For a moment there some analysts who for more than two decades have followed the neverending negotiations on carving up the Caspian Sea may have wondered if a heavily promoted summit in Kazakhstan’s Aqtau was going to go down as the ‘summit to end all summits’.
Alas, the long-awaited August 12 signing of a convention on the legal status of the body of water leaves a lot to be desired.
As it turns out the leaders of the five states that surround the Caspian Sea—Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan—have not yet inked a deal that will entirely carve up the oil and gas-rich resources under the seabed.
Despite all the fanfare, it appears that the all-important definitive delineation of the seabed will have to be determined in future negotiations. What was agreed upon is that each country will control 15 nautical miles from its shore for mineral exploration and another 10 nautical miles for fishing. The remaining surface area will be shared jointly among all the littoral countries.
A key issue in the dispute has always been whether the Caspian Sea is actually a lake. If it is accepted as a lake that would mean the borders of all five nations would meet in the middle. If it is decreed to be a sea, there would be some common “international waters” in the middle that all the countries would have to share.
‘Not a sea or a lake’
In the end, the parties to the convention agreed to fluff the issue of the ‘sea or lake’ dispute and developed a special legal status for the Caspian, defining it neither as a sea nor as a lake.
Under the terms of the deal, the surface will be open for common usage. However, the all important seabed, where the natural resources reside, will be divided among the countries via the concluding of bilateral agreements—so expect more interminable negotiations.
The five leaders who gathered in Aqtau—Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbajev, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov—signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea that addresses its division and regulates the issues of military cooperation, and the development of biological resources, the seabed and subsoil.
Putin called the signing of the convention a historic event. But a clue that it may not have been so historic came when Berdymukhammedov concluded his opening remarks by saying another summit should be held in Turkmenistan.
Looking at the failure to resolve the division of the seabed, Izvestiya concluded that it "looks like an informal recognition of the inability of the five Caspian states to agree on the rules of the game concerning oil and gas reserves and transit pipelines".
Other points included in the convention are that the use of the waters will be regularly discussed at the level of deputy foreign ministers, with the first meeting to be held within six months and that Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will be allowed to build a trans-Caspian gas pipeline to transport hydrocarbons from Central Asia to the European Union. But experts say the pipeline will be a long time coming as it is not the more economically efficient option for selling Caspian oil.
The convention also formally awards each country the right to lay pipelines and cables in their own Caspian sector, though environmental approval is required from all five countries for such work. But for any pipeline projects in the Southern Caspian to go ahead, the participating countries will first need to divide the seabed.
The convention also bans the deployment of military bases of third countries in the Caspian Sea at Russia’s insistence. In the next two years, Moscow could significantly increase its naval forces in the Caspian region. They are already the most powerful there, according to reports. All the countries bordering the Caspian Sea have plans to strengthen their navy in the region.
In further remarks on the military side of the agreement, Iranian President Rouhani praised the part of the agreement that excludes any foreign military presence in the Caspian, but in his closing statement mentioned that it should include shipment of foreign militaries' cargo across the Caspian, according to RFE/RL. He did not specify any countries but was almost certainly referring to the agreement the US has to ship cargo from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan’s Aqtau and Quryq ports.
History under the Persian Empire
Iranians are generally quite sensitive about the future of the Caspian Sea—given its history under the Persian Empire and the ceding to Russia 200 years ago of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan under the Treaties of Turkmenchay and Golestan—and following the summit social media channels in Iran were ablaze with speculation that Rouhani had handed over territory deemed Iranian to Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, while granting Russia rights to use the Caspian Sea as the sole defender of the body of water.
According to Western estimates, there are reserves of 30bn tonnes of oil and 145 trillion cubic meters of gas under the Caspian Sea.