997) and Ordering Anarchy: International Law in International Society (Kluwer Law International, 2000). Quite simply, there is no better guide to explore this landscape with than Müllerson.

Central Asia–A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game is written in deeply personal tone, sometimes reading like diary entries, sometimes like an academic monograph, sometimes like a legal brief. His goal is to contextualize developments by providing explanatory background. Mullerson tries to describe, rather than prescribe. He relates Central Asian reality to the wider context of world politics. In this way, he tries to present alternative perspectives on such issues as:

  • Difficulties of democratization of Central Asian societies;
  • The role and place of religion, especially Islam, in Central Asia;
  • Threats of religiously based or motivated terrorism;
  • American-Russian, American-Chinese and Chinese-Russian rivalries and cooperation in the region.

Müllerson takes Central Asia as a microcosm of post-Soviet international relations, explicating tendencies that have to date stood in the way of the peaceful and harmonious world predicted by pundits such as Francis Fukuyama or Thomas Friedman. Lord Curzon once famously recommended that one should be neither a Russophile nor a Russophobe, but a realist about Russia. One might say that in this book, Müllerson has taken Curzon’s advice to heart and presented a realistic and heartfelt guide to the issues at stake today along the Great Silk Road.

Central Asia–A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game is a must-read for anyone who thinks seriously about Central Asia. Ask your library to buy a copy today…


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{ 12 comments }

Michael Hancock May 5, 2008 at 2:53 pm

Nice review. Seems like I’m overdue as well! Good news is I laid my hands on a couple more books, so one should be showing up shortly. I’ll keep an eye out for this one, though.

Laurence May 5, 2008 at 3:09 pm

Thanks for the nice comment…I think you’ll find the book has some tidbits that might prove useful to your own research…

Michael May 5, 2008 at 3:40 pm

Thanks for the book reviews. Keep em coming. Sometimes the back section of Foreign Affairs just isn’t enough!

Azamat May 5, 2008 at 11:13 pm

Thanks for the reviews and recommendations.

Ivan May 8, 2008 at 12:49 am

What a strange review! Just to be clear, I am not saying anything about the book. I haven’t read it. And I am not questioning the idea that Rein Mullerson has had a rich and interesting life and has develop expertise in his chosen field. That much is obvious.

But which part of his biography makes him capable of writing “the best survey of contemporary Central Asian dynamics” and “the most perceptive analysis” of Central Asia? Which life experiences have made him “uniquely qualified as a political analyst” of the region?

He was a head honcho in the Soviet Academy of Sciences. There were plenty of researches in the archipelago of research institutes that comprised the Academy. Some of them were actually experts on Central Asia. They would have held positions in Turkology or Oriental faculties of Moscow, Leningrad, Baku and Tashkent State universities. But not folks who ran a law institute. How would that help him develop expertise on Central Asia? Same question regarding his work for Gorbachev. That work would make him an expert on SALT-2, not Central Asia.

OK, he was a UN official based in the region for the duration of one year. C’mon, Laurence, there are hundreds of people who have been UN, IMF, World Bank, EU, OSCE, ADB guys in Central Asia. How’s Mullerson better than them?

OK, he holds a faculty position at a UK university. But that’s again a position in international law. What does that have to do with Central Asia? How would being a law professor enable him to go “inside the Central Asian mind and soul?”

Lawrence writes:”Lord Curzon once famously recommended that one should be neither a Russophile nor a Russophobe, but a realist about Russia.” He also says Mullerson “appears to know the Russian mentality more clearly than any American author.” That is probably true since he lived and worked in Russia. But what does Russia have to do with anything here? Russian and Central Asian are very different from each other mentality-wise. Just look at Putin and Karimov. How similar are they? What about Medvedev and Ilham Aliev or Berdymukhamedov?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure the book has its strengths (and weaknesses, too). But Laurence’s hype does a disservice to it.

P.S. If a book has been reviewed in a Chinese journal, it doesn’t follow that the author is an expert on the Chinese. A simple example, Edward Lucas’ “The New Cold War” has been published in Dutch but the guy is not an expert on Holland.

