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Kazakhstan: Officials Issue Contradictory Declarations

As countries of the Caspian Sea region prepare for a summit next month on dividing resources, Kazakhstan may face pressure to resolve its conflicting promises over export routes. While Kazakh leaders have backed exports through Iran, they are also supporting the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, making it hard to count on commitments to either plan. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld explains the issues.

Boston, 19 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The upcoming meetings on the legal division of the Caspian Sea may be a chance for the shoreline states to clarify the contradictory statements of Kazakhstan.

The country's top officials have continued to issue conflicting declarations of support for competing routes to export Caspian oil. In recent weeks, they have told Iran that Kazakhstan prefers the Iranian pipeline option. At the same time, Kazakh officials have assured Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the United States that they back the plan for a line from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

Last Monday, the Tehran newspaper "Iran Daily" praised Kazakh Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev for a recent statement on the proposed Iran pipeline route, calling it a "momentous development." The paper was referring to an interview with Reuters news agency in which Tokaev said the Iran pipeline would be less costly than Baku-Ceyhan.

Speaking last month at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Tokaev was quoted as saying, "I would like to make it very clear Kazakhstan is interested in diversified export possibilities, oil pipelines." He added, "I had a chance to talk to Italian and German businessmen, and they were openly saying it is time to work on the southern route. Its advantages include the fact that it is short and the cost does not exceed $800 million."

The government-backed news agency IRNA, citing the "Iran Daily," took the statement to mean that Kazakhstan had "officially" chosen Iran as the most economical export route.

It is not clear why the Iranian press chose this opportunity to highlight Tokaev's remarks. The prime minister used nearly identical words in December after meeting Iranian officials in Almaty. President Nursultan Nazarbaev described the pipeline idea in the same terms during a trip to Tehran in 1999. Reports on the Iranian pipeline plan last year estimated the cost at $1.5 billion.

Meanwhile, top Kazakh officials have been giving similar assurances to supporters of Baku-Ceyhan. In December, delegations from Georgia and Kazakhstan exchanged visits to discuss prospects for the U.S.-backed route.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Georgiy Chanturia, president of the Georgian International Oil Corporation, reported positive responses from Tokaev about Kazakhstan's participation in the project. The Russian news agency Interfax reported that a protocol was signed on shipping Kazakh oil through Georgia, and the state pipeline company KazTransOil was appointed "operator of the Baku-Ceyhan project from the Kazakh side."

Last October, Nazarbaev surprised officials during a visit by Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer when he declared that the Baku-Ceyhan line should be extended to Kazakhstan's Caspian port of Aktau because, he said, "we will support the project by supplying 15 million tons of crude oil from our newly opened reserves."

U.S. officials had been seeking just such a promise since 1999, when Nazarbaev signed agreements to support Baku-Ceyhan at an OSCE summit in Istanbul. Nazarbaev then backtracked, saying he had agreed under pressure. Industry analysts say the pipeline needs more oil than Azerbaijan has so far discovered to be a commercial success.

Now, Kazakhstan says it is ready once again to back Baku-Ceyhan. But past experience makes it difficult to distinguish a pledge from an expression of goodwill. A meeting is expected in Astana at the end of the month to seek a firm commitment of Kazakh oil and support.

But judging by Tokaev's statements, Kazakhstan is equally ready to support a pipeline through Iran. Speculation has risen because of last week's choice of Agip of Italy to lead the development of Kazakhstan's huge Kashagan oil field. The upcoming Caspian summit in March could be an opportunity for Kazakhstan's neighbors to find out which plan it will really support.

The meeting on Baku-Ceyhan in Astana is scheduled to come a week after a Caspian working group from the five shoreline nations meets in Tehran on February 20. It will also be one week before the presidents of the five countries travel to the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi for their summit on 8 and 9 March.

The timing may make it hard for Kazakhstan to keep up its practice of telling each country in turn what it wants to hear. The leaders of Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan rarely come together. The gathering could force Nazarbaev to make his commitments clear.

Russia, which carries most of Kazakhstan's oil, is unlikely to favor either an export route through Iran or Baku-Ceyhan, making Astana's position an even tougher choice.

While many nations will be waiting to see the results of the Caspian summit on the division issue, the question of how Kazakhstan will resolve its conflict over export routes may be almost as critical.