Wednesday, 02 July 2003

BAKU-TBILISI-CEYHAN: GREAT GAME FOR NGOS?

Published in Analytical Articles

By Elin Suleymanov (7/2/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: In an area where a tradition of regional cooperation has yet to be established, the very fact of reaching multilateral agreements of such complexity and significance as the BTC project implies has produced the basis not only of this one pipeline, but also set a precedent of mutually beneficial cooperation and laid the basis for further development of the East-West transportation corridor. A unique, harmonized legal regime for the construction of the pipeline emerged from meticulous multi-year negotiations among specialists from the three transit countries, industry executives, and western government representatives. However, it is the very symbol of promising potential of regional cooperation, the HGAs, that are the center of the controversy.
BACKGROUND: In an area where a tradition of regional cooperation has yet to be established, the very fact of reaching multilateral agreements of such complexity and significance as the BTC project implies has produced the basis not only of this one pipeline, but also set a precedent of mutually beneficial cooperation and laid the basis for further development of the East-West transportation corridor. A unique, harmonized legal regime for the construction of the pipeline emerged from meticulous multi-year negotiations among specialists from the three transit countries, industry executives, and western government representatives. However, it is the very symbol of promising potential of regional cooperation, the HGAs, that are the center of the controversy. The major energy infrastructure project in the region, BTC has often been described as the centerpiece of a re-emergent Great Game, and inflamed passions, emotions and political responses long before the construction of the pipe itself had commenced. Due to its own significance in shaping the region’s future, the BTC pipeline project has invited strong supportive rhetoric from those supporting the independent course pursued by Baku and Tbilisi aimed at integration with the West, and an immediate knee-jerk condemnation from those more comfortable with the regional status quo. Initially, opponents of the pipeline claimed, and some still do, that there is not enough oil to fill the pipe. Remarkably, the same very voices called for re-routing this “commercially non-viable” pipeline through their own territory. That certain groups in Moscow and Teheran are concerned with the prospect of decreasing possibilities of exerting pressure on their weaker neighbors should not be surprising. Nor should Yerevan’s opposition on the pipeline, in which Armenia cannot participate as a result of its continued occupation of neighboring Azerbaijan’s territories. The surprising part is when forces with clear strategic and political motivations to oppose the project suddenly find de facto bedfellows in unexpected places. Some time ago, the World Bank urged Georgia to renege on the understandings reached as a part of the BTC package; this prompted Azerbaijan to give up its transit fees in favor of Georgia, thus overcoming the obstacle, but the event raised eyebrows about the Bank’s policies. Most recently, a coalition of NGOs led by a group of European environmentalists suddenly emerged in opposition to the pipeline, and to the agreements enabling its construction. Among many energy projects around the globe, environmentalists surprisingly chose to campaign against a project that enjoys strong public support in the three countries it transits. Also telling is the timing of this sudden strong distaste for this decade-old project. The anti-BTC campaign on environmental and human rights grounds coincided with the opponents of the project exhausting all other arguments to undermine the pipeline’s construction. In addition to Friends of the Earth and the Kurdish Human Rights Project, Amnesty International lately added its voice to opposing BTC.

IMPLICATIONS: Environmental and social concerns cannot and must not be ignored in any major construction project, especially in case of an oil pipeline. These concerns have been a part of the negotiations. Still, the discussion on the project’s social impact is not complete, nor have all environmental questions been fully addressed. What is remarkable is not the discussion of these issues, but that external groups, disregarding the overwhelming and genuine public support for BTC in the region, are knowingly or unknowingly feeding into politically motivated attempts to undermine the project. Therein lies the major problem with the anti-BTC coalition’s logic. Supposedly campaigning for the rights of the local population and the environment, European NGOs failed to ask for the views of the local residents. This implied imposing their own, rather abstract, views. While accusing British Petroleum and other energy companies of pressuring the regional governments, the NGO coalition is itself engaged in a campaign of pressure that some in the region see as amounting to a form of “environmentalist imperialism.” The inclusion of token, though vocal, local groups opposed to the pipeline does not change the basic fact that the major support for the anti-BTC campaign comes from outside the region. The anti-BTC NGOs fail to appreciate the challenges facing the region, extrapolating their residual intrinsic dislike of the energy industry and experience of anti-globalization public protests onto the Caucasus. Concerns about possible negative effect on the pipeline on Azerbaijan’s numerous displaced population, which have been living in the camps for the last decade and whose plight has been largely ignored by the outside world, is seen a bitter irony by the IDPs as the BTC is the main hope for their country’s economic future and, subsequently, improving their social conditions. Hypothetical talk about future labor disputes as a reason for suspending construction of the pipeline in countries with rampant unemployment and virtually no major alternatives for income at the moment is another example. Building on the momentum of its own campaign, the anti-BTC coalition stands in stark contrast to about 200 Azerbaijani and Georgian NGOs and civic groups, who signed a petition in support of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. While concerned with some aspects of the project, civil society groups supporting the project at the same time underscore its overwhelming benefits for the future of their nations. While counterintuitive for some, the support for an oil project coming from a diverse spectrum of local NGOs and political parties reflects both the local public support for BTC and the complexity of issues in the region.

CONCLUSIONS: By lending their names to the anti-BTC campaign and unwillingly participating in someone else’s agenda in the Caucasus, major NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International have caused a challenge to the BTC pipeline. The campaign has nevertheless had another consequence, namely to damage the standing of human rights and environmental groups in the eyes of the local population. Falling into the trap of using environment and human rights rhetoric for undermining a major infrastructure development, they risk causing serious harm to the region’s future. Meanwhile, damage has also been caused to the credibility of valid and important environmental and social concerns surrounding the pipeline’s construction.

AUTHOR BIO: Elin Suleymanov is pursuing a postgraduate degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He has formerly served as First Secretary at the Embassy of Azerbaijan in Washington D.C., and Program Officer at the UNHCR in Baku.

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