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
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
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
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
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
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.