Il petrolio e la gloria. La corsa all’impero e alla fortuna del Mar Caspio di Steve LeVine

 | | Dome­ni­ca 21 otto­bre 2007 | Joshua Fou­st |

For well over a cen­tu­ry, the Caspian basin has been “the next big thing” for ener­gy, a poten­tial­ly weal­thy region crip­pled only by its inac­ces­si­bi­li­ty. This was the result of tech­no­lo­gy in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, when oil was expor­ted on mule­back, and later ideo­lo­gy, when the Bol­she­viks sei­zed Western asse­ts, and the Sovie­ts later denied wester­ners access only until they despe­ra­te­ly nee­ded cash. Sin­ce “The Fall,” the mad scram­ble for the region’s oil and gas has rea­ched a fever pitch, resul­ting in the destruc­tion of seve­ral lar­ge com­pa­nies, the acqui­si­tion of others, and an incre­di­ble degree of poli­ti­cal and com­mer­cial back-dea­ling and betra­yal.
This sto­ry, which most only know in a gene­ral sen­se (if at all), is the sto­ry LeVi­ne lays out. The pri­ma­ry author of a blog which shares its name with his book, LeVi­ne was a regio­nal cor­re­spon­dent for the New York Times and the Alma­ty bureau chief for the Wall Street Jour­nal. Such a posi­tion gave him key access to many of the players he describes—from the hila­riou­sly pom­pous midd­le­men like James Gif­fen to heads of sta­te like Nur­sul­tan Nazarbayev—and a bra­cing, spell­bin­ding nar­ra­ti­ve full of intri­gue to tie toge­ther an incre­di­bly com­plex sto­ry.
Whi­le the broa­de­st stro­kes of this sto­ry aren’t espe­cial­ly new (regu­lar rea­ders of most blogs or news accoun­ts of Cen­tral Asia won’t find world-alte­ring sur­pri­ses), LeVi­ne adds value by not only pla­cing the cur­rent geo­po­li­ti­cal wran­gle in a broad histo­ri­cal con­text, but by offe­ring deep insights into what each of the players was thin­king, as well as all of the mes­sy back room nego­tia­tions that crea­ted the modern Caspian. This is whe­re his access as a jour­na­li­st real­ly comes out to shi­ne: he had the bene­fit of col­lec­ting inter­views and notes over more than a deca­de, all of which allo­wed him to craft what could be a defi­ni­ti­ve histo­ry not just of the strug­gle for Caspian oil, but of the men who strug­gled for it. New cha­rac­ters, mostly if not always unheard of pop in and out of the sto­ry, some­ti­mes chan­ging it but always adding intri­gue. For exam­ple, the erra­tic beha­vior of Aze­ri nego­tia­tor Marat Mana­fov, remem­be­red mostly for dra­wing a pistol on oil exe­cu­ti­ves at a posh hotel, was mind-bog­gling to read, espe­cial­ly in such a serious con­text and with such huge sta­kes.
Much like Ste­ve Coll’s master­pie­ce on the CIA-al-Qae­da strug­gle throu­ghout the 80s and 90s, this insi­der access is incre­di­bly valua­ble, but only gets you so far: at some point, the rea­li­za­tion sets in that this is everyone’s per­so­nal inter­pre­ta­tion and spin of what hap­pe­ned and what they were thin­king. Whi­le it’s true that this the case of most histo­ries, the relian­ce on per­so­na­li­ty lea­ves big gaps that I wish could be fil­led in, most espe­cial­ly what was hap­pe­ning on the Rus­sian side. We learn a great deal about what the Clin­ton Whi­te Hou­se was thin­king (and inter­nal­ly deba­ting) during the mad rush of the 90s, much of what the major oil exe­cu­ti­ves were up to, and even a sur­pri­sing amount of the nor­mal­ly hyper-pri­va­te midd­le­men. The­re is keen insight into what the Aze­ris and Kaza­khs were try­ing to get. But the cove­ra­ge of Rus­sia felt odd­ly flat.
This isn’t much of a criticism—there are only so many peo­ple one can talk to, even over a deca­de, espe­cial­ly on a sub­ject as inten­se­ly sen­si­ti­ve (and espe­cial­ly so in Rus­sia) as oil rights and explo­ra­tion and poli­tics. But whi­le such an exer­ci­se gains one an incre­di­ble glimp­se into how the oil indu­stry ope­ra­tes, and more impor­tan­tly how it plays into natio­nal and inter­na­tio­nal poli­tics, it can only go so far.
Indeed, whi­le this is a glo­rious histo­ry writ­ten in the vein of Hopkirk’s The Great Game, it is short on ana­ly­sis. Whi­le LeVi­ne rai­ses appro­pria­te and trou­bling questions—such as Russia’s relia­bi­li­ty as an hone­st bro­ker or tra­ding part­ner, and whe­ther America’s self-inser­tion into the region will be for good or ill—there’s not much here to help in answe­ring them.
The histo­ry, howe­ver, is indeed glo­rious. I found the ope­ning sec­tion, in which LeVi­ne details the fir­st Baku boom a cen­tu­ry ago, of incre­di­ble inte­re­st. Asi­de from the gau­dy exces­ses of the ori­gi­nal barons (the cur­rent ones are more discreet in how they blow mil­lions on luxu­ry), what was most stri­king was the incre­di­ble waste. This was some­thing even the con­tem­po­ra­ry Euro­peans, such as the descen­dan­ts of Alfred Nobel (who not only were the pri­ma­ry deve­lo­pers in Baku, but also inven­ted the modern oil tan­ker), found shoc­king. Wells would be tap­ped and left as gushers, spewing untold amoun­ts of wealth into the air and then into the ground, making eve­ry­thing a sou­py, use­less, toxic mess. This hor­ren­dous waste and pol­lu­tion, unfor­tu­na­te­ly, con­ti­nued throu­gh the Soviet era, right to the 1985 Ten­giz blo­wout that bur­ned for over a year. 85 miles away, 700-ft tall column of fla­me was visi­ble, and appa­ren­tly it was so hot water boi­led from near­ly 200 feet away.
There’s ano­ther untold sto­ry the­re, one perhaps wor­thy of fol­low up: the unbe­lie­va­ble envi­ron­men­tal dama­ge the Sovie­ts wrought, in Cen­tral Asia (mostly Kaza­kh­stan, as the Aral Sea, Semi­pa­la­tin­sk, and Ten­giz disa­sters may indi­ca­te), but across the enti­re USSR. Oil is a mes­say, dan­ge­rous industry—that much eve­ryo­ne can agree to (and the bat­tle over pre­ser­ving the wild­li­fe refu­ges off Sakha­lin speak to some long-over­due push back again­st rec­kless explo­ra­tion). But so is com­mu­ni­sm, both in the hun­dred mil­lion peo­ple sacri­fi­ced to its ideo­lo­gy last cen­tu­ry and the con­ti­nued lega­cy of the scars its land bears. LeVine’s book is an impor­tant part of this sto­ry, and is so well writ­ten it is worth rea­ding even if one has no inte­re­st on the sub­ject. But it is only a part of a much gran­der, and sad­der, sto­ry.