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Azerbaijan/Armenia: Pipelines And Peace Become Topical Issues

  • Michael Lelyveld

Boston, 3 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Questions about the connection between pipelines and peace in the Caucasus have surfaced again this week as diplomats mount an all-out effort to reach agreements on both Nagorno-Karabakh and an oil route from Baku to Ceyhan.

The diplomatic offensive is aimed at concluding a peace deal between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as a series of pacts on the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline at the OSCE summit in Istanbul on November 18. Solutions that have eluded warring countries and commercial interests could all come together in the same place at the same time.

Observers who have followed the parallel tracks of statecraft and oil development are unlikely to be surprised at the convergence of a Caucasus peace plan with a way to ease exports of Caspian Sea oil. But the precise nature of the link between the two issues has never been clear. Equally murky is the connection between pipeline plans and the causes of war.

Most analysts now accept the theory that Russia's assault on Chechnya in December 1994, for example, had something to do with controlling the pipeline route through the territory from Baku. The move came just three months after the Azerbaijan International Operating Company signed its landmark agreement to develop Caspian oilfields, despite Moscow's opposition.

But defining the importance of the oil factor in political decisions has proved impossible. Because Chechnya's oil route served as its lifeline and key asset, it has been inseparable from the greater questions of sovereignty and control.

Finding the elusive oil link with regard to Chechnya has proved as difficult as ever this week, as Russian troops pressed their attacks around Gudermes, which has been a junction for the North Caucasus railway and the pipeline right-of-way dating back to Soviet times.

The intensity of attempts to end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also raises questions of motives, although there is ample justification for settling the decade-old conflict for its own sake. But the shuttling of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott between capitals and President Heidar Aliev's visit to Turkey suggest a concerted push to wrap up an agreement, despite tensions that have followed last week's assassinations in Armenia and the resignations of Aliyev's top aides.

Analysts and advocates interviewed by RFE/RL have been unable to pinpoint a reason why a deal on Nagorno-Karabakh should be needed to complement the agreements that are expected on the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. But in the absence of answers, theories abound.

U.S. officials have previously said that the line could be routed through Armenia to give it the benefits of transit if a peace deal was signed. The mountainous route would be shorter than one through Georgia, but not necessarily cheaper, said Robert Ebel, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Still, Armenia's chances could vanish without a peace deal, particularly once an engineering study for the final route is begun.

Questions have also been raised about possible restrictions on U.S. government financing for Baku-Ceyhan if Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act enacted by the U. S. Congress in 1992 against funding for Azerbaijan remains in effect. But an official of the Armenian National Committee of America in Washington said that exemptions to 907 are likely to apply to any U.S. financing for the project.

U.S. domestic considerations could also figure into the calculations. Baku-Ceyhan could face opposition from the ethnic Armenian community in the United States unless a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is found.

But a U.S. government official told RFE/RL Monday that there is no "direct" connection between the two efforts to reach agreements before the OSCE summit. The meeting has simply been taken as a target for concluding agreements on both issues, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Although U.S. officials have not been involved in the talks between President Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian, they have also hoped to make progress on Nagorno-Karabakh by the end of the year, the official said. That goal, in turn, has raised hopes for the OSCE summit as an "action-forcing" event, the official said.

Much the same reasoning is behind the accelerated push on Baku-Ceyhan, despite the absence of a direct link between peace and pipelines, the official indicated. The U.S. government also does not expect that the series of pacts to be signed on Baku-Ceyhan will necessarily add up to a final commitment to build the main export pipeline.

But the perception of a pipeline-peace package may already be having its effect in the region, where reports suggest that expectations are running high. Hopes of economic benefits from ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may give an extra incentive to both sides, despite the discord and violence of the past week.