US power on the wane in Central Asia | Al Jazeera

Earlier this month, the US washed its hands of the most influential asset it maintained Central Asia. In Al Jazeera, I had the chance to detail the fraught history of the Manas Transit Centre, and what the US’s choice to recede from Central Asia portends: 

However, it was not only internal pressures that led to the expulsion. In the past decade, Russia has morphed from a reserved partner in the NATO-led war in Afghanistan to a resurgent competitor with the US in Central Asia. While the Russian and American bases existed just 30km from one another for nearly a decade, it seems no coincidence that Moscow announced over $2bn in financial assistance to Kyrgyzstan as Bakiyev began demanding the US withdrawal in 2009. … 

China, likewise, was not happy about the US presence in its neighbouring country, and China’s growing economic clout there made Kyrgyzstan that much more receptive to its overtures - especially when the Shanghai Cooperative Organisation (SCO), of which Kyrgyzstan is a member, released a statementdemanding the removal of any non-SCO bases from participating countries.

Russia Has Lost Control of Central Asian Gas

I had the chance to write another piece for The Moscow Times assessing Russia’s blinkered energy policies - focusing on how they’ve all but lost their stranglehold on the Central Asian energy market: 

Moscow’s focus on the European market allowed China to co-opt Central Asian supplies and become an influential regional player. The Kremlin’s unabated aggression surrounding Ukraine, meanwhile, is likely to intensify the EU’s search for alternatives to Russian energy, while sanctions, both potential and realized, continue to bite. Russia seems to have unwittingly backed itself into a corner and has no one to blame but itself.

The gang at TMT also whipped up a fantastic map for some visual context:

A New Eurasian Epoch, But No One Really Noticed

Unless you’ve been watching the post-Soviet space with a keen eye, you likely missed the world’s-biggest-round-table signing last week. The meeting, held in Astana, heralded what Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed as a new “epoch” – the official founding of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), set to come into force on Jan. 1, 2015.

But where Putin had envisioned something that could represent a third “pole” – something dividing Europe and Asia – the EEU is looking to be, if not some kind of Potemkin construct, then at least a far cry from what it could have otherwise offered. The reasons are plain, and stem directly from the Kremlin’s own doing. I took a stab at examining the EEU’s flaccid unveiling in Foreign Policy:

Rather than launching a wholesale effort at post-Soviet reintegration, the EEU has rapidly morphed into something far more degraded — and has faced substantive pushback from states watching Putin attempt to shift the EEU into another vehicle for Russia’s revanchism, displayed so obviously in Crimea. Where the concerns on the EEU were originally economic — the benefits are discernibly slanted toward Moscow — events in Ukraine have displayed that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialism is back. …

And Astana’s not the only one taking a hit. According to Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov, Russian fiscal support for the other two EEU member states could soon jump more than $30 billion, or five times its current rate, should all trade restrictions be lifted. For an economy sliding into recession and facing sanctions and capital flight, watching allies suck up much-needed funds is likely a difficult sight in Moscow. Moreover, says economist Aitolkyn Kourmanova, “Without direct subsidies, the Central Asian countries will not perceive any significant advantage to integrating with the [EEU].”

Irredentism and wobbly economics aren’t all, though. I took a look over at over at The Diplomat at two additional factors squeezing the EEU:

The first is the Chinese presence, and the continued push within Beijing’s “March West” strategy. On the heels of President Xi Jinping’s whirlwind 2013 journey through Central Asia, which saw him expound and expand upon his projected Silk Road Economic Belt, Xi gathered regional heads in Shanghai for a recent Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). In addition to backing Russia into a gas deal slanted heavily toward Beijing, Xi cemented economic and energy-based hegemony within the region. If, as Martha Brill Olcott observed, Xi’s 2013 swing presented a “victory lap” in Central Asia, the recent gathering saw him accelerate Beijing’s pace, that much more to the detriment of Moscow’s regional influence. …

But where China, outside the EEU, will only continue to swell in geopolitical import in Central Asia, it is the lack of a Ukrainian presence in the EEU that presents the final, fatal strike against any attempt to craft the union as the “pole” Putin originally desired. The likelihood of Ukraine – with a market of nearly 50 million, and industrial potential second only to Russia within the EEU roster – joining the union remains next to nil, effectively neutering the EEU’s geopolitical consequence.

