Caspian dispute casts shadow over Nabucco By Bruce Pannier
The unexpected and sudden renewal of the Turkmen-Azerbaijani dispute over three
hydrocarbon fields in the middle of the Caspian Sea is the latest setback to
the European Union's Nabucco gas-pipeline project, less then a fortnight after
a breakthrough agreement was signed by other countries involved in the pipeline
An argument over ownership of the Caspian fields had soured Turkmen-Azerbaijani
relations for more than a decade. But over the past two years, representatives
of the two countries - prodded by EU and United States officials had been
meeting regularly, reviving hopes that Nabucco could be realized.
Those hopes took a hit on July 24 when Turkmen President Gurbanguly
Berdymukhammedov cited a report from Deputy
Foreign Minister Toyly Komekov during a cabinet meeting.
Berdymukhammedov said the report showed that the impasse over the demarcation
of the Caspian seabed between the two countries has remained unresolved "due to
Azerbaijan's specific position. The main reason behind this situation is that
there are mineral deposits located exactly in the disputed areas of the Caspian
Sea. Azerbaijan claims ownership of these deposits, including the deposit known
as Promezhutochnoyee during the Soviet era and which we now call our Serdar
Berdymukhammedov went on to mention the Omar and Osman fields, which he said
Azerbaijan is already exploring but which, he claimed, "belong to us". The
Turkmen president expressed regret that 16 bilateral meetings had not resolved
the issue and then instructed Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov to take the issue
to "the International Court of Arbitration."
More gas needed
The move could present a major obstacle to the EU's Nabucco plans. The proposed
3,300-kilometer pipeline starts at Georgia's western border and then heads
toward Europe via Turkey. The Turkem president was speaking less than two weeks
after Turkey, Austria, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, through which the
pipeline is to run, signed an inter-governmental agreement formally launching
the Nabucco project.
Nabucco planners want to include Central Asian gas in the pipeline,
particularly gas from Turkmenistan, which has one of the world's largest
reserves of natural gas.
For some 15 years now the plan was to construct a "trans-Caspian" pipeline
along the Caspian seabed from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, where it would be
join a pipeline leading to Georgia's western border. The dispute between
Ashgabat and Baku over ownership of the three Caspian fields made construction
of this pipeline impossible.
The recent warming of ties between the two countries, including a visit by
Berdymukhammedov to Baku last year, raised hopes the pipeline could finally be
On state television on July 25, Deputy Foreign Minister Xalaf Xalafov indicated
Azerbaijan was prepared to have a court decide on the ownership issue. "We
believe that we are ready to defend Azerbaijan's position and rights on all
levels," Xalafov said.
Ilham Shaban, an Azerbaijan-based energy expert and the editor of the "Turan
Energy" daily newsletter, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that after years of
this dispute, a court ruling may be the most "civilized" means of ending the
"And to take this matter before a court is a natural step and we also hope the
court will render a fair verdict," Shaban says.
Shaban adds that a resolution of the ownership question could then pave the way
for dramatic improvement in Turkmen-Azerbaijani ties, which in turn opens up
the way for projects like Nabucco. Nabucco backers foresee that the lion's
share of the proposed 31 billion cubic meters of gas for the pipeline would
come from Turkmenistan.
"I feel that this court will render a decision that will bring our countries
even closer together if Ashgabat and Baku will observe and accept the decision
of the International Arbitration Court," he says.
Shaban concedes that if the two countries do not show flexibility and maintain
the rigid posturing that has marred bilateral ties for so long, the court case
could drag on for years and endanger the construction of the trans-Caspian
pipeline and also Nabucco.
Guvanch Geraev and Marat Rakhimov of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service
contributed to this report
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