An Apple of Caspian Discord

Summit of the Littoral States Fails to Generate Optimism

A summit on legal status of the Caspian Sea held 23-24 April in Ashgabad has not eased contradiction among the littoral states. Absence of the political solution sharpens regional discord and may trigger an arms race, with negative consequences to the whole Caspian region.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the number of littoral states increased from two (Soviet Union and Iran) to five: Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Discovery of the substantial oil reserves revived old tensions on division of the seabed, that were once settled by the agreements of 1921 and 1940, according to which the Caspian was recognized as an internal basin.

Such formulation based on agreements of Russia (Soviet Union) and Iran contradicted Azeri and Kazakh interests, as rich oilfields had been discovered in their coastal waters. The new nations supported a sea status for the Caspian, in which case each nation could claim own territorial waters and seabed.

Iran has suggested division of the Caspian into equal national sectors. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan strongly opposed and proposed the sea to be divided along the national coastlines. In this case Iran gets the smallest share, as it has nearly 12-14% of the total coastline.    

In addition, rich oilfield in the central Caspian is a subject of dispute between the governments of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.  In the absence of common agreement each country strives to achieve maximum and exploit huge resources of the Caspian – oil, gas and fisheries. Bitter conflict was avoided by a narrow margin, when Iran coastguard ship pushed away Azeri and British research vessel in July 2001.

Ashgabad summit once again exposed tensions between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan on one side and Turkmenistan from the other. With oriental symbolism, the lower-ranking ministers met the presidents of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, while Turkmen President Saparmurad Niyazov personally welcomed the presidents of Russia and Iran.

Summit broke up without any clear agreement reached but Russia may attempt to solve the problem by brokering bilateral treaties. Such agreement already exists between Russia and Kazakhstan, and Tehran protested at the UN in 1998.

But now President Putin seems posed to sign trilateral agreement between Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Russia advocates seabed division into national sectors; while the navigation and exploitation of other resources should be free-for-all. Moscow’s interests are best served by this deal, as its trade and military fleet in the Caspian are the strongest.

The approach of the three countries is clear, as western oil-companies cooperate most actively with them. Nothing is expected to disturb the realization of new and already existing projects against the background of the increasing US influence in the Central Asia and Caucasus. According to some experts, despite the problems regarding the Caspian legal status and rampant corruption, work on realization of the existing and new projects would go ahead. This is good news for Georgia, but some active diplomacy would be necessary to transform intentions into actions.

In parallel of summit, Giorgy Chanturia, president of Georgian International Oil Corporation (GIOC) visited Baku, where details concerning Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines were discussed.

It is important that presidents of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey will meet April 29-30 in Trabzon, where oil and gas pipeline security issues will be discussed and trilateral agreement on closer security collaboration is expected to be signed. The southern pipeline projects are politically backed by the United States, and are seen as an attempt at reducing Russian and Iran influence in the region and strengthening Georgian and Azeri independence by deepening economic cooperation with US regional ally – Turkey.

As to the Turkmenistan, it has received the least of foreign investments compared to the other regional countries and depends on Russian pipelines. This is an effective leverage to pressure Turkmenbashi. It was natural, that Niyazov declared on the eve of the summit that in the new circumstances building of the pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan for gas export in Pakistan would be a guarantee of stability in the whole region.         

It is possible that this project will be implemented taking into consideration the fact that during Clinton administration oil experts worked on the similar project.

Iran is in the most unfavorable conditions: it is excluded from the “great game” and belongs to the “axis of evil”. Iran has its own, ideological interests in the region and is wary of further depletion of its influence. Economic interests are of secondary importance, as Tehran owns richer and easily exploitable oilfields in the Persian Gulf. Iran authorities seem keen to expand their influence in Central Asia even if at the expense of sacrificing some of the economic interests. President Mohammed Khatami’s 9-day official tour in the Central Asian countries can serve as a proof of this fact.

As to the Russia, after Putin has made an emphasis on CIS reintegration through energetic projects and ensuring these countries’ energetic dependence on Moscow. Thus, opposition to the southern pipeline routes is likely to remain Russian foreign policy goal. In his state-of-the-Federation address on April 18, Vladimir Putin emphasized that “work with the CIS states is the main foreign policy priority of Russia, a priority linked to achieving competitive advantages in global markets”.

Though, in the long term Russia may not be able to proceed effectively with this policy. It is probable that it would seek to be more actively involved in the implementation of southern pipeline projects. Until this happens, rivalry and contradiction will remain indispensable features of the region.

Domestic political processes of the states will also influence the developments of Caspian   region. The political struggle will be held between the parties of different views on foreign policy in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in the two Southern Caucasus countries – Georgia and Azerbaijan. In this “great game” even smaller players are likely to have big influence if only because the interests of the regional powers are linked with the decisions of these smaller players.

By Revaz Bakhtadze, Civil Georgia