Pipeline Politics Is One of the Main Driving Forces in the Caucasus

As recently reported by Russia Profile, peacemaking efforts by Turkey and the Minsk group of the OSCE aimed at settling the Karabakh conflict have an obvious energy motive as the EU’s plans to achieve energy independence from Russia directly depend on a small territory that Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting over. As the article notes:

“…adding Armenia to the Nabucco pipeline project is “one of the main goals of the U.S. and the EU policy in the region.” This project, according to Ogan, was also discussed during the recent visit by American Vice President Dick Chaney to Azerbaijan. However, this plan, just like any others, depends on the regulation of the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was seized by Armenians in the early 1990s. In the past, the United States had put a lot of effort into involving Armenia in the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, but did not succeed. The territory in question is the stumbling block for any economic initiatives in the region.

The Nabucco gas pipeline is supposed to circumvent Russia and connect Europe with Central Asia. According to the plan, a pipeline is to be laid on the bottom of the Caspian Sea; it is expected to deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Russia to Europe. The Western portion of the main will stretch from Georgia’s western border through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary into Austria. There might be a southern branch connected to this gas pipeline, originating from Iraq and the countries of the Persian Gulf, and, possibly, from Iran. The nearest possible date of gas going through the line is 2012. The length of the pipeline will total 3,300 kilometers. The overall cost of the Nabucco project is estimated at €5.8 billion. Some of the project’s participants are Austria’s OMV, Bulgarian Bulgargas, Hungarian MOL, Romanian Transgas and Turkish Botash. The possibility of working together with Russia’s Gazprom is also considered.

A Baku-based political analyst, Rasim Musabekov, noted that it is doubtful that Nabucco, which is aimed at circumventing Russia, will pass through the territory of Armenia, given the current level of animosity in the Azerbaijani-Armenian relationship. “It is impossible to realize this project without Azerbaijan, while it is possible to realize it without Armenia. This is why until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved, I rule out the possibility of passing the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline through the territory of Armenia,” he said.

Thus, the EU’s plans to achieve energy independence from Russia directly depend on a small territory that Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting over. Countries participating in the regulation of the conflict, as well as Turkey, speak about the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. But in reality, Karabakh’s return to Azerbaijan looks utopian: Armenia had made the acknowledgment and the projection of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, founded by Armenians, the cornerstone of its foreign policy.

Recently, the Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian made a statement in which he said that “the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is possible only through recognition of the Artsakhi people’s right to self-determination.” Thus, it is obvious that the Armenian side is not ready for any concessions. What is there to agree about, then? Azerbaijani political experts think that the maximum of what can be considered is the return of seven districts around Karabakh, occupied in the early 1990s, to Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction. And in return for this, Armenia is expecting some concessions.

Maybe the counter-offers will be connected with the removal of Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s blockade of transport routes. The Armenian economy is in desperate need of this: today, Armenia’s path out to the “big world” lies through Georgia, whose border with Russia has been blocked for many months now. Meanwhile, as a result of the recent conflict between Moscow and Tbilisi, the bridge connecting the two republics was blown up. This caused damage to the Armenian economy estimated at a minimum of $60 million.

Turkey, who is trying on the cloak of a peacekeeper, will also gain from this. The resolution of the old Karabakh problem (even if only partial) might “unseal” the Southern Caucasus for economic projects, which Ankara is in a dire need of. Moreover, removing the Karabakh problem might also bring Turkey some significant political dividends—its role in this region will increase dramatically.

The peace initiative brought forward by Ankara was not met with understanding in the United States. The Turkish Daily News noted that Washington exhibited a very cold reaction to the initiative on creating a regional security platform. The newspaper quoted a statement made by the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, a facilitator in the process of regulating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; he admitted that he was surprised by this suggestion made by the Turkish side.

Observers note the fact that Turkey’s behavior during the five-day war in Georgia caused hardly concealed resentment in Washington. It is not accidental, as experts are convinced, that at the height of the West’s diplomatic attacks on Russia, the influential Wall Street Journal published an article with a very expressive title: “Will Turkey Leave NATO?” The author of this article is Zeyno Baran, the director of the Center for Eurasian Policy of the Hudson Institute, an ethnic Turk and the wife of the afore-mentioned Matthew Bryza. She wrote that Turkey is faced with the need to make a choice. Either it sides with its NATO allies and allows the ships to pass into the waters of the Black Sea to aid Georgia, or it chooses Russia, and not the NATO countries, as its main ally.

