CENTRAL ASIA: WikiLeaks dispatches reveal a Great Game for the 21st century
The Americans were confounded. Maksat Idenov (pictured), the Harvard Business School-educated head of Kazakhstan’s state-owned oil company, had abruptly booted Guy Hollingsworth, a Chevron Corp. executive, from a meeting and from talks over a potentially lucrative deal.
A month went by before they finally figured out what had gone wrong. The executive of the California-based energy giant had been spotted playing golf in the Kazakh capital, Astana, and sunning in Spain with Idenov’s predecessor and rival, according to a Feb. 14, 2008, dispatch from the U.S. Embassy in Astana released by WikiLeaks.
“Idenov amplified his anger with Hollingsworth by explaining that Hollingsworth does not understand how we are doing business now,” said the dispatch.
The confidential dispatches from Central Asia depict a slicked-back 21st century version of the Great Game, the 19th century battle between the Russian and British empires over Central Asia’s riches. In today’s great game, diplomats and jet-set corporate executives gather business intelligence to outsmart corrupt autocrats and navigate teetering bureaucracies and make fortunes in the energy business.
In an Oct. 29, 2008, State Department dispatch that has been widely reported in the British press, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, is described as encouraging a group of high-powered businessmen and diplomats gathered in Bishkek, capital of the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, to play the Great Game.
“And this time,” he added, “we aim to win!”
But as the brunch stretched into a second hour, the corporate executives said they were contending with more mundane matters, like dealing with stodgy local officials and shady middlemen.
“It is sometimes an awful temptation” to bribe corrupt officials to get something accomplished in the post-Soviet nation, said one of the businessmen, according to the diplomatic cable that was among the documents released by WikiLeaks.
Another businessman likened commerce in the nation that was once part of the Russian empire to doing business in the 19th century Yukon Territory.
The rough-and-tumble rivalries pit not only the West against Russia but also the U.S. against some of its allies. In the account of the brunch with Prince Andrew, the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Tatiana Gfoeller, boasted that she was “the only participant who was not a British subject or linked to the Commonwealth”; the French and Germans were absent.
“They were apparently not invited,” she wrote.
The memos draw extremely unflattering portraits of some of the region’s leaders and the political systems they lead. They flesh out the high-end hobbies and purported extramarital relations of some Central Asia's rulers. One alleges that China had promised to give Kyrgyzstan a generous $3-billion financial package in return for closing the U.S.-leased Manas air base.
Several dispatches cite sources describing Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as deeply corrupt. He is said to have once held a Cabinet meeting aboard an $80million yacht that was described as a gift to him from a Russian gas company seeking business deals.
“Berdymukhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is. Since he's not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people,” a Dec. 18 dispatch said.
A January 2010 dispatch says “a military official was fired after a cat ran in front of the president’s car as he was traveling" to his vacation home.
They also describe how Central Asian and Caucasus leaders use the competition between world powers to pursue their own interests. In a January 2009 meeting with then-Central Command leader Gen. David Petreaus, Kazakh President Nurusultan Nazarbayev asked the the U.S. and other Western nations to help contain a Russia eager to gain control over Kazakhstan’s fossil fuels.
“We were colonized for over 500 years,” he is quoted as telling Petreaus. “We’ve been independent for only 17 years, and we do not want to be colonized again.”
According to Feb. 25, 2010, memo, Ilham Aliyev, president of oil- and gas-rich Azerbaijan, told American officials he was making energy deals with Russia to keep neighboring Turkey’s ambitions in check.
By January 2010, Idenov, the Kazakh energy executive, had found a new target for his anger, according to the dispatch from WikiLeaks, Mark Rawlings, an executive at British Gas who had failed to meet a deadline for paperwork on an oil-field project. “I tell him, ‘stop being idiot,’ ” he was cited as telling U.S. Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland during a private dinner at the Radisson Hotel in Astana. “Do you know much he makes? $72,000 a month! A month!! Plus benefits!”
Later, according to the memo, he abruptly started typing something into his hand-held PDA.
“Let’s look at the ‘four courses,’ ” he said as he turned the device toward the ambassador.
On the screen were four names of top-ranking officials who he said were the gatekeepers around Nazarbayev, the Kazakh president who recently became leader of his country for life. Until recently, he explained, the four were blocking Idenov from advancing business deals.
“Idenov said he believes he has, so far, the president’s protection. ‘But the game continues,’ ” the ambassador cited him as saying.
Photos, from top: Downtown Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Maksat Idenov. Credit: Bloomberg