Feb 10th, 1999
Today a new Great Game is being played in the very same region, between Russia and America. One century on, the pawns in the middle are the new post- Soviet states of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, all of whom are desperate to use the energy potential of the Caspian basin to strengthen their independence.
Some idea of the high rolling stakes being bet can be gained from the statement earlier this month by the chief foreign affairs adviser to the president of Azerbaijan, Vafa Guluzade. He told a number of newspapers that Azerbaijan wants a U.S. military base. This is an amazing declaration, provocative beyond measure to Moscow. Washington, while not embracing it, has not rebuffed it, allowing lower level American officials to suggest, if not a base, a military presence could be considered. If this did lead to anything tangible it would be unparalleled in the annals of post Second World War geo-politics and could only be compared for effect with Mexico or Canada asking for a Russian military presence on their soil.
When does American hubris stop? Is Washington's aim, once it has expanded NATO right up to Russia's doorstep, to ring Russia round its southern flank with American forces? This is containment of an order that not even the most audacious Cold War warriors in America would have dared contemplate, even in their dreams.
At every turn the U.S. seems out to stymie any attempt by Russia to hang on to its long time stake in the Caspian region. But, to Caspian-watchers' surprise, in late January Russia finally scored a point, not without accompanying growls from Washington. Gazprom, the Russian oil and gas company, announced it was going to build with Eni of Italy the world's deepest underwater pipeline to ship natural gas under the Black Sea to Turkey. Washington's worry is that this will undermine Turkey's commitment to a competing Western pipeline venture bringing oil, and perhaps gas, out of the Caspian sea.
Such a Western pipeline would be the main conduit westwards for future Azerbaijani oil. It would not touch Russian territory, transiting Georgia before it crossed the Black Sea to Turkey. This would be a radical departure from the old Soviet pipeline routes that go north through Georgia to Russia or up through Chechnya.
Ironically, Washington's attempt to encourage U.S. and British oil companies to lay down such a pipeline faces growing opposition from the oil giants themselves.
As the oil companies, led by British Petroleum, see it, there would not be enough new oil to make such a big new pipeline worth it. Although one day there will be a great amount of oil being pumped from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan on the eastern side of the Caspian, it may be ten years before there would be enough oil to top up such a pipeline to capacity. And in ten years time America's relationship with Iran may have well healed, permitting the use of a quicker route south through Iran.
Until now Turkey has joined Washington in criticising the oil companies' conservatism. To some extent this new deal with Gazprom is Ankara's revenge.
The western oil companies, indeed, seem the only ones to be keeping their heads. While former U.S. Secretaries of State Al Haig and James Baker and former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski have earned large fees consulting for oil companies working in the region, the old Cold War warriors seem unable, temperamentally, to hold back from trying to push their paymasters into neo-Cold War policies. The companies are no doubt pleased by the entree these men facilitate into the political leadership of the old Soviet Union's Asian republics, but so far the businessmen have not hitched their wagons to the politicians' horses. While the politicos see it as a great game the companies obviously see it as a great gamble.
For the moment that's where matters stand--which gives time for everyone to reflect a little more on what they are trying to do. Why should Washington want to antagonise Moscow in this way? Isn't post-Cold War Russia meant to be a strategic partner to America, no longer a mortal enemy to be pressured at every available point? Cannot Washington easily understand that Moscow is bound to want to maximize its advantage in a part of the world it has long operated? And isn't the price of raising up oil once again on its god-like pinnacle merely reprising the mistakes of the Middle East oil rush--consorting, wooing and, in the end, politically, even militarily, supporting undesirable despots who care too little for democracy and human rights?
And why should Moscow, now it has voluntarily given political freedom to these Asian members of the Soviet Union, expect them always to accept Moscow's offer when they may get a better one from the West? An oil pipeline should be judged on its economic merits, not its political direction.
What the Caspian region needs most is coherent development and comprehensive democracy. Any effort by Washington to chip the Caspian states off the Russian bloc while closing its eyes to autocratic rule is bound to backfire. Nor is it necessary. The West will get the oil and gas it wants wherever the pipelines go. The last thing the region needs is another Great Game. Last time there was a winner. This time everyone will lose.
Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER
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