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Bumps Along the New Silk Road: Are They As Big As We Think?

President Xi Jinping wasn’t exaggerating when he hailed it the “project of the century” at a Beijing summit in 2017. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) involves multi-trillion dollar investments in infrastructure development spanning 68 countries throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, with the aim of promoting regional connectivity and economic growth. Given the diminishing hegemony of the US in the geopolitical sphere, China’s ambitious undertaking has major implications for China as well as the rest of the globe. Since its bold take-off in 2013, however, BRI’s image has begun to wane in the face of accusations made under international scrutiny, particularly by the West.

One of the most contentious subjects of debate surrounding BRI is “debt-trap diplomacy.” With many of BRI’s loan recipients succumbing to soaring debt in recent years, Western powers are keen to warn that this stems from a grand Chinese scheme to capitalize on debt-based relations with developing countries. While these countries are certainly mired in debt, it’s a stretch to lay the blame for such issues on China under the “debt-trap” label, particularly when Western institutions are themselves culpable for the very behavior they condemn. Take the case of Zambia’s mounting national debt, which a September 2018 report by the British specialist publication Africa Confidential ascribes to allegedly unsustainable Chinese loans. This claim grossly exaggerates the extent of China’s impact on Zambia’s debt crisis, especially given that China accounts for a small part of sub-Saharan Africa’s aggregate debt sources (see chart below). According to statistics presented in The Economist in the same month, China likely holds a quarter to a third of Zambia’s external debt; while these figures aren’t small, they’re comparable to other creditors such as the US, World Bank, and the IMF, which for decades have been providing unsustainable loans to countries, plunging them into debt, and opening up their economies to international investors (primarily from Western countries). The Africa Confidential report further claims that Zesco—Zambia’s state-owned national power company—has been in talks regarding repossession by a Chinese company. The Zambian government refuted such allegations and denied the existence of any plans for Zesco’s privatization. It’s a tragic irony that the IMF and World Bank pushed for the privatization of the very same company in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Sources: For External Government Debt Stocks by Official and Private Creditors: International Debt Statistics, World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/products/ids. For External Government Debt Stocks by Chinese Creditors: Lucas Atkins, Deborah Brautigam, Yunnan Chen, and Jyhjong Hwang 2017. “China-Africa Economic Bulletin #1: Challenges of and opportunities from the commodity price slump,” CARI Economic Bulletin #1. China Africa Research Initiative, Johns Hopkins, http://www.sais-cari.org/data-chinese-loans-and-aid-to-africa/.

Regardless of China’s contribution to the debt equation, it certainly hasn’t been profiting from such economic quandaries. According a March 2018 report released by the Center for Global Development, from 2001 to 2017, China restructured or waived loans for 51 debtor nations—the overwhelming majority of BRI participants—without taking possession of state assets, and a significant number have already undergone multiple restructurings. In fact, even in Venezuela—the single largest Chinese debtor country—a Chinese takeover of state flagship assets still hasn’t occurred, despite the fact China has become a victim of its lending: since the collapse of oil prices in 2014 and subsequent extreme oil-price volatility, Venezuela’s oil sector has floundered, which has not only hampered Venezuela’s ability to make loan repayments, but led to significant increases in China’s massive oil import bill. Conversely, for BRI countries like Sri Lanka that have experienced Chinese takeover of state assets, the process was reported to be peaceful and even carried out voluntarily. When critics denounced China’s repossession of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port as part of a debt-trap conspiracy, Karunasena Kodituwakku, the Sri Lankan ambassador to China shot down such accusations and emphasized that the proposal for handing over the port came not from Chinese government, but the Sri Lankan government; as other Sri Lankan representatives have noted, it made sense for Sri Lanka to welcome Chinese investment in the port, given that the vast majority of commercial shipping arriving into it was from China. Kodituwakku even conveyed his optimism about the port’s long-term prospects as a launchpad for Sri Lanka’s role in an emerging Asia.

