Washington, 27 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Agreements reportedly
reached this week on pipeline routes for Central Asian and Caucasian
oil are likely to have political consequences for the region at least
as great as the absence of such accords has had since the collapse of
the Soviet Union.
For most of that period, geography and politics have combined to
prevent Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan from exporting their
oil and gas to the West.
The United States opposed any use of pipelines across Iran, the
closest route to world markets for each of these states but one that
would enhance the power of the Islamic radicals in power there.
Instead, Washington urged that these countries export their oil via
the Transcaucasus to Turkey. But as long as the Transcaucasus
remained unstable -- and war in Karabakh, Abkhazia, and Chechnya
seemed likely to keep it that way -- such a route was practically if
not politically impossible.
And Moscow insisted that these countries send their petroleum
through Russian pipelines, something that would inevitably give
Moscow enormous leverage on their politics and hence something they
were loathe to do.
As a result, none of these states has been able to export its oil
and earn the money that could provide a firm foundation for their
independence. And because they lacked that income, they remained more
dependent on Moscow than would otherwise have been the case.
Indeed, both Russian politicians and Western analysts regularly
suggested that Moscow was interested in blocking the flow of oil
precisely to increase the dependency of these states on Moscow.
But in the last month, these countries, the Russian government, and
Western oil companies have reportedly reached several agreements that
will allow the oil to flow via Georgia in the Caucasus and via Russia
What has changed? And even more, what will these changes mean?
There have been significant changes in all the parties involved.
These potential exporters are increasingly strapped financially and
have apparently decided that half a loaf -- exporting via Russia at
least in part -- is better than no loaf at all.
Moreover, they have concluded that the multiple pipeline routes now
anticipated will limit Moscow's ability to dominate them even though
much of their oil and gas will flow through Russian territory.
Russia too needs cash and sees these oil deals as a way to raise it
quickly. Moreover, it now sees the flow of oil as offering some of
the same security advantages that blocking such a flow provided
On the one hand, many officials in Moscow have suggested in recent
weeks that the flow of oil through Chechnya will both help to resolve
the conflict there and help guarantee the integration or
reintegration of Chechnya within the Russian Federation.
On the other, Moscow has achieved significant influence in these
export countries for other reasons and has apparently concluded that
it can maintain that influence even if these countries gain
And the international oil companies have also increased their
pressure for an agreement. Many of them have been heavily invested
in the region for some time without having much to show for it, and
at least some of them are concerned about a potential oil shock from
a possible conflict in the Middle East.
Each of these parties may find that its calculations will be proved
wrong. But however that might be, a new flow of oil out of Central
Asia and the Caucasus will certainly have some serious political
consequences for the region.
First, Moscow will have to use other means to project its influence on these states, something it is likely to find harder to do as they gain in wealth.
Second, oil money will create a new class of haves and have-nots
among the countries of the region, with some becoming wealthy and
others being left behind. And because those left behind will be
upset by that and may have other resources such as water that the
newly rich do not, new conflicts among them seem likely to arise.
And third, these decisions on the flow of oil via Russia and Georgia will likely reduce Western interest in pressing for a resolution of the Karabakh conflict. The oil can now flow even if no political accord is reached. And if it flows along the routes announced so far, Armenia will not receive the transport fees it had hoped for.
So far, of course, these decisions are only reported. But even if
they are signed, past experience suggest that they may not be put
into effect at all or at least any time soon. Whatever happens, the
politics of pipelines in Eurasia will continue, producing new winners
and new losers regardless of whether the oil actually flows.