P.P.S. I’d say “a must-read for anyone who thinks seriously about Central Asia” are the articles and books written by Barnett Rubin, William Fierman and many other US scholars at such centers as Indiana U., U. of Washington, etc. If you prefer experts from the former Soviet Union, you can try Arkady Dubnov of Vremya Novostei, Oleg Panfilov, an OSCE expert and the director of cjes.ru, Bakhadyr Musaev, a sociologist and a USSR Academy of Sc. alum, and Dosym Satpaev, head of Risk Assesment Group in Almaty.

Oldschool Boy May 8, 2008 at 12:32 pm

Ivan take it easy. Laurence did not say it was the best book, he just gave his oppinion. Besides, often I find that a books can better than others not because of the volume of knowledge of the author but because of the passion, wisdom, language. And a book that has a lot of information can be bad because of the way it is written or the facts interpreted. So do not judge the book based on the authors titles.
P.S. About the guys you are refering to – are there any books they’ve written? Why do not you give us reviews of their books – that would be very beneficial. Although, about some of them, like Dosym Satpaev, based on his frequent appearances on newspapers and TV I would not take him very seriously.

Laurence May 8, 2008 at 2:37 pm

Ivan,

I didn’t say not to read other books–just that this one is the one, so far, that I have liked best. You are right, there are many points of view, and people are welcome to all of them. Mullerson’s speciality is human rights law, and he’s from a former Soviet-occupied state which successfully made the change to both Western capitalism and democracy, which is why I thought his perspective particularly relevant. The book was written post-Andijan, so is pretty recent. I haven’t seen anything else like it.

I agree with OldSchoolBoy. Maybe I missed something even better on the subject–if so, please do share your reviews of recent books in the field by the authors you mention.

The reason I mentioned the Chinese review is that if Chinese scholars take Mullerson seriously, and if China is active in the region, it would seem to me that is worth noting. Americans and Russians are not the only active players on and with the chessboard of Central Asia…

IMHO There’s plenty of room for differences of opinion about Central Asia. There is no one right answer. Fine–don’t believe my hype. Please get your own copy of the book (from your library if it too expensive) and come to your own conclusions. That’s all I was trying to do, share my enthusiasm for a book that seemed to deal with a number of issues in a different, and possibly more productive, way…

By the way, I also recommend Amy Chua’s WORLD ON FIRE: HOW EXPORTING FREE MARKET DEMOCRACY BREEDS ETHNIC HATRED AND GLOBAL INSTABILITY (NY: Anchor Books, 2004).

R1a May 9, 2008 at 1:38 pm

I noted that my R1a uncle, whose ancestry is from the Norse colony of the Shetland Islands, had 33 close matches with the Altai of Central Asia, and only a scattering of others (e.g., India, China, and very few in Europe). Others from Shetland also had similar match patterns. Then a participant was assigned to haplogroup Q which is found only in Central Asia (Native Americans are Q3 but arose out of the same population). Then another of my participants was placed in haplogroup K, which is found in highest concentations in the Middle East and particularly in Central Asia. Clearly something that had not been previously documented was been observed here.

An extensive analysis of R1a showed a distinct Eastern European motif, and a very different Norse motif. The Norse patterns were bimodal in Norway proper, but in the Norse colonies (e.g., Iceland, Shetland, Faroe Islands, as well as the UK in general) there was a predominence of types that more closely resembled those along the Chinese border than Poland. I have charted the modal haplotype of many groups in Europe. Thanks to access given to me by genetic researchers I have been in the fortunate position of having modal values of most of the tribal groups in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and groups all the way to Turkey. The highest frequency of R1a anywhere is found among people such as the Kyrgyz, where it reaches a solid 63% of the population. It was spectacular to see my uncle being an almost exact match to most of the groups in Central Asia, but bearing very little resemblance to any group in Eastern Europe. His Altai matches were not just an anomaly.

