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
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,
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