Russia’s Caspian Problem: Weird News Update About the Workings of the World

Image result for caspian sea

Every day, there are millions of stories that don’t make the headlines, and don’t get written up in the papers, but that reflect the slow and grinding way the world really works. They reflect the tiny changes in policies, the historical patterns that ebb and flow but are never really absent, the way that past actions impact present decisions, and the way that political abstractions like “countries” and “borders” crash against the real world.

All of these factors are interesting, and I think especially so to Americans, a nation which is nearly unique in trying to ignore history, the ramifications of decisions, and geopolitical realities. But all that is catching up.

I bring this up due to a neat little story by Paul Goble in Jamestown’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, called “Collapse of Russian Shipping in Caspian Put’s Moscow’s Regional Strategy at Risk.” Even though shipping in the inland sea is booming, Russian ports, a key part of both its North-South and East-West regional strategies, is drying up. It’s about how the other Caspian nations are essentially colluding against Russia to starve its seaports, creating new regional alliances based on both underwater rights and the laws that govern surface territory, all hinging on the question: is the Caspian more like a lake or like an ocean?

What then is going on?  The answer can be found in the complicated politics of the Caspian region, the continuing difficulties the littoral states have in demarcating the seabed, as well as growing tensions among some of these states with Russia. And because that is the case, the decline of freight traffic at Russia’s Caspian ports in the first quarter of 2017 is even more significant than might appear at first glance.

In Soviet times, Moscow and Tehran divided the Caspian into two unequal zones, a division that even then had important implications because of the oil and natural gas reserves discovered on the seafloor as well as due to the rising trade between the Soviet Union and Iran. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the number of littoral states increased from two to five: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan thus become involved in talks about delimitation and trade on the Caspian alongside the Russian Federation and Iran.

For 25 years, these five littoral states have been unable to reach an agreement on the division of the seabed, something Moscow has exploited to block many pipeline projects that would not have involved Russia. Yet, at the same time, that deadlock has led to expanded contacts between other pairs of littoral states and increased shipping between and among them—again to the exclusion of the Russian Federation (Abo.net, April 18, 2016; Natural Gas World, May 6, 2017). Now, Moscow’s policies have returned like a boomerang to limit its future role in the region.

Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan call for treating the Caspian as a lake rather than an ocean, an arrangement that would divide the seabed among the countries but leave surface commerce open to all. Whereas, Turkmenistan and Iran want it to be treated as a sea and be divided totally into five sectors. Despite suggestions at a January 2017 ministerial in Baku that the five Caspian littoral states would sign an agreement overcoming the divergence of positions (see EDM, May 8), the participating foreign ministers could not even say when such a meeting would occur this year, an indication that they remain far apart (Mfa.gov.az, Azernews.az, January 25).

This isn’t a headline story, and nor should it be. Could you imagine if you got a buzz on your phone signifying a news alert and it was this? “Russia, Turkmenistan Remain Deadlocked on Oceanographic Nomenclature!” Holy shit, you’d be furious.

But that’s a reflection of how, regardless of the way time feels right now, the world doesn’t work in headlines. People come and go, and the decisions they make are momentous, but slow patterns of geography and history grind underneath their feet, constraining and shaping their actions.

Moscow’s centuries of expansion, whether as Russia or the Soviet Union, influence its relations with its former vassal states, as well as Iran, not to mention the ethnic federal entities that actually border the Caspian (most notably restless Dagestan, whose port revenues were seen as a guarantor of some stability). Russia also has no non-arctic  oceanic sea ports; it is a continental power. That’s why it is so aggressive in the Caspian and Black seas, as a way to control the Eurasian sphere.

But its aggression can often backfire, as we see here, when its oppressive thumb led other states to pair with each other and Iran, bypassing Russia, and perhaps putting its regional goals in check. This gives more lie to the “Putin is a flawless puppet master” myth. I still think Russia will rue their cruel Middle East adventures. He just got lucky with America and Trump.

But then, what choice did Putin have, with the Caspian? He was dealing with the legacy of an empire that rushed from the colds of northern Europe to the sunbaked sea, colliding with Iran and with other ancient Muslim nations, having to bloodily hack their way through the Caucuses to get there.

