Caspian Sea: Five countries sign deal to end dispute

Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan – all bordering the Caspian Sea – have agreed in principle on how to divide it up.

Their leaders signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in the Kazakh city of Aktau on Sunday.

It establishes a formula for dividing up its resources and prevents other powers from setting up a military presence there.

The Caspian Sea is a geopolitically strategic body of water, both in terms of its location and its resources. Situated in a transcontinental zone between Europe and Asia, it has historically been a key trade and transit corridor between eastern and western powers.

The Caspian Sea became even more important in the modern era after the discovery of significant energy resources, including over 50 billion barrels of oil and 9 trillion cubic meters of natural gas in proven or probable reserves.

The countries surrounding the Caspian Sea make use of its strategic qualities. Russia and Iran are among the world’s largest energy producers and exporters, while Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan produce significant amounts as well. However, since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union established Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan as independent states and competitors in the region, ongoing disputes about how to draw boundaries in the Caspian have limited all the surrounding countries’ ability to exploit its resources.

The primary issue has been whether to legally classify the Caspian as a sea or a lake. The former would require the division of the Caspian to extend from the shoreline of each littoral state to the body of water’s midway point, while the latter would divide the Caspian equally. Until now, the dispute has not stopped the Caspian states from accessing energy resources close to their shorelines, but it has prevented energy exploitation from taking place deeper offshore. Moreover, it has stalled the progress of any pipeline projects that would go across the seabed itself.

The convention signed at the recent summit has confirmed that the surface of the Caspian Sea would be legally classified as a sea, meaning each country would control 15 nautical miles of water from its shoreline for mineral exploration and 25 natural miles of shoreline for fishing.

All other parts of the Caspian Sea would be considered neutral waters for common use. The summit also produced important security decisions, including an agreement that military vessels from non-Caspian states would be prohibited from entering the sea.

This is a boon for both Russia and Iran, who have long had concerns about a U.S. or NATO military presence increasing Western influence, particularly over Azerbaijan. The agreement does not prevent the shipment of military cargo through the Caspian, though, since both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have played logistical supply roles for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The legal convention signed at the Caspian Sea summit in Aktau is far from the final word on the division of the strategic sea and its abundant energy resources. It does indicate progress in certain areas such as security, but Russia and Iran will likely try to delay any finalized protocol for managing the body of water in order to protect their strategic energy interests.

However, many issues remain unsettled. For example, the delimitation of the seabed itself, where most energy resources are located, was left pending, meaning the Caspian countries will need to negotiate bilateral agreements.

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