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Caspian Sea: Four Nations Pledge Cooperation On Energy

There are many obstacles to developing the energy resources of the Caspian Sea region. They include the threat of terrorism, the conflicting interests of rival nations, and the expense of transporting oil and gas through thousands of miles of oil pipelines. But representatives of four nations from the region met last week in Washington to promise the cooperation to realize this wealth. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 22 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives of four nations with interests in Caspian Sea oil and gas are pledging cooperation to make sure their citizens -- and the rest of the world -- profit from these energy resources.

The statements came on 19 May at a seminar on energy, transportation, and security in Washington. Participants included two senior executives from American oil companies, a U.S. State Department expert on oil policy, and officials of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

The panel explored the problems of getting oil and natural gas from the Caspian region. The problems ranged from potential terrorism by Islamic extremists to the high cost building pipelines and keeping them safe.

All the participants stressed the need for close cooperation of all countries in the Caspian and Caucasus regions. And the representatives of the four countries present stressed their desire to do their part.

Much of the discussion focused on the proposed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which would transport Caspian oil from Azerbaijan, through Georgia and Turkey, to the Mediterranean Sea. For instance, Tedo Japaridze, Georgia's ambassador to the U.S., called on everyone involved -- governments in the region as well as foreign governments and investors -- to act with a single purpose on the pipeline project.

"The time has come for all actors to be involved in a further strengthening of [the] security environment in the region. I refer to the countries of the region and their governments, investors, financial institutions -- all our friends. In this line, we fully understand our part of the job, our responsibilities and commitments. The most important among them is to provide security for the construction and operation phases of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline."

Kazakhstan also is rich in oil and natural gas. Its ambassador to the U.S., Bolat Nurgaliev, promised that his nation will resist any efforts by Muslim extremists to distract his government from developing the region's natural resources.

"We, in general, as a matter of principle, we are very committed to ensuring a peaceful transformation [from a managed economy], and we believe that Kazakhstan can play [the] role of anchor, of stability, in the often unpredictable region."

Also present was Andrei Urnov, head of the Caspian Issues Working Group of the Russian Foreign Ministry. He, too, called for cooperation among countries in the Caspian and Caucasus -- and he noted that Russia is also part of these regions.

Urnov also noted that these countries once were part of the Soviet Union and are now members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Therefore, he said, they should act with a common goal -- and recognize that Russia shares that goal.

"In other words, we want independent CIS countries to become more interdependent on the basis of mutual goodwill and advantage."

One serious hurdle to developing the region's energy resources is the ongoing dispute Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Natig Aliev, president of Azerbaijan's State Oil Company, said this problem is one of the major impediments to realizing Caspian Sea energy wealth.

"What is necessary for the successful development of the Caspian region? Peace and political stability in the region, and the biggest problem in the Caucasus -- in Azerbaijan -- is the serious resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia."

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been trying to negotiate a settlement for years, with the help of the U.S. and Russia. No one at Friday's gathering pretended to have an easy answer. But two U.S. participants -- Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and John Wolf, the State Department's senior oil policy official -- called for the repeal of what is known as Section 907. This is legislation, passed in 1992, that imposes economic sanctions on Azerbaijan.

Congress imposed these sanctions against Azerbaijan because many members believed the government in Baku had imposed a blockade against Armenia. Azerbaijan has repeatedly denied the blockade. The administration of President Bill Clinton, and powerful oil companies, have worked to have the sanctions repealed -- but without success. The sanctions are supported by an influential group of Americans of Armenian descent.

Brownback referred to the proposed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline as the modern equivalent of the "Silk Road," which centuries ago brought Asian silks and spices to the West. Today's "Silk Road," he said, will bring oil and natural gas -- if only it can be opened.

"The 'Silk Road' is now being constructed, although I'm afraid the gate is still closed in that [Section] 907 still exists, most of it. So I think we're getting the road built, but we've got to open the gate."

Section 907 is only one hurdle facing the countries in the region. There remain the deeper issues of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the threat of terrorism, and the vast expense of building pipelines and keeping them safe. But to the participants at Friday's seminar, overcoming such obstacles seemed possible if all the governments involved are prepared to work together.