Tinderbox Caucasus

Jul 11, 2006 02:00 AM

by Walter Mayr

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, a new billion-dollar conduit for Caspian oil, will finally start operations. But the long-awaited pipeline already has one significant problem: it's vulnerable to attack by Armenian fighters from separatist enclave Nagorno-Karabakh.
The future of Azerbaijan lies hidden beneath the earth, in steel pipelines, 107 centimetres (42 inches) in diameter. Signs posted in freshly raked soil marking the path of the new pipeline read: "Warning -- Extreme High Pressure -- Crude Oil." The pipeline is intended to bring oil from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean for the next few decades, supplying fuel for energy-hungry Western economies.

Shepherds with sun-tanned faces guide their herds across the pipeline's path, which crosses pastureland with rapeseed and poppy fields in full bloom. It's a bright Sunday morning in the lowlands of Azerbaijan. British Petroleum security guards, motorized and on horseback, haven't reported any unusual activity along the pipeline -- that is, until a military vehicle approaches the city of Geranboy from the south, where the cease-fire line lies.
The vehicle is carrying the corpse of Ektan Hadjikaibov. Fellow soldiers say he was killed at 6:30 a.m. this day by a bullet from the Armenian side of the cease-fire line. He was a recruit stationed along the southern course of the pipeline, which runs along the border to Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region that occupies a fertile highland plateau wedged between the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea and the Little Caucasus Mountains.

Ektan had just been born when ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave began separating from Azerbaijan. He was six when the war ended officially, a conflict that claimed 30,000 lives and displaced a million people. And he was 18 when he died, directly along the strip of border territory separating the warring Azerbaijanis and Armenians -- known as the cease-fire line since 1994.
The Azerbaijani inhabitants of the village of Tap-Karakoyunlu, which Ektan was sent to protect, have lived in a state of high alert for almost a generation. Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh begins just a few hundred meters south of their settlement, on a road that's been closed for 16 years. The Shahumian district begins a few hundred meters west of the village. Once inhabited by Armenians and the site of a bloody ethnic cleansing campaign during the war, Shahumian remains part of the territory the Armenians are demanding from Azerbaijan.

Oil for the West
Finally, the strategically important and heavily guarded Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline runs along the northern edge of Shahumian. After 12 years of planning and construction, the BTC will finally be opened in an official ceremony on July 13. A BP-led consortium invested $ 3.9 bn in the pipeline, which is expected to pump 50 mm tons of oil each year from Azerbaijan through Georgia and on to the Turkish Mediterranean coast, where it can then be shipped onward to North America and Europe.
The "deal of the century," conceived in 1994 during the administration of US President Bill Clinton, reflects the bitter struggle for dominance in an area that has traditionally been the site of conflicts of interest among Russian, Turkish and Persian rulers.

But once it opens for business, the BTC pipeline will reflect Washington's strategic interests in the Caspian region: to secure long-term access to its oil and natural gas reserves and provide a source of income for long-time NATO ally Turkey and for its more recent, pro-Western partners, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Former US President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to this day an untiring champion of American interests in the Caucasus, helped move the project forward. When conflict in Chechnya flared up in September 1999, Russia abandoned its original plans for an oil pipeline from Baku to the Black Sea via the Chechnyan capital, Groznyy. Instead, Moscow is now making do with a pipeline that transports oil from Kazakhstan's Black Sea coast to the Russian side.

After years of geopolitical wrangling, the 1,768-km (1,099-mile) BTC pipeline will pump fuel for the West to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, bypassing a number of states known for their lack of a pro-Western orientation.
The pipeline's planners chose the route to avoid the risks of doing business with the mullahs in Iran, the rulers at the Kremlin in Moscow or the Armenians, who emerged victorious from their conflict with Azerbaijan.