The sea is what mattered to Russia, as an easier way to get across the continent. And then, after WWI, for its insane abundance of oil and natural gas. This was heightened in WWII, when Hitler diverted a good chunk of his invading army south to secure the oil fields near Baku. And certainly, after the fall of the USSR, Russia fought to hang on to it Caucus territories both to stay by the sea, and to avoid letting the rest of its hard-fought empire, which we take for cartographical permanence, from spiraling away.

These things matter. History matters. Geography matters. America, whose long racial history is catching up with it, which is seeing the impact that its centuries of continental aggression and century of global aggression have wrought, and who is slowly learning the real lessons of geography, needs to understand that. Russia does. Iran does. The butchers of the ISIS and al Qaeda do. It’s time we do, too.

Trump Attacks the Antiquities Act; Public Land At Risk

 

They seriously had the nerve to announce this in front of Teddy Roosevelt, who created the Antiquities Act. 

 

While the grim and still-strong lingerings of slavery and Jim Crow animate much of the modern conservative movement, it also drew enormous energy from the Sagebrush Rebellions of the 70s, when western ranchers and farmers started “standing up” to an overbearing federal government who didn’t want them to destroy the land. It was this, dovetailing with Buckley’s ideas of conservative politics, that allowed Ronald Reagan to win by saying “government is the problem”; something that Richard Nixon wouldn’t even think, much less say out loud.  It’s not very well-known now, but its spirit is still around.

You see the spirit of Sagebrush in most Republican policies, which is that the there is no common good. It’s what makes the idea that corporations should be able to do whatever they want to whomever they want seem somehow principled, and even patriotic. But you also see it literally, in the actions of the Bundys, direct descendants of the movement.  And you see it in the actions of the Trump administration, run by a man who never saw anything he didn’t want to sell.

We talked about how the administration was planning to sell off public lands to be developed or mined or logged or stripped clean (the cruel quintessence of the GOP), but now they are paving the way to make it actually happen. Adam Markham at the Union of Concerned Scientists has the details.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president of the United States the power to designate lands and waters for permanent protection. Almost every president since Teddy Roosevelt has used the Act to place extraordinary archaeological, historic and natural sites under protection and out of reach of commercial exploitation.

Many sites originally designated as national monuments were later upgraded by Congress to become national parks, including Bryce Canyon, Saguaro and Death Valley. In many cases in the past, the Antiquities Act allowed presidents to protect vital natural and cultural resources when congressional leaders, often compromised by their ties to special interests representing coal, oil, timber and mining industries, were reluctant or unwilling to act.

A new Executive Order signed by President Trump on April 26th, 2017 puts this important regulatory tool for conservation and historic preservation at risk. The clear intention of the Executive Order is to lay the groundwork for shrinking national monuments or rescinding their designation entirely, in order to open currently protected public lands for untrammeled growth in coal, oil and minerals extraction.

Ryan Zinke, who this blog once made the mistake of calling “maybe not terrible“, is all in on this. Markham slaps him down.

Secretary Zinke himself was quoted ridiculing “people in D.C. who have never been to an area, never grazed the land, fished the river, driven the trails, or looked locals in the eye, who are making the decisions and they have zero accountability to the impacted communities.”

But, in fact, national monument designations almost always derive from a local grassroots demand for greater protections, and usually only come after lengthy periods of community engagement and consultations.

Because here’s the thing. In Zinke’s list, “graz(ing) the land” is the only thing that people will still be able to do. Maybe fish the rivers, if you buy commercial fishing rights. People can walk or drive the trails and visit the areas because they are protected. What do you think–if a mining company buys rights to land in Bear Ears they’re going to just let you waltz in?

Or course not. If you let rich ranchers like the Bundys take over more land, it is, by definition, no longer the people’s land. Go ahead. Walk onto Bundy property. They aren’t going to greet you with a Woodie Guthrie song.

Public designations are how we protect these lands for everyone. It’s how we protect our heritage. It’s a way of saying that not everything can or should be parceled off, exploited, turned into capital, and sold to benefit the very few. Because of that, it is anethema to the modern Republican Party. That this move is an immediate screw you to natives is just a bonus). Bear Ears didn’t

(Bear Ears didn’t create an idiotic Chaffetz controversy for no reason: it’s because Obama designating it a park became a cause celebre to the heirs of Sagebrush.)

