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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Starting this summer, a new $4,000,000,000 pipeline is expected to begin pumping crude oil from the former soviet Republic of Azerbaijan to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean Sea.

To get there, the pipeline passes through neighboring Georgia, a small, impoverished republic that has no energy resources of its own. Analysts say Georgia is the weakest link in this energy project, which has strong support from the U.S. government. NPR's Ivan Watson reports on Georgia in the second part of our series on the pipeline.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Krasny Morst(ph), or red bridge, is the name of the sleepy border crossing where the flat plains of Western Azerbaijan give way to the rolling green hills of Georgia. This is an ancient Christian country, where tall white crosses decorate mountaintops and Georgians often stop to cross themselves when walking past their cavernous orthodox churches.

(Soundbite of church choir singing)

While it is picturesque, Georgia is not the most direct route for pumping Azeri oil to the Mediterranean Sea. Investors chose to build the pipeline through Georgia in a long, meandering arc, to avoid Armenia; which is still embroiled in a conflict with Azerbaijan.

But the planners did not anticipate the sudden toppling of the Georgian government two years ago in a popular uprising. It was a development that worried David Woodward, the British petroleum executive in charge of the pipeline project.

Mr. DAVID WOODWARD (President, Azerbaijan International Operating Company): It made me extremely uncomfortable, you know, having persuaded my masters in London that we should go ahead with a multi-billion dollar project, the pipeline. I watched the CNN coverage very, very closely at every phase of the revolution and was really quite concerned for a while there.

WATSON: But the new pro-Western government of Georgia embraced the strategic pipeline. And today, the pipeline snakes its way across the mountainous country. In some places, bulldozers are still at work burying a second parallel pipeline that will eventually pump Azeri natural gas along the same route to neighboring Turkey.

Regional analysts agree, though, that the stability of Georgia is still a concern. Alexander Rondeli heads the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. ALEXANDER RONDELI (President, Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies): Georgia is a country, which is weak, internally weak, because of geographic and mostly historic reasons. Weak also because Russia tries to keep it weak, because Russia still believes that it has to stay in Georgia because of strategic reasons. And that's why any help coming to Georgia and Georgian society is very important, because without external support, we will not survive.

WATSON: Georgia lost control of two separatist regions after fighting two disastrous wars in the 1990s. Georgia's increasingly hostile neighbor, Russia, supports these autonomous territories. And, Moscow recently slapped trade restrictions on Georgia, including a ban on imports of Georgian wine.

Georgia's Prime Minister, Zurab Zhvania, bristles at the Russian boycott.

Prime Minister ZURAB ZHVANIA (Prime Minister, Georgia): Which was certainly a poorly political, illegal, unfair, and non-friendly decision. So, that is how the relations are going on.

WATSON: Unlike Azerbaijan, where signs of oil-fueled prosperity can be seen even in remote villages, the Georgian countryside appears to have been in economic decline ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the provincial town of Tetroskado(ph), young, unemployed men stand outside their dilapidated houses in the morning, drinking cans of beer.

(Soundbite of men speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Just a few miles away stand brand new floodlights, barbed-wire fences, and gleaming smokestacks of Pump Station #2, a fortified multi-million dollar compound which straddles the pipeline.

(Soundbite of men working)

WATSON: The manager here, Vladimir Zamiraschfele(ph), points at a segment of the steel tube. The pipeline from Baku is already full of more than six million barrels of oil, all waiting to be pumped to the Mediterranean Sea. Zamiraschfele believes, in the long run, this pipeline will help modernize towns like Tetroskado.

Mr. VLADIMIR ZAMIRASCHFELE (Manager, Caspian Pipeline Project): Europe culture, American culture, is coming here. I think it will help our country. Yeah. Because, a lot of people have the same Soviet Union culture of which we had a lot of years ago.

WATSON: In fact, there's been a clash of cultures between the Western multi-national oil consortium and the impoverished rural communities that live along the pipeline. Tkenlana(ph) is a small farming village that's named after a spicy Georgian hot sauce.

(Soundbite of men speaking foreign language)

During the pipeline's construction, the feisty farmers here say they periodically blockaded the muddy road that passes through their village to protest against the oil company. Residents who earn less than $500 a year complained that companies imported foreign workers and hired only a handful of locals to work on the project.

Mr. SERGEI CAMPANODZAK(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: They still haven't paid us compensation for some of the land they took from us, says an elderly farmer named Sergei Campanodzak. And their heavy trucks ruined our road and damaged our houses.

To improve community relations and protect the pipeline, the oil company has hired some villagers, armed with cell phones and dressed in bright orange uniforms and construction helmets, to patrol the pipeline on horseback. But that hasn't stopped criminal gangs from repeatedly attempting to siphon thousands of dollars worth of oil from this and other buried pipelines crossing Georgia.

Another contentious issue was that the pipeline was built through part of the Borjomi Gorge, home of one of the largest national parks in Europe. George Saniveradze(ph), of the World Wildlife Fund, says in the event of an oil leak, this nature preserve could be devastated.

Mr. JORGE SANIVERADZE (World Wildlife Fund): If you have the river, for example, damaged or polluted by the oil, there's no (unintelligible) to clean the river, for example, you know?

WATSON: Analyst Alexander Rondeli says the geo-strategic benefit of the pipeline outweigh the environmental risks.

Mr. RONDELI: It will bring certain income, and it will bring more actors to Georgia who are interested in Georgia's stability and security.

(Soundbite of man singing)

WATSON: Georgia is still renowned throughout the former Soviet Union for its food, wine, and music. But its leaders hope the pipeline will help transform the country from an impoverished backwater to a member of the NATO Alliance and a vital supplier of energy to the West.

Ivan Watson, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow Ivan reports on what the Caspian Pipeline Project means for Turkey. A map of the Caspian pipeline, photos, and Ivan Watson's online journal about this series, are at our website, npr.org.

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