Vol. 3, No. 22 (November 15, 2010)

Narrowing divisions on the Caspian at the Baku summit: Prospects and problems

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Expanded cooperation in a variety of sectors at the bilateral and multilateral level have led some analysts to predict that the upcoming November 18th summit in Baku of the leaders of the five Caspian littoral states—Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan—will mark a breakthrough in the long-running talks on the delimitation of the sea and its mineral-rich seabed now that there are five countries bordering the sea rather than only two as was the case prior to 1991.
But other analysts are suggesting that both differences among the five and the involvement of outside powers in the region, especially the United States, the European Union and China, make it unlikely that there will be any final agreement this time around.  And some of these are suggesting that in the absence of an accord on delimitation, the five should form a Caspian Economic Cooperation Organization, both to promote an expansion of existing ties and to lay the groundwork for a resolution of the delimitation question, lest failure in this sphere spark greater tension, militarization and expanded involvement of outside actors in the region.

When leaders meet, there is always the possibility for a breakthrough because each of them has an interest in claiming success, but what is success for one may be failure for another; and that in turn means that it is important to understand the factors working toward an agreement among the five on Caspian delimitation as well as the forces impeding such an accord.  Moreover, it is important to consider in advance both what an accord might lead to as well as what another failure to reach it now would entail.

Since 1991, representatives of the five littoral states have met more than 25 times on the issue of delimitation of the Caspian Sea.  Given the existence of five states rather than two, the rising price of oil and its importance for all littoral states, and improved technology for extracting hydrocarbons from the seabed, these talks have been contentious because each country stands to gain or lose a great deal by even small changes in any divisions agreed to.  

For many years, all the parties assumed that there would of necessity have to be a single agreement in which the delimitation issue would be resolved before development of national sectors and international cooperation could expand.  During that period, debates centered on whether the Caspian should be treated like a sea or a lake, a not unimportant issue in international law, and on just how the sectors of national control should be defined.  Indeed, those debates continue both among policy makers and the analytic community.

But over the last decade, conditions on the ground or in this case more precisely on the sea have changed.  The littoral states have expanded cooperation on a variety of issues often on a bilateral or trilateral basis and sometimes with the accord of all five states, and the increasing density of such accords has been a major factor in leading some in the analytic community in the region and more generally to assume that a breakthrough on delimitation may soon be at hand.

According to a two-part article in Vestnik Kavkaza, cooperation among the littoral states has grown exponentially in many areas, including but not limited to security issues, on which major progress was made two weeks ago in Baku; oil and gas transit arrangements, shipping, trade in food and other non-petroleum related products, railway links and environmental protection (see Mikheev 2010a and 2010b)—although as Vestnik Kavkaza points out and as various officials, including Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, have said, there are major differences of opinion in almost all of these areas among the five, not to mention the attitudes of outside powers to one or another of these states, such as American views on Iran.

Those difficulties were at the center of discussions at a Moscow roundtable organized by the Institute for Caspian Cooperation.  Diplomats, scholars and journalists from Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Iran—of the littoral states, only Turkmenistan was not represented—compiled a list of the major problems facing the countries of the Caspian basin.  Leading the list was the still unresolved status of the Caspian Sea.  That problem was followed by piracy, militarization, poaching and the exhaustion of bio-resources of the sea, the absence of agreement on how to address these challenges, the inability to agree about “the Iranian question,” and corruption among some of those charged with executing any decision. [1] 

The participants at the Moscow meeting concluded that the failure to resolve the delimitation issue remains a serious obstacle to further cooperation and makes the disagreements that exist, such as those between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and between Iran and the remainder, far more serious and potentially explosive.  For example, Konstantin Syroyezhkin, a Kazakhstan expert, said that while “the Iranian question” is getting the most attention now, “there are serious disagreements” among some of the other four, disagreements that he blamed on what he called “the national egoism” of the littoral states. 

To help lessen these disagreements and to promote a broader point of view, Aleksey Vlasov, the director of the Center for Post-Soviet Research at Moscow State University, called for the Baku meeting to create a Caspian Economic Cooperation Organization, which could meet regularly, share opinions, monitor the situation, and promote the kind of confidence building that could lead to greater cooperation among the five while limiting the ability of outside actors to disrupt regional cooperation (Zhiltsov 2010).

But even some of the participants at the Moscow roundtable were not persuaded by that idea.  Andrey Chebotarev, a Kazakhstan political scientist, argued that the current model of cooperation among his country, Russia and Azerbaijan was “the most acceptable,” noting that these three countries have already been able to agree on many issues, an achievement that he said should be “the cause for optimism.”

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov clearly agrees.  He acknowledged recently that “the most important questions connected with the legal status of the Caspian, including the use of the surface, the delimitation of the seabed, fishing, shipping, demilitarization, the movement of military vessels and the like still remain without agreement.”  But he, like the other officials who will be supporting their presidents at Baku, also recognizes that failure to make progress could exacerbate current problems.  Consequently, everyone at Baku will be looking for a way out of what many are calling “a blind alley,” even though there is no path on which all of them can agree.


Mikheev, Sergey (2010) “Caspian Question: Toward a Way Out of the Impasse” (in Russian), Vestnik Kavkaza, 9 November, available at: http://www.vestikavkaza.ru/analytics/ekonomika/28504.html and http://www.vestikavkaza.ru/analytics/politika/28566.html (accessed 10 November 2010).

Zhiltsov (2010) “A Summit of Great Expectations” (in Russian), Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 12 November, available at http://www.ng.ru/politics/2010-11-12/3_kartblansh.html (accessed 14 November 2010).


[1] See http://www.ia-centr.ru/expert/9323/ (accessed 14 November 2010).