I guarantee you that Trump has never heard of Sagebrush, and I doubt he has any strong ideological reasons for selling off the land, unless he gets a taste. But he hates things that Obama did, and his animating principle has always been “I got mine, so screw you.” In that, as in so many things, he is the perfect Republican. He is ready to sell, and our national sense of unity and a common good is paying the price.

A Couple of Rainy Day Thoughts on How We’ve Altered the Landscape

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It’s been a gloomy rainy sort of day here in Chicago. The White Sox opener has been postponed, which is fine. I don’t mind delaying this 95-loss season another day. It’s not spring yet, anyway.  It’s the sort of April rain that feels like the lingering of March, the whole month of which felt gray and wet, a Smarchian sort of slog.

You look out the windows and see the dull and lumpy sky wrinkle itself in a thousand plinging puddles, and watch the puddles grow and slink off toward the sewer, and its hard to remember that it’s only been a few hundred years that rain has been allowed to land that way. It used to fall on the ground, and slowly make its way across whatever basin it found itself in, if it weren’t used up or simply evaporated, reimagining its particles into invisibility so it could fall again.

But that’s not the way it is, anymore. It’s a profound change, and the short-term effects have been, in some ways, disastrous. To build our cities, we’ve altered to way water has distributed itself around the world. We’ve paved over floodplains and changed rivers. We’ve manipulated drainage.

Look at a very minor example, the North Branch of the Chicago River. Patti Welti of DNA Info has the story.

A total of 1.67 inches fell, a record for March 30.

It wasn’t enough to push the North Branch of the Chicago River to flood, but the water did rise more than two feet during the morning and early afternoon.

How does less than two inches translate into more than two feet?

Before the Chicago area was extensively settled, the river meandered across a marsh-like geography, dispersing water over a greater space. Precipitation was absorbed by vegetation and stored in the ground, wetlands and flood plains, according to the report.

As the area became more urban, green space was paved over, wetlands were drained and the river was straightened to better collect runoff that would have previously seeped into the ground. The result is a watershed with very little stormwater capacity, the report explains.

 So much of urban history has been about how to drain marshes and swamps. There were enormous struggles in England in draining The Fens, which led to political upheaval, revolutions, and other intrigues. These were enormous marshes, the “sink of thriteen counties”, as Daniel Defoe described them. But the English managed to straighten the rivers and turn the Fens into farmland.
Or one could look at the Great Black Swamp that used to cover much of Northeast Ohio, a terrible oozy wasteland that slowed down water flowing into Lake Erie. This was a swamp that was nearly impassable by anyone who didn’t know exactly how to transverse its deep sludgy waters, and was frequently a refuge for natives, who could get through it faster than European-Americans could get around it. Draining it was an enormous accomplishment that led to the creation of cities like Toldeo, not to mention millions of acres of farmland.
Funny thing, though. It turns out the swamp helped keep Lake Erie clean, serving as a natural filter for whatever came through the basin’s rivers. The enormous runoff that resulted, combined with chemicals from the regions farms (which the swamp would have filtered) is one of the main reasons why Lake Erie has died several times. The swamp helped keep away the algae blooms that have decimated the lake.
So we don’t know. We don’t know how these experiments will end. The Chicago River was slow and windy, often more marsh than river. It wasn’t meant to be a straight channel. Maybe straightening it was the price of the city. Maybe paving over its wetlands is how we were built. And maybe it will be fine.
But a rapidly rising and fast moving Chicago River, devoid of any drainage, is, in a very literal sense, unnatural. The short-term effects of how completely we’ve altered our landscape are only beginning to show. The long-term effects are unknown. But, with the rushing clarity of a springtime flood, we know one thing: water always wins.

GOP’s Healthcare Blues Show Foot-Shooting Danger of Right Wing Propaganda

 

There might be symbolism here, but I’m not sure…

 

Even since Donald Trump won the electoral college, partly on the basis of the “white working class” and their economic anxieties, there have been a few types of articles written. The first was the most prevalent: centrist reporters asking why the media has forgotten the white working class, and how no one talks about them. There were approximately 58 million stories about these hidden folks.

