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.



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