The Ney York Sun - November 19, 2003

Sea of Troubles


American policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus is helping to consign tens of millions of people to life under dictatorships that range from kleptocracies worthy of central Africa to the frankly Stalinist. This shortsighted, corrupt, and morally compromised policy aims to ease our reliance on despotic and unstable OPEC nations by turning to the equally despotic, even less stable nations of the former Soviet Union. It can only end in catastrophe.

Unfortunately, those most likely to talk about the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline or the routes gas pipelines might take through Afghanistan are those who will also tell you about how Dick Cheney and Ariel Sharon plotted the terrorist attacks of 2001 to establish a pretext for stationing troops in Georgia. This conspiracy-seeking rhetoric reduces a serious issue inextricable from energy, nuclear proliferation, Islamist terrorism, the spread of democracy, and our relations with Russia, China, India, and Iran, to an exercise in paranoid anti-Semitism. It also undermines legitimate criticism of the incredibly ugly positions taken by this administration and the last.

Lutz Kleveman is not the only or even the best writer about the region, but he offers readers the tools they need to understand the foolishness of investing enormous political and financial resources in places like Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan without demanding fundamental changes in the way these places are governed. He is liberal in his biases, but he does not hide them, and this is a fair and well-reported book.

The question of the region is gas and oil and who will control them. The size of the unexploited fields is staggering — the Caspian Sea’s Kashagan oil field is the world’s fifth largest, accounting for something like 30 billion barrels in total. Mr. Kleveman cites estimates that, by 2020, Kazakhstan could be pumping 10 million barrels of crude oil a day. Access to this oil could break the OPEC monopoly, slipping the knife from the global economy’s throat.

There are problems. The region is landlocked. Draw a straight line from anywhere in Central Asia and the Caucasus in any direction, and it will lead to or through a hideous autocracy, usually one engaged in low-level war or counterinsurgency.The tortuous route from Baku, the oil capital of Azerbaijan, to the Turkish port of Ceyhan was arrived at because it avoids Russia and Iran. Other strange routes being planned or built take their shapes for similar reasons.

As important as geography is the law. No one knows who owns Caspian oil, as no agreement dividing the sea

exists. Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran were rather miffed recently when the fifth Caspian state, Azerbaijan, put together a multibillion-dollar deal with an international consortium to sell oil that may not be its own. Part of the lack of accord on how the Caspian is divided is a lack of clear agreement on where shorelines end; Russian and Iranian fleets constantly prowl, ready to sink something.

Worse for America is these nature of these states. Russia is apparently trying to nationalize 44% of its largest oil concern against the will of its owner, who finds himself imprisoned. The Russian government not only has a powerful interest in maintaining control over resources in “the near abroad,” but regards those resources as state property that happens right now not to be under its control. Azerbaijan engaged in the 1990s in a littlenoticed war with Armenia, which resulted in pogroms and more than a million refugees whose disposition is still unclear. And these are our strategic partners.

Turkmenistan, of which Mr. Kleveman gives a rare first-hand account, is as centered as North Korea on a cult of personality, though it is more bizarre than threatening. The president, Saparmurat Niyazov, erects gold statues of himself that rotate to face the sun and provides holidays on which his subjects are given the day off to eat great quantities of melon — as well as, one presumes, meditate upon the holy book he has written to replace the Bible and the Koran. The government of Georgia cannot be said to be functioning; for several years it has been running on five hours of electricity a day.

Kazakhstan, perhaps the most important oil state in the region, is a special case. Its oil cannot be piped into Turkey; the best route for it is through Iran or Afghanistan into the Persian Gulf. Mr. Kleveman ably relates the tale of how the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, siphoned into private Swiss bank accounts more than a billion dollars the state had been paid for oil concessions. Then he claimed when he was caught that he had done it to prevent a massive currency devaluation from the influx of cash. Then he had his parliament legalize money laundering.

Some of these regimes are among the most repressive in the world. Uzbekistan in particular among American allies in the region is a brutish tyranny, but it is to that government that political aid and capital are now flowing. Mr. Kleveman’s reporting from there, from Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and from the tribal regions of Pakistan should leave no doubt as to the nature of the rulers we’ve embraced. He has talked to diplomats, the heads of corporations, spies, tribal leaders, and military men and found none pursuing any interests but their own.

The proper solutions — an insistence on democratic reforms and structures to ensure transparent and just disbursement of oil revenues — are not realistic ones. There is great pressure on the administration to go for the oil, for sound strategic reasons and to ensure profit for American business. The main pressure to do otherwise comes not from neoconservatives who have so passionately argued for democracy in the Middle East but from neo-Stalinist protesters.

The massive corruption and repression already in evidence in the region portend a bleak future. Ultimately the answer will be a conscious shift away from an oil-based economy,a commitment for which politicians would pay dearly in the near term. And so the new Great Game will continue.



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