Through the Western lens, another major allegation increasingly made against BRI is the “String of Pearls” theory. The term originated in a 2005 US study by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, asserting that China’s increased control of ports—“pearls”—along the Indian Ocean is a maneuver to militarily dominate the region. The assumption is that China would develop commercial facilities to support later military use, with the ultimate objective of carrying out major combat operations against India. Given the Indian Ocean’s rising global significance, geopolitical motivations are not inconceivable, but a consideration of available information suggests otherwise. As concluded in a 2014 report by a team of analysts at the US National Defense University, the current operations of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are characterized by its “light footprint” and emphasis on providing logistics support to overseas security missions. None of the suspected “pearl” sites, including Hambantota Port, have become military bases or facilities; according to Ambassador Kodituwakku, Sri Lanka has made it very clear to China that the port is simply an economic venture, and China has never asked to use it for anything else. Furthermore, the ports are subject to an international legal framework mandating that they remain under the sovereignty of the coastal state, as opposed to the port operator. All facts considered, PLAN’s behavior is not consistent with that of a country preparing a platform for massive conflict in the Indian Ocean. As indicated in the 2014 report by the National Defense University, even if China were to harbor such ideas, the “String of Pearls” model lacks the robust logistics infrastructure to support the needs of a large Chinese air and naval force focused on combat operations.

Given that China is addressing economic gaps that many traditional powers have failed to fill over the centuries, it perhaps deserves more credit and recognition for its ambitions with BRI. That said, China must understand the limitations to BRI’s potential if it lacks the endorsement of other major economic powers, especially now that China’s economy is showing signs of slowing: in the fall of 2018, China’s GDP growth decelerated to 6.5 percent, its slowest pace since 2009. Aside from trade friction with the US, China is struggling to tackle domestic debt problems; according to 2018 estimates by the Institute of International Finance (IIF), China’s debt to GDP ratio currently sits at 300 percent, which is nearly three times that of the US. An international lending spree certainly doesn’t relieve China’s difficulties, and at some point down the line, collaboration with other global powers may become the only economically viable option for realizing China’s BRI vision. If China co-lends with Western institutions and offers competitive tenders to all comers, BRI projects would likely benefit not only from increased financial security, but greater transparency and reduced risks for misappropriation of funds.

No matter how you slice BRI, the campaign is far from perfect. Since its outset, more protests have erupted, biodiversity in affected regions has plummeted, and in some areas, entire communities have lost their homes or traditional livelihoods. We might thank BRI critics for highlighting these sorts of issues and helping foster constructive improvements. However, one mustn’t lose sight of the countless new jobs, modes of enhanced transportation, and improved access to basic utilities that BRI has brought along with its development. Perhaps most importantly, we should be mindful of China’s demonstrated efforts to address its understood problems. For instance, after receiving criticism internationally for the financially unsustainable nature of certain BRI projects, China has demanded a study on the commercial viability of various projects, such as Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway project, before providing further funding. For our part as observers, we should acknowledge and welcome this progress, rather than simply probe for shortcomings.

End Capital Punishment: The Short-sightedness of Magnitsky Act Sanctions on Kadyrov

By Misha Tseitlin

After the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi under dubious circumstances that mirror human rights abuses and the eventual death of Sergei Magnitsky in Russia, the lack of an international response has prompted calls for sanctions—often grounded in the justification of the Global Magnitsky Act. However, while many are ready to jump on this new crisis and leverage existing tools, they are quick to ignore the impacts of past policy uses, especially within Europe. With the help of American firms like McKinsey, authoritarian governments like Russia have managed to dodge sanctions while protecting the assets of the state and allies of key government figures. This itself should be enough to inspire doubts onto this sanctions policy—however, even in cases of effective imposition, domestic political trends tend to render effects counterproductive.

See Ramzan Kadyrov, who last December joined the ranks of Kim Jong Un, Nicolas Maduro, and others, who are all subjected to US sanctions. The Treasury Department sanctioned him under the Magnitsky Act, originally passed by Obama in 2012 to condone the death in custody of Russian whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky. In doing so, they have confirmed what ordinary Russians have long known: Kadyrov, the Head of Chechnya, was linked to Putin’s overreach in the cases of his enemies. Unfortunately, Russians also know the entrenchment of the status quo precludes any meaningful change, having witnessed the result of past US sanctions on Russian officials.

