- BAKU (AFX) - The planned
launch this Wednesday of the 4 bln usd Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, a
major US-backed global energy initiative, has been clouded by a recent
violent crackdown on the opposition in Azerbaijan.
- British oil giant BP holds a 30 pct stake in the consortium
running the pipeline. Other consortium members include Azerbaijan's state
oil company SOCAR, Amerada Hess, ConocoPhillips, Eni, Inpex, Itochu, Statoil,
TPAO and Unocal.
- A huge 11-year-long undertaking, the pipeline will transform
the Caucasus and Turkey into an energy bridge between the Caspian and the
rest of the world when it is fully operational six months from now.
- But much of the gleam of that accomplishment was worn
away over the past week by Azerbaijan when police badly beat and arrested
scores of people attending a peaceful rally on Saturday as part of a wider
crackdown linked to the pipeline's opening.
- Authorities refused to allow the rally, saying that it
fell too close to the opening ceremony on Wednesday, which US Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice and a host of other foreign dignitaries were
due to attend.
- Police rounded up some 30 opposition members ahead of
the protest in what the opposition alleged was an attempt to derail the
rally and arrested another 45 during the rally itself as they doled out
severe beatings to dozens of pro-democracy protestors.
- David Woodward, chief executive of BP's Azerbaijan division,
criticized the violence and voiced skepticism on the government's stated
rationale for the crackdown.
- "It's very unfortunate," Woodward told Agence
France-Presse, referring to the weekend violence. "I find it rather
surprising that they should feel the need to ban a small gathering like
that essentially well before any of the VIPs arrive."
- The crackdown was widely criticized by the West, with
Norway's ambassador to Baku, Steinar Gil, saying some guests expected at
the opening ceremony may find it embarrassing to take part while opposition
activists remain in detention.
- The 1,770 km-long pipeline, which will ship up to a million
barrels of Caspian oil to the Mediterranean daily, was built with financial
support from the US.
- It was initiated in 1994 as part of Azerbaijan's so-called
"deal of the century" -- a massive oil contract signed in the
early 1990s to develop Caspian Sea oil.
- The US hopes transporting oil from this region will reduce
its dependence on fuel from the volatile Middle East. At the same time
the project has loosened Moscow's grip here and bolstered US influence
in the region.
- For Azerbaijan, wracked by corruption and poverty, the
project has been a useful political tool with officials lauding it as the
answer to all of the country's financial problems.
- But the crackdown on the opposition has highlighted concerns
that the awaited benefits, an estimated 40-60 bln usd in oil revenues in
the next 30 years, will not trickle down to the general population in an
atmosphere of general unaccountability.
- SOCAR, which holds a 25 pct stake in the BP-led pipeline
consortium, refused to comment on concerns that a high level of opacity
in the company could hamper public accountability to the project.
- "There is little transparency in the oil industry
and a lot of corruption in society, and that's a very bad combination,"
said Ingilab Ahmedov of Baku's Public Finance Monitoring Center.
- According to BP's Woodward, the government is trying
to deal with the issue. But he said "the old guard," or officials
who have remained in power since the death in 2003 of the president, Heydar
Aliyev, "don't want to see reforms progress... and wish to pursue
their own personal interests."
- Internationally, too, critics have said that the West
and especially the US have been too soft on Azerbaijan in their quest to
secure oil supplies.
- "There is a huge reluctance to make a stink of what's
inexcusable and most of that is to do with wanting to maintain the security
of supply," said Simon Taylor, a director at Global Witness, the London-based
watchdog focused on corruption in resource-rich states.