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Caucasus: Energy Projects Given Impetus By Regional Summit, Arrival Of U.S. Soldiers

International plans to pump crude oil from the Caspian Sea shores to world markets have received a new impetus in recent days, with participating states vowing to cooperate in enhancing regional security and with the projects' main sponsor sending military advisers to the area. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch looks at the simultaneous conclusion of the Trabzon summit and the arrival of U.S. soldiers in Georgia, which mark a significant development in the shaping of a new South Caucasus security system.

Prague, 7 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last week (29 April), the leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia met in the Turkish Black Sea resort of Trabzon to discuss energy cooperation, as well as the fight against terrorism, drug smuggling, and human trafficking.

The three presidents -- Turkey's Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Azerbaijan's Heidar Aliev, and Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze -- ended the talks by inking a security pact that they said should pave the way for a deal on how to protect a planned pipeline expected to link the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Construction of the 1,700-kilometer-long conduit -- which will run through the Georgian capital, Tbilisi -- is due to start next year and should be completed in 2005. Oil experts say uncertainty over the project's economic viability, however, might delay its implementation beyond that deadline.

The Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline will be coupled to a planned 900-kilometer-long natural gas conduit linking Baku to the city of Erzurum, in Turkey's eastern Anatolia region, via Tbilisi.

Under the agreement concluded in Trabzon, each of the three countries would be responsible for the security of the pipelines on its own territory. However, participants vowed to cooperate with each other should any security problem arise in the future.

Giorgi Chanturia chairs the state-owned Georgian International Oil Corporation and, as such, took an active part in the Trabzon meeting. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said he expects the summit -- the first of its kind to bring together the presidents of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey -- to have a "very positive" impact on the economic development of the South Caucasus region: "In my view, this summit is important because the three presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey have positioned themselves on three important issues. Firstly, they have given their personal backing both to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and to the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline.

"Secondly, all three states have committed themselves to ensure the safety of these pipelines on their respective territories. Thirdly, all three states have said, through their presidents, that they will sign an agreement on the creation of coordination [structures] to ensure the safety of the East-West energy corridor. That is, not only the safety of the two pipelines but also of the main communication arteries, the electricity transportation network, the fiber-optic cables, etc."

The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline is designed to pump oil extracted from Azerbaijan's Caspian offshore oil fields by an international consortium led by Britain's energy major BP. Other consortium members include U.S., Italian, Norwegian, Turkish, Japanese, Saudi, and Azerbaijani oil companies.

Talks are under way with international lenders, which will be asked to front up to 70 percent of the capital for the $2.9 billion project, while the rest will be provided by shareholders.

The Baku-Erzurum conduit should allow BP to export natural gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz Caspian natural gas field with the participation of Western companies. Construction of the line should start later this year.

Both projects are seen as being of vital importance to the future of Azerbaijan, with the Baku-Erzurum pipeline seen as turning Azerbaijan into a major regional gas exporter. Experts also point out that Caspian oil output targets will soon make the country's two existing export pipelines -- to the Black Sea ports of Supsa in Georgia and Novorossiisk in Russia -- insufficient, requiring construction of alternative routes.

Sabit Bagirov is the former head of Azerbaijan's State Oil Concern, better known under its English acronym of SOCAR. SOCAR is a major partner in both the Baku-Ceyhan and the Baku-Erzurum projects. Bagirov, who now works as an independent expert, told our correspondent that he, too, sees the Trabzon summit as a landmark in the economic development of the South Caucasus area: "It was, of course, an important meeting. I see it as a new step toward the normal functioning of these major energy projects. All issues that were on the agenda have been solved. A new step has been achieved so that these projects could be implemented in the future without obstacles."

The U.S., Azerbaijani, and Georgian government seek to limit Russia's control over the Caspian region and see the proposed oil and gas export routes as a priority. Washington also believes these energy projects will help contain Iran by bypassing the country. U.S. President George W. Bush last January branded Tehran part of an "axis of evil" committed to supporting world terrorism.