Geopolitical premium
The price they'll pay is that a section of the pipeline lies within range of heavy rocket-propelled grenades positioned on the hills of Karabakh. The route also forces investors to do business with the authoritarian Aliyev regime in Baku, upgrading that government to a position of favoured business partner of the West.
Following the 2003 death of former KGB general Heydar Aliyev, the self-proclaimed "Father of all Azerbaijanis," his son and successor in the presidency, Ilham, will nowbe able to reap the prestige and oil $ s the pipeline project promises to bring.

The regime in Baku expects the BTC pipeline to yield annual revenues of $ 1 bn until 2025, a vast sum for a country in which 40 % of the population lives below the poverty line and the average monthly wage in rural areas is only $ 40. About 750,000 refugees still live miserable lives in railroad cars, corrugated metal shantytowns and government shelters. And an eighth of Azerbaijani territory, an area much larger than Nagorno-Karabakh, remains occupied by Armenian troops.
The people of the border village of Tap-Karakoyunlu, where young recruit Ektan Hadjikaibov lost his life, also live precarious lives marked by the deaths and injuries that come from constantly living in the line of fire, the loss of pastureland behind the cease-fire line and a lack of clean drinking water whenever the river running along the border becomes clogged with debris.

The Muslim villagers lost the war with Armenia at the cease-fire line, and the pipeline isn't likely to change their lives significantly. In the days when, on May 9 of each year, they used to join the Christian Armenians in Talysh, a village across the border, to celebrate victory over fascism, the days when they still purchased wine and cognac from the Armenians, the two hamlets were linked by a three-and-a-half-kilometre (two-mile) unpaved road. Today the trip from Tap-Karakoyunlu to Talysh passes through 1,002 km (622 miles) of Caucasus detours, through three states and a miniature republic recognized by no one.
The route begins along the pipeline, in the shadow of 3,500-meter (11,483-foot) Mraw Mountain, then crosses the "Red Bridge" to Georgia, finally veering sharply to the south into the Armenian highlands.

Armenia is a poorhouse among the Caucasus states. Its borders to Azerbaijan and Turkey closed, the country is paying dearly for its victory in the war over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, as it struggles with a weak economy and costly imports. The snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat, Armenia's holy mountain, seems almost within reach just behind the capital, Yerevan. Ararat, the legendary resting site of Noah's Ark, today represents the faraway vanishing point of the Armenian soul -- but the mountain lies on Turkish soil.
The two-hour trip to the Lachin corridor leads past convoys of howitzers being hauled through the mountains toward Karabakh. Lachin serves as an umbilical cord between the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Isolated enclave
The corridor ends at Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Aside from government business, the rulers of this republic, which is not recognized by any other country, spend much of their time providing security for the enclave's special economic zone, where Swiss manufacturers produce clock parts and Russians polish diamonds.
It takes another two hours to reach Talysh, the Armenian's outpost in north-eastern Karabakh, along unpaved roads and, finally, steep paths accessible only by Jeep. Talysh, founded in 461 AD, has traditionally been the Armenians' eagle's nest and lookout point over the Azerbaijani lowlands. The region settled by the Armenians' Muslim neighbours lies directly beneath Talysh like a succulent platter of delicacies -- first the village of Tap-Karakoyunlu, then Naftalan, a resort town and, finally, the new pipeline along the horizon.

"We Armenians are a small group of people, which is why we live in the mountains, the better to defend ourselves," says one resident of Talysh.
During the war, their village was occupied by Azerbaijani troops for 22 months, or until April 1994. Many houses are in ruins, and less than a quarter of Talysh's former population of 2,500 has returned. Those who have are once again driving herds of pigs and cows through the streets, as women wring out their laundry at the village well and the elderly sit under acacia trees, recounting the illustrious history of their people.

Armenia is the world's oldest Christian state. Its King Trdat IV was baptized in 303 A.D. Ever conscious of a history spanning thousands of years, today the Armenians live an isolated, cocoon-like existence. Because of their history, Armenian nationalists see the struggle for Karabakh as little more than a tiny fragment of a much larger picture.
For Armenians, the genocide committed in the days of the Ottoman Empire, to which about a million of their countrymen fell victim in 1915, merely represents the climax of the long history of suffering of a people that sees itself as a staunch vanguard of Christian civilization on the frontier between Europe and Asia.

