Saturday, June 23, 2018

Caspian Littoral States Reportedly Agree on Division of Inland Sea

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 23 – The Russian government has approved a draft agreement on the legal status of the Caspian and urged Vladimir Putin to sign it, Kommersant reports today. The government’s action and the accord itself were put up on the government’s portal yesterday, but then the agreement was removed, a possible indication there may be more drama ahead.

            But if the accord it approved, the paper says, it will make it possible for any of the five littoral states to build a pipeline on the seabed without having to obtain the approval of the other four before doing so, thus opening the way to one between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan that Moscow has long opposed (

                The accord may create another problem, however. It specifies that no armed forces of third countries may use the sea or the ports on it. If understood in the way Moscow almost certainly will insist, that would complicate the agreement between Kazakhstan and the United States on the use of the port of Aktau for transshipment of military materiel to Afghanistan.   

                The issue of the delimitation of the Caspian arose after the disintegration of the USSR when instead of the inland sea being divided between the Soviet Union and Iran, it had to be divided among Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.  Negotiations over its terms have been going on for more than 20 years. 

            According to the Moscow newspaper, the chiefs of state of the five are slated to sign the 18-page accord at the Fifth Caspian Summit now set to take place in the Kazakhstan port of Aktau on August 12.  The five governments have given preliminary approval, it says; but it reports there may be yet another round of talks before August.

            The draft accord, as put up and then taken down from the Russian government portal, specifies that the five littoral states have exclusive rights to use the sea and calls for the recognition of territorial waters extending up to 15 nautical miles from shore for each and an additional 10 nautical miles of protected economic zones.

            The rest of the sea is to be defined as a water space for common use. The seabed is also to be divided into national sectors; and for much of the last quarter century, that has been the major sticking point to an agreement because it is under the seabed that rich deposits of oil and gas are located.

            Russia and the three post-Soviet states agreed to the division of the northern portion of the sea according to what is called “the modified median line” rule, but Iran has insisted on having control over 20 percent of the seabed and not the 13 to 14 percent that rule would leave for its exclusive use.

             Significantly, the draft convention, Kommersant reports, “does not introduce complete clarity on the issue of the delimitation of the seabed. Instead,  it says that the sides will reach agreement the basis of negotiations and in accord with “generally recognized principles and legal norms.”

            But because multiple principles and norms exist, that suggests there is no real agreement on this critical issue at all. Stanislav Pritchin of the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies says that this is no surprise given that divisions still exist over that issue and that this will allow for a division of the sea in the north where there is an agreement and the south where there isn’t.

            In addition to establishing the principle that the Caspian is a sea and not a lake, however, the five littoral states would appear to be tending toward the principles the four countries led by Russia favor as opposed to those pushed by Iran. But that in turn means that the debate about the Caspian seabed will continue even if an agreement on the surface appears to have been reached.

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