Cheney looking to secure energy links in Azerbaijan

Cheney looking to secure energy links in Azerbaijan

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney will be looking to secure strategic energy corridors feeding oil and gas to the West during a visit this week to the Azerbaijani capital Baku, analysts said.

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Cheney arrives in Baku Wednesday for the first leg of a tour that will also take him to Georgia, Ukraine and an economic forum in Italy.


The Georgia leg of the trip is being seen as a key sign of support for the U.S. ally following Russia’s invasion and occupation of parts of the country and its recognition of two pro-Moscow separatist regions.


But analysts said Cheney’s decision to first visit neighboring Azerbaijan reflects one of Washington’s key interests in the volatile Caucasus region: oil and gas.


"Dick Cheney’s visit is first of all connected with energy questions. Azerbaijan and Georgia are parts of a corridor supplying energy resources to Europe," said Azerbaijani political analyst Rasim Musabekov.


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"Dick Cheney himself was involved in lobbying for these projects, so it was obvious that he would visit Azerbaijan.... The United States is looking for assurances that Azerbaijan will continue oil and gas deliveries through Georgia," he said.


Georgia’s conflict with Russia has raised fears that oil and gas producers in the energy-rich Caspian Sea, such as Azerbaijan, could turn their backs on Georgia as a route for exporting to the West.


Backed by Western governments, international energy firms have invested heavily in building a corridor of oil and gas pipelines from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, and then on to hungry Western markets.


But analysts said Azerbaijan may now fear that making Georgia a key link in the chain was a mistake.


Georgia has accused Russia of attempting to bomb all three of the main pipelines through the country during the conflict: the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Supsa oil pipelines and the South Caucasus Pipeline, which carries gas to Turkey.


"The U.S. is afraid that Azerbaijan will begin sending its energy resources through Russia instead of Georgia, and this question will be one of the main points of the visit," said Vafa Guluzade, a Baku-based political analyst and former presidential advisor.


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Russia was already vying with the West for access to Azerbaijan’s substantial oil and gas reserves before the conflict with Georgia.


Russian gas giant Gazprom earlier this year made an offer to purchase large quantities of Azerbaijani gas.


On a visit to Baku in July, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he saw "prospects" for energy cooperation between the two countries and noted "we have no problems in the area of transportation" thanks to an existing pipeline network.


Analysts said Cheney will also be keen to ensure continued Azerbaijani support for the ambitious U.S.- and EU-backed Nabucco gas pipeline.

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Azerbaijan is seen as the key potential supplier for the project, a 3,300-kilometre (2,050-mile) pipeline that would run via Turkey and the Balkan states to Austria. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2009, with the completion date set for 2013.


Russia backs a rival pipeline, South Stream, being built by Gazprom and ENI of Italy. That project entails building a gas pipeline under the Black Sea from Russia to Bulgaria and then branches to Austria and Italy.


"There are other potential supply sources for Nabucco apart from Azerbaijan; Iran and Egypt have been mentioned," said Tanya Costello of the London-based Eurasia Group political consultancy.

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"But there are huge questions on volumes for it and Azerbaijan has been seen as the biggest potential source. Big volumes going elsewhere could scupper Nabucco."


Photo: AP

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