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Kazakhstan: Nazarbaev Visit Yields Accords, But Pipeline Deal Still In Doubt

  • Michael Lelyveld

The visit of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to the United States produced a series of accords on issues ranging from arms control to energy. But the question of Kazakhstan's commitment to U.S.-backed pipeline plans may still be in doubt.

Boston, 27 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev voiced support for a wide range of American goals during his U.S. visit last week. But the careful wording of a bilateral pact left room for maneuver on a key energy issue that has proved controversial in the past.

Nazarbaev capped his three-day trip to the United States with a series of accords and a meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House, where the leaders issued a statement calling for a long-term strategic partnership.

The document stressed subjects on which the two countries have already worked closely, including arms proliferation, terrorism, and energy. Kazakhstan won praise as "the first country to renounce its nuclear-weapons status voluntarily," recognizing its decision to rid itself of Soviet-era nuclear arms after independence a decade ago.

Both the visit and the statement reflected Kazakhstan's importance as a rising energy producer and a center for regional stability and economic growth.

In the words of the statement, "In the spirit of partnership, Kazakhstan and the United States intend to strengthen joint activity in ensuring security and stability in Central Asia." Among other things, the governments also pledged to cooperate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

After his meeting with Bush, Nazarbaev told reporters that he signed accords "related to transportation connections between our countries."

Nazarbaev focused on obvious areas of unity, saying, "We agreed upon...wider cooperation in all other spheres of the economy." On the subject of terrorism, he said, "I think that we should struggle [against] terrorism together, and we should continue this struggle to the end."

Six documents were signed, the Interfax news agency reported. Among them was a "secure link agreement" on the exchange of arms control information, an energy partnership declaration and a memorandum of understanding on development assistance to Kazakhstan's regions.

But there were also areas in which the level of agreement seemed open to interpretation.

In speaking of the energy partnership, the statement said, "We share the view that a key element of this effort is development of multiple pipelines that will ensure delivery of Caspian energy to world markets, unfettered by monopolies or constrained by geographic chokepoints."

The two countries have for years agreed on the need for multiple pipelines. The question has always been, Which ones?

The United States has sought a concrete commitment from Kazakhstan on the Baku-Ceyhan oil line through the Caucasus to the Mediterranean, which would avoid at least one "geographic chokepoint" through the crowded Bosporus.

But days after Nazarbaev signed an accord in Istanbul to support the line at the OSCE security summit in November 1999, he backed away from his pledge to commit oil to the route, saying it was made under "a lot of pressure."

Since then, Nazarbaev's dedication to Baku-Ceyhan has been hard to pin down. The vague wording of the joint statement may be a sign that it was no easier during his visit to Washington.

Two weeks ago, during a visit to Kazakhstan by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Nazarbaev publicly pressed him to consider an Iranian pipeline, saying investors viewed it as the "most beneficial route." At the same time, Nazarbaev said he had given his "political support" to Baku-Ceyhan.

Nearly all of Kazakhstan's oil now runs through Russia, including the new Caspian Pipeline Consortium line to the Novorossiisk port on the Black Sea which was supported by Washington.

But the route for Kazakhstan's future output is still up in the air, with competition from Baku-Ceyhan, Russia, and Iran. It has never been certain that Nazarbaev's "political support" will turn into practical backing for Baku-Ceyhan.

Questions continued during Nazarbaev's trip last week, the "Oil & Gas Journal" reported. When asked about the Iranian option at an appearance in Houston, Nazarbaev downplayed his earlier statement, saying it was one of the potential routes under consideration.

Most recently, the idea has been pushed by the Russian pipeline monopoly Transneft, which has been conducting a feasibility study for a line from Omsk through Pavlodar, Chimkent, and Chardzhou to Iran's Caspian port of Neka. It is unclear whether Kazakhstan's declaration of an energy partnership with the United States will make Baku-Ceyhan a priority.

According to the joint statement, Presidents Bush and Nazarbaev underscored their support for development of Baku-Ceyhan "on commercial terms." The words appear to be a reference to Russia's long-standing argument that the route will not be commercially viable.

In coming months, the effect of the energy partnership may become clear. But so far, it seems only to mark another chapter in the pipeline debate.