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Wednesday, 23 October 2002

CASPIAN SEA: NEW LINE-UP OF FORCES

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By Gulnara Ismailova (10/23/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

It seems that the issue of the Caspian Sea status is coming to its logical end. Previous documents never determined completely the legal status of the Caspian Sea, as they did not contain any provisions on such important issues as the exploitation of the seabed, the airspace over the sea, and the preservation of its ecosystem. The attempts to reach consensus among the five littoral states came to a deadlock first of all due to Iran's demand of 20% of the sea, and due to the territorial disputes between Iran and Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

It seems that the issue of the Caspian Sea status is coming to its logical end. Previous documents never determined completely the legal status of the Caspian Sea, as they did not contain any provisions on such important issues as the exploitation of the seabed, the airspace over the sea, and the preservation of its ecosystem. The attempts to reach consensus among the five littoral states came to a deadlock first of all due to Iran's demand of 20% of the sea, and due to the territorial disputes between Iran and Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The impasse led Astana and then Baku to make separate agreements with Moscow and each other through bilateral agreements.

The signing of the bilateral Russian-Azerbaijani agreement on September 23 "On the delimitation of sectors of the Caspian seabed" during a two-day official visit of Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev to Moscow was another step in bringing the positions of the sides in the Caspian issue closer. According to this document, the Caspian Seabed is delimitated between Russia and Azerbaijan basing on the median line principle, drawn from equidistant points modified through agreement of the two sides, and also based on common principles of international law and practice. 

The document states that the agreement does not prejudice the reaching of a consensus among Caspian countries on the Sea legal status of the sea, and that the parties consider it as part of an eventual general agreement. This agreement to some extent accomplished the process of establishing a triple Caspian alliance. Moscow, Astana and Baku agreed on common approach on working out new legal status of the Caspian Sea.

Earlier similar agreements were concluded between Russia and Kazakhstan. With the latest agreement, exploration of the mineral resources of the central and northern part of the Caspian Sea acquired a solid foundation in international law.

While commenting on the agreement, President Aliyev named it as an important step on working out the Caspian sea legal status. "The positions of Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan comply with international law and the median line principle and there is no other way to solve this issue", he said. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, applying the step-by step principle of dividing the bottom and keeping the surface common will finally lead to a mutually beneficial solution of the Caspian sea's legal status, taking into account the interests of all coastal countries.

Just on the day of the agreement's signing, official Teheran spoke with sharp objection to this document. The president of Iran Mohammed Khatami declared that Teheran would not accept foreign interference in Caspian issues, and the agreement regarding delimitation of the sea bottom must be fair and acceptable to all Caspian countries. "Otherwise it is impossible to reach a long-term agreement on the Caspian sea," noted Khatami.

According to the press secretary of Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hamid-Reza Asefi, no bilateral negotiations on the issue can take place without the consent of all five Caspian countries. "Until the signing of a multilateral treaty, sides should not conclude bilateral agreements, and signed documents should not be recognized", according to Asefi. Meanwhile, the President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov made a sensational statement, proposing to divide Caspian Sea into 4 shares, leaving Iran out. Political scientist Rasim Musabekov, commenting on this question, noted that Niyazov is afraid to stay alone and hence has to support the common position of the "Caspian three". The Iranian official Tehran Times newspaper noted that Teheran has to double its diplomatic efforts in order to establish relations with Caspian countries. "If in the nearest future Russia succeeds in concluding a similar bilateral treaty with Turkmenistan, whose position has significantly changed recently, Iran would find itself in isolation. In turn this would negatively affect its position on this issue. Hence Iran has to maintain good-neighborly relations with all Caspian countries".

The Moscow agreement was also supported by the U.S., who has both economic and political interests in the region. According to political scientist Vafa Guluzade, the U.S. again confirmed its full devotion to the position of the "Caspian three" (Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan) in the dispute with Teheran on the Caspian status issue.

Deputy minister of foreign affairs of Azerbaijan, Khalaf Khalafov, also informed that Azerbaijani, Kazakhstani and Russian experts are working out a draft of a trilateral agreement on the delimitation of the Caspian Seabed. "The three countries after signing relevant bilateral agreements on the delimitation of the Caspian Seabed feel the need to conclude an agreement regarding the boundary points of marine borders of the three countries", said Khalafov. 

According to observers, henceforth a de jure triple alliance of Azerbaijan-Russia-Kazakhstan which has determined the priority assigned by the three countries on solving the Caspian problem. Having determined its Caspian borders in the north and in the north-east, Azerbaijan has to solve the same problem with Turkmenistan and Iran.

Gulnara Ismailova

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