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World: Looking For Ways To Circumvent Russia

Mammadyarov and Rice signed an agreement on energy security on March 22 (epa) March 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Three meetings. Three cities. One goal: making Europe less dependent on Russian energy.

On March 22, Azerbaijan's foreign minister was in Washington, Georgia's prime minister was in Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat, and a major energy conference opened in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Topping the agenda in all three cities were plans to develop alternative oil and gas transport routes that circumvent Russia and loosen Moscow's stranglehold on Europe's energy supplies.

This diplomatic flurry came just one week after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a deal with Greece and Bulgaria to build a pipeline to transport Russian oil from the Black Sea to the Aegean en route to European markets.

Federico Bordonaro, a Rome-based energy analyst, says today's scramble for control of energy transit routes is beginning to resemble the Cold War struggle between Russia and the West.

"What we were used to during the Cold War years was a kind of security dilemma," Bordonaro said. "Powers needed to choose between alliances and between different security strategies. Something very similar is apparently going on in the field of energy security."

Leading The Charge

In the middle of the scramble are Azerbaijan and Georgia, both of whom are trying to break free from Russia's sphere of influence and move closer to Washington and Brussels.

"The small countries, like Georgia for example, that are very, very important because of their function as energy corridors -- they are especially sensitive to the influence of big powers," Bordonaro said.

In Washington, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement to cooperate closely on energy issues.

Most former communist countries in the EU are pushing Brussels to circumvent Russia. But Germany and France still lean toward making bilateral agreements with Moscow.

Azerbaijan is emerging as a major natural gas producer. Mammadyarov was seeking Washington's political support to build a new generation of gas pipelines to export Azerbaijani natural gas -- via Georgia and Turkey -- to Europe.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza said the agreement would support Europe's stated aim of diversifying its energy imports -- and help Azerbaijan emerge as a viable alternative to Russia's natural gas giant, Gazprom.

"This high-level dialogue will aim to deepen and broaden already strong cooperation among governments and companies to expand oil and gas production in Azerbaijan for export to global markets," Bryza said.

Particular focus, he said, will be put on the realization of the Turkey-Greece-Italy gas pipeline, and potentially the Nabucco and other pipelines that can delivery Azerbaijani gas to Europe and help diversify its natural gas supplies.

Thinking Ahead

Meanwhile, in Tbilisi, Georgia was hosting an energy conference aiming to achieve the exact same goal. Officials and industry leaders from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and the United States attended.

Alexandre Khetaguri, the head of the Georgian International Oil and Gas Corporation, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that presentations focused on projects that could prove "potentially interesting in the future."

These projects, he said, included Nabucco as well as the construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline, which will ensure transportation of gas from Central Asian countries to Europe.

Another project discussed in Tbilisi was the proposed Georgia-Ukraine-European Union Gas Pipeline -- or GUEU -- which would transport Azerbaijani gas to the EU via Georgia and Ukraine.

"This is a very strategic project for the whole area, starting from Azerbaijan and Georgia," said Roberto Pirani, the chairman and technical director of GUEU. "And from the European point of view, it's a diversification of supply into Eastern Europe. We're talking about Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, which are totally dependent on supplies from Gazprom. So this project will provide an alternative, more than an alternative -- a complimentary route of gas, a supply of gas -- to Gazprom."

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, meanwhile, traveled to Turkmenistan on March 22 to discuss gas imports.

According to media reports, Noghaideli was seeking to persuade Turkmen officials to export natural gas to Europe via the South Caucasus. Turkmenistan currently exports most of its natural gas via Russia.

Bordonaro, the Rome-based energy analyst, says the struggle for control of Turkmenistan's gas will likely heat up in the coming months.

"One of the major stakes in the next month will be Turkmenistan," he said. "Because if a group of powers will be able to diversify the direction of Turkmen gas reserves and to avoid Russia's control of virtually all of these reserves, this will be an important point for these other powers, and for Georgia and Azerbaijan as well."

Divided On Diversification

Bordonaro said not all EU countries fully back efforts to diversify Europe's energy supplies away from Russia.

Most former communist countries like Poland and Lithuania are pushing Brussels to circumvent Russia. But Germany and France still lean toward making bilateral agreements with Moscow.

"Europe is proving unable to forge a really unitary energy security strategy and this will also cause trans-Atlantic relations to suffer," Bordonaro said.

Earlier this month, Hungary decided to back expansion of Russia's Blue Stream pipeline. Gazprom plans to extend the pipeline under the Black Sea to Hungary. According to the plan, Hungary would then serve as a hub to transport Russian gas to Europe.

Some analysts say Hungary's move could undermine the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline proposal and other projects that were the subject of so much talk in Washington, Tbilisi and Ashgabat this week.

(Kakha Mchedlidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)

The Post-Soviet Petrostate

The Post-Soviet Petrostate

The oil-export terminal at Primorsk, Russia (TASS)

WEALTH AND POWER. At an RFE/RL briefing in Washington on January 24, Freedom House Director of Studies Christopher Walker and RFE/RL regional analyst Daniel Kimmage argued that energy-sector wealth is preventing many former Soviet countries -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- from developing strong democratic institutions.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 90 minutes):
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