Indeed, the decision was not met with apologies or negotiations, as is the expectation, but rather anti-American posts on Kadyrov’s social media accounts which have given a voice to anti-interventionist messages in other issues like the Iranian protests. In all, he has closely followed the Castro playbook, upping rally-around-the-flag propaganda in response to sanctions. More importantly, though some of the Chechen leader’s luxury assets are tied up in Western institutions, much is already invested into Kadyrov’s some dozen racing-breed horses, luxury cars, or extravagant residences. If at all cash-strapped, all he must do is wait for the next batch of subsidies from Russia, the region’s sole source of economic sustenance since the start of the century. This tool is weak in a practical sense, driving away an individual with diverse interests in Putin’s Russia with mildly punitive measures.

The argument that remains is a moral one. Kadyrov’s Chechnya has been accused of everything from torturing and imprisoning its gay citizens to exacting retribution on the families of suspected terrorists. This, of course, leaves out the countless cases of suspected murder for countless Putin and Kadyrov critics like Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, and Umar Israilov. For many the US continues to and ought to both represent and enforce a standard of acceptable behaviour from other nations as the global hegemon, and for this it leveraged its sanctions against the immoral behaviour of Kadyrov and officials like him in Russia.

However, it is important to remember the US’s selective enforcement of such measures. Allies like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are all generally accepted to be perpetrators of human rights abuses, but the US opts to look the other way in exchange for help on anti-terror efforts across the world. Even in neighbouring Mexico plagued by corruption, American sanctions have yet to be levied because the benefits of cooperation outweigh the impact of weak-handed punishment. In Chechnya, this ought to be the case too, not because human rights concerns are unimportant or fabricated, but because the benefits of cooperation could have either one two effects: an emboldening of the Russian opposition and a weakness in United Russia’s grasp or a greater effectiveness of sanctions if implemented after some time of détente, making it likely that they would touch more assets.

Now the common response to this would advocate for the US to support a more palatable and authentically pro-West opposition to Putin without the need to stomach anything suboptimal. However, the infeasibility of this option speaks to the sorry state of the Russian opposition. With the death of Boris Nemtsov, the most likely anti-Putin figure is one Alexei Navalny—social media populist who is staunchly nationalist, and though more palatable now, rose up through right-wing groups and has expressed sentiments that make Russian liberals wary. Even former staunchly leftist figures in Russia like Alexei Venediktov, have come out in support of aggressively nationalist positions, leaving little organic momentum for a movement.

Given that no acceptable opposition currently exists, the US would have to engineer opponents it sees as acceptable. However, this trend towards nationalism against the opposition is linked to nationalist leanings of the Russian populace, who would immediately disqualify and candidate seemingly propped-up or brought up by Western power. Thus, the US has a dilemma: there’s no one to work with and likely will not be for some time.

This is where Chechnya comes in. Kadyrov’s alignment with the Russian regime comes from his father’s defection to align with Russians during the Second Chechen War. First his father controlled the republic until his death in 2004, and when he came of legal age in 2007, Kadyrov took the mantle. Due to Russia’s economic monopoly over the region’s livelihood, ties between Russia proper and Chechnya have deepened politically and economically over years. However, socially the two still remain distinct, with practically no Russians in Chechnya and Chechens seen as other in other parts of the Federation. Indeed, though Chechnya is one of 22 republics in Russia, it enjoys de-facto legal status unshared by any other.

Kadyrov has created a region with extraterritoriality, meaning Russian laws are unenforced and Russian troops are even banned from the republic under threat of death. Such a violent fissure is unlike someone many Western pundits claim is Putin’s strongest ally. Instead, Kadyrov is an ambitious leader who got to his position by playing the political game, and one that he will gladly continue to play. Treating him like an ideologue by slapping largely ineffective sanctions both eliminates the ability to engage in dialogue and solidifies Putin’s support over some of his most discontent citizens.

The US and Russia have always had a tense relationship, but Chechnya has always been distinct. In 1991, Dzhokhar Dudayev reached out to the US to aid his quest for Chechen independence—styled after an American secular democracy. Though the situation today has complicated, dealings with Russia have been at a standstill for over a decade. The US should not be in the business of making enemies, instead trying to find partners on the ground anywhere it seeks engagement. As Putin’s time as Russia’s official head comes to an end in 2024—any outcome, whether it be the installation of a loyalist in the Presidency and a power transfer or a the less likely reclaiming of the presidency in 2028 for the then-75-year-old Putin will be met with opposition for Kadyrov, who has run Chechnya for more than a decade with relative impunity and a deference to Putin’s cult of personality. Thus, a currently-stable situation presents future opportunities for US leadership, who should be less hasty with imposition of sanctions and punitive policy on potential future allies.

