International Affairs: Volume 80, Issue 2, 2004

Russia and the former Soviet republics

Of the scholar seeking authoritative sources or the layman expecting informed insight, it is difficult to say who will find less use for this book. From its dust-jacket an uncaptioned photograph of an oil-stained desert lit by burning oil in what appears not to be Central Asia at all (perhaps post-1991 Kuwait?)-to its epilogue, the book is tainted by polemic and devalued by simplistic analysis.

Had it been billed as a travelogue, Mr Kleveman might have made more of his evident talent for description. But as it stands, the book purports to deliver a penetrating and revelatory account of oil and politics in Central Asia. It fails comprehensively in this attempt.

The book's 13 chapters cover the author's journeys to the Caucasus, Central Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. To accomplish such travel is no mean feat. Much of the subject matter will be familiar to students of the region, though the chapter on Afghanistan is good in parts and the Kashgar section informative. By contrast, the Abkhazia pages are distinctly anti-Russian in tone, offering little in the way of balance.

On the positive side, the author's journalistic style delivers easily readable reportage, sprinkled with excerpts from interviews, and provides plenty of colour. Many of his descriptions of people and places will ring true to those who know the region, not least his account of the heavily polluted industrial city of Sumgait. Elsewhere, he makes sharp observations: women in Tehran testing the extent of personal liberty by wearing their headscarves rakishly, for instance.

His interviews, on the other hand, though sometimes revealing-such as his meeting with US energy ambassador, Steven Mann-all too often miss the opportunity to probe the facile clichés that often pass for analysis of the region, leaving an impression that he is too ill-informed to nail the underlying issues. Interviewing the director general of a Chinese oil company, for example, he offers no challenge to the man's simplistic characterization of China-US geopolitical rivalry in the region.

But the book is weakest where Mr Kleveman strays from reportage and attempts analysis himself, perpetrating myths and frames of reference which fracture when challenged. In contrast to other foreign journalists who have interpreted the region-the BBC's Monica Whitlock in Beyond the Oxus or the Wall Street Journal's Steve Levine to name two-the author reveals only a limited understanding of Central Asia's political, socio-cultural and economic complexities. Like many before him, by portraying international affairs in Central Asia as a zero-sum geopolitical 'new great game', the author sacrifices accuracy on the altar of romantic sensationalism.

The book perpetuates the widespread misconception that Central Asia is crucial to future global oil supplies. The reality is less startling. Comparable hydrocarbon reserves exist in other areas recently opened to western investment-notably Siberia and West Africa-where the logistical and political problems of exporting oil are probably easier to overcome. Moreover, some two-thirds of estimated global oil reserves are still located in the Middle East. If no drop of oil were to exist in the Caspian Basin, the future of world supplies would not look dramatically different. The frailty of this key premise of the author's hypothesis seriously undermines the edifice he seeks to build upon it.

In many places, it is not so much that Mr Kleveman's pronouncements are inaccurate, but rather that he presents insufficient evidence to justify them. Beyond this, the book is littered with minor inaccuracies: a trans-Chechnya pipeline mistakenly identified as the only viable export option from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s; Iran carelessly referred to in the context of 'elsewhere' in the Arab world; sulphur 'acidic'.

More important, however, are his frequent omissions of crucial context. A characterization of Kazakh oil negotiators facing American pressure might look different had the personal interests of the Kazakh elite, the pillage of state economic assets and 'horde' politics been factored in. Elsewhere, reference to the Uighur separatist movement in Xinjiang as 'Islamist-inspired' omits to mention its equally strong and earlier secular nationalist, even socialist, roots. And a gallop through the Tajik civil war portrays it simply as a power struggle between post-communists and Islamists, when even the swiftest sketch would profit from a nod to long-standing regional rivalries beneath that convenient veneer.

Together, such flaws detract from the author's reliability as a guide and soon dent the reader's confidence in the broader premises of his argument. Scant footnotes and a predictable bibliography do nothing to reassure. The result is a disservice to a much misinterpreted region.



Buy this book at Buy this book at

Want to post your own review, or comments on the THE NEW GREAT GAME?

Access the guest book