A major accord to build oil and gas pipelines from the Azerbaijani capital Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan has been signed in Istanbul. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at the political as well as economic significance of the pipelines.
Istanbul, 19 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey, two Caucasian republics, two Central Asian states and the United States have agreed to build oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea to Western markets. The pipelines will bypass Russia, and are seen as a blow to Russian influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The leaders of six interested countries signed the accord -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, Turkmen President Saparmurad Niyazov, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and U.S. President Bill Clinton.
The long-awaited signing took place yesterday (Nov. 18) in the "blue room" of the sumptuous Cilagan Palace in Istanbul, on the fringes of the summit of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United States has been pushing for a pipeline route that would travel through neither Russia nor Iran.
Clinton stressed the role of economic development in the region as a means of increasing political stability.
"The natural wealth of the Caspian will make our global energy supply more secure, and more diversified. These pipelines will be an insurance policy for the entire world, helping to ensure that our energy sources pass through multiple routes, not a single choke point."
Clinton also said he would urge American companies and financial organizations to support the pipeline projects.
Georgian President Shevardnadze said that a decade ago, the twin pipelines were something only to dream about. He described them as a guarantee of political stability for Georgia and for the region. The 2,000-kilometer-long pipeline route passes through Georgian territory after leaving the Azerbaijan capital Baku, and then continues across Turkey to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
The gas pipeline is planned to go beyond Baku to Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea, to pick up supplies of Turkmen natural gas. Turkmen President Niyazov said at the signing ceremony that he hopes another, separate project for transporting Turkmen gas eastward, to markets in China and Japan, will also gain support from the United States. Some oil industry analysts say they doubt that the Baku-Ceyhan pipelines are the most cost-efficient ways of bringing the natural resources of the Caspian region to world markets. Their real significance lies not in economics, but instead in the geo-political sphere.
Existing major transport routes from Central Asia and the Caucasus region travel northward through Russia. This historical development has given both Tsarist Russia and Soviet Russia immense influence over the region -- more than many people there would wish, and more than the United States wants to see continuing today.
Russian officials yesterday accused the United States of using undue pressure to secure the agreements. Ivan Ivanov, a deputy Russian foreign minister, said: "The U.S. administration brought political pressure to bear on the companies involved in the construction." He said Caspian oil should be transported across Russian territory, because the infrastructure is already in place.
In addition to reducing Russian influence in the region, the pipelines are expected to make oil transport more reliable. A present key oil transport pipeline, through Chechnya, is closed as a result of the conflict there.
(Bidzina Ramischwili from the Georgian service contributed to this report.)