The Moscow Times - May 28, 2004

By Kim Iskyan

Tug of War

Before I left Moscow for the Caucasus a few years ago with plans to dabble in journalism, a friend with experience throughout the Caspian field begged of me: "Please promise me you'll never use the words 'Great Game' in a Caspian story." The term had become a geopolitical cliche, he said, thanks to journalists who spent one week in the region spouting off the usual blather about how ironic it is that the 19th-century battles between Russia and Great Britain for control over Central Asia are being replayed -- before buying a carpet or two and going home.

Clearly, Lutz Kleveman, author of "The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia," is in flagrant violation of my friend's rule. But Kleveman, a journalist, should arguably receive a pass, as he moves well beyond the tired formulas that plague coverage of Central Asia and the Caucasus (or the entire former Soviet Union, for that matter) to effectively assess the contradictory and nuanced forces that shape the region.

Foremost among these forces for Kleveman is oil, the "devil's tears." Taking the reader through a wide swath of the Caspian area, Kleveman creates context with easily digestible historical overviews (mercifully light on the Great Game analogies); discussions with local oligarchs, power players and politicians; and dusty, dangerous treks to the Caspian to kick its soft underbelly of oil. Along the way, Kleveman underscores the many compromises that the developed world -- and the United States, in particular -- has made in the name of oil or one of its auxiliary ends: cozying up to the strong-arm antics of Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, ignoring the catastrophe of Chechnya, and looking the other way as Nursultan Nazarbayev rewrites the book on corruption in cahoots with American oil companies, to name just a few.

Meanwhile, Kleveman suggests that the answer could be found in Iran, if only handled the right way. A Persian pipeline would be a significant improvement on the current options -- Russia, the South Caucasus, Afghanistan, all of which have been the subject of endless political machinations -- as it would be shorter, cheaper and safer. But these are pipe dreams, he admits, given present perceptions of the United States. "The Americans and their double standards: We Iranians have a more open democracy than any of the Arab sheikhdoms with whom the Americans are aligned!" complains a newspaper editor in Tehran whom Kleveman interviews.


And all for what? According to the U.S. Energy Department, the Caspian Sea region has roughly 3 percent of the proven global oil reserves and 4 percent of natural gas reserves. Kleveman estimates that the Caspian could provide between 5 percent and 8 percent of total global oil production by 2015. That might sound like small beer, but it's not: Fresh, marginal oil supplies can have a disproportionate influence, in part by cutting into the ability of oil cartel OPEC, which controls the majority of global oil production, to affect prices. With stability still elusive in the Middle East, energy resource diversification -- even if it's only a few percent here and there -- has become a geopolitical mantra for oil and gas importers. And China's voracious, ever-escalating demand for energy exerts an unrelenting upward pressure on prices, leading to stiff competition for oil assets.

The timing of Kleveman's travels was in some ways highly fortuitous, as he was on the front lines of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, surge of interest in Central Asia and the Caspian -- parts of the world that, just five years earlier, had barely registered on the global geopolitical radar screen. But as the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, elevating the fight for access to fossil fuels to a whole new level by coupling it with the struggle against terrorism, Kleveman was just dotting the i's of his final draft; consequently, Iraq is accorded only a hastily written epilogue. But Kleveman's insistence on the primacy of oil politics was, if anything, further strengthened by subsequent events -- particularly the emerging bankruptcy of claims that the war had been predicated on uncovering Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, fossil fuels are important. But, at the end of the day, the war on terror is about more than energy imperialism. Kleveman's suggestion that oil politics dictate every last dimension of economic, geopolitical and human endeavor in the region is, perhaps, a bit of an exaggeration, even with Big Oil in the White House.

Thomas Dunne Books

Land Beyond the River: The Untold Story of Central Asia
By Monica Whitlock
Thomas Dunne Books
304 Pages. $27.95

In "Land Beyond the River: The Untold Story of Central Asia," Monica Whitlock, who has reported from the region for the BBC for much of the past 12 years, takes a very different approach to describing the forces that shaped Central Asia. While Kleveman's book is equal parts travelogue, contemporary history and political analysis, Whitlock builds from the ground up, tracing the "Zelig"-like progression of a few generations of two colorful Central Asian families through the turmoil and travails of 20th-century Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan to show the impact of the region's various struggles on the individual. Later, shifting into reportorial territory that seems more stylistically familiar to her, Whitlock describes the Russian involvement in Afghanistan and the post-Soviet evolution of the region, particularly of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Also in contrast to Kleveman, neither oil nor the Great Game figures much into Whitlock's vision. Her primary interest is in the history of Russian involvement in the region, rather than on the global geopolitical tug of war that currently characterizes the area. The region she portrays is one that has always been at the periphery, with change evolving very slowly -- and, even then, only at the (frequently extraordinarily brutal) whim of the Soviet Union. Arguably, the Soviet Union's role as key agent of external change is now being assumed by the United States and friends, in view of the recent invasion of Afghanistan and the close relationship that has developed between the United States and Uzbekistan.

The enduring irony of all this is that, for much of Russia (and for Moscow in particular), Central Asia and the Caucasus remain on the far fringes of relevance. Much as U.S. policy toward Mexico is far more important to Mexico than it is to the United States, the relationship between Russia and the Caspian area remains highly unequal to this day.

Whitlock helps explain how the Caspian area became such a mess, while Kleveman takes confusion and borderline anarchy as his point of departure. But both books share an underlying message: that the United States is the latest on the laundry list of countries with imperial designs, albeit of different stripes, on the region -- and that, if history is any guide, the odds are heavily stacked against sustainable success.

Kim Iskyan is a freelance journalist based in Armenia.



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