By Emil Danielyan and Harry Tamrazian in Prague
Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev has shrugged off efforts by Armenian-American lobbying groups to block US government assistance to a project to build a strategically important pipeline carrying Azerbaijani oil to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan through Georgia.
Last week, a group of pro-Armenian members of the US Congress introduced a draft congressional resolution that discourages the use of American taxpayers' funds for the construction of the Baku-Ceyhan if it does not pass through Armenia. The resolution also recommends that the US Trade Development Agency fund a feasibility study to determine the cost savings of a trans-Armenian route.
The legislation, introduced in the House of Representatives by leaders of the congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, states that the US should not subsidize pipelines "whose commercial viability is in doubt or which hinders the United States' goal of integrating Armenia into a secure and prosperous regional economic framework."
Aliev mentioned the proposed resolution on Friday at a meeting with the chief executive of British Petroleum, one of the world’s largest oil companies which leads the biggest Western oil consortium operating in Azerbaijan. The Turan news agency quoted him as saying that “these problems will not hinder implementation of the project.”
Azerbaijan has in the past repeatedly ruled out the possibility of the pipeline running across Armenian territory despite significant cost savings of that option. The continuing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is the main reason for Baku’s opposition to the idea.
BP Group chief executive John Browne told Aliev that US Vice President Dick Cheney has recently reaffirmed Washington’s support for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan route. Before his election as vice president, Cheney had lobbied Azerbaijani interests on Capitol Hill in his capacity as chief executive of Halliburton, a leading oil services company.
A former honorary member of the US-Azerbaijani Chamber of Commerce, Cheney had campaigned for the repeal of restrictions on direct American government aid to Azerbaijan
Detailed engineering studies are scheduled to begin later this month for the 1,745-kilometer pipeline. Preliminary studies suggest the it will cost about $2.9 billion. “The International Herald Tribune” reported that Browne announced Wednesday that the pipeline will be built and operating by the end of 2004.
Major US oil companies see the Baku-Ceyhan as being too expensive, preferring a shorter and cheaper Iranian option. But the high oil prices have rendered the US-backed plan more attractive.
Meeting with Aliev in Baku, Browne said a BP-led consortium preparing to build the pipeline would welcome any latecomers to the project. He said those companies who don't join the consortium will regret it, adding that the group has enough resources to complete the project without additional investors, according to The Associated Press.
On Wednesday Italian energy firm Eni SpA said it was interested in joining the consortium.