Cheney does Kazakhstan

Those who think the current global conflict is fundamentally about anything other than a strategic struggle for control of oil can be disabused of their illusions by reading (surprise!) the New York Times (May 6). This includes those who buy the Consensus Reality line that it is all about chasing after Islamist terror networks, and that the Great Power rivalries of the Cold War are a thing of the past. Ironically, it also includes those who buy the Conspiracy Theory line that it is all about protecting Israel, and that the wiley Jews have seized control of Washington. For those who are paying attention, the fundamental reasons for the current paroxysm of hyper-interventionism couldn’t be clearer. This story about Kazakhstan and Russia actually has much to say about Afghanistan and Iraq. Emphasis added…

Cheney, Visiting Kazakhstan, Wades Into Energy Battle
ALMATY, Kazakhstan, May 5 — A day after chastising Moscow for its use of oil and natural gas as “tools for intimidation and blackmail,” Vice President Dick Cheney visited Kazakhstan on Friday to promote export routes that bypass Russia and directly supply the West.

With his comments, Mr. Cheney waded into a messy geopolitical struggle for energy and influence in the countries of the former Soviet Union, rapidly becoming one of the world’s largest-producing regions.

The United States backs efforts to weaken Russia’s grip by building new export routes for the enormous energy reserves of Central Asia, much of which now must cross Russian territory to reach ports in the Black Sea or pipelines to Europe.

Mr. Cheney’s visit to Kazakhstan, on Russia’s southern rim, highlighted the balancing of United States interests, trying to counter Russian dominance in energy matters by cozying up to states like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan that have spotty human rights records and limited democracy — and plenty of oil.

“The United States is trying to strike a difficult balance,” said Tanya Kostello, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a New York risk consultancy. “It is trying to encourage the regime in Kazakhstan to move toward democracy while maintaining the economic ties.”

The Kazakh president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, won a third six-year term in December 2005, with 91 percent of the vote in an election that international observers said was flawed. Two opposition politicians have been murdered in six months, raising the specter of instability.

Kazakhstan produced 1.2 million barrels of oil a day last year but is expected to pump 3 million a day by 2015.

On Friday, Mr. Cheney met privately with officials from the Kazakh government, ending the day with a dinner with Mr. Nazarbayev in Astana, the Kazakh capital, according to American officials.

Asked afterward his opinion of democracy in Kazakhstan, the vice president endorsed the Nazarbayev government without qualification. “I have previously expressed my admiration for what has transpired here in Kazakhstan over the past 15 years,” he said, “both in terms of economic development as well as political development.”

In Russia, reaction to Mr. Cheney’s speech on Thursday was sharp. Kommersant, a major daily, called it “the beginning of a second cold war,” this time in a struggle over energy and competing spheres of influence rather than ideology.

In an echo of the 19th-century Great Game scramble for colonial possessions in Central Asia, the United States is seeking to weaken Russia’s control over oil and natural gas while also keeping China from stepping in to the breach. It is also encouraging export options that avoid Iran, another longstanding rival for regional influence.

Meanwhile Gazprom, the Russian natural gas monopoly, is growing increasingly reliant on Central Asian natural gas as its fields in the Arctic decline. Turkmenistan, wedged between Iran and Kazakhstan, has some of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas.

Because Kazakhstan borders China and Russia, and shares the Caspian Sea with Iran to the south, Mr. Nazarbayev has many options. Under several proposed pipeline routes, Kazakh oil and gas would be sent through Russia, Turkey, Iran, China, Pakistan and even Afghanistan.

On Thursday, Kazakhstan’s energy minister cheered the United States and Europe by saying he was interested in building a gas pipeline westward to Azerbaijan and then to Turkey, bypassing Russia and loosening Gazprom’s lock on this trade. But that same day, Kazakhstan’s national pipeline operator issued a guarantee to Russia to ship Russian oil to China through its new Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline.

In this seesaw struggle for influence, the United States is set to score a victory this fall with the opening of pipelines carrying oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, again bypassing Russia.

With those pipes in place, American officials like Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher, who is traveling this week with Mr. Cheney, have called for Kazakhstan to commit to transporting more of its oil along this westward route.

Some modern players of the Great Game argue that energy sales to China paradoxically serve American interests, because oil that China pumps from Kazakhstan is oil that it will not buy on the spot market in the Persian Gulf, purchases that could push up world prices.

The United States is also concerned about maintaining its military presence in Central Asia. The need became acute after Uzbekistan reacted to American criticism of its violent suppression of a demonstration last summer by expelling the Americans from an air base supporting operations in Afghanistan.

The United States’ other Central Asian base, in Kyrgyzstan, also seems to be on wobbly foundations, with the government there demanding higher rent payments and discussing whether to expel the Americans — cheered on by Russia and the Chinese, analysts say.

Kazakhstan is the largest and, many say, most stable country in the Caspian Sea region. The entire basin contains roughly 10 billion barrels of oil, much of it in Kazakhstan territory. Kazakhstan is second only to Russia in oil reserves among the countries once part of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Cheney’s visit was the latest high-level United States delegation in Kazakhstan, where support for Mr. Nazarbayev’s energy policies are balanced with careful criticism of his autocratic rule.

Opposition leaders say they are emboldened by Mr. Cheney’s pointed comments on Thursday in the speech in Lithuania, when he praised democratic advances in former Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine, in spite of resistance from Russia.

Mr. Cheney said President Bush, who is to meet with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, in July, “will make the case, clearly and confidently, that Russia has nothing to fear and everything to gain from having strong, stable democracies on its borders.”

Opposition leaders here were to meet with Mr. Cheney for an hour after lunch on Saturday, just before Mr. Cheney’s departure to Croatia, the final leg of his three-country tour.

“We’re going to try to explain the deplorable situation in this country,” Oraz Jandosov, co-chairman of the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, said in an interview. “After Cheney’s speech yesterday, it will be difficult for him to be unsympathetic to us.”

Still, Mr. Jandosov said several colleagues would miss the talks because the authorities had prevented them from traveling to the capital.

Marx was certainly subject to his own limitations, but his indispensible insights are the baby being thrown out with the bathwater on this post-ideological planet. It is still true: base determines superstructure. The global economy runs on oil, and the uniquely privileged place of the US ruling class in the global order is predicated on continued global control of oil. AIPAC and the dreaded neocons are indeed indispensibly complicit in creating propaganda for the Global War on Terrorism, and should not be let off the hook. But their ethnicity, and the imperative to protect their client state, is no more the fundamental reason for the hyper-interventionism than is chasing down Osama and his gang. Does this mean that either the Zionists or jihadists are irrelevant to the GWOT? By no means. But their role can only be appropriately viewed in the context of a strategic struggle for control of oil and continued US global hegemony.

See our last posts on Kazakhstan, the struggle for control of its oilfields, and the Great Game for Central Asia.