San Francisco Chronicle - September 21, 2003
Caspian Sea oil promises to someday free us from
our unhealthy dependence on the Persian Gulf. But that doesn't
mean people living in the Central Asian countries that surround
the estimated 200 billion barrels of untapped "devil's tears"
will live in peace anytime soon.
In "The New Great Game," German journalist
Lutz Kleveman takes readers on a fascinating trip through 10 countries
that all have a stake in the future of the riches buried deep
beneath the world's largest inland body of water.
The travelogue begins in the oily city of Baku, Azerbaijan,
the scene of a 19th century oil boom bankrolled by the Nobel and
Rothschild families of Europe. Baku never lived up to its promise,
and investment money disappeared amid violence. But the city still
became a target of Axis powers during both world wars, after which
the Soviets kept Azeri oil fields pumping at a steady but unremarkable
Despite Baku's disappointing past, another oil boom
is in full swing. In 1994 Azerbaijan's crooked but ambitious leader
Heydar Aliyev, an old KGB man, signed some of the first post-Soviet
concessions in the region with Western oil companies. The country
is still drowning in bitterness over losing a bloody war to its
neighbor and arch-enemy Armenia in the early 1990s. But it clings
to the hope that oil wealth will allow it to someday exact revenge.
Nearby in Georgia the corrupt regime of Edward Shevardnadze
has badly damaged the once beautiful and cosmopolitan city of
Tbilisi. A proposed 1,090- mile pipeline that BP plans to build
from Baku all the way to tankers waiting in Turkey will run through
the country. Shevardnadze's embarrassed diplomats hope, probably
in vain, that the pipe will make the United States care enough
about their country to push for reforms.
Kleveman paints a vivid picture of Atyrou, a city
in Kazakhstan dubbed the new Houston of Central Asia ever since
offshore engineers found the Kashagan oil bubble in 2000. It holds
perhaps 30 billion barrels. That makes it the second biggest in
the world after a field in Saudi Arabia. Just as in developed
countries, there's a Kazakh environmental movement trying to stop
the drilling because of threatened seals and sturgeon.
Kleveman also shows how a new friendly Afghanistan
could keep the oil in the region from falling into the wrong hands.
Because Kazakhstan is blocked by China and Russia, and already
flirts with Iran's offers to swap oil across the sea, Afghanistan
in the south might be the only viable outlet.
Meanwhile Russia is steaming like a hot bania bath
because the United States has collaborated with the now independent
pieces of its former empire, cutting it out of the wealth it feels
should be funneled north. Its aggression in Chechnya, in which
somewhere approaching 100,000 civilians have perished, is fueled
in part by a desire to hang on to influence in the slippery region.
Grozny, Chechnya's bombed out capital, was once a thriving refinery
Worse than Russia's interference in the region, at
least from the U.S.' standpoint, are the aims of Iran and China,
who hope to pump oil south and east, respectively.
On a plane to Tehran, Kleveman meets an oil dealer
who talks conspiratorially about the country's secret plans to
"thwart" the Baku pipeline. The author makes the strong
case, however, that Iran is not fomenting Islamic radicalism in
the region as much as Pakistan, which he calls the "cradle
All in all, the situation creates a tinderbox that
has already thrown off quite a few sparks. Even so, Kleveman somewhat
unconvincingly spends the last few chapters tying the region to
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, mixing in war reporting from Afghanistan,
which he covered for the British Telegraph and CNN.
At times he verges into a discourse on "why
they hate us" that sounds like a bad episode of "The
West Wing." He could have focused more narrowly on the Caspian
Sea oil and practical strategies for how its natural resources
might be developed with the least amount of bloodshed.
In what is no doubt a reflection of his experiences,
Kleveman seems to spend too much time stuck at highway checkpoints,
making it sometimes difficult to scratch below the surface of
these complicated countries. All in all, however, Kleveman tells
a spellbinding tale of "blood and oil" on an authentic
frontier full of bandits, gangs, crooked politicians, modern-day
robber barons and even whole renegade provinces, such as Abkhazia
We should hope, for the sake of the civilians who
populate the Caucasus and Caspian region, that it can find some
way to achieve stability. Having covered the diamond industry
in Sierra Leone and oil fields in Nigeria, where, as he puts it,
"the struggle for raw materials can lead to conflicts and
wars," Kleveman himself is pessimistic.
David Whelan is a business writer in San Francisco.