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Georgia/Azerbaijan: Security A Concern As Pipeline Construction Set To Begin

  • Michael Lelyveld

Security for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline may soon be challenged as the project prepares to start construction in the volatile Caucasus region next month. In recent days, officials in both Georgia and Azerbaijan have raised alarms that could link the pipeline to regional conflicts.

Boston, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Security fears for a long-awaited pipeline through the Caucasus rose sharply this week after a series of official statements and what appears to be a contained oil spill.

In recent days, Azerbaijan and Georgia have both sounded alarms about threats to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil project, which is expected to start construction next month after eight years of planning.

The industry magazine "Oil and Gas Journal" highlighted the concerns this week, citing complaints by Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiev to British officials in Baku about Armenia's "aggressive policy" and stockpile of armaments. Abiev charged that they threaten the region, including the Western-backed pipeline known as BTC, the Turan news agency reported.

Armenia has not responded to the statement, but its president, Robert Kocharian, again called last week for a peaceful settlement of the 14-year conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Project sponsors have not reported an Armenian threat to the BTC line.

Abiev's charge was combined with fears voiced on 19 January by Gia Chanturia, president of the Georgian International Oil Corporation, about alleged sabotage against an oil line from Baku to the Black Sea port of Supsa. The reported attack near the village of Sveneti, 60 kilometers west of Tbilisi, resulted in an oil spill variously estimated at 60 to 150 tons.

Speaking on Georgian television, Chanturia said: "The only aim was to harm the operation of the Baku-Supsa oil-pipeline project, which would have had consequences for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Our guess is that, after that, the investors would have been told that Georgia was incapable of dealing with security issues, that the oil pipeline would be damaged, leading to the destruction of the whole of Georgia and so on." The report was transcribed by the BBC.

Chanturia denied that theft could have been the motive, but he was later contradicted by officials from BP Azerbaijan, the BTC operator, who later told Azerbaijan's ANS television that thieves had apparently made a hole in the line. The flow of oil resumed in two days following repairs.

The relatively minor spill may do little lasting damage to the environment. Crews were said to be cleaning about 200 square meters of affected soil. But the incident is likely to unsettle environmental groups that have opposed the BTC route through Georgia's Borzhomi Gorge, which is famed for its mineral water. Although Georgia recently approved the $2.95 billion project with additional safeguards, some nongovernmental organizations have vowed to keep fighting it with potential lenders like the World Bank.

The worries also came during a week when Russian gas supplies to much of the region were cut off due to pipeline damage. Two separate mishaps have been blamed on a leak and a rock slide, officials told the Interfax news agency.

Taken together, the reports do not suggest any escalation of risks or threats, but they do point to a high level of tension over security for the 1,730-kilometer BTC project on the eve of construction. In the past week, pipe for the project has been arriving by ship and rail. The line has been one of the top goals for Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, as well as for U.S. regional policy. At its peak, it would carry 1 million barrels of Caspian oil per day to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Security plans appear to be accelerating. Last week, BP political adviser John Gerson visited Georgian officials for briefings on the preparations. Georgia plans to deploy troops who have been trained in a U.S. antiterrorism program, which has been under way for nearly a year. Georgia has also reportedly held talks with U.S.-based Northrop Grumman Corporation for an electronic surveillance system to guard the 235 kilometers of line on its territory.

But all the alarms and precautions are also signs of recognition that none of the region's ethnic disputes or security problems have been solved, despite years of efforts before the project commenced.

Relations between Georgia and Russia remain unsettled over Chechnya and Abkhazia, to the point that the two countries issue conflicting statements on the state of their relations on the same day.

On 22 January, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov greeted Georgia's parliamentary speaker, Nino Burjanadze, at a meeting in Moscow, saying Russia wanted "good-neighborly contacts." Russia's official RIA-Novosti news agency reported the statement less than an hour after carrying a stern Foreign Ministry warning that, "Georgia alone will bear responsibility" for demonstrations at the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi.

While the conflict in Chechnya shows no signs of ending, statements like Abiev's suggest that some Azerbaijani officials may be quick to link pipeline problems to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Some Georgian officials may likewise jump to conclusions about incidents of common theft.

The situation may also point to a key function of the pipeline security system in providing accurate information to head off false alarms and keep them from creating security problems of their own.