HERE IS a far-reaching story that most Americans have probably never heard of. It is the question of where the major new oil pipelines from the Caucasus and Central Asia will go. When anyone does encounter the story, it seems to be just another international commercial squabble -- important but not crucial. Oil has been discovered again under the Caspian Sea, and the oil "biggies" are fighting over who will bring it out, while Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and Iran are busy fighting over where and how to bring it out.
But the pipeline question involves far more than commercial questions. For the routes will determine whether the new tTC countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia will be reasonably independent or whether Russia will continue its sway over them well into the next century.
Right now, the clock is ticking. The decision on the first pipelines is expected to be made by early October. When that happens, we will begin to see who has control of much of the world's new industrial order in the foreseeable future.
As the ambassador of one of the new countries involved puts it, "This is the chance of a lifetime for us. The Baltic countries had and realized a great chance to escape from under the Russians' sway; now is the time for the Caucasus republics. The pipeline is the issue that could give us our real independence."
Far from public view, this drama is being acted out in foreign ministries from Ankara to Baku, and from London to Moscow, and it involves as much as $200 billion in oil under the Caspian Sea -- for starters. The Caspian, bordered by Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, is an oil-rich region second to the Persian Gulf; it has twice the North Sea reserves. Oil experts are talking feverishly about 115 million to 140 million tons of oil annually for at last the next 10 to 15 years, with 42 billion tons already proven.
But how, in this freer post-Cold War period, to get this "black gold" out to an oil-hungry world? Since a pipeline through Iran has been jettisoned by American resistance, two pipeline deals are now at center stage. The Russian pipeline would go from the northern sectors of the Caspian across troubled Chechnya, to the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. The Georgian pipeline would carry oil from the southern areas, in particular Baku, across neighboring Georgia to southern parts on the Black Sea and out through Turkey.
Ambassador Emre Ronensay, the leading Turkish government expert on the pipeline question, recently said "there is an agreement and consensus between Turkey, the U.S. and Russia that there be multiple pipelines . . . There is an agreement that no country should have a monopoly in trans-shipments to world markets. There is also an agreement that Russia and Turkey should cooperate on the pipeline."
This is a reasonable solution to the immensely complex question of the long-range transport of oil, but right now the oil companies and nations involved are facing the immediate question of "early oil," which for a variety of economic reasons must begin to be pumped and moved by roughly Oct. 2.
The natural route for "early oil" is unquestionably the Georgian one. Physically, it falls between the mountains -- it was the route the Rothschilds outlined in earlier decades to bring Caspian oil out -- and practically it makes sense on every level. Diplomatically, it would immensely strengthen the independence of these new countries. And it could, its planners say with apparent sincerity, actually benefit all the countries in the region if wisely used.
For the long-term oil, still underground and underwater, which will probably begin to be pumped in two to three years, greater Russian participation is definitely needed and is to be, within limits, encouraged. Yet there are worrisome developments on the Russian side: the Russians' bullying of countries such as Georgia and Armenia to accept unremunerated Russian bases and soldiers; Moscow's support of coup after coup against the Azeri government; its deliberate provoking of ethnic conflict in that always volatile region to get what it wants on the big pipeline. And what it wants is virtually total control of the oil.
Moscow's recent conspiracies backing anti-Azeri government uprising of the Lesgian peoples in the north of Azerbaijan is a prime indicator of the tactics they will use.
"The Russians are not so stupid as to try to re-create the Soviet empire," one leading Caucasus diplomat explained to me, "but they are using economic leverage to achieve strategic goals."
The American position so far has been mild and unclear, although it seems that both the U.S. government and the oil consortium (which is 44 percent American) in Azerbaijan back the Georgian pipeline, at least for early oil. This is good and right, but it is only a step in what is essentially the new fight for the soul and independence of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.