Saturday, August 23, 2008

Azerbaijan's delicate position

I have been watching television footage of an explosion that occurred after a train hit a mine near the Georgian city of Gori today. At least 10 railway cars carrying oil are reportedly on fire. This latest event underscores the problem that Azerbaijan is facing. One of the ways that the war in Georgia has most concretely affected Azerbaijan is that it makes movement of Azerbaijan's oil and gas to market more precarious.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline is one of the main conduits of oil from Azerbaijan. About 1 million barrels of crude per day normally flows through the pipeline.

The war in Georgia poses a threat to the pipeline, which has been closed for about two weeks. The immediate cause of the closure, however, was fire set by Kurdish rebels in Turkey. BP officials this week said that the pipeline is now being tested and full operations could begin again this coming week.

The gas exports from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia were suspended for a couple of days because of the conflict in Georgia, but gas exports began to flow again last week. The pumping of oil through the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline, however, remained on hold. Also, an explosion at the Caspi bridge in Georgia meant that more than 1000 containers used to transport Azerbaijani oil were stranded in Georgia. Following the explosion, Azerbaijan suspended oil exports through the ports in western Georgia.

Just for the record, Russia denied any involvement in the bridge explosion.

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan issued a statement last week, noting the damage caused to Azerbaijan's exports. The volume of Azerbaijani oil and gas exports has "dropped dramatically," he said.

This economic sensitivity helps explain the delicate position for Azerbaijan.

On one hand, the Azerbaijanis have fresh memories about the heavy-handed rule of Soviets here. In every small Azerbaijani city I've visited, there is some sort of memorial to Black January. On January 19, 1990, 26,000 Soviet troops entered Baku in an attempt to quash a nascent independence movement. More than 130 people were killed and 700 people were wounded. Unarmed civilians were shot and run over by tanks. Ambulances and hospitals were attacked. The massacres of January 19, 1990 never received that much attention from the rest of the world, but the memories endure here.

On the other hand, Azerbaijan is keenly aware of its strategic position vis a vis Russia and the West. And the same people who decry the events of Black January will also frankly say that things were better under the Soviet Union.

One friend here recently described Azerbaijan as a bridge - neither East nor West. Azerbaijanis can be just as fiercely nationalist as Georgians, but in my discussions with them, the Azerbaijanis portray themselves as less stand-offish than the Georgians. (This not scientific polling, just impressions gathered from many conversations.) I think the implication may be that Azerbaijanis perceive themselves as more pragmatic. Part of this pragmatism may be a recognition of the delicacy of its position. Azerbaijan needs peace and a cooperative partner in Georgia if its current mode of exporting oil and gas is to continue. And it would like the support of the United States to balance the power of the Russians. (I'm not even going to get into the Russian role in the conflict with Armenia!)

Joshua Foust has a good piece about press coverage of the conflict in Georgia in the recent Columbia Journalism Review. In general, the coverage has been predictably bad, with little attention to the history - which is bloody on both sides.