The Moscow Times
May 28 - June 3, 2004

Tug of War

Tracking the Caspian's history from different perspectives, two books draw a
common picture of foreign imperialism.

By Kim Iskyan

Before I left Moscow for the Caucasus a few years ago with plans
to dabble in journalism, a friend with experience throughout the
Caspian field begged of me: "Please promise me you'll never use
the words 'Great Game' in a Caspian story." The term had become a
geopolitical cliche, he said, thanks to journalists who spent one
week in the region spouting off the usual blather about how ironic
it is that the 19th-century battles between Russia and Great Britain
for control over Central Asia are being replayed -- before buying a
carpet or two and going home.

Clearly, Lutz Kleveman, author of "The New Great Game: Blood and Oil
in Central Asia," is in flagrant violation of my friend's rule. But
Kleveman, a journalist, should arguably receive a pass, as he moves
well beyond the tired formulas that plague coverage of Central Asia
and the Caucasus (or the entire former Soviet Union, for that matter)
to effectively assess the contradictory and nuanced forces that shape
the region.

Foremost among these forces for Kleveman is oil, the "devil's
tears." Taking the reader through a wide swath of the Caspian area,
Kleveman creates context with easily digestible historical overviews
(mercifully light on the Great Game analogies); discussions with local
oligarchs, power players and politicians; and dusty, dangerous treks
to the Caspian to kick its soft underbelly of oil. Along the way,
Kleveman underscores the many compromises that the developed world --
and the United States, in particular -- has made in the name of oil
or one of its auxiliary ends: cozying up to the strong-arm antics
of Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, ignoring the catastrophe of Chechnya,
and looking the other way as Nursultan Nazarbayev rewrites the book on
corruption in cahoots with American oil companies, to name just a few.

Meanwhile, Kleveman suggests that the answer could be found in Iran, if
only handled the right way. A Persian pipeline would be a significant
improvement on the current options -- Russia, the South Caucasus,
Afghanistan, all of which have been the subject of endless political
machinations -- as it would be shorter, cheaper and safer. But these
are pipe dreams, he admits, given present perceptions of the United
States. "The Americans and their double standards: We Iranians have
a more open democracy than any of the Arab sheikhdoms with whom the
Americans are aligned!" complains a newspaper editor in Tehran whom
Kleveman interviews.


And all for what? According to the U.S. Energy Department, the Caspian
Sea region has roughly 3 percent of the proven global oil reserves
and 4 percent of natural gas reserves. Kleveman estimates that the
Caspian could provide between 5 percent and 8 percent of total global
oil production by 2015. That might sound like small beer, but it's not:
Fresh, marginal oil supplies can have a disproportionate influence,
in part by cutting into the ability of oil cartel OPEC, which controls
the majority of global oil production, to affect prices. With stability
still elusive in the Middle East, energy resource diversification
-- even if it's only a few percent here and there -- has become a
geopolitical mantra for oil and gas importers. And China's voracious,
ever-escalating demand for energy exerts an unrelenting upward pressure
on prices, leading to stiff competition for oil assets.

The timing of Kleveman's travels was in some ways highly fortuitous, as
he was on the front lines of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, surge of interest
in Central Asia and the Caspian -- parts of the world that, just
five years earlier, had barely registered on the global geopolitical
radar screen. But as the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003,
elevating the fight for access to fossil fuels to a whole new level
by coupling it with the struggle against terrorism, Kleveman was just
dotting the i's of his final draft; consequently, Iraq is accorded only
a hastily written epilogue. But Kleveman's insistence on the primacy
of oil politics was, if anything, further strengthened by subsequent
events -- particularly the emerging bankruptcy of claims that the war
had been predicated on uncovering Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, fossil fuels are important. But, at the end of the day,
the war on terror is about more than energy imperialism. Kleveman's
suggestion that oil politics dictate every last dimension of economic,
geopolitical and human endeavor in the region is, perhaps, a bit of
an exaggeration, even with Big Oil in the White House.

Thomas Dunne Books

Land Beyond the River: The Untold Story of Central Asia By Monica
Whitlock Thomas Dunne Books 304 Pages. $27.95

In "Land Beyond the River: The Untold Story of Central Asia," Monica
Whitlock, who has reported from the region for the BBC for much of
the past 12 years, takes a very different approach to describing the
forces that shaped Central Asia. While Kleveman's book is equal parts
travelogue, contemporary history and political analysis, Whitlock
builds from the ground up, tracing the "Zelig"-like progression of
a few generations of two colorful Central Asian families through
the turmoil and travails of 20th-century Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and
Afghanistan to show the impact of the region's various struggles on
the individual. Later, shifting into reportorial territory that seems
more stylistically familiar to her, Whitlock describes the Russian
involvement in Afghanistan and the post-Soviet evolution of the region,
particularly of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Also in contrast to Kleveman, neither oil nor the Great Game figures
much into Whitlock's vision. Her primary interest is in the history
of Russian involvement in the region, rather than on the global
geopolitical tug of war that currently characterizes the area. The
region she portrays is one that has always been at the periphery, with
change evolving very slowly -- and, even then, only at the (frequently
extraordinarily brutal) whim of the Soviet Union. Arguably, the Soviet
Union's role as key agent of external change is now being assumed
by the United States and friends, in view of the recent invasion of
Afghanistan and the close relationship that has developed between
the United States and Uzbekistan.

The enduring irony of all this is that, for much of Russia (and for
Moscow in particular), Central Asia and the Caucasus remain on the far
fringes of relevance. Much as U.S. policy toward Mexico is far more
important to Mexico than it is to the United States, the relationship
between Russia and the Caspian area remains highly unequal to this day.

Whitlock helps explain how the Caspian area became such a mess,
while Kleveman takes confusion and borderline anarchy as his point
of departure. But both books share an underlying message: that the
United States is the latest on the laundry list of countries with
imperial designs, albeit of different stripes, on the region -- and
that, if history is any guide, the odds are heavily stacked against
sustainable success.

Kim Iskyan is a freelance journalist based in Armenia.