Thursday, February 11, 2010

No Mere Frontier

Stumbling into this project, as well as looking at the maps Mr. Foust put up in his last post, got me thinking. The Rewilding is exuberant, exaggerated, and almost entirely academic at this point, but it is interesting:
A Marshall Plan for the environment, rewilding promotes the expansion of core wilderness areas on a vast scale, the restoration of corridors between them (to fight the “island” effect of isolated parks and protected areas), and the reintroduction or protection of top predators.
The first thing I thought of, however, was this. And this. The dams and irrigation canals will outlast their uses as well. It almost seems as though a place like Kazakhstan, with all of the resource extraction focused in one spot and the rest of the country open, is the dream for folks like Ms. Fraser. Especially when Foust's map of Marjeh looks a lot like California City.

Central Asia is still seen as the great open spaces that brought us Attilla, Cengiz, and the rest. It's pretty telling that one of the most respected think-tanks on Central Asia is called the Silk Road Institute. I like to imagine S. Frederick Starr in a kaftan and chapka, sitting in a yurt drinking kumis.

The truth, of course, is that the Central Asian Republics are all firmly in the 21st Century. Kazakhstan is mostly urban, complete with weird architectural follies. Astana was described to me as "what the moon will look like when it's colonized" which could go just as well for Ashgabat. As romantic of a sort as we all can be when we talk about our favorite parts of the region, we know that we're going to be going into governance, security, and resources to make a living in the field. No more National Geographic covers, methinks.

Somehow, Mongolia has been able to keep up their pastoral allure in a way that Kazakhstan has not. No Yale Law professors doing Slate articles in the Altai (which reminds me: if any Italophones want to review this for me, I'll be pretty much eternally grateful). I've written a bunch on Branding in the past, and its something I think is a huge and relevant issue for these Central Asian Republics. Caught between poles, I think Kazakhstan is attempting to use its OSCE chair to brand itself as a modern power with a unique past. We can all argue about the veracity of that image here, but if it gets argued in US press, even if by cheerleaders, its a huge boon to Kazakhstan's self- and world-image.

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