“Actually, Ankara was not intending to leave the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The appearance of the article that couldn’t go unnoticed was obviously connected to the irritation that Turkey’s sluggishness caused in Washington,” noted a source in Turkish diplomatic circles who wished to remain anonymous.

Observers are having a tough time trying to conjure up an explanation for the fact that Turkey really did slow down and extend the negotiations on allowing American ships access to Georgian shores. The majority agree that the sluggishness was explained by Ankara’s reluctance to lose its established connections with Russia. “It is clearly obvious that a normal relationship with Russia is a key condition for Turkey to be able to build the Platform of Security and Stability,” a source in a Russian expert community close to the Kremlin said. “At the beginning of the conflict with Georgia, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs even included Turkey in a not-for-publication list of countries that theoretically might recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That list was presented to the highest authorities in the Kremlin, and although the hopes of Russian diplomats were not realized, Turkey’s reluctance to spoil its relationship with Russia is absolutely obvious and undeniable.”

It is definitely not accidental that Turkey’s initiative caused increased activity by the Minsk OSCE group; it did not want to hand its powers and privileges over to Ankara. And this is despite the fact that the relations between the two co-chairs of the Minsk group—the United States and Russia—became very strained after the war in South Ossetia. After Washington stated that it will work together with Russia only after the latter withdraws its armed forces from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the only remaining co-chair still capable of functioning was the third one—France. Today, however, this co-chair is doing all the work for three: in the last few months, French representatives have visited Armenia and Azerbaijan on numerous occasions, working to reach the main goal of the Minsk group—finding a peaceful resolution to the Karabakh problem.

With the “battle” for Karabakh still going on in the background, Azerbaijan is looking for alternative ways to export its energy resources, bypassing the unstable Georgia. Presently Azerbaijan is negotiating with Moscow, trying to increase the capacity of the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline. The pipeline can be used to deliver Caspian oil to the Black Sea and further on to Western Europe through Russian territory. It is a known fact that the pipeline has still not reached its projected estimated capacity, which is supposed to add up to five million tons per year.

During the five-day war in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan pumped its oil through the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline; it is also called the Northern Route. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which passes through Georgia into Turkey, was stopped even before the start of the conflict in Georgia due to a fire on Turkish territory; the responsibility for this fire was claimed by Kurdish separatists. Today, Baku-Ceyhan is again functioning at full capacity, while the residual volumes of the oil belonging to the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) are being pumped north. Why does Baku need the northern route? The President of SOCAR, Rovnag Abdullayev, explained in an interview to the Azerbaijani press that the country is trying to achieve a diversification of raw material supplies to the world’s markets; this is why all potential delivery lines should be maintained in working order. This is exactly why Azerbaijan is interested in Russia’s taking the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline up to its projected capacity.

This story reflects the real state of affairs in the Southern Caucasus. Azerbaijan (and Armenia) cannot depend on just one country—whether it is the United States, Russia or somebody else. This is why sooner or later, the interests of the big players will come to a certain balance. There is another trend that surfaced as a result of the five-day war. The fact that “small” players, which stayed out of this business until now, are becoming involved in the peacemaking initiatives indicates that they no longer wish to play somebody else’s game. This was clearly stated by Turkey. Following its example, Iran also wants to join the process of regulating the Karabakh problem; Iran is one of the few countries that have always supported Armenia in this conflict. This intention was first announced by Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Manouchehr Mottaki during his visit to Georgia in September. Iran’s ambassador in Azerbaijan, Nasir Hamidi Zare, stated in an interview to the ANS Television Company that Teheran is starting negotiations with Baku and Yerevan to become a facilitator in the regulation of their conflict: “Iran aspires to resolve the Karabakh problem within the scope of international legal norms… .” The activity of this country, which has extremely large reserves of oil and gas, points not only at political, but also at energy-connected hidden motives. Originally the Nabucco Project, developed by Europeans, was designed to transit Iranian gas to the markets of the Old World.”

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 5th, 2008 at 4:44 am and is filed under Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia, Turkey.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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