This is a review of Steve LeVine’s The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea. Random House. 2007.
Steve LeVine has worked as a freelance journalist for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Financial Times, and Newsweek – in places such as the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Drawing on his considerable journalistic experience, he sets out to chronicle the history of the Caspian Sea.
Different characters intersect in the book: Nobel family of Sweden, American middlemen acting on behalf of the Soviet Union to make deals with American and British petroleum companies, oil executives begging their government to pressure Soviet leaders to allow drilling, and Central Asian leaders resisting pressure from Moscow to allow Moscow-supported companies to open the oil fields.
However, the central character of the book is oil. It is, perhaps, the only thing (after changes in regimes in ex-Soviet Union republics) that makes Moscow so determined to reclaim its influence in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, even threatening the destructions of oil drilling sites in these countries if they do not seek the opinion of Moscow before signing deals with Western companies.
LeVine describes Russia as a troublemaker, which has tried to use pipelines built in the Soviet era as leverage to force its former colonies to submit to the former master. However, the Russian attempt to rebuild influence is contained by the Clinton administration, whose policy on Caspian Sea and oil in Central Asia was shaped by Rosemarie Forsythe – who served as the Director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs of the National Security Council, and Bill White- the Deputy Secretary of Energy.
The struggle between Russia and the United States for more influence in Central Asia is familiarized by the invocation of the struggle between Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century, when both sides were lobbying Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan to consolidate the supply of oil to the West or to the Russian empire. The competition between two superpowers is a re-play of an old game. It is only natural for Russia to struggle to secure its backyards against the ex-colonies, who are full of hatred on Moscow due to forced abandonment of nomadic lives and migration imposed by Stalin and subsequent leaders and are therefore siding with another major power in the world, LeVine argues.
LeVine questions whether the United States is genuinely interested in bringing freedom and democracy to the region, and whether it is interested in actually monitoring the business practices of American oil firms in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. He believes that the United States helped mobilize support for pro-Western politicians to launch the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia to overthrow pro-Russia governments. However, when it comes to pro-America allies in Central Asia, the commitment to expanding freedom and democracy becomes secondary to strategic interests, LeVine argues. The book exposes the common practice of paying bribes to despotic leaders in the newly independent republics. Yet the book also urges readers to re-examine what constitutes corruption: Should lobbying of American oil companies such as Chevron and Exxon and Mobil in the Congress and Senate on behalf of Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan be considered as offering bribes to Baku and Almaty?
The book relies on several hundred interviews conducted between 1992 and 2007, as well as autobiographical writings of key political players from the United States, the Soviet Union and ex-Soviet republics. The combination of these primary sources provides first-hand views of officials and businessmen going about their deals, and offering their opinions of the future of the Caspian Sea. However, the lack of sources originating in Russian and Central Asian languages greatly limits LeVine’s scope.
On the whole, the book illustrates the history and importance of Caspian Sea through a series of dramas whose character include oilmen, dictatorial leaders of ex-Soviet republics, Russian politicians who have tried to maintain their influence among their neighbors, and government officials of the United States who have worked to expand their influence in the region since the collapse of the communist party in Moscow. The result is the fascinating account of the region, a region which will continue to become increasingly crucial when it comes to the global supply of oil.