Georgia Azerbaijan Bond Reinforced

SAAKASHVILI AND ALIYEV FOCUS ON PIPELINE TIES AND ECONOMIC COOPERATION DURING FIRST-EVER MEETING

BAKU (AFP/Itar-Tass)–Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili met with his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev during a visit designed to reinforce friendly ties and increase cooperation between the two neighbors and partners in a strategic oil pipeline project.

Good relations between the two nations are seen as crucial to the multi-billion-dollar (euro) Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline–which will export crude from the landlocked Caspian Sea–across Azerbaijan–Georgia and Turkey–to world markets.

It was the first time the leaders of the two former Soviet republics in the Caucasus had met. Both men came to power within the past six months–Saakashvili in a bloodless revolt and Aliyev when he succeeded his father as president.

"A new generation has come along and there is a new energy in our relations," Saakashvili told reporters after talks with Aliyev in the Azeri capital–Baku.

"There is no alternative to our cooperation and brotherly relations," added Saakashvili–a US-educated lawyer who–at 36–is the youngest elected head of state in Europe. "Georgia and Azerbaijan will strengthen bilateral cooperation," emphasized the Georgian leader.

The BTC pipeline–currently under construction–will pump up to one million barrels of oil a day from a terminal at Sangachal–30 kilometers (18 miles) south of Baku–to a tanker terminal on the Mediterranean Sea.

It is being built by a consortium of multinational oil companies–with backing from the US government–and the bill for construction will come in at around three billion dollars (2.4 billion euros).

The pipeline–due to start pumping oil in the first quarter of 2005–is seen as key to harvesting the oil riches of the Caspian Sea–home to some of the world’s largest untapped hydrocarbon reserves.

Saakashvili re-stated his commitment to the project–which will provide much-needed transit revenues for his country–saying that "for Georgia–the pipeline is a question of survival."

He pledged to resist any attempts by opponents of the project–who include green groups and Russia–which wants Caspian oil exported across its territory–to hold it up. "I will not allow such things to happen," he said.

Aside from energy projects–Saakashvili spoke of an economic and customs union between Azerbaijan and Georgia to lift the two countries out of poverty. Hope is to create a common tariff system–synchronize tax policy–and remove all customs barriers in order to implement joint projects. "The common Georgian-Azerbaijani market will become a common economic space in the South Caucasian region," conveyed the Georgian leader.

Saakashvili led a mass protest movement which ousted veteran president Eduard Shevardnadze from office last November and won a landslide victory in subsequent presidential elections in January.

Aliyev was elected president last October–succeeding his father Heydar Aliyev as head of state and creating the former Soviet Union’s first political dynasty.

Relations between Shevardnadze and Heydar Aliyev were warm. The two men were old colleagues from their days working as senior Communist Party functionaries under Soviet rule.

Saakashvili will be in Azerbaijan through Friday–when he will be taken on a tour of the Sangachal oil terminal.

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