As it is, and for my money, the three best pieces to date on the blowback to Russia’s Eurasian Union plotting are here, here, and here. While the potential remains for Lukashenko-Putin-Nazarbayev to salvage the EEU into something sensible, there remains little chance that it can ever come close to regional bulwark Putin desires.  

The Personhood of Ukraine


One of the most fascinating, and underreported, aspects of the entire swatch of Ukrainian protests over the past four weeks centers on the notion of Ukrainian identity. About whether Ukrainians can count as a “people,” or as a “nation,” or even, for some, as a “state.” About whether those people squatting on EuroMaidan or stirring in Lviv or standing in solitary solidarity in Donetsk can be considered a separate ethnographic entity from their formed Soviet master[1] in Moscow. We’ve seen a bit on the etymology of (The) Ukraine – how the word meant “edge” or “periphery,” implying where the center then is. But we haven’t seen much examination of the competing claims of ownership and nationhood. And while this is neither the space nor the time for the theoretical examination of nationalities within former Soviet states – Richard Suny’s work is the best shortcut for that – the recent claims and counterclaims surrounding the words might be worth a moment of time.

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Passing Into Financial History

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to run some numbers on federal debt-growth rates under Obama. (Got picked up over at The Washington Post, which I appreciated.) It seemed like the mouthbreathing on runaway debt – all that hyperbole on Obama’s purported spend-now-ask-later! policies – had reached a tipping point, and I wanted to see where, historically, the nation’s debt-growth rate actually stood.

The findings should sufficiently calm the claim that debt’s “exploded” under the current president. (There are a few 19th-century presidents that warrant a closer lookin’-at, though.) But a few of the commenters noted that, instead of looking at the rate of the real increase, a better marker of judging an administration’s financial sense would be to examine the debt-to-GDP ratio. That ratio, as one noted, “gives a sense of how well an economy is equipped to finance its debt.”

Not a terrible idea. As soon as I got crunching, though, a few issues immediately cropped. GDP, of course, is one of the fickler fiscal stats out there. (All that boom of Web 2.0, with relatively little to show for it, etc.) Doubly unfortunate is the fact that the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), tasked with calculating the quarterly GDP numbers, began tabulating GDP only in 1929.

As such, the findings below should be taken with a grain of salt. GDP lets a wealth of funds through unaccounted; pre-1929 GDP numbers, tabbed by a pair of economics professors at the University of Illinois-Chicago, remain unofficial. But they’ll have to do. And when the numbers we have are laid out, we see that while Obama looked entirely normal under the growth-rate rubric, his administration, per these debt-to-GDP numbers, has just passed into the annals of financial history.

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Young Voters

There’s a clip of Russell Brand going around admonishing Young Voters not to vote. Ignore that sentiment. David Foster Wallace tackled this one already:

"If you are demographically a Young Voter, it is again worth a moment of your valuable time to consider the implications of [not voting]. If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who are not dumb and are keenly aware that it’s in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV Spring Break on Primary Day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote."


Analyzing America’s Debt Growth

Spinning off of the original Washington Post, ah, post, I took a longer look in The Descrier about the recent growth rate of US debt. If the “chart junk” doesn’t suffice, here are some of the findings:

In 1971, for instance, the US posted a 22.04-percent growth over the previous four years, meaning that US debt growth grew 22.04 percent from 1967-1971. Not a bad clip. Lower than what we see today, at least. But it’s nowhere near the 86.10 percent we saw in 1986 – smack in the middle of the Reagan years. Indeed, in ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86, ’87, ’88 – all those four-year averages in which Reagan was the sole presence in the White House – we saw a higher rate of debt growth than anything we’ve seen under the White House’s current tenant. Under Obama, the debt’s grown slightly more than 50 percent. Under Reagan’s first four years, the debt nearly doubled.

I'm currently a Master's student in Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European political and social developments. I used to be a reporter and polling analyst with the Houston Press and Talking Points Memo, as well as the northernmost male Peace Corps Volunteer in the world. (It's very cold in northern Kazakhstan.)

My writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera, The Diplomat, The Moscow Times, TPM, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, Slate, Roads & Kingdoms, Sports Illustrated, and Registan, among others. I also taught a course on Batman during my final year at Rice, which was completely worth it.

Twitter: @cjcmichel

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