Washington, 27 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. Senator says the independence of the countries of the Caspian Sea region could well depend on the successful construction of East-West gas and oil pipelines through non-Russian and non-Iranian territory.
Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) made the statement last week at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on American strategic and economic interests in the region.
During the hearing, Brownback said the best route for an East-West pipeline would be through Azerbaijan Speednes or a major export pipeline to Turkey.
Said Brownback: "It will help tie the region together, linking the countries of Central Asia to the Caucasus and the Western market, and giving them all a stake in making regional cooperation work."
He added that if the U.S. takes no action and the pipelines are permitted to be routed through Iran, the countries of the Caspian Sea region would, in his words, increasingly find themselves drawn into an eastern and southern sphere and would eventually become economic hostages to Iran.
Brownback urged the Congress to act quickly to take a more "consistent and pro-active policy." He warned that the window of opportunity for the U.S. to influence events in the region was "very narrow" and said that if the U.S. does not act soon, it may be too late to assist the newly independent nations strengthen and maintain their sovereignty.
Brownback said the Caspian Sea region was of critical importance to the U.S. for a number of reasons, including the rich reserves of gas and oil, and the fact that many countries in the region help to contain the spread of anti-Western Iranian extremism northward and the flow of weapons of mass destruction southward. He also added that strong market economies near Russia and China would help to "positively influence" those two countries during their transition to democratic societies.
During the hearing, Brownback described legislation he has introduced in the Senate that he calls "The Silk Road Strategy Act of 1997." It calls for:
Ensuring the successful construction of East-West pipelines, preferably via Azerbaijan to Turkey.
Increasing the U.S. role in conflict resolution in the area.
Persuading Russia to play a more positive role in the region.
Assisting and encouraging regional cooperation in order to solve vital problems such as regional conflict, ethnic strife, water and energy distribution, and trade agreements.
Continuing and accelerating assistance to countries building and strengthening their own border guards and customs officers, and lessen the role of Russian border troops in the region.
Helping to create a favorable business climate by increasing foreign investment in the region.
Aiding in the development and strengthening of democratic institutions and an independent media.
Also testifying at the hearing was U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat who said that U.S. policy in the Caspian Sea region should focus on the importance of establishing a commercial basis for development and common benefits.
Eizenstat also said the U.S. has encouraged the nations in the region to adopt a legal framework to resolve matters, including the division of seabed resources.
He cited the dispute between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over Caspian oil fields and said it was unfortunate the disagreement had slowed oil development in the region.
Eizenstat also strongly urged Congress to repeal Section 907 of the U.S. Freedom Support Act, passed in 1992, which restricts U.S. government assistance to Azerbaijan.
Eizenstat said: "This restriction on our assistance has not had a positive effect of encouraging the parties to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and has actually hindered our ability to act as an honest broker and achieve our main foreign policy goals in the region."
But Eizenstat said he was encouraged by recent progress toward achieving a lasting political settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh and added he believes either "significant progress" or a "first-phase agreement" could be reached as early as the end of this year.
However, not everyone agreed with the proposals outlined by Brownback and Eizenstat at the hearing.
Ross Vartian, the executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America told RFE/RL that the hearing was "a one-sided, pre-arranged event without a full-range of views."
Vartian says he was particularly disturbed by the call for a repeal of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, adding that Brownback and Eizenstat were "fundamentally wrong" in believing Section 907 impeded oil development in the region.
Says Vartian: "Oil investments are taking place despite 907 sanctions and are resulting in tens of billions of dollars. Moreover, the competition is tough for future contracts. So to say Section 907 is impeding oil development in the region is simply wrong."
Vartian says 907 was enacted "legitimately" by the U.S. Congress to punish Azerbaijan for blockading Armenia and violating U.S. and international law.