Blood and oil flow freely in Caucasus

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 December, 1999, 12:00am

In an age of neo-mercantilism dressed up as liberal free trade, the ebbs and flows of capital, wealth and good fortune have as much to do with geopolitics as with economic fundamentals.

Politicians drive economic agendas - especially developmental agendas. What drives these horrid little creatures has been - since before the days of Machiavelli and Bismark - geography.

Mountains, rivers, coastlines and . . . well, resources, dictate the policy directions.

Studying geopolitics is a bit like looking at tectonics: the world is divided into dominant plates with crumple zones and subduction regions sandwiched between them.

Everyone's favourite geopolitical crumple zone is the Balkans - the spark of two world wars (so the school history lessons would have it) and constantly threatening to spark another conflagration.

Another zone that has been largely dormant for half a century or so but shows signs of coming back to life is Central Asia, land of the Great Game in the imperial race between the Raj and Russia.

It was the potential riches from exploiting the trade routes through this dangerous and volatile region that drove the British and Russians to compete in the first place.

The British have long since left but the trade routes remain. Only now it is oil moving along them, not camel caravans of spices, silks and trinkets from the Orient.

So it should come as no surprise to find new powers vying for a slice of the same action.

The rules, of course, never change. The way to secure the economic wealth of the region is to forge alliances - in friendship or in steel and blood.

Russia's military response in Chechnya was hardly surprising.

Faced with a breakaway republic - dubious under international law - and uncontrolled heavily armed elements beheading telecommunications engineers, blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow and invading other republics in an effort to reinstate a non-existent 19th Century Islamic republic, what else could it do.

Any Western power would have done the same - several Western politicians have been graceful enough to concede this.

The hands of the West can clearly be traced in the crisis' origins - as clearly as the competing oil pipelines snaking through the region.

Nato has been destabilising the region for the past decade - hinting at future alliances for central Asian republics.

They did it in Afghanistan and Iraq, they will do it on the Caspian - and it seems very much as though they did it in Chechnya.

Politics has always been the dirty end of business.