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Power & Energy in Central Asia: An Interview with Casey Michel

Casey Michel is a journalist, Central Asia analyst, and MA candidate at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Recently, Michel has been at the center of a storm of controversy that has once again raised questions about the growing importance of Central Asia in global politics. With all eyes on Syria and Ukraine, how long will the relative calm in the area last? A space of competing American, Russian, and Chinese interests, I spoke with Mr. Michel about the confluence of international and local actors shaping Central Asia today. You were at the center of a recent incident at Columbia University, when Dr. Brenda Shaffer of the University of Haifa took exception to your question(s) at an event she was speaking at regarding her affiliation with the Azerbaijani state-energy conglomerate SOCAR. The exchange seems to have touched a nerve in the media more broadly. What was your exchange about and why did it become such a story, in your opinion? My line of questioning centered on Dr. Shaffer’s work as an adviser for strategic affairs with SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state-backed energy firm, and her prior and current work in which she did not disclose this relationship. At the event in question, Dr. Shaffer claimed that she was a moderator for a discussion on the role of Azeri fuel in European gas security – but she was identified as an academic, rather than an adviser with the same energy firm featured in that day’s discussion. Further, both the New York Times and Washington Post have been forced to issue corrections/clarifications on her op-eds on the region, pointing out her relationship with SOCAR. When I asked Dr. Shaffer to comment on the New York Times clarification, she instead decided to begin asking me about who pays my tuition bills, and what my cholesterol count was – in a public, on-the-record setting, in front of dozens of on-lookers. It was easily one of the most bizarre back-and-forths I’ve been involved in, but helps point to a larger reality. Post-Soviet hydrocarbon states – Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan – have put forth strong, and largely under-studied, efforts to purchase influence in Brussels, London, and Washington D.C. That’s not to say that there was anything undue about Dr. Shaffer’s work with SOCAR; rather, her lack of disclosure about that relationship fits within the growing narrative of post-Soviet states looking for ways to sway both policy and academic support in the West. Tony Blair, for instance, was hired by Kazakhstan three years ago as an “adviser,” claiming he was brought aboard to aid in privatization efforts and reform. It’s since become clear, however, that the only ones who have benefited from Blair’s presence have been those within the president’s inner circle – as well as those closest to Blair. Not only has Kazakhstan hired a PR firm run by Blair’s former PR chief, but Kazakhstan’s also hired one of Blair’s own companies in its image-buffing efforts. Moreover, in the three years of Blair’s presence in Astana, Kazakhstan has experienced the greatest civil rights backslide it has known since independence. Blair’s presence in Kazakhstan has been, by almost any measure, an abject failure – and he’s now been brought aboard the consortium seeking to bring Azeri gas to Europe. This combination of carbon-based revenue, kleptocratic influence, post-Soviet civil rights collapse, and a distinct hypocrisy from Western actors – in addition to a continued lack of disclosure among certain parties – continues. And when it’s questioned, it can make for a fantastic story. So, we’re talking about geopolitics and energy, then. You’re suggested that there’s a confluence of interests here, something Ben Judah has also argued. Tony Blair aside, there’s a whole roster of Western leaders, academics, and experts, who have gone on to have very lucrative careers for some very questionable regimes. It’s difficult not to be cynical but in all the commotion about “selling out,” we’ve missed “the rise of Central Asia.” That is, how at least a handful of these former satellite states have become significant regional players on the back of their energy stockpiles. The real question now is what kinds of regimes will these be? And how can, or ought, the West promote the democratization of what are, on the face of it, some fairly recalcitrant autocracies? In a sense, the West missed out largely through a willingness to allow security concerns to trump democratization efforts or human rights movements. This was seen most acutely in Uzbekistan, in which militaristic concerns have outweighed calls for democratic efforts through almost the entirety of the Afghan War. The Central Asian regimes – in Uzbekistan, in Tajikistan – have managed to adroitly play up the threat of Islamist, terroristic instability, which policy and lawmakers in the West have been more than eager to support. The latest issues with the Islamic State are simply a continuation of that narrative. While the actual threat IS poses to the region remains very small, these regimes have been more than willing to hype the threat time and again – further excuse, they say, to continue clamping down on what little civil rights remain in the region. Even Kyrgyzstan, the region’s best and brightest attempt at post-Soviet democracy, has seen a significant slide away from democratic principles recently – mimicking, and even sometimes surpassing, the civil rights clampdown seen already in Russia. As it pertains to democratization efforts, there seems little room for optimism in the region at the moment. However, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two most essential nations in the region, stand set for imminent succession. While there exists the (very real) possibility for instability during the transition period, such neo-patrimonial systems also present opportunities to re-address democratization efforts with successor regimes. There is, of course, no guarantee that successors would be any more receptive to democratization discussions than their predecessors – but when it comes to moments of optimism in Central Asia, you have to grab them when you can. Much has been made of the notion that Central Asia is at the heart of a kind of “war of position” between the US, Russia, and China, with important regional powers juggling patrons essentially. What’s at stake here, what’s being contested? While the recent “New Great Game” terminology has been overwrought, this current competition