REVIEW: Greed and corruption in the Caspian

By bne IntelliNews November 23, 2007

Derek Brower in London -

With the advent of resource nationalism, the latest bugbear of Western governments and their energy companies, it is hard to think that just 10 years ago big oil, with its wheeler-dealers and shady middlemen, was such a force in the geopolitics of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The greedy middlemen are still around, but the power of Western oil companies is much diminished.

"The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea," a new book by Steve Levine, a foreign correspondent who was based in Central Asia through the 1990s, refreshes the memory of the days when the right backhander to the right fixer could do wonders for US ambitions in crooked states.

His book is a tale of the men - and a few women - who were at the heart of the convoluted, corrupt and dangerous politics of oil and gas in the region. The details, especially the gossip, are marvellously scandalous. Need reminding of which Central Asian president's decisions were coaxed with the help of Swiss bank accounts? This is the book for you.

US major Chevron's battle to win control of Kazakhstan's Tengiz oilfield and BP's pursuit of Azerbaijan's offshore riches are two of the tales that weave through the narrative. The story of Baku's emergence as a beachhead for US interests in the region is a compelling insight into Washington's Realpolitik during the Clinton presidency.

The stories are told through the experiences of many of the key players - men like Chevron's former boss Ken Derr, the company's then chief negotiator Dick Matzke, BP's John Browne, who left the firm after a sex scandal earlier this year, and others. Oil executives aren't always easy to bring to life in person - but Levine manages to do it on the page.

At centre stage, though, are two middlemen extraordinaire: the shifty Dutch oil trader John Deuss and the reptilian American James Giffen, a self-appointed fixer for companies who seemed to have the Kremlin and the CIA eating out of his hand.

Behind the scenes

Deuss's influence at one point nearly gave him control of exports of oil from Kazakhstan's giant fields like Tengiz and Kashagan. Chevron and others eventually ousted him from the role - though their ambition to export Kazakh crude remains stymied by pipeline politics in the region. Russia's efforts to use the export infrastructure to retain influence in the region were there from the start. Levine's book adds the corrupt details that the parties would probably like to see forgotten.

Giffen emerges as a true villain, implicated in money laundering on behalf of his employers in Central Asia as well as for US executives who apparently saw personal financial benefits to be part of the reward for uncomfortable stays on the Steppe. Some of these executives, including Giffen, were later indicted for corruption. The repetition of rumours and allegations of bribery will make uncomfortable reading for many of the protagonists. Some of them still hold power in Central Asia.

But things change. And hanging over this story of geopolitics and personal greed are two forces that would eventually transform everything. The first was the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US in 2001, which immediately altered US priorities in the region.

A plan by US company Unocal - now owned by Chevron - to pipe oil and gas through Afghanistan to Pakistan was making headway, thanks to the company's close ties to the Taliban (whose capture of Afghanistan was welcomed in Washington). The US' pursuit of Osama Bin Laden persuaded even Unocal - friends also of the military junta in Burma - that Afghanistan was beyond the pale.

The rise of President Vladimir Putin and the resurgence of Russian power in Central Asia also hang like a spectre over the narrative. They came too late to stop development of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline. It came on stream in 2006 and remains a legacy of the Clinton presidency's strategy to establish an East-West energy corridor in the region, breaking Moscow's stranglehold over oil and gas export routes for the Caucasus.

It is hard to see a project like BTC coming off now. Russia's grasp on its so-called "near abroad" has been restored, just as the power and influence of Western governments and Western oil firms - not to mention their fixers - has waned.

Rampant misgovernment and corrupt politics in the region is partly to blame for that. Western backing for Central Asian leaders in the 1990s helped to make them strong. Now that the allegiances of many of those leaders have shifted back to Moscow, planners in Washington might wonder how wise their policy in the 1990s proved to be.

Levine's book is an excellent and detailed account of the cynicism and nefarious practices that shaped the region in the 1990s. The research and story telling deserve credit. Without exception, the book's main protagonists do not.

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REVIEW: Greed and corruption in the Caspian

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