Then, since the inauguration, those stories were overtaken by articles about how a lot of Trump voters are recognizing that they might have been sold a bill of goods, and that their health care is being taken away, and that everything they were promised about their lives getting better is a lie.

The third are thinkpieces where we on the left ask whether we should react to this with scorn, anger, pity, sympathy, or some combination.

The Times yesterday had a classic example of the 2nd type, talking about the “GOP Health Care Tightrope in the Midwest”.

DEFIANCE, Ohio — James Waltimire, a police officer on unpaid medical leave, has been going to the hospital in this small city twice a week for physical therapy after leg surgery, all of it paid for by Medicaid.

Mr. Waltimire, 54, was able to sign up for the government health insurance program last year because Ohio expanded it to cover more than 700,000 low-income adults under the Affordable Care Act. He voted for President Trump — in part because of Mr. Trump’s support for law enforcement — but is now worried about the Republican plan to effectively end the Medicaid expansion through legislation to repeal the health care law.

“Originally the president said he wasn’t going to do nothing to Medicaid,” Mr. Waltimire said the other day after a rehab session. “Now they say he wants to take $880 billion out of Medicaid. That’s going to affect a lot of people who can’t afford to get insurance.”

You read this, and your first instinct is to say, well…yeah. What the hell did you think? After all, Donald Trump is a Republican, and Republicans want to gut Medicaid. They want to take away your health insurance. That’s how it always is. How the hell did you not know this?

Then, of course, you are taken again with how breathtaking a liar Donald Trump is. He did say, over and over, that no one was gonna touch Medicaid, ok, and everyone would have health care and no one would pay for it. It was amazing, his sheer and unrelenting dishonesty, and you might feel bad for how a low-information voter might hear that and think it is possible. Because, after all, we’ve never had a politician lie like this before. There was not even an attempt to pay observance to the truth.

But then, on the other hand, you remember that it was Donald Trump. He’s been a public sleazebag for 40 years. If you’re a 54-yr-old and it somehow escaped your attention that he’s a crooked liar, that’s on you.

And then, of course, you see the heart of it: he was sucked into the lie because of “Mr. Trump’s support for law enforcement”, a piece of culture war bullshit that is barely coded racism. Because this wasn’t a race between Donald Trump and, I don’t know, Leonard Peltier or something. It’s not like Hillary didn’t support law enforcement. But she also believed that Black Lives Mattered.

That’s what his “support” came down to. The right wing decided that BLM, or really anyone who wanted to hold police accountable for murder or other violent abuses of power, were the enemy of society. This was very wrapped up in race, and in the idea that cops should be able to do whatever they wanted to the “right” people, you know the ones who deserve it. Trump made it very clear where he stood in this.

His outlandish and wildly unrealistic fairy tale lies were believed because people thought he was on their side. It’s not because he talked about jobs. Hillary talked way more about jobs, in a way more detailed manner. Part of the problem was the press clearly wasn’t interested in policy, just emails, so none of that got through. But another problem is that what Trump as saying got through loud and clear, because he got in the door speaking the right language.

Race and economics are incredibly interlinked in this country. It does a disservice to the truth to pretend they aren’t for fear of liberal condescension. Trump’s dishonest messages, the ones that will hurt the people who voted for him, got through because of the ones he, and the modern GOP, are deadly honest about.

America’s Infrastructure Report Card Another Sign of Being Ungovernable

I know this is going to sound weird in light of Wednesday’s post on how the entirety of the American experiment has been about transforming land into capital, but the 2017 Infrastructure Report, in which the fruits of that experiment are shown again to be falling apart, is just as depressing. If you’re going to transform a continent with epochal repercussions, at least do it right.

The report, in which we got an overall D+, is filled with depressing little nuggets of sadutainment. Dams, obviously, got a D. Drinking water got a D. Levees got a D, which means no place to stay. Rails, bless them, received a B.

