The Observer - November 2, 2003

by Misha Glenny

The vast scale and bloody price of the rush for oil in the Caspian has been little noticed. Now Lutz Klevermann's powerful new study, The New Great Game, reveals all

It has been an encouraging fortnight for America's strategic partners in central Asia. Craig Murray, the UK's man in Tashkent, has been an especially painful thorn in the side of Uzbekistan and its President, Islam Karimov, whose regime regularly tortures political opponents. Murray has been relentless in his criticism of these human rights abuses despite the distress this has caused the Pentagon. Karimov has been George W Bush's significant other in the region ever since he agreed to the setting up of US military bases in his country. But Murray's credibility has now been fatally undermined after it emerged that he had been the target of a Foreign Office internal investigation. No more talking out of turn in the ranks!

Ten days before the Murray story broke, Ilham Aliyev, the son of Azerbaijan's ailing president, was elected to take his father's place. The establishment of this dynasty will ensure stability for the development of the country's oil industry and its Western investors even if there is some regrettable collateral damage to the country's democracy, not to mention an opposition movement that is literally and metaphorically battered.

Politics in central Asia increasingly takes its cue from the rich mineral deposits that are spread all along the Azerbaijani coast, permeating every brick and every beam of wood in the capital Baku with the slightly sweet, slightly sickening smell of oil, or as it is known locally, 'the devil's tears.'

The devil attracts some persuasive pilgrims to Baku these days. It is said of David Woodward, the head of BPAmoco's operation in Azerbaijan that he is as powerful as the Aliyev family. 'If we pull out of Baku,' a BP spokesman pointed out to Lutz Kleveman in this compelling book, The New Great Game, 'the country would collapse overnight.'

Frankly, it hasn't fared too well with the full backing of BPAmoco; it has lost 15 per cent of its territory to the Armenians and most of its citizens live in abject poverty. Indeed as most ordinary Azeris probably know by now, the only thing worse than living in a weak dysfunctional state is to live in a weak dysfunctional state that is home to a valuable natural resource, in particular oil, diamonds, coca leaves or opium poppies. Ask anyone from Angola, Congo, Colombia or Afghanistan.

This has proved an unhappy circumstance for a swath of territories in central Asia and the Caucasus stretching from the Chinese border to Turkey. In 1990 and 1991, they unexpectedly found themselves to be independent nations and no longer members of the Soviet Union (with the distressing exception of Chechnya). That in itself was not necessarily bad, although these new countries were of course woefully unprepared for the demands of statehood. Indeed, for several the champagne was still flowing when they found themselves in the middle of vicious wars and communal conflict.

Within a couple of years, geologists and oil engineers predicted that several countries around the Caspian Sea might be sitting on much greater oil and natural gas reserves than had been thought. And this happened just when the US was embarking on a strategic review of its future energy requirements, prompted by a worrying overdependence on the Gulf and, above all, Saudi Arabia.

Soon, Amoco and Exxon started sniffing around Baku and the biggest littoral state, Kazakhstan, where it was thought sensational discoveries might lie. Moscow was, however, not just going to stand idly by and permit the United States to usurp its two-century-old role as colonial master of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

And if this was not sufficient for all manner of chaos, China and its state oil company, which employs more than 1.5 million people, immediately perceived the Caspian to be the answer to the energy needs of its hyperactive economic growth rates.

The great powers were right - in July 2000, the Kashagan field in Kazakhstan was discovered, one of the biggest oil bubbles in decades. But the Caspian oil rush is more complicated than any other because the black gold is locked within the globe's largest lake. Technology is now able to extract the stuff, notwithstanding frequently adverse conditions, but you still have to get it to the open seas. And many of the wars in the surrounding areas are not about who owns the oil, but who controls the territory for the proposed pipelines.

The big three form coalitions of avarice with their local allies. In Chechnya, President Putin has raised the standard of the war on terror to justify the obliteration of the territory, insisting that the Chechens are fully fledged al-Qaeda operatives. But in neighbouring Georgia, Orthodox Russia throttles its co-confessional Georgians by backing the Muslim Abkhaz separatists.

America pours money and legitimacy into the regime of Karimov, self-styled successor to Tamburlaine. His is the key strategic state in the area and the first former Soviet country where Americans have established military bases. Some unforgivable conspiracy theorists have even suggested that America's main aim in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was to establish a military presence in the Caspian region in accordance with its Middle Eastern strategy.

Whatever the truth, this mesmerisingly complex geopolitical mix has proved a rich sources for the two fluids, blood and oil, which stain every page of this debut by Klevemann, a young German journalist who has written widely for the British and American press.

I have been amazed over the past decade that nobody has produced a synthetic book about the rush for the Caspian treasures. Indeed, even though it has triggered several wars, killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more, ravaged the local ecology (not to mention the sturgeon population), and includes the most powerful and ruthless actors from around the globe, this story barely makes it into the media. We have probably learnt more about it from the Bond movie The World Is Not Enough, much of which is set in the oilfields of Baku, than we have from the broadsheets.

Now, in the very best tradition of foreign reporting, Klevemann has uncovered the staggering dimensions of the resources being channelled into the struggle for control of the Caspian oilfields. Through a carefully structured book which concentrates on his eye-popping experience, he has created a solid framework that captures all the brutal weirdness of the conflicts, deals and characters from generals and oil Ministers to refugees and admirably quixotic ecologists.

Above all, he has recorded how human life and our environment are tossed aside with abandon as the vanguard of corporate globalisers seek to satiate our addiction to the black gold that enables us to drop the kids off at school before tootling off to Sainsbury's.



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