R1a May 9, 2008 at 1:38 pm

I noted that my R1a uncle, whose ancestry is from the Norse colony of the Shetland Islands, had 33 close matches with the Altai of Central Asia, and only a scattering of others (e.g., India, China, and very few in Europe). Others from Shetland also had similar match patterns. Then a participant was assigned to haplogroup Q which is found only in Central Asia (Native Americans are Q3 but arose out of the same population). Then another of my participants was placed in haplogroup K, which is found in highest concentations in the Middle East and particularly in Central Asia. Clearly something that had not been previously documented was been observed here.

An extensive analysis of R1a showed a distinct Eastern European motif, and a very different Norse motif. The Norse patterns were bimodal in Norway proper, but in the Norse colonies (e.g., Iceland, Shetland, Faroe Islands, as well as the UK in general) there was a predominence of types that more closely resembled those along the Chinese border than Poland. I have charted the modal haplotype of many groups in Europe. Thanks to access given to me by genetic researchers I have been in the fortunate position of having modal values of most of the tribal groups in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and groups all the way to Turkey. The highest frequency of R1a anywhere is found among people such as the Kyrgyz, where it reaches a solid 63% of the population. It was spectacular to see my uncle being an almost exact match to most of the groups in Central Asia, but bearing very little resemblance to any group in Eastern Europe. His Altai matches were not just an anomaly.

Oldschool Boy May 9, 2008 at 6:41 pm

R1a can you give any reference to your work?

Vg May 10, 2008 at 12:25 pm

R1a – Originally thought to have originated in the Caucasus region around the Black Sea, new research is indicating that this type most likely originated in the region around Khazakstan or Kyrghizstan, possibly even in India or Pakistan. R1a spread into Central Asia and migrated across the Russian Steppes into Eastern Europe where it reaches high levels in Hungary, Poland, the Ukraine and the Slavic regions (the peoples genetically closest to Norwegians).
R1a is characterized by the mutations SRY10831.2- (negative as opposed to positive) and M17+. M17 is what most academic studies have tested for to determine R1a – it actually categorizes R1a1, which seems to encompass all R1a (I have yet to see a single “R1a” that was SRY10831.2- and also M17-. Anyone SRY10831.2- seems to be universally M17+, in other words all R1a are also R1a1). For this reason you will many times see R1a and R1a1 used interchangably within the literature.

One particular group of Y-STR values within R1a shows matches in Central Asia, around the Siberian Altai and Uyghur province of Western China. The recent find of Caucasian mummies in the Takla Makan deserts of the Uyghur province prove that a race of red and blond haired people with Scandinavian features, over 6′ tall, once lived in this region. R1a is found at very high percentages in Western Norway, where it reaches 30%. Some researchers believe the Icelandic Sagas, which describe a migration of a population from Asia beyond the Ural mountains, to Norway, may actually be based in fact. Thor Heyerdahl, of Kon Tiki fame, spent the remaining years of his life attempting to prove this theory — and DNA evidence is seeming to prove him right. The Swedes have long believed this legend, and the emergence of a specific type of Scandinavian R1a with a Central Asian motif seems to support this account.

The MacDonalds have determined that their progenitor, Somerled, belonged to haplogroup R1a (of the same Central Asian motif) and it seems this holds true for most of the pseudo-aristocracy of Scandinavia. R1a is found at levels of less than 1% in most regions of Ireland, and at levels of 1-3% in England, and only slightly higher in Scotland. The highest concentrations of this haplogroup are seen in areas of Britain colonized by the Norse Vikings. One of the leading DNA experts has called R1a the only sure proof of Norse Viking origins when seen in men of deep British ancestry. One kit in our project that is R1a belongs to an indivdual with a deep and well documented ancestry in England. This R1a Y-STR is of Norwegian origin with a Central Asian motif. Therefore this kit represents the candidate signature of the original Norse Chiefs of the Clan Grant.

ignat July 29, 2008 at 3:05 am

I agree with some points made by Ivan.
I don’t think that knowing well the Russian mentality will open you doors to Central Asian mentality. One of the factors hindering the analysis of Central Asian processes is the fact that still man believe that having some notions of Sovietology or “Russology” is enough to understand and explain processes in all post-soviet space.

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