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Oil and turmoil: explosive mix in the Caucasus

Zafar Bangash

The Caucasus region has seldom had peace. It is becoming even more dangerous as a number of rulers in the area would testify. Sandwiched between two major seas - the Caspian and Black - and endowed with natural resources that are coveted by external powers, there are ample reasons to fish in their troubled waters.

Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian president who had grabbed power from an elected president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, narrowly survived an assassination attempt on February 9. He was foreign minister in Mikhail Gorbachev’s ill-fated Soviet regime and is a card-carrying zionist. He was about to be consigned to the dustbin of history in the frosty Caucasus mountains, but had a narrow escape - for the second time in less than three years.

A few days earlier, Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosian resigned over disagreements with hardliners in his own cabinet. He wanted a deal with Azerbaijan over the Karabakh enclave which the Armenians have occupied illegally. Ter-Petrosian’s rivals, especially prime minister Robert Kocharian, defence minister Vazgen Sarkisian and security minister Serzh Sarkisian, would have none of it.

Azerbaijan has not been without its share of problems either. On February 13, president Gaider Aliyev sacked his foreign minister Hasan Hasanov accusing him of ‘criminal activities.’ He is believed to have turned the construction of a building in Baku into a hotel and casino with the help of Omer Lutfi Topal, a shady Turkish businessman. Others have accused Aliyev’s son, Ilham, of similar charges, especially relating to kickbacks in the Hotel Europa deal. Topal was gunned down in Istanbul in 1996, in what was clearly a drugs related killing.

The region has assumed enormous importance because of oil and gas. The most conservative estimates put the Caspian Sea basin oil reserves at 200 billion barrels and 57 trillion cu m of gas. The west is anxious to grab these riches but are not sure about the best routes out of there.

America, the self-appointed leader and ‘superpower’ of the world, insists that pipelines must not pass through Iran. Reality mitigates against this American desire and pipelines are being laid that will leave Uncle Sam out in the cold.

Who took a shot at Shevardnadze is still being debated. He hinted at the Russians who continue to meddle in Georgia, as they do in other former republics with varying degrees of success. In Ichkeria (Chechenya) they got a beating of their life. The Muslim regions of Abkhazia, Adzharia and South Ossetia are outside Georgia’s military control.

The Georgian army was soundly defeated by the Abkhaz in September 1993, who nearly match the Chechens in tenacity. Shevardnadze must also contend with supporters of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s elected president who was overthrown by Shevardnadze’s thugs.

The region is essentially in the grip of gangsters: Shevardnadze, Kocharian and Aliyev. The latter was the local KGB boss during the Soviet era. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, he temporarily lost out to Azeri nationalists but was able to make a come back.

Today, the US projects him as a senior statesman of the Caucasus. Last year, he was feted at the white house. He also received the Israeli prime minister, Bejamin Netanyahu in Baku, the only Muslim country outside the Middle East to have received the zionist prime minister. And western multinationals have already invested US$8 billion in oil projects; billions more are promised. With quick money comes corruption. That is where Aliyev’s son comes in. Cronyism is not necessarily confined to Southeast Asia.

And then there is meddlesome Russia, still smarting from having lost the empire. It continues to meddle in Georgia by helping the Abkhaz as well as in Azerbaijan by supplying arms to the Armenians. Russia has no love for the Muslim Abkhaz; they are mere pawns in the great game. The Russian army threw everything at the Chechens, also Muslims, in a bid to crush them but failed. The loss of empire does not mean they have completely given up.

If Mosow cannot occupy the region militarily, it attempts subversion as well as blocking the construction of pipelines except through its own territory to the Black Sea port of Novorrisik. The Chechens again are in the way and Moscow has been biting its nails, hoping to hoodwink the Chechens into some kind of a deal.

Another ploy it uses is to dispute the legal right of Azerbaijan - and thus the right of companies like British Petroleum and Amoco - to drill for oil offshore in the Caspian without Moscow’s consent. It insists that the Caspian is a lake. Its resources must therefore be shared by the littoral States and developed with their consent.

On February 12, Iran agreed to accept a border demarcation between Turkmenstan and Kazakhstan in the Caspian Sea. A week later, Kazakhstan also announcement an agreement with Moscow over the Caspian. Agreement between the littoral States would enable them to overcome the manipulative tactics of outsiders, especially the bothersome Americans.

Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 1

Dhu al-Qa'dah 02, 14181998-03-01

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