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Russia: Analysis -- Russia Hits Chechen Oil Industry

  • Michael Lelyveld



Russian warplanes have bombarded Chechnya for the last week, with the stated aim of undercutting Islamist rebels based in the breakaway republic. The bombardment has included economic targets, principally Chechnya's oil industry. RFE/RL contributing correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports that the recent developments may have serious consequences for the entire region.

Boston, 29 September 1999 (RFE/RL) - The bombing of refineries and petroleum facilities in Chechnya may destroy the little that remained of the breakaway republic's economic base after the 1994-1996 war. During the 20-month conflict, Russia generally tried to avoid damage to the oil pipeline that runs through Chechnya, hoping that it could be used to carry Caspian Sea oil.

That strategy has apparently changed, despite Russia's investment in repairing the line after the last war. The Kremlin now views oil and illegal pipeline tapping as the main source of support for Islamic rebels led by Shamil Basayev. According to Russian reports, all of the oil shipped through Chechnya from Azerbaijan over the past year has been stolen.

The thefts and the Basayev rebellion have prompted Moscow to revive a plan for a pipeline through Dagestan bypassing Chechnya. While there seemed little chance of success for such a scheme previously, there may now be reason for other countries in the region to worry about what Russia may have to do to make the plan work.

The plan for the Dagestan pipeline implies that Russia will use enough force to protect it. Moscow may have already sent up to 70,000 troops to the area to seal off Chechnya. Such a presence could serve the multiple purposes of containing Basayev, smashing his support base and providing security for the new line. If that is the plan, an overwhelming force may have to be stationed in the area, perhaps permanently.

Analysts say the prospect of such a large Russian presence has frightened neighboring nations like Azerbaijan. Fear of Russia, as much as concern about Basayev, may account for the strong criticism Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev has leveled against the Islamist rebels. Pictures of burning refineries in Grozny are also unlikely to ease minds in Baku.

Russia has accused surrounding countries of providing support to Basayev or allowing access to arms. It may be only a coincidence, but all the accused countries, including Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, are rivals for Caspian pipeline routes.

Whatever the motives, Russia's bombing of Chechnya's oil facilities may be responsible for a remarkable turnaround. Russia was widely written off as a competitor for a Caspian oil route from Baku. Now, it may be back in the increasingly bloody game.

On the surface, Russia's route to the Black Sea port of Novorossisyk still has little to recommend it. Moscow promised this week that shipments from Azerbaijan would be made by rail while the new line through Dagestan is being built. Previous rail deliveries have been hampered by railcar shortages and a lack of adequate facilities.

But none of that may matter now, because Russia may be about to show its competitors that it has the only viable plan in the region for pipeline security, even if that plan must rely on a commitment of overpowering force.

The only other arrangement consists of contingency planning by the GUUAM group of countries for alternate routes through Georgia. This loose affiliation that brings Georgia together with Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova may pale by comparison. Russia's military buildup in the area could also frustrate development of any alternate routes.

Marshall Goldman, associate director of Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian Studies, tells RFE/RL that if Russia is playing such a strategy, it is unlikely to work. He says that protecting pipelines in such a violent region may be impossible, even with huge numbers of troops. The attempt to get foreign oil companies to use the Russian pipeline could also backfire.

Goldman says that "to some extent, it's self-defeating". He believes that foreign investors will be scared off by bombing of oil infrastructure, even in the name of security.

But Russia appears committed to the crackdown, despite past experience in Chechnya. Several bombings targeting civilians in Russia and blamed on Chechen rebels have stiffened the Russian public's resolve for reprisals. There may be few objections if Moscow reasserts its power throughout the region along the way.

Even without the problem of Chechnya, Russia has recently demonstrated that it has reached the end of its patience with countries that divert its strategic energy deliveries. Last week, it officially opened a section of gas pipeline through Belarus and Poland after years of depending on Ukraine for transit to Germany.

Ukraine's gas debts and diversions finally drove Russia to develop an alternative pipeline that it could scarcely afford. Now, it is trying to embark on a similar bypass plan for Chechnya. But unlike Ukraine, Chechnya may now face total elimination, both as a transit route and a source of challenges to Moscow's power. The cost to Chechnya in human terms has already proved high. The strategic cost for Russia and the region could also be much higher than the detour around Ukraine.

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