Review: Politics: The New Great Game by Lutz Kleveman
Sunday Times October 19, 2003
In 1990, the historian Peter Hopkirk published The Great Game:
On Secret Service in High Asia, a gripping book about the clandestine
19th-century cold war between the great powers for control over
the uncharted plains and mountains of Central Asia. It seemed
to catch the mood of the time. The Soviet empire was collapsing,
and the balance of power was shifting towards America. The oil
and gas reserves of remote places to the east of the Caucasus
had acquired a new global importance.
Lutz Kleveman credits the phrase “the New Great Game”
to the eminent Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, but I think
he may have been beaten to it by a special edition of Newsweek,
to which I contributed, which had “High Stakes: A New Great
Game for Central Asia’s Riches” on the cover. At the
time, the battle for oil and supremacy in the region was only
beginning, but since 9/11 its effects and implications have escalated.
Within a month of the attacks on New York and Washington, American
troops had been stationed in the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan
and Kyrgyzstan, something that would have been unimaginable a
few years earlier. In return for President Putin’s support
for the war in Afghanistan, Bush’s administration turned
a blind eye to the human rights abuses committed by Russian soldiers
in Chechnya. Similarly, opposition groups across Central Asia
with no connection to militant Islam were labelled terrorists.
This was the realpolitik behind the war on terror.
Kleveman points out that Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan between them
have oil reserves three times larger than those of America. One
of the biggest oil deposits in the world is at the bottom of the
Caspian Sea. With the American military presence in the Middle
East costing $50 billion a year (even before the occupation of
Iraq), it is small wonder that these alternative sources of energy
are coveted. Kleveman laconically quotes a line from George W
Bush’s auto- biography: “All my friends have in one
way or the other been involved in the oil industry.” The
logic of the New Great Game involves dubious alliances between
transnational corporations, hugely rich fixers and the former
communists and KGB generals who now run the former Soviet republics.
The trickle-down of the new oil wealth to the rest of the population
is almost nonexistent. A World Bank official in Kazakhstan tells
Kleveman, “The gap between the few rich and the impoverished
masses is unbelievably wide.” The demands of American foreign
policy are at the heart of the action.
Travelling at some danger to himself, and marshalling the political
and historical facts with authority, Kleveman crisscrosses Georgia,
Chechnya, the independent Central Asian states, China, Iran and
Afghanistan before ending up in Pakistan. If he needs to question
a leading player, he has no hesitation about jumping on a plane
and taking a detour to Washington. The result is a coherent study
of a notoriously complex and unpredictable region, much of which
is torn by terrible violence and civil wars.
Some of the people Kleveman meets on the way defy parody, such
as the man from BP Amoco who effectively controls Azerbaijan,
administering a budget of $15 billion, or the American soldier
stationed in Kyrgyzstan, convinced of his own popularity as he
hands out sweets to local children. “Our village is not
a zoo where you can feed children like animals,” mutters
a Kyrgyz woman once he is out of earshot. In Turkmenistan, which
has some of the largest gas reserves in the world, we hear of
President Saparmurat Nyazov, who has covered the land in enormous
water fountains and solid gold statues of himself. The president
calls himself Turkmenbashi (leader of all Turkmens) and for good
measure has renamed certain days of the week after members of
his family. So “Mondays are now called Turkmenbashi.”
Although this is a balanced book, Kleveman concludes that the
policies of the current US administration are storing up numerous
problems for the future. He quotes a Russian diplomat saying that
Americans “do not look closely enough, and they do not listen”.
Kleveman believes that at the end of the cold war “America
was admired and loved” across the Soviet satellites “as
the champion of democracy, civil liberties, and cultural progress”,
but today their “impoverished populaces, disgusted with
the United States’ alliances with their corrupt and despotic
rulers, increasingly embrace militant Islam and virulent anti-Americanism”.
A constant theme is the unhappy collision between tradition and
change, the old and the new. Atavistic hatreds have combined with
modernity in a striking and terrifying way: Chechen militants
film themselves as they ambush Russian soldiers and slit their
throats with daggers, and then post the images on a website.