The Caspian accord achieved last weekend by Russia and four neighboring nations was lauded by international news media as a breakthrough diplomatic success.
At a time when multilateral agreement between nations seems in short supply, and indeed severely challenged, the resolution of this long-running thorny issue on the basis of mutual compromise is a welcome testimony to the power of diplomacy and dialogue.
For over 20 years, Russia and the other Caspian states – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan – have been locked in at times bitter dispute over competing territorial claims to the world’s largest inland body of water.
That dispute has now been finally resolved on a mutually acceptable basis with the signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian. The signing took place in the Kazakh port city of Aktau last Sunday.
They say a painting is worth a thousand words. Images of the five leaders of the Caspian states sharing smiles and relaxed camaraderie on completing the agreement spoke volumes of their goodwill and constructive engagement.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said: “Reaching this consensus on the status of the sea was a difficult process. It required a lot of effort… but now we have goodwill.”
Russian leader Vladimir Putin hailed the accord as “epoch-making”, while Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani noted, “Our region could be an example of stability, friendship and a good neighborhood.”
There’s a lot at stake for the five littoral nations who share the Caspian Sea. With a surface area of 370,000 square kms, the body of water is larger than the territory of Germany and many other nations. It is known to have reserves of oil and natural gas on par with the Middle East, reserves which have up to now been largely untapped because of territorial disputes preventing development.
The Caspian is also the natural habitat of abundant fish and the famous sturgeon, with its caviar delicacy. It is a natural treasure with immense tourism potential. It is also a crossroads in international trade between Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Now with an accord having been reached, the resources of the sea can be harnessed and viably managed for the mutual benefit of the five stakeholder nations.
The key to success seems to have been a recognition by the five nations of a win-win outcome by following path of dialogue and respect for respective sovereign rights. Compromises have been made in the understanding that all would derive benefit by equitable sharing of the resources.
There still remains diplomatic work to be done in finessing a formula on how the Caspian seabed will be delineated. Iran, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in particular have to resolve exact demarcation zones. But the main thing is that the five nations have agreed upon a mutual basis on sharing the natural wealth in peaceful coexistence.
One innovative breakthrough from the signed convention is that the surface water of the Caspian affords freedom of navigation for all five littoral states. In that regard the body of water is defined as a sea, whereas its seabed is defined as a lake to be shared by the five shore nations.
Another important agreement is that the Caspian Sea shall be under the exclusive custodianship of Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan. No other external nation or power is permitted to enter the area or set up military bases there. That excludes the US and NATO which have long been eyeing the Caspian as an area for expansion.
For Russia and its neighbors that exclusion is a crucial security concern, especially as the US and NATO seem to want to create a bridgehead from the Southern Caucasus. Earlier this month, NATO conducted war games with prospective member Georgia which lies adjacent to Azerbaijan.
The Caspian contains some of the oldest known oil fields. It was this area that Nazi Germany was trying to command when it attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. The latest agreement therefore pre-empts any designs for military intrusion by the US and its NATO alliance.
The accord arrived at last weekend is therefore not just a formula for mutual benefit of immense natural resources. The deal is also a vital security pact for all the five nations concerned.
But perhaps the salutary demonstration from the five-nation accord is how diplomacy and multilateralism can succeed when nations enter into dialogue and respect for each other’s sovereignty.
Increasingly there is a trend for unilateralism and disrespect for sovereignty as shown primarily by the United States. Washington under President Donald Trump has displayed a deplorable contempt for diplomacy and respect for international agreement. American bully tactics of slapping sanctions on other nations it disagrees with or wants to subdue is leading to dangerous international tensions.
In coming to an agreement with its neighbors, Russia has illustrated a very different and welcome model for conducting foreign relations. A model which safeguards peace, partnership and prosperity.
One can only imagine the outcome if the US had been one of the Caspian Sea claimants. One suspects that the other nations would have been bullied, browbeaten and dispossessed of their natural rights by American “gunboat diplomacy” and the threat of war.
As it is, the Caspian accord is a model of multilateral partnership. It is a microcosm of how world relations should be conducted, for the benefit of all.