Central and South Asia // Analysis

30 september 2014

Summit of heads of Caspian region states in Astrakhan

Victor Nadein-Raevsky PhD in Philosophy, Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Russian Academy of Science
REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

In the run-up to the summit of the “Caspian Five” in Astrakhan on 29 September 2014 the main issue for the states surrounding the Caspian Sea is the same as it was twenty years ago: the question of how the Caspian shelf should be divided. No new treaties on this question have emerged during the period since the collapse of the USSR. The main reason for this is the substantial disagreements on the matter of dividing this inland sea’s shelf and the use of its waters and natural resources.

The states took differing positions from the beginning. Thus Azerbaijan was prepared from the very start to divide not only the shelf but also the shipping area into sovereign sectors and to extract oil on the “sovereign” shelf without worrying about the consequences for this inland water space, which is extremely sensitive to chemical pollution. Kazakhstan was inclined to divide only the shelf. Russia, Turkmenia and Iran originally called for joint use of the shelf and the whole sea.

A division of the Caspian shelf in the way that Azerbaijan seeks is not just connected with the oil factor. None of the other issues associated with the exploitation of this sea requires such a division. As far as exploitation of the shelf is concerned, it implies that the sea should be divided into corresponding sectors and that the owners’ rights to the resources to be extracted should be consolidated.

Kazakhstan’s stance on the question of who the Caspian shelf belongs to was expressed back in the mid-1990s. “Kazakhstan believes that the Caspian seabed and everything that lies beneath it should be delimited between the coastal states, which will have national jurisdiction and exclusive rights with regard to prospecting for and developing the mineral resources in their part of the seabed,” said Vyacheslav Gizzatov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan (V. Gizzatov, “The Legal Status of the Caspian Sea: Condominium or delimitation,” in Kazakhstan and the International Community, No. 1, 1996, Kazakhstan Presidential Institute of Strategic Research, p. 46).

The Turkmenian view is that the Chirag deposit lies partially – and the Azeri deposit wholly – in the Turkmen part of the shelf if it is divided on the principles proposed by Azerbaijan. Thus the division of the shelf has already given rise to the conflict between states, although so far, this is actually only in the diplomatic realm.

Iran’s position has been entirely different to that of Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan. Iran insists that the shelf be divided equally, i.e. with 20% of the shelf going to each of the states bordering the Caspian. Any demarcation lines would leave Iran with only the smallest part of the shelf, and so only a division of this kind – where the shelf is divided equally – would give it the same as its neighbours. Understandably, neither Azerbaijan nor Turkmenia agrees with this approach, since it would suit them for the shelf to be divided primarily along the “median line” or according to other options stemming from the geographical position of the Caspian.

As a result many years have passed without a declaration on the Caspian shelf being signed. At the same time the real interests of the oil extractors have demanded that the disagreements be settled.

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In the light of this the different parties do not expect a general declaration. Russia and Kazakhstan managed to reach agreement on defining the median lines for dividing the shelf, and then Russia and Azerbaijan divided “their” part of the shelf, and the three countries agreed between themselves. Iran, however, refuses to recognise these agreements.

The question of how to divide the southern sector and resolve the issues between Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenia remains extremely important in efforts to determine the status of the Caspian. This is the area where it has proved impossible to reach agreement.

All five countries in the region, however, have undertaken not to allow other states to use their territory to perpetrate aggression or other military action against any of the Caspian countries under any circumstances, without waiting for the question of the Caspian’s status and the division of the shelf to be resolved.

Five years ago the Caspian states declared that only they had sovereign rights to the Caspian Sea, and only ships flying the flags of the Caspian countries could sail on it. This bars access to the Caspian to players from outside the region who have their own view of “national interests”.

Thus the legal status of the Caspian is currently defined by the Treaty between the RSFSR and Persia of 26 February 1921 and the Treaty on Trade and Navigation between the USSR and Iran of 25 March 1940. These treaties are based on the principle of “common water”, i.e. freedom of shipping and fishing for the Caspian states (excluding the ten-mile fishing zone) and a ban on ships flying the flags of non-Caspian states.

