The Caspian Dispute

The Caspian Dispute

The president of Russia, when speaking at the last big press conference of the year, praised the achievements of Russian foreign policy highly. In September of this year Russian diplomats were able to find common ground with the Americans on the Syrian crisis, and in late November, on the Iranian nuclear program. It is expected that 2014 could be a turning point in relations with the United States, despite the fact that the Obama administration is under pressure from Congress, which continues to try to use any occasion to worsen relations with Moscow. The first significant event of next year is to be the Geneva II conference on Syria. In its efforts to return peace and stability to the Middle East, the Kremlin does not even rule out participation in normalizing relations between Iran and Israel.

Given the growth of Russia's international authority, one might expect it to come closer to resolving the problems which have accumulated over the years in the Caspian Basin. The Caspian Sea has become a place which both unites and divides such various countries as Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan; these countries sometimes take various positions, but are closely linked by the mechanisms of economic activities and regional security. Discussions regarding the Caspian region are constantly in progress on the level of various government agencies of the Caspian states, and the Caspian agenda is becoming increasingly packed. Over the past two years such international legal documents for the ecological protection of the Caspian Sea as the Protocol Concerning Regional Preparedness, Response and Co-operation in Combating Oil Pollution Incidents and the Protocol for the Protection of the Caspian Sea against Pollution from Land-based Sources and Activities have been signed in a pentalateral format. New protocols to the Tehran Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea are in the final stages of development. Work is nearing completion on an agreement on cooperation in such fields as hydrometeorology, conservation and rational use of the biological resources of the Caspian Sea, and prevention of emergencies and consequence management. However, there has still been no breakthrough in the final resolution of the main question of determining the legal status of the Caspian Sea. 

The five Caspian states have not been able to sign a Convention on the status of the Caspian Sea for 17 years; they are still just trying to work out principles based on which all the countries would agree to jointly administer the common body of water. The lack of unity in the positions of these five countries is manifested in many areas of interaction.  Overall, the results of the Caspian dialog participants' implementation of the decisions adopted at the last summit in Baku in November 2010 by the five presidents are unsatisfactory. Let us recall that at that time the leaders of all five countries agreed to sign a complete agreement on the status of the Caspian Sea in the following year (2011). Since then there has been no meeting of the presidents, and it has not been possible to negotiate a document. 

It has already been announced that the Fourth Caspian Summit will be held in Astrakhan in 2014, but it is unlikely that the incompatibility of positions will be overcome in the time that remains. Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are advancing a joint proposal: to divide the bottom along the median line and leave the sea's surface common. Furthermore, they have already signed bilateral agreements on the division of the seabed to this effect. That is, the division of the shelf of the northern part of the Caspian Sea has already been implemented through bilateral international treaties. 

In the southern part of the Caspian in the triangle between Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan, no such agreement has yet been reached. Turkmenistan advocates dividing the seabed and underground resources of the Caspian Sea into zones based on the principle of the median line by agreement with Kazakhstan and Iran, which are adjacent to it, and Azerbaijan, which lies opposite. Iran does not acknowledge the legitimacy of the bilateral agreements on the Caspian between Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan; this is because these three states control 64% of the underwater area of the Caspian Sea, and of the remaining 36% of the seabed Iran would only get between 11 and 14%, which does not suit Tehran at all. 

Most frequently accusations of intractability and taking an unconstructive position are directed toward the Iranian representatives at negotiations. Tehran is firmly standing its ground; it wants to turn the seabed into a «condominium» and advocates joint ownership of the sea, including underground resources, and if possible, the division of the Caspian Sea into five equal national shares, 20% each. 

In accordance with the norms of international law, any change in the legal status of the Caspian Sea after the dissolution of the USSR can only be made on the basis of a consensus, that is, the agreement of all five Caspian states; until then, the previously adopted 1921 and 1940 treaties between the USSR and Iran remain in force. In pursuance with these provisions, until the final determination of the legal status of the Caspian Sea, any actions of one of the littoral states which is at variance with the existing status or has not received the approval of all five Caspian countries may be deemed unacceptable by any of the parties. Thus it is, for example, with regard to the legal framework for the construction of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan along the bottom of the sea.

Let us recall that the Trans-Caspian pipeline project appeared in 1996 as an alternative to the Russian-Turkish Blue Stream project. This coincided with the United States declaring the region of the Black and Caspian Seas a zone of its strategic interests. Now the EU is the project's main supporter, and the U.S. has receded into the background. Nonetheless, it is the U.S. which allocated Azerbaijan almost 2 million dollars in August 2010 for a new feasibility study on the project, taking into consideration the possible participation of Kazakhstan and the addition of Kazakhstani oil to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. 

Russian-Iranian arguments against this gas pipeline most often refer to the difficult terrain of the seabed and the high seismic instability of that part of the Caspian Sea. The construction of the gas pipeline would require the agreement of all five Caspian countries, but Russia and Iran have not changed their negative attitude toward the project and do not plan to in the near future. It is impossible to imagine that construction on the pipeline would be started without the agreement of Moscow and Tehran, although Baku and Ashgabat believe that their agreement is sufficient for construction.

In recent years extraregional powers have been trying to join the discussion of the Caspian's legal status. The European Union issued the European Commission a mandate to conduct negotiations on the legal framework of the Trans-Caspian pipeline project with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Sergei Lavrov, the head of Russia's Foreign Ministry, has noted that «our partners from the EU are literally forcing the Trans-Caspian pipeline project on Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, ignoring the fact that such questions should be decided by the Caspian states, and not in Brussels». China has gotten involved in the dispute over the pipeline as well, demanding that Turkmenistan refrain from further negotiations with Baku and Brussels. Beijing has invested almost 10 billion dollars in a pipeline by which gas from Turkmenistan will be transported to China. In the end Ashgabat made a sharp turnaround from the alliance with Baku and the EU in favor of Beijing. 

Azerbaijan, despite the fact that it sees no particular profit in the transit payments from Turkmen gas, has made a political choice in favor of the U.S. and the European Union, actively promoting this project. Baku is even prepared to ignore losses to its own economic interests; after all, Turkmen gas on the Turkish market will increase competition with Azerbaijani gas.

However, when speaking of the similarities of the positions of Russia and Iran on the Turkmen gas pipeline through the Caspian Sea, one must keep in mind that the most favorable route for transporting Central Asian gas lies through the territory of Iran. Turkmenistan is prepared to cooperate in this field with Iran, but for now American sanctions do not permit this. However, one must not rule out the possibility that if the sanctions against the IRI are repealed and relations between Iran and Europe are normalized, a route through the Iranian Caspian Lowland will be much preferable from the point of view of cost, ecology and engineering. 

In the absence of plans for completing work on the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, most likely at least two important documents on the delimitation of the waters of the Caspian and the introduction of a moratorium on commercial sturgeon fishing will be signed at the summit in Astrakhan. Decisions on these issues were made three years ago at the last summit in Baku, and it will be a matter of honor for all five heads of state to formalize the results of the work they have already done.

Tags: Caspian Sea