Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia signed a deal today to build a pipeline that would send the oil riches of the Caspian Sea to international markets without going through Russia or Iran.
President Clinton looked on as the leaders from the three nations signed a series of accords to build a pipeline from the rich oil fields of Azerbaijan to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The pipeline, which is expected to cost $2.4 billion, would cross through the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said the accord heralds new cooperation between "reliable partners" in the Caspian region and urged photographers to "keep and treasure" their pictures of the historic signing ceremony, because they will "really become unique and cost very much."
Russia has been a chief competitor for the proposed deal and had been trying to persuade Azerbaijan to agree to a pipeline through Russia. Iran had favored an oil swap deal in which Azerbaijani oil would be sold in northern Iran and oil from fields in southern Iran would be sold on Azerbaijan's behalf. That deal would have saved transportation costs for both countries.
Earlier, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, denied that the United States is supporting the pipeline because it objects to Russia's stand in Chechnya.
The pipeline agreement "is not directed against Russia in any way," Berger said. "I think not only the United States but, more importantly, the countries in the region and the international oil companies, have believed that it's important" to create other routes for transporting oil.
The signing came on the sidelines at a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where Clinton joined OSCE member nations in criticizing Russia for its fight against Chechen rebels.
The 1,080-mile line would bypass an unstable Russia and a potentially hostile Iran, moving much of the oil through Turkey, a key U.S. ally that has suffered since U.N. sanctions closed a lucrative pipeline that used Turkey as a conduit for Iraqi oil. But questions remain whether the deal is economically viable. Officials at BP Amoco PLC, the main Western company working in the Caspian oil fields, have said early estimates of massive oil reserves in the region may have been overstated.