Vol. 3, No. 20 (October 15, 2010)

The Caspian basin states: From conflict to cooperation?

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Since the end of the Soviet Union, many analysts have focused on the problems the five Caspian littoral states—Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, and Turkmenistan—have had in reaching agreement on the delimitation of the oil and gas rich seabed of that body of water and thus have passed over in relative silence what may be an equally important development: the rapidly expanding cooperation among these countries on issues ranging from environmental protection to international security.
That is unfortunate for two reasons.  On the one hand, these growing relationships are important in and of themselves even if they do not solve all the bilateral and multilateral problems these states have.  As important as oil and gas may be, all of the states in this region recognize that these resources are not the only things they care about.  And on the other, these forms of cooperation may serve as confidence-building measures that will ultimately allow the littoral states to reach an agreement on the delimitation of the seabed, an agreement that would open the way to even greater exploitation of those resources by the countries there.

Over the last few months, cooperation among these countries has intensified both at the multi-lateral littoral level and at the bilateral one.  The past two weeks have been especially full for Azerbaijan in particular.  Baku hosted a working session of the deputy foreign ministers of the five littoral states to discuss a draft agreement on security cooperation.  As Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov pointed out, that accord has been under discussion for two years but there is new impetus for reaching an agreement because of the third summit of Caspian states slated to take place in Baku on November 18th.

The draft accord provides for inter-state mechanisms to assure security on the Caspian, cooperation against terrorism and the illegal trafficking of weapons, drugs, and nuclear technologies, piracy, illegal immigration, poaching, and coping with natural and man-made disasters, thereby broadening the kinds of bi-lateral cooperation that Azerbaijan and some of the littoral states have already entered into and indicating the directions that these states may take in the future (Medjid 2010).

Indeed, as if to highlight these possibilities, during the same week, as the chronology in this issue of Azerbaijan in the World reports, Azerbaijani units took part in a joint exercise with Russian Federation and Kazakhstan forces to counter poaching and environmental destruction in the northern portions of the Caspian, and Iranian officials visited Baku, with several of them indicating that they saw no obstacles to joint military exercises between Azerbaijan and Iran, a development that in and of itself would change the security situation in the Caspian basin.

And these developments in turn follow the expansion of cooperation, after some periods of tension, between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, as well as between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation and between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, the two countries which have had close cooperation on the Caspian since 2002 when they unilaterally agreed to a delimitation of the seabed.  Similar forms of cooperation between other pairs of countries in the Caspian basin are also taking place, but what may represent a breakthrough, as the Baku meeting suggests, is that the Caspian littoral states are prepared to move to a multilateral set of arrangements.
Obviously, as all observers note, moving in this direction is not going to be easy.  There are both serious underlying tensions among these countries and the potential for outside interference that could derail cooperation in one or another area. [1] But in talking about the Caspian, it is time to look beyond the issue of delimitation alone and to recognize that if other forms of cooperation take off, the consequences of the absence of an accord on the seabed will be reduced and the chances for such an accord dramatically increased.


Gusher, Anatoly (2010) “The Caspian Region as a Playground for Strategic Competition and Confrontation. Challenges, Risks, and Threats. Part III”, New Eastern Outlook, 7 October, available at http://journal-neo.com/?q=ru/node/1875 (accessed 13 October 2010).

Medjid, Faiq (2010) “A Working Session of the Caspian Littoral States is Being Held to Discuss Security Issues in the Caspian”, Kavkaz Uzel, 12 October, available at http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/175435/ (accessed 13 October 2010).


[1] For a survey of both of these risks, see the article by Anatoly Gusher, an advisor to the Russian Federation Security Council (Gusher 2010).