Georgia Hopes for Boost from Caspian Pipeline
Starting this summer, a new $4 billion pipeline is expected to begin pumping crude oil from the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean Sea. To get there, the pipeline passes through neighboring Georgia, a small, impoverished republic that has no energy resources of its own.
Analysts say Georgia is the weakest link in this energy project, which has strong support from the U.S. government.
Georgia's leaders hope the pipeline will help transform the country from an impoverished backwater to a member of NATO and a vital supplier of energy to the West.
Georgia is not the most direct route for pumping Azeri oil to the Mediterranean Sea. Investors chose to build the pipeline through Georgia in a long, meandering arc to avoid Armenia, which is still embroiled in a conflict with Azerbaijan.
But the planners did not anticipate the sudden toppling of the Georgian government two years ago in a popular uprising. David Woodward, the British Petroleum executive in charge of the pipeline project, worried as he watched the revolution unfold on television.
But the new pro-Western government of Georgia embraced the strategic pipeline. And today, the project snakes its way across the mountainous country. In some places, bulldozers are still at work, burying a second parallel pipeline that will eventually pump Azeri natural gas along the same route to neighboring Turkey.
Regional analysts say the stability of Georgia is still a concern. Alexander Rondeli, who heads the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, says Georgia faces internal and external pressures that keep it weak.
"Russia still believes it needs to stay in Georgia because of strategic reasons," he says. "And this is why any help coming to Georgian society is very important because without external support, we will not survive."
Georgia lost control of two separatist regions after fighting two disastrous wars in the 1990s. Georgia's increasingly hostile neighbor, Russia, supports these autonomous territories. And Moscow recently slapped trade restrictions on Georgia, including a ban on imports of Georgian wine.
Unlike Azerbaijan, where signs of the oil-fueled prosperity can be seen even in remote villages, the Georgian countryside appears to have been in economic decline ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the provincial town of Tetritsqaro, young, unemployed men stand outside their dilapidated houses in the morning, drinking cans of beer.
Just a few miles away stand the new floodlights, barbed-wire fences and gleaming smokestacks of Pump Station No. 2, a fortified multimillion-dollar compound that straddles the pipeline.
The local manager, Vladimir Zhamirashvilli believes that in the long run, the pipeline will help modernize towns like Tetritsqaro.
"Europe culture, American culture is coming here and I think it will help our country because a lot of people have the same Soviet Union culture we had a lot of years ago," he says.
In fact, there's been a clash of cultures between the Western multinational oil consortium and the impoverished rural communities along the pipeline.
Tkemlana is a small farming village named after a spicy Georgian hot sauce. During the pipeline's construction, the feisty local farmers say they protested the oil company by periodically blockading the muddy road that runs through their village.
Residents, who earn less then $500 a year, complained that companies imported foreign workers and hired only a handful of locals to work on the project.
Farmer Sergei Kapanadze says locals still haven't been compensated for land that was confiscated for the project. And heavy trucks ruined the local road and damaged houses, he says.
To improve community relations and protect the pipeline, the oil company has hired some villagers, armed with cell phones and dressed in bright orange uniforms and construction helmets, to patrol the pipeline on horseback.
But that hasn't stopped criminal gangs from repeatedly attempting to siphon thousands of dollars' worth of oil from this and other buried pipelines crossing Georgia.
Another contentious issue was that the pipeline was built through part of the Borjomi Gorge, home to one of the largest national parks in Europe. Wildlife activists worry that an oil leak could ruin the nature preserve.
Rondeli, the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies analyst, says the geo-strategic benefits of the pipeline outweigh the environmental risks.
"It will bring certain income, it will bring more security, it will bring more confidence, and it will bring more actors to Georgia who are interested in Georgia's stability and security," Rondeli says.
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