Most striking, maybe, or at least in its own way most telling, is that Inland Waterways also got a D. As the report says:

The United States’ 25,000 miles of inland waterways and 239 locks form the freight network’s “water highway.” This intricate system, operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supports more than half a million jobs and delivers more than 600 million tons of cargo each year, about 14% of all domestic freight. Most locks and dams on the system are well beyond their 50-year design life, and nearly half of vessels experience delays. Investment in the waterways system has increased in recent years, but upgrades on the system still take decades to complete.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that inland waterways built this country, or, at least, this country was built around inland waterways. As Peter Bernstein detailed in Wedding of the Waters, Washington knew that the fledgling nation needed a way to connect the eastern ports and cities with the settlers beyond the Cumberland Gap. This was when the country was still unformed, and the British and French held land on the continent, and there was no real reason for settlers to identify with America.

Washington wanted a canal that ran through Virginia, near Mt. Vernon (which was known back then as “our own old-timey Mar-A-Lago”), but the difficulties were insurmountable. Through the indefatigable workings of DeWitt Clinton, many-times governor of New York, the Erie Canal was built, linking the Great Lakes to the oceans via the Hudson, and unifying the nation.

It was a hell of a project, requiring monumental dams and incredible feats of engineering. The later Welland Canal surpassed even the Erie, and of course the St. Lawrence Seaway outdid them all. They weren’t the only canals, though, of course. Inland ports dotted the lakes and rivers of the new west, none more prominent than the ones in Chicago, that connected the small Chicago River to the slightly bigger Des Plaines, and thence to the Illinois, and the Mississippi. More canals were dug in the region, reversing the flow of the Chicago, and helping to open up the Lakes to the Gulf.

(There have been some very negative consequences of opening up the Lakes to the ocean, as Dan Egan details in his new book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. We’ll have a review coming next week.)

But the canals are too narrow, and the locks are rusty and old, and the inland waterway infrastructure is decaying. Infrastructure has long been a huge problem. Democrats can’t get Republicans to spend any money on it, because that is wasteful. Republicans promise to do so, but then, as Trump is doing, “punt” it in favor of tax cuts. It’s an argument, but it is more than that.

This isn’t just politics. This is fundamental. We let our roads and bridges crumble like some kind of metaphor, because we are, ultimately, ungovernable. We’re too big, and too unruly, and too atomized, to be governed correctly. We muddle through, but for all the hegemony of CVS and Applebees in every corner, for every same-seeming strip mall of auto part joints and check cashing places in every concrete roadway of the nation, there is no real unifier. Maybe there can’t be: maybe the anonymity of modernity and the retreat of the digital age combined in a swirl of late-stage capitalism that only guarantees isolation and addiction. Maybe, really, we’re just too big, and the idea of a huge continental nation is absurd.

That would be a pretty bitter irony, there. We carved out this continent, transformed nature, and exterminated nations wholesale in order to fulfill a manifest destiny. And, barely 100 years after reaching that shore and taming the natives, the very scope of the conquest is also our undoing. We size the perils of giganticism and empire in Russia, which is falling apart, eroding its eastern possessions to China while being unable to maintain internal coherence beyond Putinism. Is it a surprise that it is happening here, too?

Nationalist Bulgarian Paramilitary Border Forces Are Weird and Foreign, Right?

 

Image result for Bulgarian National Movement Shipka

Trees are the only thing that differentiate Bulgarian border militias from American ones.

 

The historical roots of the refugee crisis in Europe follow the same lines as the immigration debate here, and have had the same atavistic reaction.

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Water Wednesday: Wisconsin’s Walker Woes and Things That Don’t Begin With W. Like Lake Erie

 

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I’m sure there’s a metaphor here somewhere, but my first thought is: whoa! A deer in Lake Erie? What the hell? Image (and explanation) from Cleveland Scene

A quick rundown of some top water stories, which remind us that while we can impact nature, we’re really not in charge. 

I realize that there is a weird-seeming contradiction in saying that we can bring great change to nature, but that we’re still at its mercy. But when we say “great change”, we don’t mean permanent. The earth will eventually repair itself, and time will smooth over our cataclysms. We just won’t be here. But you want the real image? Imagine a 7-yr-old jamming a hatpin into his mother’s ankle. He can do that, and cause great damage, but really, the storm will redound upon him.

So let’s start this week’s “hey, who cares about clean water?” news with Wisconsin.

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