GEORGIA, TOUTING POLITICAL STABILITY, HOPES TO ATTRACT CASPIAN PIPELINE

GEORGIA, TOUTING POLITICAL STABILITY, HOPES TO ATTRACT CASPIAN PIPELINE

As landlocked Azerbaijan searches for an export route for its wealth of Caspian Sea oil, neighboring Georgia is playing its own game to convince the international players in central Asian oil politics that it should be given a piece of the action.

Georgian officials say they are trying to convince the West that their republic is stable enough to serve as a transit route for the oil. At the same time, they must avoid offending Russia, their main rival for the pipeline route.The $7.4 billion Caspian consortium, comprising Azerbaijan and 11 foreign companies including Exxon, Pennzoil and Amoco, is due to make a decision by September on a route for early oil from the Chirag field in Azerbaijan - a supply that could come to 90,000 barrels a day.

Because of the political tensions affecting alternative corridors through Iran and Armenia, the only two likely routes run across Georgia or Russia.

Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia's president and former Soviet foreign minister,

sent a special envoy to the United States in early July to build confidence in Georgia as a transit route. Tamaz Tsereteli, general director of Georgia's oil-transport system, said the key message for Washington is that Georgia is stable enough to be considered for the pipeline. Mr. Tsereteli admitted that this has not always been so.

He said Amoco executives had investigated Georgia as a transit route for Azeri oil as long ago as 1992, but their confidence was shaken after the republic collapsed into anarchy in late 1993. With covert support from Russia, the region of Abkhazia split off, and the rest of Georgia barely survived a subsequent civil war between Mr. Shevardnadze's supporters and a deposed ultranationalist rival. But Mr. Tsereteli said Georgia has enjoyed relative political stability since the end of 1994, and law and order are returning.

The price of the stability has been submitting to Russian influence. In late 1993, Mr. Shevardnadze put Georgia back into the Commonwealth of Independent States, Russia's political umbrella for the former Soviet Union. In March of this year, Georgia signed a controversial deal to house five Russian military bases on its territory for 25 years, giving Moscow even more control.

Mr. Tsereteli said that in view of Russia's hold on regional politics, it would be impossible to ignore its demand that it be used as the pipeline route. But he added that he hoped for a compromise, possibly involving the simultaneous development of both routes.

"There is enough for us both. They will be able to take their share," Mr. Tsereteli said.

He added that that a team of Western experts is working in Georgia, assessing the technical aspects of the route. At some 538 miles, the distance across Georgia is 256 miles shorter than the alternative across Russia.

Georgia has offered the use of a 100,000-barrel-a-day pipeline, constructed in the 1980s, that has been idle for the last two years. It also will provide a site for a single-mooring buoy terminal on its Black Sea coast.

Comparing the Russian and Georgian routes, Mr. Tsereteli said the existing Russian pipeline from Azerbaijan to Novorossiisk would require considerable modifications, because it currently flows in the wrong direction. He added that Russia has security problems of its own for the sections of the route in Chechnya.