Vol. 4, No. 9 (May 01, 2011)

Progress toward the delimitation of the Caspian sea

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

At the end of April, significant progress was made toward the resolution of one of the trickiest diplomatic problems created by the demise of the Soviet Union: the delimitation of the Caspian Sea among the five states now surrounding it in place of the two that had been there prior to 1991.  While no final agreement was reached, and without such an accord, all agreements on specifics are only notional, the April 26-27 session of the special working group the presidents of the five littoral countries have created appears likely to be a breakthrough, one that may ultimately be ratified by a regional summit.

At the end of the meeting, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov said that “great work had been done” and “progress made,” not only in reaching final agreement on many points for a convention but also in the discussion of those provisions about which no accord has yet been reached.  Among the latter are some of the most important, including, the use of the surface of the sea, the delimitation of national zones, and issues concerning military and maritime use of the Caspian’s waters. [1]

The representatives of the four other countries present agreed.  Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzade, the special representative of the Iranian president for Caspian issues, said that the five sides “had demonstrated political will” at the meeting for reaching an ultimate accord.  Murad Atajanov, the representative of Turkmenistan, said that the sides had “found a common language” even on those points where they remain divided.  Kayrat Sarybay of Kazakhstan said that there had been progress toward a general agreement.  And Aleksandr Golovin, the Russian representative, said that the activities of the special working group were part of a larger effort by the littoral states to deal with “the multi-faceted” progress of reaching agreement on all the issues that the Caspian represents. 

In addition to specific agreements on fishing and other issues that all five have signed, there is the tripartite agreement among Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan on how to reach a final settlement.  Unfortunately, as Fikrat Sadykhov pointed out, “the main obstacle” to that “is the position of Iran and in part that of Turkmenistan.”  Nonetheless, following this meeting, the Baku political scientist said that “step by step the countries are coming to a definite agreement.  Naturally, political will is needed for this, as well as certain mutual compromises and the like.”  But he suggested that there would be an agreement among the five on the final status of the Caspian either this year or next.

Other observers agreed that the time for progress is propitious.  In a commentary for Moscow State University’s portal on the post-Soviet region, Elmira Tariverdiyeva said that there were reasons to believe that the countries which have represented the largest obstacles to accord may change their position and soon in the wake of the Baku meeting.  On the one hand, Iran wants to have a successful Caspian summit in March of next year.  And on the other, Turkmenistan does not want to miss the chance to gain European support for a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. [2]

Iran has blocked progress toward an accord in the past, Tariverdiyeva points out, by its insistence that it be given 20 percent of the sea’s area on the basis of an equal divide of the Caspian among the give, but now, she suggests, Tehran is showing greater willingness to compromise on this point and a desire to wrap things up soon.  Indeed, at the Baku session, Iran’s Akhundzade said that his government wants to see an acceleration of the negotiating process so that an accord can be reached this year, before the Tehran meeting of the five littoral state presidents. [3] 

And Ashgabat appears to be shifting away from its confrontational stand vis-à-vis Azerbaijan on the delimitation of the sectors of the sea between those countries.  The reason for that, Tariverdiyeva says, is that both Ashgabat and Baku recognize that the absence of an agreement is “an important obstacle in the path of the realization of the project of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline.”  Turkmenistan is especially interested in the money it can make from this project, she says, and, consequently, “it does not want to miss the moment when European politicians and investors as never before” are prepared to support it.

A final agreement on the Caspian thus appears within reach, and while it may not take place in Baku, it was the Baku meeting at the end of last month which set the stage for exactly that outcome.


[1] See http://news.day.az/politics/264568.html (accessed 29 April 2011).

[2] See http://www.ia-centr.ru/expert/10378/ (accessed 29 April 2011).

[3] See http://news.day.az/politics/264340.html (accessed 29 April 2011).