Vol. 3, No. 7 (April 01, 2010)

Caspian cooperation without a Caspian accord

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

The five Caspian littoral states are still far apart regarding the legal status of the sea and especially its hydrocarbon-rich seabed, but in late March, their representatives reached tentative agreement on a draft security cooperation accord and on the formation of a Council of Science and Innovation in the Caucasus.  Whether these prove to be confidence-building measures that will promote the long-sought accord on the delimitation of the sea remains to be seen, but they represent an intriguing example of the way in which states which disagree over the very largest issues may nonetheless be able to cooperate on others.

Following a mid-March meeting in Baku attended by experts from the five littoral states, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov noted that there had been no progress toward a final settlement, but in remarks that attracted relatively little attention at the time, he said that representatives of the five countries—Azerbaijan, the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran—were close to an agreement on security cooperation and that they had agreed to the formation of a Council of Science and Innovation in the Caucasus. [1]  

The security accord, while not yet in final form, provides for cooperation in various areas, including in the critical areas of resolving disputes about the use of the sea’s waters, and for excluding military competition in the sea.  While such declarations often have little content, this one appears directed in the first instance against any outside force that might become active on the Caspian.  That represents a victory for Russia and Iran, both of which had actively opposed any development of a NATO presence there, and possibly for other states, like Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, which have announced plans for and even begun work toward their own coastal naval capacities.

The other outcome of the meeting in Baku was the creation of a joint public-private Council on Science and Innovation of the Caspian.  To be headed by LUKOIL’s Grayfer, the council initially will include scholars, businessmen and officials from the Russian Federation and from Azerbaijan, but the other littoral states have shown an interest and appear likely to join once their governments have considered the matter.  The new body, its organizers suggest, will oversee the creation of a common data base for the sea, something that could help future negotiations by providing information on which all five could agree.

Initially, the council will engage in monitoring of the resources and environment of the region as a whole, itself a confidence building measure because it will be the first time that the littoral states will have common data on the sea rather than only information about the portions of it each claims. 

The councils’ executive director, Nina Levshin, told journalists that with this new body, “we have the chance to resolve by peaceful means disputed resource questions, [and] we hope that this will accelerate the resolution of the legal status of the Caspian.” [2] But even if that does not happen, the new council should allow the five states to work together with fewer problems than they have had up to now.

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caspian was divided between the USSR and Iran, but now it must be delimited either as a sea or a lake—agreement on that determines how that body of water will be divided—among five countries.  They have been engaged in on-again-off-again talks since 2001, but the divisions among them remain deep, in large measure because so much is at stake.

The Caspian is one of the most petroleum-rich sites in the world, with an estimated 10 billion tons of oil and 18-20 billion tons of gas.  Consequently, even small shifts in the lines of control will have enormous consequences for the states on its shores.  Moreover, all of them have an interest in some kind of division so that international investors will have confidence that their money will not disappear as a result of a shift in the political winds.

At the conclusion of the March meeting, Mehdi Safari, the special representative of the Iranian president for the talks, underlined just how many disagreements among the five are yet to be resolved: “At present,” he said, “the following questions are being discussed: should the water space be divided into several sectors or into territorial waters, economic zones, and common waters or should the economic zone and the territorial waters form a single whole, and the rest remain common, and also how many miles from the shore should these zones extend.” [3]

That enumeration shows that it is likely to be a long time before any general agreement is reached, but the near accord on security and the agreement to form an experts council to monitor the situation shows that underneath the disagreement on the larger questions, there is real movement toward cooperation on smaller ones, an indication that this particular “frozen” conflict may in fact begin to thaw, albeit without the grand bargain that some have seen as being required.

[1] See http://www.ia-centr.ru/expert/7462/ (accessed 18 March 2010).

[2] See http://www.vestikavkaza.ru/news/politika/caspian%20sea/17167.html (accessed 28 March 2010).

[3] See http://www.ia-centr.ru/expert/7462/ (accessed 18 March 2010).