Oil and Instability: How the ‘Deal of the Century’ Will Affect Javakhk’s Future

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline was inaugurated on July 13. This 1,100-mile oil pipeline, the longest in the world, cost close to $4 billion dollars and took over six years to complete. It is expected to reach full capacity in 2009, when it will carry one million barrels of oil per day from an Azeri oil field in the Caspian Sea to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. A Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum (BTE) natural gas pipeline is also being built in parallel to the BTC and is expected to begin operations at the end of this year. The BTC project was hailed by many as the "Deal of the Century" and holds major geo-political implications for the U.S., Russia, Turkey and the countries of the South Caucasus. Given the close proximity of the pipeline to Javakhk, Georgia, it is also likely to have a major impact on future developmen’s of this unstable region. Due to opposition from Turkey and Azerbaijan, the BTC project was designed early on to skirt around Armenia, despite the fact that it would have provided a shorter, more cost effective route. The Georgian portion of the pipeline was purposefully re-routed to avoid the Armenian populated areas of Javakhk, as well. Nevertheless, the pipeline still traces the border regions of Javakhk and is close enough to be affected by any potential unrest that may take place there. Now that the oil has already begun flowing, the various actors with an interest in the BTC will surely keep a much closer eye on Javakhk. During a formal ceremony for the BTC last year, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili clearly stated the importance his administration places on recent energy projects with Turkey and Azerbaijan: "In practical terms, [the BTC and the BTE] gas pipelines are extremely important projects for Georgia. When the gas pipeline is launched, the issue of Georgia’s energy independence will be finally solved. Georgia will no longer depend on a single source for its energy supplies. This is the most important guarantor of our energy independence." Until the launch of the BTC and BTE pipelines, Georgia’s main source of energy was Russia. However, relations between the two countries have become increasingly tense. (Just last month, four Russian officers were expelled from Georgia on spy charges, and Russia responded with a transport and postal blockade of Georgia.) The Georgian government has since sought to break away as much as possible from its energy reliance on its northern neighbor. Not only does the flow of oil and gas via Azerbaijan provide Georgia with an alternative source of energy, it also provides it with a significant amount of revenue in transit fees. Thus, the Georgian government sees these new pipelines as the key ticket to prosperity and gravitation away from Russia. Officials in Tbilisi must be concerned with the long-term stability of the BTC project whenever the conditions and grievances in Javakhk are brought to their attention. Georgia already has some experience dealing with pipelines and instability. In January, two explosions ripped through the main pipeline connecting Russia to Georgia, leading to a cutoff of gas supplies and significant hardships for both Georgia and Armenia. While Georgia suspected Russian foul play behind the incident, Moscow claimed it was the result of a terrorist attack. It is safe to say that such experiences have shaped the concerns of Georgian officials in regards to Javakhk. Some fear that Russia will seek to stir up sentimen’s in Javakhk as a way of disturbing Georgia’s energy security once again. There is a danger that whatever happens there in the future will be automatically attributed to Moscow and, hence, treated in an antagonistic fashion. Others with a stake in the pipeline have also shown concern over the potentially negative effects of the region’s instability. Various measures have already been taken to safeguard the pipeline’s security. For instance, much of the BTC is buried underground, surrounded with sensors and guarded by a Georgian "rapid response" military force trained by the United States. Since 2002, U.S. military aid and training to Georgia has skyrocketed to improve internal security capabilities and protect the pipeline from "terrorist" attacks. Such attacks are not uncommon in areas around the world where pipelines pass through. From Colombia to Nigeria to Burma and Iraq, pipeline projects are notorious for their association with conflict, environmental degradation, human rights abuses, local exploitation and government repression. The people of Javakhk themselves also have some cause for concern regarding the BTC and the legacy of pipeline politics in other parts of the world. Many Javakhktsis are wary of a possible Turkish military incursion into their territory under the pretext of protecting the pipeline. Indeed, growing military ties between Turkey and Georgia over recent years and the close proximity of Javakhk to the Turkish bordernot to mention the historic animosity of the Turkish state toward Armenia’smakes residents feel especially vulnerable. This vulnerability is further accentuated by the gradual removal of the Russian military base in Javakhk, scheduled to be completed by 2008. One local Armenian store owner in Akhalkalaki was quoted as saying, "The military base protects us from unemployment and from Turkey. If the Russia’s go, who will guarantee our safety? Certainly not the Georgians!" Interestingly enough, should any violence or harm occur in relation to the pipeline, the companies involved in the BTC consortium would be exempt from any legal liability. This is due to specific language included in the contract which relieves private signatories from any responsibility over the actions of security forces. In addition, the companies succeeded in getting government agencies, such as Britain’s Export Credit Guarantee Department (ECGD), to underwrite the risk of sabotage by civil conflict or "terrorism." Clearly, those financing and profiting off of the BTC project are very attentive to the possibility of strife and instability along the pipeline route. The main aim of the Western community is to avoid the destabilization of the region. In this way, the official operation of the pipeline now adds a new dimension to the importance of improving the situation of Javakhk’s Armenia’s. Despite the various security measures in place, unrest in the area would undoubtedly affect some of the BTC infrastructure and hamper the smooth flow of oil to Western markets. The same is true for any potential resumption of hostilities in Karabakh. Negative developmen’s in Javakhk would also be detrimental for the energy security and prosperity of the Georgia. For this reason, it is essential for Georgian officials to turn their rhetoric of improving the dire conditions of Javakhk into reality. The unwillingness to do this in the face of rising economic growth and the benefits of the "oil boom" will only serve to further alienate the people of Javakhk. Ultimately, what Javakhktsis are appealing for is improved economic conditions, fair treatment and cultural freedom. Their interests lie in resolving unemployment, poverty, lack of basic services, access to education, cultural rights and health. These interests are by no means incompatible with the interests of the Georgian state. Meeting these needs would go a long way in ensuring stability in the region and the loyalty of Javakhk’s citizens toward the central Georgian government. For the interests of all concerned, Georgian leaders would do well to recognize that it is not Russia’s meddling, but rather the legitimate grievances of Javakhk’s population, which need to be addressed. In the end, this will be the only long-term way of maintaining stability and integration in the region.

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