Leveraging the Magnitsky Act makes a statement, but its impact stops there. Now is a good a time as any to open up the toolkit a little wider and discover more meaningful options, not only looking towards Russia but other nations as well. A blind imposition of generic tools without looking at domestic political trends is not just useless but could instead be counterproductive, empowering Russia’s Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Muhammed Bin Salman, their awkward middleman—Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov.

Ch-ч-Changes: The Geopolitics behind Kazakh Alphabet Reform

By Leora Eisenberg ‘20

It almost seems like a given that alphabets are a core part of a culture. What some may not understand is that language laws are a tense issue in post-Soviet space. Alphabets are integral to a language and its speakers, in spite of whatever historical revisionism an empire might seek to impose. They are inextricable from a country’s identity, history and culture. Outside of the former Soviet Union, consider Korean, Hindi, and Amharic — all languages with their own alphabets, created for the sake of a distinct national identity and literature. Within the former USSR, however, take Georgia and Armenia: in order to create a more distinct national identity, they created their own alphabets in the fourth and fifth centuries, which they insisted be preserved — and not changed into Cyrillic —  under Soviet rule. Similarly, in October 2017, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev declared the government’s intention to fully switch the alphabet of the Kazakh language — one of Kazakhstan’s two official languages and the language of its titular ethnic majority, Kazakhs — from the Cyrillic of Kazakhstan’s Soviet past to the Latin of its future.

The Kazakh language is, like any language, fundamental to the national identity of its speakers: it has a distinct grammar, a titular country, and a distinct literature. Until 1991, however, Kazakhstan (and, consequently, Kazakh) was, as part of Soviet policy, subordinate to Russia in most ways, including its language, and its alphabet. Originally written in Arabic script, the Soviet government imposed a Latin script on many of its constituent Muslim nationalities (i.e. Tajik, Karachay, Tatar, Kazakh, etc.), called Yangälif, in 1927, only to switch it to Cyrillic in 1940. The Cyrillic alphabet is still in use in Kazakhstan, although the government hopes to replace it with Latin by 2025.

The choice to use Cyrillic post-1991 is not only a marker of political, but sometimes also of ethnic/national identity: numerous post-Soviet governments, including those of Moldova, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, have made the switch from Cyrillic to Latin, ostensibly in a show of changing attitudes toward both Russia and the West. The alphabet is inextricably tied not only to Russia, but also to its language, culture, and history — which were made a substantive part of the language, culture, and history of the fourteen other former Soviet republics. The move away from Cyrillic is perceived by many ethnic Russians — in Russia, Kazakhstan, and across post-Soviet space — to be a move away from their ethnic “homeland,” to borrow Tasmamgabetov’s reference to Camus, of Russia/ USSR and from Soviet attitudes, to which Kazakhstan itself shared for so long (and which probably quite a few Russians in Kazakhstan still do).

Nazarbayev has claimed that the shift is nothing more than a step into the modern world, i.e. a world where English — and thus the Latin alphabet — is the most used language of the Internet and the international language of science and business. Others, however, have claimed that Kazakhstan’s decision is geopolitical, i.e. an attempt to distance itself from Russia, its historic colonizer (but also contemporary political ally). This decision is also perceived as a threat towards Kazakhstan’s largest ethnic majority — Russians, the vast majority of whom do not speak Kazakh.

Russian-owned online news publications have generally reacted negatively toward this development. Pravda.ru — separate from the print Pravda newspaper, the former official paper of the Communist Party, has 14 articles on the Kazakh language shift, six of which were at least marginally negative. Some articles, like “The Non-Russian World: Kazakhstan Replaces its ‘Older Brother’” and “Kazakh Activists Suggest a Suspicious Alphabet Reform,” with its secondary title of “Kazakhs Want to Throw 14 Letters out of Their Alphabet” are particularly indicative of the broader historical Soviet/Russian view of Kazakhs as their “younger brother” or as Kazakhstanis (and more specifically Kazakhs) inhabiting the “Russian world,” a geopolitical space with shared use of the Russian language, in addition to shared affinity for Russian culture. Further, the reference to “Kazakhs” (rather than “Kazakhstanis”) in the alternative headline of the second article is deeply racist, referring to the majority ethnic group of a country rather than its entire population, i.e. appealing to ethnic conflict rather than examining the issue as it is.

Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP), a former official organ of the Central Committee of the Komsomol, the youth branch of the Communist Party, had only eight articles on the alphabet shift, one of which was marginally positive. The rest, however, were at least fairly negative. The most blatant title was “Following Cyrillic, Kazakhstan Will Reject the Russian Language, Too.” The other headlines were not nearly as inflammatory, although they contained multiple references to the same ideas as in Pravda. Once again, KP likely appealed to the average Russian reader, who has become accustomed to Kazakhstan being a part of the “Russian world” and to Kazakhstan being subordinate to its “older brother.”

Kommersant, however, is a leading Russian business daily, and, as a result, has a completely different political slant from Pravda and KP. Only one article had a negative headline (but no negative content); most were neutral; one was marginally positive; and one was blatantly positive: “A New Alphabetical Order: Andrey Shukhov on the Kazakh Latin Alphabet.” Although the headline here is not indicative of any political slant, Shukhov, the author, disputes the notions of distancing from the “Russian world” and “older brother” so prominent in the other pieces. Almost as if he had read the headlines of Pravda and KP, Shukhov writes that “fans of historical conspiracy — some with enthusiasm, others with horror — saw in the rejection of Cyrillic something that, most likely, wasn’t there: the final withdrawal of the country from the post-Soviet geopolitical system.”

Whether or not the alphabet shift changes Kazakhstan’s orientation toward Russia or the West, however, remains to be seen. Post-Soviet nations which have switched alphabets met various results: Uzbekistan faced utter failure, while Azerbaijan has had relative success. Whatever the outcome is, it is fair to say that the Russian media coverage of the issue is, for the most part, negative. The views of Pravda, KP, and Kommersant are not monolithic, although they do lean in one direction. The first two publications, Pravda and KP, heavily employ language that implies a Soviet worldview. Expressions like “older brother” (in reference to Russia and ethnic Russians) and “the Russian world” (in reference to the greater Russian-speaking world, i.e. former Soviet Union) set up an intra-article paradigm where ethnic Kazakhs and Kazakhstan are subordinate. Russia — and, consequently, the Russian language, Russian people, and Cyrillic alphabet — are superior in the eyes of the publishers of KP and Pravda, which explains the amount of negative coverage of the Kazakh alphabet shift.

But it’s more than just subordination: Russian publications like KP and Pravda are trying to get their readers to believe that they are at least better than Kazakhstanis, and perhaps even Kazakhs. (Remember that roughly 20% of all Kazakhstanis are ethnically Russian.) With headlines that invoke the notions of the “older brother” and “Russian world,” it seems as if they are trying to say that Kazakhstan — and all Kazakh-speakers, the vast majority of whom are Kazakh — are foolish for trying to distinguish themselves from the “Russian world” they’ve inhabited for so long. On the surface, these sources are reporting on an alphabet shift. A level down, these sources suggest that Kazakhstan is inferior to Russia, its “older brother.” And even below that is the notion that Kazakhstan cannot compare to Russia — and should abandon what they see as ludicrous efforts entirely.

As of right now, there’s no telling whether these efforts are ludicrous or not. In November 2018, students all across Kazakhstan took a proficiency exam in the Latin alphabet. According to the Coordination and Methodological Center for the Development of Languages, there are now pilot programs in 51 universities. Roughly $664M have been invested in this project. But Kazakhstan may well turn out to be another Uzbekistan, i.e. a post-Soviet state whose success in switching to Latin was so limited that twenty years after the shift Cyrillic is still more widely used. On the other hand, it may turn out to be another Azerbaijan, i.e. a post-Soviet state with objective success in switching. Not enough time has elapsed for the onlooker to determine the success of the initiative. Over the next five years, we’ll watch as Kazakhstan tries to change from Cyrillic to Latin, perhaps in a broader shift from Russia, the historic “older brother” to the West, including the United States. That said, whatever change does happen in the alphabet, Russia (and, consequently, its media) will almost certainly be opposed.