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Turkey claims victory in fight for oil pipeline

US intervention wins Ankara a foot in door to Caucasus. Hugh Pope reports
Istanbul - The first oil from new fields in the Caspian Sea will flow to the West through two pipelines, one backed by Russia and the other by Turkey and the United States, a BP-led consortium of 11 international oil giants decided in Azerbaijan yesterday.

The historic compromise left some loose ends, as seems customary in the complex Caspian oil negotiations. The flow of "early oil" will be "simultaneous" in the pipelines when it starts in a year, but a decision on how much will go through each was left to later.

Turkey was elated nevertheless, with television leading news bulletins with announcements of a victory. Even sober commentators felt that the compromise gave Turkey a foot in the Caucasian door, a chance to show the consortium why it should fulfil its promise to give Turkey the main future oil pipeline down to the Mediterranean. "It is exactly what we were looking for. It couldn't be better," said one of those privy to the negotiations, Turkey's ambassador to London, Ozdem Sanberk.

The Turks have long agitated for various configurations of oil pipelines and other trade routes to link them to Azerbaijan and other Turkic states in Central Asia, freed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they have been frustrated by geography, Russian blocking tactics and centuries of separate cultural development.

Yesterday's compromise was also due to an intervention by President Bill Clinton, who telephoned the Azerbaijani president, Haydar Aliyev, to push for the dual pipeline solution. That helped Mr Aliyev to resist pressure from Russia that included a trade embargo and, allegedly, meddling in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict.

Russia's blunt suppression of Chechen independence last December - perhaps partly to secure the Russian oil pipeline route through Grozny - helped persuade the US of the need to diversify away from full-scale support for Moscow.

Even so, both pipeline routes run through geopolitical minefields. The Chechens are threatening to blow up the Russian northern route to the port of Novorossisk. The southerly route favoured by Turkey, which requires substantial new pipelaying, goes through unstable Georgia to Batumi, close to Turkey's Black Sea border.

To attract the consortium, Turkey offered to finance the upgrading of the Georgian line and to buy all the oil delivered through it. Turkish contractors are also well placed to start construction quickly, even if Georgia placates Russia with a share in that pipeline too.

"We should not give up. It depends on Turkish determination. We should try to make oil run through that line as soon as possible," wrote Ferai Tinc, foreign editor of Hurriyet. "We will get the right to say: 'Look, we stood by our word. Now you stand by yours, and put the main pipeline through to Ceyhan [a Turkish oil terminal on the Mediterranean].' "

Turkish suspicions of ill intent led one newspaper to brand the BP pipeline consortium chief as "Lawrence of the Caucasus", but Mr Sanberk and a consortium spokesman in Baku stressed that there was now no difference of opinion between Turkey and BP.

Turkey is not just after oil transit fees and regional influence. There is genuine resentment that the 10 million people of Istanbul should be exposed to several more supertankers coming through the Bosphorus. The proposed Ceyhan route would bypass the Black Sea. Russia has proposed a by-pass line through Bulgaria and Greece to the Aegean, but few believe it would be economic.

Even if only a little of the "early oil" passes through the Georgian pipeline, Turkey is confident that other companies prospecting in Azerbaijan may use it. It may also attract interest from new producers of oil in central Asia, who are having trouble exporting through Russia's creaking system.

The early oil is not expected to exceed 80,000 barrels per day. But the main pipeline will be able to carry up to 700,000 barrels per day, and a final decision on its route is due in 1997. The spokesman for the consortium in Baku, Einar Bergh, said Turkey was still favoured. "[The consortium] feels that when it comes to the main oil production, the main loading point should be Ceyhan."