for influence in Central Asia certainly has echoes from the 19th-century contest for influence between imperial Britain and tsarist Russia. Central Asia has long been perceived as a pivot, whether seen in ancient Silk Road routes or in Mackinder’s concept of a “Heartland.” But much of the recent attempts at vying for regional interest and influence stems from different perspectives and purposes. For the West, an emphasis on democratization and security – especially as it pertains to Afghanistan – has stood at the forefront. For China, energy, trade interests, and Xinjiang-related stability have propelled interests. And while security also plays a role for Russia, Moscow’s interests are far more imperial. In presenting itself as a regional hegemon to both a domestic audience and its “Near Abroad,” Russia believes it deserves the predominance of influence in Central Asia. And between cultural and linguistic links, there’s certain ample room for influence to be found. But Russia’s moment has passed. Due to its blinkered economic and energy policies, Russia has ceded the upper hand to China, which has slowly begun turning Central Asia into resource outposts. (The West still maintains a nominal presence, but with the wind-down in
Afghanistan comes a concurrent decrease in regional interest.) China is not only the largest trade partner in the region, but has managed to wrest Central Asian hydrocarbons from their former route to Russia. On the one hand, this was perhaps expected – China presents both a far larger market, and far larger energy demand. But Russia’s autarkic policies and revanchist efforts have convinced Central Asia that Moscow cannot be trusted to act in good faith – all the more as the recent sanctions have begun harming Central Asian economies – and is interested namely in retaining an imperialistic image. Central Asia is China’s to lose, and the region will only continue gravitating toward Beijing more and more in the foreseeable future. Thinking about US policy in the region, the period immediately after 9/11 was arguably one of tremendous (re)engagement. That appears to have changed now, at least, during the tenure of the Obama administration. The “pivot to Asia,” in short, doesn’t seem to include the heart of the continent. Is the US conceding Central Asia as a de facto Sino-Russian sphere? Or is it, in fact, an attempt to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing? You’re exactly right – the “pivot to Asia” would be more aptly termed the “pivot to East Asia.” (Aren’t Afghanistan and Iraq both in Asia, after all?) As I mentioned above, the US’s standing in Central Asia, through a compendium of factors, has waned considerably since it first re-engaged the region in the early ‘00s. Part of this, again, is simply due to the winding-down in Afghanistan. But much of this is self-inflicted. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, the US’s perceived coziness to the prior regime – one of the most thuggish, corrupt regimes you could find – cost the Americans their
base in Bishkek. Likewise, the perception of America’s inability to remain constrained to international law, and a distinct willingness to overthrow regimes very similar to those in Central Asia, made certain actors in the region more than willing to decrease the US’s presence. As to a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, that will likely not come from Washington’s doing – that will come, rather, on its own. From a purely realist perspective, Russia and China would seem destined for a clash in Central Asia at some point in the future. Russia, more than any point in the past, stands as China’s junior partner. However, Russia still maintains a stronger security presence in Central Asia. The question remains: At what point will China demand that its security presence in Central Asia match its economic hegemony? What would spark this demand? And how will the Russians react? As Moscow continues its slow-motion implosion, it can only maintain – fiscally, infrastructurally – this security card for so long. And China is aware of this reality as much as anyone. As a final question, you’ve made an effort to keep the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in the headlines. Is this project dead in the water now for Moscow? Or should we expect a reset-in-launch of the initiative in 2015? Ah, the EEU. A wonderful notion, on paper, for a region that has seen perhaps less regional integration than anywhere else in Eurasia. Unfortunately, where Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev – who originally posited the EEU – envisioned a union of equals, Russia saw fit to morph the organization into a vehicle for its neo-imperialistic policies. Instead of a union pushing economic integration, Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked his foreign policy credentials to the EEU – and to maintaining Russian predominance, and chauvinism, throughout. Time and again, Kazakhstan has pushed back against Russian intentions and proposals within the EEU – against a common currency, against a Eurasian parliament, against a common foreign policy. Indeed, the EEU has actually sparked the first notable instances of Kazakh nationalism. Kyrgyzstan, too, has seen its economy hit by growing closer to the Eurasian Union; in pledging to join the EEU, the Kyrgyz president described it as the “lesser of two evils.” Hardly a ringing endorsement. Though it only goes into effect on 1 Jan 2015, the EEU may well be dead on arrival. There’s every indication the purported customs union will remain on paper – customs checkpoints likely won’t be set up with Nagorno-Karabakh, and will likely remain between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. All the while, Russia will continue to subsidize efforts to prop it up – to the tune of $5.2bil/year, at last check – and recruit the unrecognized statelets on its border. Moreover, without Ukraine, there’s really no point to the EEU. Without the Ukrainian market and industrial capacity, the EEU is simply Russia and a handful of disgruntled satellite states – some of whom now see China as a far more attractive partner. The EEU, again, could have been a veritable, viable supra-regional entity in a region that needed one. But due to the Putin regime’s short-sighted economic policies, to say nothing of its obvious willingness to disregard international borders, it’s cut any potential import the EEU could have maintained. Which makes the EEU just another empty post-Soviet organization that falls far, far short from what it could have been. Interview by Jasmin Mujanović | @JasminMuj