As evidence of their own religious tolerance, the Karabakh Armenians like to point out the two intact minarets of the Agdam mosque, towering over a ruined landscape like two exclamation points, drawing attention to the evils of ethnic hatred. But inside the mosque, where the mullah of Agdam once praised the glory of Allah, a cowherd now watches over 27 brown dairy cows standing up to their shackles in dung, while pigs wander the streets of the city. But there is no one left to complain. Agdam, a flourishing city of 160,000 primarily Muslim Azerbaijanis before the war, is little more than a desolate pile of dust and stone today.
Although it has always been outside the borders of Karabakh, the Armenians continue to hold Agdam as part of a "buffer zone" -- a bargaining chip for the day when a decision will be made over the future and borders of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Caucasus region's "Black Garden."

Simmering conflict
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's "Minsk Group," which has spent the last 14 years struggling to find a solution to the conflict, met most recently in May to discuss the situation, but without palpable results. A meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan was also unsuccessful. Armenian President Robert Kocharian, born in Karabakh, and his Azerbaijani counterpart, President Ilham Aliyev, who stems from a clan in the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhitchevan, embody to an extreme the two countries' widely diverging positions on the conflict.
Azerbaijan insists on the full return of all occupied territories, while Armenia wants recognition of the 1991 declarations of independence in Nagorno-Karabakh and a neighbouring region. The Armenians have only backed down from their demand that the separatist region be annexed to Armenia.

The powers that be in Karabakh have taken a decidedly poker-faced stance toward the prospect of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline coming into full operation within firing range of their most advance positions.
Although the Karabakhians are aware of the most recent threatening language coming from Baku, their deputy foreign minister, Massis Mayilian, hopes the moderating influence of international investors will calm tensions: "The project requires stability in the region. And we are in favour of stability. The pipeline would be in the middle of a war zone the minute the Azeris launched an armed conflict."

The current sparks flying between the two countries could easily turn into a full-blown conflagration along the pipeline. Azerbaijani military expert Useir Jafarov warns that even Tehran's mullah regime could easily respond to a US attack on Iran with rocket strikes against the pipeline.
And one of Karabakh's most respected civil rights activist, Karen Ohanjanian, has called for "destroying the pipeline" if Azerbaijan uses its oil revenues to bankroll a new war in Karabakh.

A new war?
Communiqués from Baku clearly indicate that the country is preparing for war, says Seiran Oganian, Karabakh's defence minister. But his small republic, says the former Soviet army officer, a general and veteran of the Karabakh war, is prepared for all eventualities: "Our command structure is in place. We are capable of defending the status quo, but also of responding to attacks or launching our own preventive strikes."
A military force of 25,000 troops defends Nagorno-Karabakh's 137,000 inhabitants. Just how many of these troops were sent to the enclave from the Armenia motherland remains a well-kept secret. But it is undisputed that the Karabakh government is backed by money and logistics from Armenia, and that Armenia enjoys the support of long-time ally Russia, which still maintains military bases in the country. In return, Moscow has been permitted to acquire key sectors of the Armenian economy.

"What's really at stake here is global politics -- America versus Russia and, most importantly, oil," says Valery Babajian, the town historian in Talysh. A veteran of the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war, he has never forgotten how the Azerbaijanis ransacked the graves of his ancestors as they marched south.
"But someday," says Babajian, pointing down at the flatlands, "we will live in peace again with the people over there in Tap-Karakoyunlu."

Those people down there are the ones young recruit Ektan Hadjikaibov died for in the early light of morning. The deadly shot must have come from up here, from somewhere in the hills above Talysh, where the Armenians, barricaded in trenches reinforced with blocks of stone and iron bars, warily watch the enemy through narrow openings in their fortifications.
"In the Soviet days, we calculated the distance to the Azerbaijanis in kilometres by street," they say. "Today we use artillery ranges."

Source: Der Spiegel
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