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OSCE: Pipeline Route Prompts Caspian Security Considerations

Boston, 16 November 1999 -- An obligation to promote the security of nations in the Caspian Sea region could be one of the most important unwritten agreements to emerge out of this week's summit meeting of the OSCE.

While no formal security pact will be signed at the Istanbul summit, the Caspian countries may see an inter-governmental agreement to build the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline as a critical step for Western commitments.

On paper, the expected agreement may be little more than a legal framework for a commercial venture on the territories of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. But the struggles that have brought the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline plan to this stage may suggest something more.

It is hard to view the pipeline plan as divorced from questions of security. In 1994, Russia launched its assault on Chechnya three months after the signing of the first agreements for Caspian offshore development. This year, its offensive came two months before the signing of agreements on Baku-Ceyhan. While many other factors caused the conflicts, pipeline routes have become a top prize in the battles for regional control.

Last Friday, only days before the Baku-Ceyhan agreements, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev accused the United States and NATO of pursuing a policy aimed at weakening Russia and "ousting it from strategically important regions of the world, above all the Caspian region, the Transcaucasus and Central Asia."

Sergeyev's remarks were prompted by efforts to persuade Russia that it should end its campaign against Chechnya, which has turned into a humanitarian disaster. But another implication is that Russia still sees itself as the ruler over the entire Caucasus and Central Asia, and that Sergeyev does not recognize the independence that countries in those regions gained over eight years ago.

It is little wonder, then, that for Azerbaijan, the pipeline is more than a commercial project. It represents a lifeline for economic viability that is dependent on forces outside Russia's control. Other countries may come to view Baku-Ceyhan the same way, when and if it is built.

But while the Caspian export route points to Turkey, it is still unclear where the security strategy will lead. Construction of the pipeline will create a physical fact on the ground in the Caucasus, which could be far more complicated for security than the plans that have been on drawing boards for the past five years.

To date, there is still no comprehensive security arrangement for Baku-Ceyhan or what it will represent. The inter-governmental agreement for building the line may join the interests of Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, but it does not guarantee what they will do to protect them.

So far, the answers to questions about security have been superficial. Diplomats have said that each country will be responsible for the pipeline on its territory. But such formulas do not address cross-border threats. Industry experts say sabotage or interruptions are handled routinely elsewhere in the world. Pipeline operators simply repair the damage, often using their own private guards.

But the Chechnya experience defies simple solutions. Even before the latest war, Russia's pipeline from Azerbaijan through Chechnya was inoperable for nearly all of this year. Any similar problems of sabotage or tapping on Baku-Ceyhan would affect all three transit countries. It would also endanger Washington's strategy for the region and the investments that are planned by U.S. government financing agencies.

Western obligations to ensure the economic security of countries using the pipeline may be implied, even if no guarantees are given. The signing of the Baku-Ceyhan agreements will have at least a symbolic link to security in the setting of the OSCE.

For small countries, such symbolism can easily become magnified. The economic dependence on oil in the Caspian countries will inevitably make this a matter of far more importance in the region than in the United States.

But as with all security matters, the interests of outside powers in the export route may have their greatest value as a deterrent to interference.