The good news is that Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Yukos is calling for "new forms of global co-operation and coordination to ensure security of supply and stable prices" of oil.
Writing in the London Financial Times of March 13, he denounces OPEC as a cartel aimed at extortion from the rest of the world. He pillories it for acting "as producer, exporter and global regulator all in one," for "market-rigging tactics" that "have resulted in volatility, not price stability," and for being "by its very nature ... incapable of balancing an inherently unstable oil market on its own."
Khodorkovsky advocates "procedures for regulating production in the medium term. Production levels should be established for a period of between three to five years, helping supplies to become more predictable and giving consumers and producers greater protection against external shocks."
The bad news is that he cannot think of anyone except OPEC to turn to for doing this. He invites OPEC to reconsider and join him in his new strategy, despite accurately describing its inherent incapacity to do so.
And where else could he turn? How could stable supplies and prices be arranged for Russian oil – for that is what he is primarily concerned about, considering the need of Siberian oil pipelines for uninterrupted flows every winter? The West, not OPEC, is the market for Russian oil.
The West has been strangely invisible as a partner to turn to on this matter, with one notable exception: The Russia Journal. The Russia Journal has offered a Western-oriented answer that is far better than any OPEC could ever give to Khodorkovsky.
In "How to secure Russia’s place as an oil ally" (The Russia Journal, Nov. 30, 2001), the present author proposed formation of a Russia-West oil-and-gas community, in which guaranteed supplies are matched by guaranteed payments, irrespective of the global price of oil. This would meanwhile leave Russian oil free to compete and drive down the global price, benefiting First and Third World alike.
The result would be to cut down OPEC and restore its countries to a normal role in the world economy, rather than the extortionist cartel role they have had for the last three decades. This would meet Khodorkovsky’s second concern: to reform the role that the OPEC countries play in the world.
This is the role that, as he points out, is damaging to the entire world economy, to poor and rich alike. It is parasitic, with megaprofits by market rigging. It has given OPEC countries opposite interests to the rest of the world and made for a power-and-rent mentality. This mentality has led to dreams of reversing the verdict of the Renaissance era five centuries ago as to which civilization in the Mediterranean area would be the leading civilization of the world.
It should be no surprise that some of the OPEC megaprofits have gotten plowed back into terrorism. It should be no surprise that some Russian oil entrepreneurs see the need to cut down OPEC still further and organize a reform of global oil in which OPEC will have no choice but to reform its mentality.
It should also be no surprise that others in Russian big oil, like LUKoil, retain an OPEC mentality. Others, such as Oil Minister Yusufov, leave even OPEC behind when they make remarks about Iraq as Russia’s "top strategic partner in the region" (March 18). Russia remains the big open question on the global oil chessboard. Its ultimate choice of orientation is the great strategic prize.
Karl Meyer of the New York Times has taken up The Russia Journal’s proposition on this matter. Writing in World Policy Journal, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, he calls for "an imaginative grand bargain with Russia" on oil. He takes his model for it from the Russia Journal article. Here is how he explains it:
"The most ingenious idea I have seen has been put forward [in The Russia Journal. It] begins by pointing out that OPEC has quietly invited Russia to join the oil cartel, a step favored by some Russian companies, and that Russia is very likely to follow a pro-OPEC policy ‘unless the West does something to change the structure of its incentives, so that low oil prices cease to cost Russia.’
"And how can that happen?" Meyer wrote. "[It] suggests: First, bring Russia into the Paris-based International Energy Association (IEA), an auto-nomous body with 26 member countries, whose mission is to disseminate information and promote rational energy policies.
"Next, set up a price-compensation scheme within IEA so that oil-exporting members would have an incentive to keep prices low. A likely scheme would be to agree on a fair price, say $20 a barrel, and for Russia to be compensated by all other IEA members who gain from cheap oil: Europe, the United States and Japan, with possible compensation to other non-OPEC members," he wrote.
"This would free Russia to compete ruthlessly against OPEC, and it would lead to a surge in Western imports from Russia. In return, Russia would grant Western countries control over some pipelines and renounce the right to restrict the flow of oil from those pipelines, thereby guaranteeing Russia a huge market and ensuring the West stable supplies independent of Gulf sheikdoms.
"This strategy, says its advocate, is a win-win proposition since with each drop in oil prices, importers would gain 10 times as many dollars as the compensation paid to Russia. . . . Additionally, as an IEA member, Russia would get a full role in planning global energy strategy together with the West – a well-earned role, not a make-believe one. . . . That and much else needs to be discussed."
Meyer finishes, "Suffice it to say that we need bold thinking in this changed world, and [The Russia Journal’s] intriguing idea belongs on the drawing board."
The bad news is that the West has not yet put it on the drawing board enough for Khodorkovsky to notice it.
The West needs to make itself the interlocutor of Russian big oil on this question. Its failure to do so leaves Khodorkovsky with nowhere to turn.
His is a lonely voice of oil statesmanship. OPEC cannot honestly speak in the name of the common interest on oil; yet it virtually alone in the world dares to do so.
The West no longer allows itself to speak the language of global stewardship. It no longer speaks of the role of its own central state power structures in providing regulatory leadership of the world on a basis of common interests, after all necessary biasing for securing its own basic interests including the interest in maintaining the stability of its leadership role.
This heritage of discourse, which served as a necessary part of the linguistic basis for policy development for the better part of the modern era, was virtually abandoned after the 1960s by the West and left to the likes of OPEC, a selfish cartel whose only "merit" is to be non-Western.
Khodorkovsky, fortunately, has revived this language, from the seat of an Eastern European non-OPEC country. Like many another Eastern European since the end of communism, he is speaking a much better Western language than the West itself does.
It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs that thus far he has been left with no one to talk with but OPEC. It might be better to be simply crying in the wilderness. He has every right and reason to be talking intensively with the West on this subject.
( Ira Straus is Fulbright professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and is U.S. coordinator of the independent Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. )