These treaties, however, do not regulate matters of mineral exploitation, environmental conservation and military activity.

The last meeting of the special working group on the legal status of the Caspian Sea was held in April 2014 in Ashkhabad, and the 37th meeting took place in Iran in June 2014. However, discussion of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, which should define the territorial rights of the Caspian countries, has not yet led to a final version being developed.

The idea of building the Nabucco pipeline, which has become an important strategic objective for the USA and the West in their search for alternative, non-Russian, sources of energy resources, has become a serious problem in matters of cooperation in the Caspian region. This is why the idea of excluding Russia, Iran and Kazakhstan from the work of resolving these problems emerged. On 18 November 2010 President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenia officially announced Ashkhabad’s position at the summit of heads of Caspian states in Baku, stating that the underwater pipeline can be laid on the Caspian seabed with the agreement only of those states across whose sectors of the seabed the pipeline will be built (i.e. Azerbaijan and Turkmenia). The idea was supported in both Brussels and Washington.

Russia and Iran opposed this, above all because of the need to protect the Caspian’s eco-system. Implementation of the project has currently been postponed, but this is primarily because of disagreements between the parties involved.

There have also been some positive moves towards resolving the Caspian problems. On 18 November 2010, for example, an agreement on cooperation in the field of security in the Caspian Sea was signed by the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Azerbaijan Republic, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan. Within the framework of this agreement the different sides agreed to cooperate in fighting terrorism, organised crime, the illegal movement of weapons of any kind and of ammunition, explosives and toxic substances and military equipment, the illegal movement of narcotics, psychotropic substances and precursors, and in fighting money laundering, including of money obtained by criminal means, fighting smuggling and ensuring the safety of maritime shipping and fighting piracy, fighting people trafficking and illegal migration, and fighting illegal extraction of biological resources (poaching).

Ecological issues are reflected in the response of the Caspian states to the pollution of the environment. According to Parvin Farshchi, deputy head of Iran’s environmental protection department, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenia account for most of the oil and gas pollution in the Caspian Sea, because of the exploration and extraction of energy resources undertaken by these countries. Parvin Farshchi noted that 60% of the Caspian’s oil pollution came from coastal districts, since a significant number of oil wells in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are no longer economic and have been abandoned. At the same time, according to this official, Iran’s share of the Caspian Sea pollution is associated with agricultural waste and waste water. The threat to the Caspian from the Russian side comes from industrial pollution resulting from the extensive industrial activity in the River Volga region.

It’s worth noting that there has been some success in protecting the Caspian basin’s environment. These issues are regulating by the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, which came into force on 12 August 2007. It enshrined the main provisions for regulating manmade effects on the marine environment, protection of biological resources and general cooperation between the parties with regard to measures to protect the Caspian’s eco-system.

International legal documents of importance for protecting the Caspian’s marine environment were signed on a five-sided basis in 2011–2012, such as the Protocol on Regional Readiness, Response and Cooperation in the Event of Incidents Causing Oil Pollution and the Protocol on Protecting the Caspian Sea from Pollution from Land-based Sources.

A total of three summits of Caspian states have been held. The first summit took place in Ashkhabad on 23–24 April 2002. The second took place in Tehran on 16 October 2007. A declaration was signed which identified common approaches to drawing up a convention on the legal status of the Caspian. A joint declaration by the presidents of the “Caspian Five” and also an agreement on cooperation in the field of security on the Caspian Sea were signed at the third Caspian summit, which took place on 18 November 2010 in Baku.

The fourth Caspian summit will take place on 29 September 2014 on Russian territory, in Astrakhan. It is expected that a number of documents will be signed, including on security measures such as the ban on the presence of armed forces belonging to non-Caspian states. At the same time, despite the optimism of some media outlets, the majority of observers do not expect a convention that finally regulates the status of the Caspian to be signed.

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Victor Nadein-Raevsky, “Summit of heads of Caspian region states in Astrakhan ,” Russian International Affairs Council, 30 September 2014, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=4463

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