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'Understanding the Global South' Series: A Preliminary Exploration of the 'Global South' Concept in Russia

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The third seminar of the “Understanding the Global South” series of Peking University’s Institute of Area Studies (PKUIAS) was held on June 11, 2024. At the seminar, Fei Haiting, assistant professor at PKU’s School of Government, gave a lecture titled “A Preliminary Exploration of the ‘Global South’ Concept in Russia”. The seminar was moderated by Prof. Zhai Kun, deputy director of PKUIAS, with the participation of Prof. Zhang Yongle, deputy director of PKUIAS; Feng Kaidong, associate professor at PKU’s School of Government; and Shi Yue, assistant professor at PKU’s School of Foreign Languages.


Fei Haiting started from the long-standing “East-West” issue in Russian intellectual history, reviewing the emergence and development of the concepts of the “East” and “West” in Russia, as well as the three “East-West disputes” in Russian history and their aftermaths. He pointed out that the Russian concept of the “West” has been clear and continuous, but the concept of the “East” (or non-West) has been changing and unstable. The notion of the “West” initially pointed to Byzantium, and then changed to western Europe and the Europe represented by capitalism and imperialism. The “East”, on the other hand, was used to refer to Mongolia, Slavonia, Eurasia, Asia, Africa, Latin America or many other regions. Russia’s “turn to the East” did not mean a turn to East Asia in particular, but rather a turn to the “East”, such as the Middle East, Central Asia, East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.


As for the formation and development of the discourse concept of the “Global South,” Fei Haiting opined that the predecessor of the “Global South” was the theory of the “three worlds” put forward in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1980s, the concept of “Global South” began to appear. Since the 21st century, this concept has basically stabilized, and North and South are no longer differentiated according to strict geographical location. Starting from 2018, with the globalization process having reached a stalemate and the Western system having been exposed as being deeply problematic, the concept of the “Global South” has once again emerged. Fei Haiting summarized five reasons why Russia has been able to mobilize the “Global South”: the West’s double standards, its unilateral sanctions, long-held and inflexible geopolitical thinking, unwillingness to engage in dialogue with the South on an equal footing, values diplomacy that excludes the Global South, and ignoring many problems of the countries of the South. In the process, four schools of thought about the Global South have been formed in Russia. Fei Haiting made an in-depth analysis of the representative ideas of the four schools.


He pointed out that the current Russian concept of the “Global South” has not been detached from the “East-West dispute” in nature, and still mainly deals with the problems with the West and the liberal international order. Russia’s concept of the “Global South” is basically based on planning for countries outside the region from the standpoint of an “outsider,” without including traditional “spheres of influence”, such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in the “Global South.” Meanwhile, Fei Haiting also emphasized that Russia’s concept of “East-West” has been changing with the times, and that reaching a détente in “East-West” tensions has been historically well documented, with a variety of rules, mechanisms, platforms, and relevant cases as references. In contrast, the problems of globalization involving “South-North” have never been solved, and there are no historical resources to draw on. In addition, many of the problems are increasingly being dealt with in a more pragmatic way, which mainly involves the “inter-penetration” between the “South” and the “North” in politics, economy and society, etc. Therefore, the “South-North” issue deserves more long-term attention from political science and other disciplines.


In the discussion session, the participants engaged in further discussion around issues raised in the lecture. Zhang Yongle raised the question of how Russia defined India’s position in the “Global South,” and also explored the concept of the “Global East” in Russia and its impacts. Shi Yue analyzed the relationship between the “Global South” concept in Russia and elitism, and pointed out the lack of research and analysis on specific industrial structures. Feng Kaidong focused on the phenomenon that Russia’s unique identity makes it difficult to find a sense of belonging in either the “East-West” or “South-North”. Audience members also discussed with Fei Haiting the diplomatic dimension of the “Global South” concept in Russia, the political orientation of researchers, and Russia’s “Global South” discourse on the Russian-Soviet revolutionary tradition.