La corsa al petrolio nel Mar Caspio

Busi­nes­sWeek | Lune­dì 12 novem­bre 2007 | Stan­ley Reed |

The disin­te­gra­tion of the Soviet Union in the ear­ly 1990s unlea­shed a modern-day Klon­di­ke in the bleak but oil-soa­ked region around the Caspian Sea. Sto­ries of how com­pa­nies such as Che­vron (CVX ) and Exxon­Mo­bil (XOM ) gai­ned access to the huge oil fields of Kaza­kh­stan and Azer­bai­jan have lea­ked out in dribs and drabs, but now Ste­ve LeVi­ne has gathe­red the who­le Wild East tale in one can­ny and enter­tai­ning book, The Oil and the Glo­ry: The Pur­suit of Empi­re and For­tu­ne on the Caspian Sea.
LeVi­ne, who spent many years in Rus­sia and its nei­gh­bors as a cor­re­spon­dent for The Wall Street Jour­nal and other publi­ca­tions, has fil­led his volu­me with intri­guing, some­ti­mes daun­ting cha­rac­ters. Lud­vig Nobel, a 19th cen­tu­ry entre­pre­neur and mem­ber of the famed Swe­dish fami­ly, orga­ni­zed the Caspian oil tra­de much as John D. Roc­ke­fel­ler did the U.S. busi­ness. Zey­na­lab­din Tagiyev, an Aze­ri oil baron of the 1880s, once orde­red ser­van­ts to castra­te a rival for his wife’s affec­tions. Marat Mana­fov, Azerbaijan’s oil nego­tia­tor during the 1990s, shook up mee­tings by poin­ting a pistol at Western oil exe­cu­ti­ves.
More impor­tant, the book zooms in on the dubious prac­ti­ces, intri­gue, and poli­ti­cal arm-twi­sting that can be a key part of deals in deve­lo­ping nations, whe­re ever more of the oil busi­ness takes pla­ce. In Kaza­kh­stan in the 1990s, lar­ge sums from oil com­pa­nies alle­ged­ly ended up in the Swiss bank accoun­ts of the country’s Pre­si­dent. At the same time, in Azer­bai­jan, a $230 mil­lion “signing bonus” paid by a con­sor­tium of Western com­pa­nies was almo­st instan­tly disper­sed “to off­sho­re accoun­ts in coun­tries with lax ban­king laws,” accor­ding to a Penn­zoil offi­cial quo­ted by LeVi­ne.
LeVi­ne also under­sco­res the inten­se­ly poli­ti­cal natu­re of oil. Both Rus­sia and the U.S. employed govern­ment muscle to influen­ce which com­pa­nies gai­ned access to Caspian coun­tries’ reser­ves and the rou­tes throu­gh which it would be expor­ted. Al Gore tried to use his Vice-Pre­si­den­tial clout in Chevron’s favor again­st the mave­rick Dutch oil tra­der John Deuss. Deuss, play­ing a cle­ver but ulti­ma­te­ly losing game, was try­ing to par­lay the bac­king of the Sul­tan of Oman into a lock on the vital pipe­li­ne rou­te out of Kaza­kh­stan.
Much less inte­re­sting than such cha­rac­ters, in LeVine’s tel­ling, are the oil com­pa­ny exe­cu­ti­ves, who are bur­de­ned both by a sen­se of enti­tle­ment and a tin ear for local poli­tics. BP’s John Bro­w­ne, then head of the company’s explo­ra­tion and pro­duc­tion, did impress his Kaza­kh hosts by gul­ping down a local delicacy—a sheep’s eye. But, says LeVi­ne, Che­vron CEO Ken­neth Derr “lite­ral­ly tur­ned his back” on Kaza­kh­stan Pre­si­dent Nur­sul­tan Nazar­bayev when he asked for help in buil­ding a soc­cer sta­dium for his new capi­tal, Asta­na. Nazar­bayev, who­se oil Derr cove­ted, “was sui­ta­bly flab­ber­ga­sted and insul­ted.”
A key figu­re in much of the Caspian intri­gue was one James H. Gif­fen, the son of a Stock­ton (Calif.) haber­da­sher who beca­me a player in the hard-to-pene­tra­te world of U.S.-Soviet tra­de. In the mid-1980s, Gif­fen con­vin­ced Soviet lea­der Mikhail Gor­ba­chev that U.S. busi­ness could help cure his country’s ailing eco­no­my. The apex of Giffen’s career: the deal he bro­ke­red giving Che­vron exclu­si­ve rights to Kazakhstan’s Ten­giz, a gem of an oil field that is pro­ba­bly among the world’s 10 lar­ge­st. In return, says LeVi­ne, Gif­fen got 7.5 cen­ts on each bar­rel Che­vron pro­du­ced, poten­tial­ly tens of mil­lions of dol­lars.
For years Gif­fen, a fre­quent sour­ce for Busi­nes­sWeek repor­ters, master­ful­ly jug­gled dif­fe­rent inte­rests, inclu­ding the Kaza­khs, the oil com­pa­nies, and the CIA. He and Nazar­bayev “some­ti­mes retrea­ted into the coun­try­si­de for days at a time, accom­pa­nied by young Kaza­kh women and well sup­plied with whi­skey.” But his influen­ce waned, and in 2003 he was arre­sted at New York’s John F. Ken­ne­dy Inter­na­tio­nal Air­port on char­ges of fun­ne­ling $77 mil­lion in bri­bes from U.S. oil com­pa­nies to Nazar­bayev and other Kaza­kh insi­ders.
He still awai­ts trial, insi­sting that he had been, in LeVine’s words, “a U.S. agent in Kazakhstan…in one of the most stra­te­gic regions in the world.” Wha­te­ver hap­pens to him, the spot is sure to spa­wn other outra­geous cha­rac­ters to take his pla­ce.