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Caspian Sea Pipeline Has Its Origins in Turbulent Waters

U.S. fears political upset in Azerbaijan could threaten a strategic new oil route skirting Russia.

June 27, 2005|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

BAKU, Azerbaijan — The opening ceremony of the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline here last month was a virtual Who's Who of the region. The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkey were on hand. So was U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.

The only dignitary missing was Russia's energy envoy, Igor Yusufov. He called in sick. As the 1,100-mile pipeline has been pieced together from the Azerbaijani capital here on the Caspian Sea, through Georgia, and on to a Mediterranean port in Turkey, the U.S. has secured an advantage nearly as important to its strategic interests in the region as the democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine: a transport link for billions of barrels of new Caspian Sea oil through U.S.-friendly terrain, bypassing both Iran and Russia.

President Bush, in a written message to the gathered leaders, called the pact for the pipeline between regional governments and a private oil consortium led by BP "the contract of the century."

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said the $3.4-billion pipeline, which is due to ship 1 million barrels of oil a day by 2008, represents "a geopolitical victory for Azerbaijan and its allies ... that will seriously change the balance of power in the region, bringing prosperity and strengthening independence."

The subtext may have been the real reason for Yusufov's absence: the pipeline known as BTC significantly loosens Russia's stranglehold on energy supplies out of the former Soviet Union and boosts the economic muscle of the nations on its borders, which are struggling to emerge from Moscow's powerful influence. Analysts expect it will transport up to a fourth of the world's incremental new oil supply in 2005 and 2006.

But this strategic success story depends largely on where the pipeline begins, in this former Soviet republic of 8 million perched on the geopolitical razor's edge between Russia and Iran.

For years, the U.S. and major Western oil interests quietly supported Heydar A. Aliyev, the ex-Soviet-era communist boss who seized power two years after Azerbaijan's 1991 independence declaration. He handed down power to his son, 43-year-old Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded him as president in a widely criticized election held after his death in 2003.

The younger Aliyev has been a staunch supporter of the West's oil ambitions in Azerbaijan and its military campaigns on its borders. At the same time, he has clamped down on the independent media, allowed the arrest and torture of political opponents and had public protests violently quelled.

Turbulence has rocked the republics on Russia's borders over the last two years -- popular movements have toppled authoritarian regimes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. In the same vein, Azerbaijan is facing parliamentary elections in November that could shake the foundations of the republic and help determine the success or failure of American policy in a region Washington sees as vital to its interests.

Unlike in Ukraine, where a generally pro-Western opposition faced a pro-Moscow prime minister for the presidency, both Aliyev and opposition leaders are seen as accommodating to Washington's interests. The problem, analysts say, is that clashes between the two camps could threaten the security of new oil supplies the U.S. sought as a reliable alternative to the turbulent Middle East.

Aliyev is under increasing pressure from the U.S. and Europe to improve on the 2003 presidential balloting that led to major complaints of vote-rigging and protests that resulted in one death and 200 injuries.

This time, opposition leaders say a failure to ensure an open campaign and free balloting will surely lead to major street protests -- whose outcome might not be as peaceful as the "rose" and "orange" uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine that swept in new democratic governments. Not only are Aliyev and his allies unlikely to step aside without a fight, the opposition itself is fractured, underfinanced and has among its adherents, at least in the north, elements of radical Islam.

Damage Control

The government of Aliyev, in a clear attempt to head off trouble, has opened indirect talks with the opposition and pledged to hold democratic elections. On June 4, the government sanctioned the first legal opposition street rally since the violent protests of October 2003. An estimated 10,000 critics of the government flowed into the streets, and even more protesters marched in a second rally on June 18, carrying photos of President Bush with the words, "We Want Freedom!"

"We are reasonable people. We have quite a lot of experience in our life. And we know that revolutions will only bring worse. But the Azerbaijan government is pushing people into the streets," said Isgander Hamidov, a former minister of the interior who spent 10 years in prison as a dissident under the elder Aliyev's government.

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