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Kazakhstan: Caspian Sea Oil Pipeline Symbol Of Cooperation

  • Michael Lelyveld

The inauguration of a major export pipeline from Kazakhstan on 26 March may provide an example of Caspian cooperation involving Russia and the United States. After nearly a decade of planning, the success of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium project has depended on offering benefits to all of the countries and interests involved. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 27 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It is rare that something as common and commercial as a pipeline can serve as a symbol. But with the opening 26 March of a new oil line from Kazakhstan, many countries may see a symbol of progress for the nations of Central Asia and the Caspian Sea.

In a ceremony on Monday (26 March), Kazakhstan Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev began the filling of the new export pipeline, stretching over 1,500 kilometers from the country's giant Tengiz oil field to the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea.

As the first major pipeline to be built from a former Soviet country, the route is the result of years of planning and effort. The $2.5 billion project that crosses Russian territory north and west of the Caspian is so long that the line will take 105 days to fill with oil.

Monday's event is one of several that will mark the opening of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium project. Last November, the final pipes were welded in place. The first tanker is due to be loaded with Kazakh oil at Novorossiysk in June, while formal commissioning of the line is scheduled for late this year.

Each step is likely to be loaded with symbolism, as well as oil. But the success of the project may stem from the fact that it means something different to each of the parties involved.

For Kazakhstan, the pipeline has become an emblem of the country's independence and economic interest. Even though it relies on Russian transit, it is a new route for Kazakh oil flowing west. The increased capacity of the line is also a sign of Kazakhstan's continuing growth as an oil producer.

This year, the pipeline is expected to carry 7 to 8 million tons of oil as a test. By October, it will be able to handle 28 million tons per year. Full capacity will reach 67 million tons, the equivalent of over 1.3 million barrels per day.

Much of that amount will be Kazakh oil. The country could produce nearly 40 million tons of oil this year. In addition to Tengiz, it also hopes to start pumping in about four years from its huge Kashagan field in the Caspian, one of the largest in the world.

It is little wonder that Kazakhstan has pursued the link to Western markets as a primary goal since the Soviet collapse. But the project could not have come about without Russia's recognition that its interests would also be served. Although Moscow was reluctant to ease its grip on a rival producer, its attitude changed as it found new ways for its interests to be defined.

Russia became the biggest shareholder in the Caspian Pipeline Consortium with a 24 percent interest. The Russian oil companies Lukoil and Rosneft also hold stakes through joint ventures. Moscow recently showed its determination to speed the project along when Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko vowed that construction setbacks would not delay the first ship loading at Novorossiysk on 30 June.

The United States also strongly supported the export route from Kazakhstan. The development of Tengiz by U.S.-based Chevron became one of Washington's policy goals for the region over a decade ago during the administration of President George W. Bush's father, former President George Bush.

In that sense, the pipeline may gain added significance as a project that is backed by the United States, Russia, and Kazakhstan, even though each may have separate goals.

Monday's ceremony may serve as a reminder that cooperative ventures are difficult but still possible at a time when frictions over spying and expelled diplomats have brought differences to the fore. Pipelines, which take years to build, are planned to keep operating for decades. Ideally, they serve long-term national interests that may outlast passing conflicts and perhaps even governments.

Development in the Caspian region has been marked by many warnings that pipelines should not be built for political purposes. But once pipelines are built, they may come to represent common interests and political ties that will not be easily broken. The first major westward pipeline from the Caspian region could be the first example of that.