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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington--Pipeline Politics In Eurasia

  • Paul Goble



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 as well.

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 earlier.

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 additional wealth.

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.
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