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Russia: Pipeline Project Around Chechnya Fraught With Problems

Russia's project to build an oil pipeline around Chechnya appears to be behind schedule and may not be completed until late 2000 unless the pace of construction picks up. RFE/RL Correspondent Michael Lelyveld has filed this report on what this development implies:

Washington, 6 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When the plan for the bypass line from Baku was announced in September, officials of the Russian pipeline company Transneft said the work could be completed within six months. But last week, a Transneft official said that 50 kilometers of the line and more than 10 percent of the entire project have been finished so far. At that rate, the project would take at least until July and perhaps as late as October before it is done.

The detour on the oil route to Novorossiysk is a priority for Moscow, which has made clear that it sees competition for Caspian oil as a part of its struggle to control Chechnya. Before war broke out in August, constant tapping of the 110-kilometer line through Chechnya made the Novorossiysk route inoperable. Since the war started, Russia has been carrying Azerbaijani oil by rail to avoid Chechnya.

Part of the problem with the bypass project is that it has been slow to get going. After Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- now Russia's acting president -- ordered the detour through Daghestan, it took about two months for work to begin, according to reports. Several of Transneft's plans for financing fell through. The precise date of construction is unclear, but the first pipes were not laid until sometime after November 15, Izvestiya reported.

The rate of progress could be seen as impressive if 50 kilometers of pipe were laid in a little over a month. But the bypass is believed to be following the same 283-kilometer route first proposed in 1997. If so, more than four-fifths of the line has yet to be put in place.

Transneft's estimate of about 10 percent completion is likely to include work on pumping stations and other components. The Russians have also been working on access roads for the new route. If the progress is measured from September, it has been slower than projected. In any case, the job appears to have a long way to go.

The project is likely to be complicated by its location in a war zone. The New York Times reported last month that Russian forces have ripped up some rail lines in the area to give free movement to tanks. The logistics of pipeline building may be difficult under such conditions, even if the route has been secured. The emergency project may also have left little time for detailed engineering in formidable terrain.

But Russia has now made such a commitment that it may be even harder to stop. In 1997, the first bypass plan was abandoned after agreements were reached with Chechnya on providing security for the line through Grozny. This time, construction will continue even if Russia gains control over the old route, Transneft Vice President Sergei Grigoryev said last week.

Russia's resolve represents a determined effort to change the dynamic of interdependence in the Caucasus. By creating the bypass, Moscow has shown that it will no longer be held hostage to events in Chechnya as it competes for Caspian oil exports.

Even if Moscow succeeds, it may be harder to eliminate weakness than to establish a new basis for power. Although it can destroy Chechnya's strategic value, Russia is unlikely to end its own vulnerability by moving the pipeline farther north. The new route is over twice as long as the old one, leaving opportunity for attack. Chechens will have no benefit from its operation, either from transit fees or tapping. As a result, the bypass may be an even better target for sabotage.

The lengthy project could also make hostilities harder to stop. If construction drags on, Russia may have to commit forces simply to protect the operation. The new line may essentially raise the stakes for permanent pacification on the northern border of Chechnya.

Russia's commitment is a sign that it is more determined to prevail than during the last war in Chechnya. But the entire project raises questions about the motives for the war. If the conflict is really about fighting terrorism, why would Russia choose this of all times to build a pipeline for oil from Azerbaijan?

By seeking to build a new link between Azerbaijan and foreign markets behind the battle lines, Russia may be demonstrating that this war is more than an internal affair. But it is unclear which will last longer - the pipeline project or the war.