The Economist - November 20, 2003

The devil's tears

ACROSS Central Asia and the Caucasus, people understand why oil is the "devil's tears". Lutz Kleveman, a journalist who has criss-crossed the region and met numerous oil barons, politicians and warlords, as well as ordinary people, concludes that the great powers are once again playing a cynical "great game", leaving blood and tears in their tracks. The prize and the players, however, have changed since the 19th century. What is at stake is not India, but access to the region's abundant oil and gas resources—possibly the world's largest untapped reserves of energy. And tsarist Russia and colonial Britain have been replaced by the United States, post-Soviet Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan.

The United States, eager to satisfy its growing energy hunger and ease its dependence on Middle East oil, has been eyeing the region with growing interest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is witnessing America's creeping influence with unease and is struggling to maintain the upper hand in its traditional backyard. China has been pulled in by energy prospects as well, but also by its desire to quash support for Uighur separatists in its western province of Xinjiang.

The oil has to be moved from its source to its market, a problem of pipeline politics that has yet to be solved and which affects not only producing countries, but also their neighbours. The Americans are pushing for a westward route from Azerbaijan via Georgia and Turkey, bypassing Russia; Moscow wants to keep control over pipelines delivering Caucasian oil; China has been negotiating an eastward route with Kazakhstan; Iran, whose oil is in the south of the country but whose energy needs are in the north, is dreaming of oil swaps with Central Asian countries, a nightmare for any American administration. And Pakistan argues for a pipeline to go, improbably, through Afghanistan.

Mr Kleveman links the instability of the region to oil greed. Russia, he says, has been fuelling ethnic conflicts in the newly independent countries of the Caucasus to keep them on a tight leash and undermine American plans. The United States, he says, has been using the war against terrorism as an excuse to establish a military presence in Central Asia. Everyone has been meddling in Afghanistan.

But the newly independent republics also know how to play the game. "We need the big oil pipeline so that we will continue to have the United States on our side against Russia," explains a Georgian diplomat. "You see, Georgia has got nothing else to offer to the world. We have to sell our geographical position." But many people he spoke to also criticise the United States, which is seen as a democratic country that now supports Central Asia's despots in the name of oil.

Mr Kleveman feeds his argument with enlightening historical background and colourful anecdotes from his extensive travels and interviews. But by looking at the region exclusively through the oil lens, he reduces foreign policy to simplistic energy imperialism, concluding with exaggerated visions of endless energy wars, floods of refugees, oil price shocks and ever-growing foreign military commitments.



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