MOSCOW (Agence France-Presse)–Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze’s charges that his would-be assassins may have been linked to the lucrative oil export business Tuesday underscored high-stakes regional rivalry over Caspian oil.
Georgia and Russia are now direct rivals for oil exports from Caspian fields–whose energy reserves are second only to those in the Persian Gulf–according to most estimates.
Moscow largely controlled development of the Caspian Sea’s energy resources before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991–and has pushed hard for a pipeline crossing southern Russia to become the main export route for the inland sea’s oil.
The devastating 1994-1996 war in Chechnya–which culminated in a humiliating defeat for Russia–showed how far Moscow was prepared to go to defend its interests in the Caucasus–especially its energy sources.
The Azerbaijan International Operating Company–a consortium including US major oil companies Amoco–Unocal and Exxon–British Petroleum and Russia’s LUKoil–has opted for both the Russian route and a pipeline crossing Georgia for "early" oil exports.
The larger volumes of Azeri oil expected early in the next century may be shipped by pipeline across Turkey–with a link to the Georgian pipeline.
"Some powerful forces have an interest in another solution to this question–concerning the development of the pipeline," Shevardnadze said after narrowly surviving a grenade and machine-gun attack on his motorcade late Monday.
Repairs to the northern pipeline–damaged during the 21-month war in Chechnya–were completed last November–and it is currently working near its capacity of five million tons a year–delivering oil from Baku to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk.
Meanwhile–work has yet to start on the Georgian pipeline–although the construction of an oil terminal at Georgia’s Black Sea port of Supsa has begun.
The pipeline project–estimated to cost up to 1.6 billion dollars–includes the refurbishment of 601 kilometers (373 miles) of existing pipeline sections and the construction of 258 kilometers (160 miles) of new sections.
The United States–anxious to diversify its sources of energy supplies to avoid heavy dependence on the Gulf–has backed the long-term plan to ship oil from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan via Georgia and Turkey to western markets. However–the trans-Turkey pipeline could cost as much as 3.5 billion dollars to build.
According to Alexander Iskandaryan of the Moscow Center for Caucasus Studies–Shevardnadze "is taking every opportunity to talk about the oil issue–because the pipeline is extremely important for Georgia."
"It is maybe the only chance for Georgia–Azerbaijan and even Armenia to really develop their economies and link up with the global (Asia-Europe) transport system. The pipeline not only means transit fees–but it will also attract other capital and credits."
A western diplomat in the Azerbaijani capital Baku told AFP that Georgia was "crucial for the economic success of Azerbaijan."Their economic development is closely linked and Azerbaijan cannot become rich without an exit route through Georgia."