Another attempt to make some kind of sense of what's going on east of the Dniester. Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan come in for special attention.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Head on over to the Roberts Report

Sean Roberts, whom I'm very proud to call a friend, writes an extremely good blog on Central Asia over at

I can't recommend it highly enough. Sean, along with Eric Sievers, is one one the smartest people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with.

His official blog bio says:

Sean R. Roberts is presently the Central Asian Affairs Fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He has lived in Central Asia on and off since 1989. He has a Masters degree in Visual Anthropology and a Doctorate in Social Anthropology both from the University of Southern California. In addition to conducting extensive research in the Uyghur community of Central Asia, Dr. Roberts also worked for approximately six years at the United States Agency for International Development in Central Asia.

He is all that, but even more, he is an honorary Canadian. His only failing is his refusal to embrace the Montreal Canadiens, preferring to stick with the Buffalo Sabres.

He's been all over Central Asia and we had more than a few good times in Almaty and Tashkent. One, I remember very well (parts of it, anyway). Celebrating Mustakillik (Uzbek Independence Day) in Tashkent, Sean complained of a cold, to which I replied that the only responsible approach would be to drink a bottle of pepper vodka together. We did, then had another. And, possibly, another.

It all ended up with Sean in Nukus discovering that he didn't have a cold, but pneumonia, and my wife asking why I arrived home missing a shoe. The photo shows us before the evil began.

Tengizchevroil stink

From RFE/RL Newsline, Vol. 11, No. 34, Part I, 22 February 2007

KAZAKHSTAN THREATENS OIL CONSORTIUM WITH SANCTIONS. EnvironmentalProtection Minister Nurlan Isakov announced on February 21 in Astanathat the Tengizchevroil consortium has one month to put an end toenvironmental violations or it could face a court-ordered workstoppage, Khabar reported. "We reserve the right, if the enterprisedoes not present us shortly, and we'll tell the media about this,with concrete actions in the near future to liquidate sulfurbyproducts in compliance with environmental legislation, we reservethe right to halt the enterprise's activities through the courts," hesaid. Isakov said that Tengizchevroil, which is developing the Tengizoil field, has stockpiled 9 million metric tons of sulfur, APreported. The Chevron-led consortium also includes Exxon Mobil andKazakh state energy company Kazmunaigaz. Oil production at the Tengizfield was 13.3 million metric tons in 2006, with production expectedto double after 2008. DK

I used to work at TCO, and I remember the sulphur storage quite well. If the wind shifted, blowing towards the residential camp (about 15 km from the plant and the sulphur block,) you caught quite a whiff of the stuff. The block of sulphur is truly massive, about the size of a sports stadium.

This is not the first time that the Kazakh authorities have complained about the sulphur storage, nor the first time that TCO has been threatened with sanctions over the issue (and I think they've already paid some rather large fines for it.) TCO responded in the past in a couple of ways.

For one, they took a technological approach, building a plant to re-process the sulphur into flakes and pellets, for sale and use in agriculture. The problem is the Tengiz oil is very rich in sulphur, and the sales (mostly to China, if memory serves) of re-processed sulphur cannot keep pace with the the extraction of oil and build-up of the sulphur block, so it grows.

The other approach was to point out that sulphur is a harmless substance, and that large stores of sulphur can be found in the West, as well (I remember a picture of a sulphur mountain in Vancouver being used).

It seems as though the authorities are either unconvinced, or that they refuse to be convinced.

Tengiz will always come under pretty heavy scrutiny, and not for the sulphur alone. As the recent riots at the site showed, inequality between the pay rates for Kazakh nationals and their foreign counterparts really rankle.

However, there's lots of humour to be found, as well. For those who read Russian, I recommend the following site: If you're a Westerner easily offended by the opinions of what local nationals think of our work (and other) habits, you may want to give it a miss! They regularly excoriate the company I worked for there (and here in Ukraine,) but you'll be missing some very good humour if you're squeamish.

Fisherman"s Blues

Fisherman"s Blues
Ice-Fishing near Astana (when it was still Akmola)