The conclusion of the Trabzon summit coincided with the arrival in Tbilisi of 18 American military advisers due to train Georgian soldiers in antiterrorist operations. This advance team will be followed by more instructors in the near future. All in all, the number of American experts should total 200 for a mission expected to last several months.

U.S. officials claim this cooperation is aimed at helping Georgian authorities restore law and order in the Pankisi Gorge, a crime-ridden region bordering Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya. The area is said to harbor Islamic militants linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. Yet, regional analysts believe one of the main objectives of Washington's "Georgia Train and Equip Program" might be to pave the way for international cooperation in ensuring the safety of future energy supplies routes.

Georgia's Chanturia agrees that this was a major concern of the American and Georgian governments when they agreed, shortly after the 11 September terrorist attacks in the U.S., to boost bilateral defense ties. "Those two questions are closely linked one to each other. The presence of American military instructors presupposes the training and equipping of Georgian officers for antiterrorism and other purposes. This means that the training program will partly aim at helping Georgia ensure the safety of the pipelines. As I said, [Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey] have agreed to guarantee the safety of the pipelines on their respective territories. From the very beginning, we have said that issues related to the safety of the pipelines will be part of the [U.S.] training program."

Regional pipeline projects should also help Turkey boost its strategic profile in the region at a time when this NATO member is seeking ways to pursue a more robust foreign policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Turkey first proposed holding a trilateral security pact in November last year as it started moving ahead with plans to enhance military cooperation with both Georgia and Azerbaijan. This raised concerns in Armenia, which remains formally at war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

In an apparent bid to appease Yerevan, signatories of the Trabzon agreement have said their joint efforts in the security field do not target any third party. On the contrary, they claim, cooperation will remain open to every country willing to join in.

Chanturia says the Trabzon agreement's signatories would notably welcome the participation of Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan, and of countries bordering the Black Sea, such as Ukraine, Bulgaria, or Romania. "What has been set up [in Trabzon] is a basis that will help bring regional cooperation with regard to the safety of the whole energy corridor to a new level in order to protect the interests of producing countries, transit countries and consuming countries. What is at stake is not only the security of the pipelines, we are talking here about the entire energy corridor."

The Bush administration insists that Kazakhstan join the planned Baku-Ceyhan project by building an underwater pipeline that would link its Caspian Sea port of Aktau to the Azerbaijani capital. In Washington's view, such a development would not only make the projected conduit more profitable, it would also tie Kazakhstan to its own Central Asian regional security buildup.

Yet Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has signaled that he favors export routes through Iran as being economically more viable. In addition, the lack of agreement on the Caspian Sea's legal status is likely to prevent Central Asian states from joining the Trabzon agreement.

The question of dividing the Caspian has been contentious since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Talks among the five Caspian states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- have dragged on for most of the past decade without a settlement. This has prevented the development of the sea's natural resources, believed to be the third-largest in the world.

Presidents of all five countries met last month (23-24 April) in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, to try to solve their differences on how to divide the Caspian, but the talks ended with no result.

Georgia's Chanturia lists Armenia among countries that could possibly join the Trabzon pact. Yet, former SOCAR head Bagirov says Yerevan's participation remains conditioned to an agreement on Karabakh: "Should Armenia and Azerbaijan reach a peace agreement, I believe that, in principle, nothing could prevent the development of regional economic cooperation. Since economic integration should profit the South Caucasus as a whole, as well as every single country in the region, I do not think any serious problem should arise. But a major condition is that Azerbaijan and Armenia solve their disputes."

Bagirov's comments echo similar remarks made by Aliyev upon his return from Trabzon. Talking to reporters in Baku, the Azerbaijani president ruled out any normalization between Yerevan and Ankara until ethnic Armenian troops cease occupation of Azerbaijani territories bordering Nagorno-Karabakh.

Chanturia nonetheless believes the Trabzon security pact will not remain limited to its sole original signatories. In his opinion, the next tripartite summit, due to be held in Tbilisi next year, "will certainly attract more participants."