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Analysis From Washington: Putting Pipelines In Play

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 5 May 1995 (RFE/RL) - Yerevan's rejection of a Baku proposal to build an oil pipeline across Armenia in exchange for Armenian recognition of Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh highlights the difficulties of using pipelines to make peace.

But even if this latest exchange between the two governments does not lead to peace, both the Azerbaijani proposal and an Armenian action taken on the same day Yerevan rejected it indicate that the two countries may be reconsidering their approaches to one another.

And if that should prove to be the case, there may be some significant movement not only on the long-running Karabakh dispute but even more on relations among the three countries of the southern Caucasus, and between them and the outside world.

The current flurry of activity began on Thursday when Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev said that his country would be prepared to consider the construction of a pipeline across Armenia if Armenia would withdrawn both its forces and its claims to Karabakh.

Routing Azerbaijani and Central Asian oil across Armenia would not only bypass many of the difficulties involved with the alternative routes across Georgia and Russia but also bring Armenia significant transit fees.

Nonetheless, on Friday, Armenian presidential spokesman Levon Zurabyan rejected any suggestion that Yerevan would be willing to consider such a trade-off.

While Armenia would welcome a pipeline across its territory and believes that it would be "profitable for all," Yerevan does "not see any relation between the pipeline's route and the settlement of the Karabakh conflict," Zurabyan concluded.

Similar proposals and rejections have been floated at various times in the past, and by itself, Zurabyan's rejection gave no reason for hope that the current exchange would lead to anything more.

But on the same day that Zurabyan rejected the Azerbaijani proposal, the Armenian foreign ministry publicly denounced the Armenian parliament's decision to ratify a treaty allowing Moscow to have military bases in Armenia for 25 years.

Foreign ministry spokesman Arsen Gasparyan said that his ministry had urged the parliament to postpone ratification of the pact because of growing concerns about its implications for the country's national security.

The foreign ministry document reportedly noted that the treaty -- now ratified -- would force Yerevan to give up to Russia some of the tanks and armored vehicles that Armenia is allowed under the provisions of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty.

That could leave Armenia relatively weaker than Azerbaijan, Gasparyan said, even as it made Armenia even more dependent on Russian power.

Both Azerbaijan and Georgia have expressed fears in Vienna at the CFE talks that Moscow will be able to pressure some of its neighbors into yielding their quotas to Russia and thus allow it to put pressure on others.

These two Transcaucasian states clearly had Armenia in mind when they made these remarks, and now at least some in the Armenian government appear to be focusing on the dangers inherent in this game.

Azerbaijani President Aliyev's proposal may have provided them with an opening, suggesting as it does that Armenia has more choices about its future than simply relying on Russia.

Among these may be some close to the recently named Armenian prime minister, Robert Kocharyan. As former president of the breakaway region of Karabakh, he is generally thought to have a freer hand than anyone else in Yerevan in negotiating a settlement.

To the extent that this interpretation proves to be the case -- and many will seek to sabotage any agreement between Baku and Yerevan -- there could be movement on the Karabakh issue for the first time in many months.

And any movement on that issue would almost certainly lead to better relations among the three countries of the southern Caucasus even as it contributed to a new skepticism about Russian designs in the region as a whole.

Consequently, by putting pipeline issues into play once again, Baku and Yerevan may have altered the political landscape of this part of the world even if they do not succeed in changing the routes that any pipelines actually take.