During the opening ceremony on May 25, oil started flowing into the U.S.-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which will bring Caspian hydrocarbons to Western markets and break Russia’s monopoly on energy exports from the Caucasus and Central Asia. But some Russian political analysts contend that the gigantic pipeline might also carry a revolutionary “virus” that could trigger further political change in the volatile region.
The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey turned on the taps at the Sangachal oil terminal outside of Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, to let the first oil enter the 1,760-kilometer (1,100 mile), $4 billion pipeline. The route has a total capacity of 1 million barrels a day. Symbolizing with his very presence the strong American support for the BTC line, U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman described the first day of pumping oil as a “day that will change the world.” He also read a letter from President George W. Bush in which the American leader, who is seeking to diversify U.S. energy sources, hailed the project as a “monumental achievement.” Deliveries of oil from the pipeline to tankers at the Mediterranean terminal in Turkey are scheduled to begin by the end of the year.
A number of energy analysts and strategic planners have long argued that the BTC project will likely redraw the geopolitical map of the turbulent South Caucasus, reducing the region’s economic reliance on Moscow. The new Caspian export route will also provide Kazakhstan — the largest oil producer in the region after Russia — with an outlet to Western markets that bypasses Russian territory. Meeting with his Azerbaijani host, President Ilham Aliev on May 24, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev affirmed his country’s commitment to export part of its Caspian oil via the BTC pipeline. Representatives of the two countries did not, however, sign the anticipated agreement on transporting crude from Kazakhstan via the BTC route. Azerbaijani presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiyev told journalists that experts “continue to work” to resolve unspecified problems connected with that agreement. But the two sides did sign an Agreement on Strategic Partnership together with several other bilateral agreements on inter-governmental cooperation.
It would appear that the Kazakh leader wants to keep all his options open. He specifically stated, “Aside from the BTC, we will try to utilize Chinese, Russian, and Iranian territories to export Kazakh oil.” Kazakhstan’s oil production is estimated to reach 150 million tons a year by 2015.
The Kremlin’s energy envoy, Igor Yusufov, was conspicuously absent at the May 25 celebration, reportedly due to sudden illness. In fact, Russia was not mentioned even once in all the festive speeches and addresses made in Baku. Some Russian commentators interpret this curious fact quite sarcastically, taking the silence as an expression of a particular tactfulness on the part of the BTC participants. The pipeline launch is widely seen as one more step diminishing Russia’s steadily waning influence in the Caucasus and Caspian region. In the opinion of the analysts at the London-based Center for Global Energy Studies, the implications of the BTC launch for Russia are a further loss of influence in Azerbaijan and, potentially, in Georgia too.
Russian strategic planners appear to see the looming consequences very clearly. With the BTC, they say, the United States will be able to kill two birds with one stone. First, Washington will firmly tie the Caspian basin countries to the American-backed pipeline, as the BTC is the first major pipeline that does not traverse Russian territory. Second, U.S. allies Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey — not Russia — will benefit from pocketing the transit fees. Georgia’s feeble economy, for example, stands to get a substantial boost from the pipeline. It is expected to earn some $50 million in transit fees per year — a true fortune for this “impoverished country,” as one Russian analyst noted.
But some Russian regional experts foresee yet another potential implication of the Caspian pipeline’s functioning. As the crude will flow from east to west, the wave of democratic “color revolutions” may spread in the opposite direction, they suggest.
According to this line of argument, with BTC now operational, the security of energy flows in the Caspian region will be the West’s paramount concern. However, there are enormous protest potential accumulated in the countries involved — particularly Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. After decades of iron-fisted rule by authoritarian clans, these states may “blow up at any moment” and “lead to unpredictable consequences.” The only alternative to the violent Uzbek-type upheaval seen in Andijan earlier this month seems to be a smooth, “velvet” regime change.
The November 2005 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan and the 2006 presidential election in Kazakhstan will likely put this provocative concept to a serious test.
(RFE/RL, Kommersant, Polit.ru, GlobalRus.ru, May 25; Moscow Times, Vremya novostei, May 26)