Sunday, August 29, 2010

Energy Forum to Seek Regional Dialogue on Sensitive Issues

The second annual Black Sea Energy and Economic Forum, organized by the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Energy Center, is to take place in Istanbul on September 29th. Ambassador Ross Wilson, who recently joined the Atlantic Council as Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, is one of many experts who follow the region closely and will be attending the conference. Wilson, who has served as U.S Ambassador in both Azerbaijan and Turkey, spoke to the Hurriyet Daily News about the purpose of the conference and some of the issues that are to be discussed.

After its inaugural convention in Bucharest last year, the Black Sea Energy and Economic Forum, or BSEEF, hopes to build a dialogue within the Eurasian region between economic players and policy makers. According to Ambassador Ross Wilson, the Atlantic Council is organizing the forum in Istanbul this year in order to highlight the economic and cultural commonalities between states in the region and stimulate discussions about common problems. The Atlantic Council is a Washington based think-tank that “promotes constructive U.S. leadership and engagement in international affairs” according to its website.

“We want, at the forum, to stimulate a conversation among political, business and other leaders of the region about the region’s problems,” Wilson told the Hurriyet Daily News in an interview last week. “In other words, it’s not so much Washington, the Washington think-tank world talking about the problems, it’s the region’s own leaders talking about their problems. We want to facilitate that, that is why we’re doing it there.”

Energy Issues: Seeking Alternative Supplies Cooperatively

One of the main issues in the region that affects trade, economic development and politics is that of energy. Some in the region either have energy resources that they export, like Russia, or are transit countries, like Turkey. However, other countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, are heavily dependent on energy imports. Debate in recent years has focused primarily on Europe’s overdependence on Russian energy supplies, with some accusing Russia of translating its energy exports into “soft power.”

“I think that the countries of Central and Western Europe and Eastern Europe should be concerned, as any country anywhere, about being overly dependent on one source of supply for a critical component of their national economy,” said Wilson.

However, Wilson believes that the problem is not just about Russia, but about nations being able to “stand on their own feet,” and maintain economic and political independence. For countries looking to diversify their energy supplies, Wilson believes that there are several alternatives to Russian energy. Wilson himself was ambassador to Azerbaijan when construction began on the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan, or BTC, pipeline. BTC is a crude oil pipeline that transports oil supplies from Azeri oil fields in the Caspian Sea through Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

“For me it’s not so much a Russia-specific issue, it’s just being dependent on one source of supply for a critical component [of their national economy] is not a sound strategy,” said Wilson. “I think in part for that reason I supported [and] the US Government has strongly supported the development of Caspian Basin energy resources as an additional supply to what will always be large-scale purchases from Russia. Augment those with supplies that come from Kazakhstan, from Azerbaijan, maybe from Iraq at some point in the future and, if their politics change, maybe from Iran at some point as well.”

Energy issues also have a large impact on politics and foreign relations in the region. Attempts to promote new energy supply routes must take into account Russian concerns and Wilson sees ways around any potential conflicts.

“As you look now at the future of gas pipeline developments, you sort of have the same thing being played out, whether and how Russia is going to be accomodated, whether and how Russian resources might actually help to make gas pipelines more viable, financable, and exactly what the routes of large-scale, new gas pipelines might be,” said Wilson. Speaking in reference to the countries that he believes can be major energy suppliers to the Eurasian region, specifically Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Wilson believes that “these are integral issues for these countries’ foreign policies.”

Turkey’s “Central Role”

The choice of Turkey for this year’s forum “reflects the central role, the central position of Turkey... as a major player throughout the Eurasian region,” according to Wilson. He sees Turkey, along with Russia and increasingly China, as one of the big economic players in Eurasia with its vast investments and trade in the region.

“Broadly speaking, I think the decision reflected an appreciation of this absolutely crucial role that Turkey plays,” said Wilson.

Wilson dismisses concerns that Turkey’s developing economic ties with Russia and Iran, particularly in the energy sector, could negatively impact Turkey’s integration with Europe or its relations with the United States. On the contrary, he believes Turkey’s role as an energy transit country can be of great benefit to Europe.

“Turkey’s central role in energy issues, as one of the main transit routes, if not the main transit route for Caspian Basin, Central Asian oil and natural gas to access international markets puts it in a uniquely suitable position to demonstrate its importance to Europe, to European economic development,” said Wilson. “Turkey’s got a central role to play as Europeans, European consumers seek to diversify their source of supply away from over reliance on one set of suppliers. Turkey has a unique international role to play because of that energy issue and I dont think that Turkish relations with Russia or with Iran, either of those relationships, negatively impair this role.”

Ambassador Wilson believes that Turkey’s economic ties with Iran will not negatively impact its relationship with the U.S so long as Turkey stands by the committments made by Turkish officals that it will cooperate with U.N security council sanctions on Iran. Gas purchase agreements between Turkey and Iran, signed in 1996, currently provide roughly 13-14% of Turkey’s imported natural gas annually according to Wilson. However, gas trade between the countries does not constitute an investment in Iran, a development which would put Turkey in danger of violating sanctions.

“My personal perspective is that Turkey’s relationship with Iran is more correct rather than a particularly warm relationship. Trade has been dominated by these gas purchases which have been highly unreliable for Turkey and there has been some growth in other areas as Turkish firms have found opportunities. I am sure that it will continue to be the expectation of the US administration as well as governments pretty much around the rest of the world that Turkey will, as it has said it will, meet its committments pursuant to the U.N. Security Council resolutions that have been passed and that is a pretty good standard,” said Wilson.

(A version of this piece appeared first in the Hurriyet Daily News)

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