Part Three: Disgust, Distrust, and Death Threats

Pipeline Project Splits Georgian Village Into Winners and Losers

BTC officials insist the process has been vastly positive, with only a few aberrations, and not all of those illegal. Stuart Duncan, BTC land and permitting manager for Georgia, says they're dealing with roughly 3000 private owners, some whom have never known which parcel was theirs. "The people at the registries are working under very difficult conditions," Duncan says. "Often they have no pencils and paper; some of the Soviet records were in a state of disorder. Many discrepancies we catch are genuine. The state has been double-checking registrations that look dubious, and if there is something a bit smelly, it’s put right." Moreover, he explains, given the history of nepotism and fear of the free market under the Soviet system, people suspect the worst when neighbors do well: "After all, this is a country of rumors."

Nevertheless, the company admits that with land compensation packages as high as $30,000—an unheard-of sum here where monthly pensions can be as little as $6—low-level fraud is a problem. The BTC consortium expects to spend as much as $13 million on land compensation, and an additional $5 million on community programs for people who aren’t directly affected by construction, but who believe their situation should be bettered by living so near a moneymaker. Because 70 percent of the pipeline will likely be financed by public money, the company must demonstrate that the project serves the public interest. Oil and transit revenues will of course bolster cash-poor budgets. But how far must the company go to ensure that smaller payments end up in the right hands? That’s a complex question, BTC officials say. According to Duncan, the company can only go by government information and make a good-faith effort to point out irregularities as they arise. "Beyond that, we can’t deal with it," he says. "At some stage, you have to believe in something."


No road to riches: Big oil came to a remote Georgian village and left this rutted way.
photo: Raffi Khatchadourian
No road to riches: Big oil came to a remote Georgian village and left this rutted way.

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Editor's Note:
As it unspools from Azerbaijan to Turkey, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline will cross endless acres of private and state-owned land. The project's backers say they'd like to compensate everyone involved—but as Raffi Khatchadourian reports, in post-Soviet Georgia, that's no easy intention to fulfill.


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Belief about the BTC pipeline project generally falls into two categories. There are pessimists who see it as a textbook study in globalization’s greatest ills, with mighty oil corporations willfully becoming mired in the dealings of largely corrupt or authoritarian regimes for the cold-blooded cause of financial gain. There are optimists who say it offers a chance to demonstrate that not all businesses are crooked, and that if a project on this scale can operate here at (mostly) Western standards, virtually any kind of economic development in the frail republics of the Caucasus is possible. Reality is probably somewhere in between.

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Shorena Aptsiauri would like to see backers of the BTC pipeline do more for her village, perhaps even build a water system. For her efforts, she has received death threats—most likely from fellow villagers who worry her activism will scare the oil companies away.
(photo: Raffi Khatchadourian)
In villages like Akhali Samgori, there are two kinds of believers, too, but they’re divided more pragmatically into camps of those who know they will gain and those who know they will not. Distrust is growing between the two, and activists say information about the project’s specifics—legal rights, technical and environmental matters, even copies of inventory agreements—has been poorly distributed, making relations all the more tense. Kvinikadze, of Green Alternative, remembers sitting in on a BTC meeting intended to brief locals about the project. "They told the villagers that if they were approached by the company they had better sign the agreement, otherwise their land would be expropriated," she says. "What they didn’t say was that villagers had a right to challenge that in court."

Locals say they want to know more. Guram Kavtaradze, the elected administrator of Akheli Samgori, believes misunderstandings are tearing his community apart. "People read this document but don’t believe it," he says, holding a BTC brochure. "They need to send someone here—not a Georgian, who people won’t trust, but a foreigner." His office is frigid. Kavtaradze’s breath puffs into small clouds. In the otherwise bare lobby, there are several splintered tree stumps and an ax stuck in a log, but the only stove is in another room. He tightens his jacket and explains that alongside the oil pipeline, there will another pipe for natural gas. He says he intends to do his best to have some of the gas diverted to the village for heating.

But Akhali Samgori’s previous experience with pipelines has been less than stellar, Kavtaradze adds. Just beyond his office is Stalin Street. After two turns, the road fills with deep rivulets of mud. From here one can see a midway terminal for the Baku-Supsa pipeline, part of an old Soviet oil transport network that was refurbished in the 1990s, again with BP as the main operator. "About $32,000 was transferred to the regional government as compensation for the building of that terminal," he says, "but our community didn’t get a cent, even though it was due to us."

In the village, farmers who once leased that land from the state say they are now cannibalizing their homes, selling bricks, doors, and window panes to eke out a living. Others have begun to organize, but that has come with a cost. Behind the metal fence of one home, hungry guard dogs growl at passersby. Inside the brick shack, Shorena Aptsiauri, 30, an unemployed nurse-activist, unfolds a scribbled note left on her property: "Stop, Shorena, or else . . . " Not long ago, there was another warning, this one in curvy Georgian letters cut from newspapers and arranged like a Hollywood ransom note. "You’ll get what you deserve," the message said. "You will pay dearly for your actions."

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