Analysis: Caspian Convention hailed as great achievement in littoral states, but many questions are yet to be agreed.
15 August 2018

(This item was updated at 1000 GMT on 15 August to add the comments from Turkmenistan on the Caspian Convention)

Analysis: The signing on Sunday of the Caspian Sea convention by the leaders of the five littoral states - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russia and Turkmenistan - has been hailed a great achievement by political commentators in the region, but many questions are yet to be agreed.

The Caspian has a reserve of around fifty billion barrels of oil and nine trillion cubic meters of natural gas, which up to now could not be exploited due to differences between the five nations on how the sea was to be delineated. The convention opens the way for a settlement on delineations, but much work on this remains to be done.

Under the new convention, an area of 15 nautical miles from the coast will be regarded as the territory of each country, whilst the fishing zones will extend to 25 nautical miles, whilst the rest will be regarded as common ground, that can be exploited by all. However the seabed, which is where the energy resources are, is to be divided, but discussions on this are yet to start.

The five countries have also agreed that no external country can base military forces in the Caspian. 

The convention also settles a long dispute over whether to consider the water body a sea, which would make it subject to international maritime law and accessible by outside countries, or to consider it a lake, which would require dividing it equally among its five coastal nations. The dispute was settled by granting the water body a "special legal status."  .

The countries agreed on freedom of transit to other seas and oceans and foresee the possibility for laying pipelines under the waters if environmental requirements are observed.

In the five countries the Convention has been hailed as a great achievement, after 22 years of negotiations, but each country has focused on that bit of the convention which it likes most. In Iran there has been emphasis on the fact that no external forces are to be allowed entry into the Caspian. Encirclement has been a constant concern of the current Iranian government, and the convention goes some way in addressing that. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed a multilateral agreement on confidence-building measures in the field of military activities.

In Azerbaijan, commentators close to the government have lined up to hail the convention, describing it as the conclusion of the work that former president Heidar Aliyev started in 1996. The influential website went further. In an editorial under the signature of its editor, Eynulla Fattulayev, says that the convention is an example of the trust between several former Soviet states. It cites the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) as an effective military and security alliance where Azerbaijan has many friends, and suggests that now is the time to open the discussion about Azerbaijan's future relations with this organisation and how it can become the platform for a solution to the Karabakh problem. "Is it utopia?", asks the editorial, reminding readers that a Caspian Convention two decades ago was considered a utopia too.

In another comment, analyst Arzu Nagiyev told TREND news agency that the signing of the Convention will open up new opportunities for joint cooperation, the definition of standards for national sectors and the protection of the Caspian environment.

In Turkmenistan, the signing of the convention was hailed as an important step for the world's energy security. TDH, the state news agency said thathe Convention also affirms the possibility of laying submarine cables and pipelines along the seabed of the Caspian Sea "subject to their compliance with environmental requirements and standards enshrined in the international treaties to which they are parties."

The text of the document says that only those countries through the sector of the bottom of which they will be laid will determine the route of their laying. This means that the Trans-Caspian pipeline - an underwater gas pipeline that must connect the Turkmenbashi city in Turkmenistan with Baku in Azerbaijan and further with the markets of Western Europe - can no longer be vetoed.

"The Convention specifies that pipelines are a matter of bilateral negotiations between the countries on whose territory they pass. And the parallel environmental pact implies that other coastal states will be able to influence infrastructure projects and control the ecological side of the issue, "writes TDH.

The signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea is an important step towards global energy security. All further issues in the region will be resolved on the basis of this document and agreements concluded at the 5th Caspian Summit, TDH notes.

In Russia itself the Convention has also been positively assessed as a way in which relations between states can be conducted far from the interference of western countries.

There is however a snag. The convention does not settle the issue of the delineations of the seabed. This is where the natural resources are, and where the most important areas of contention still remain.

An Iranian senior political analyst believes Caspian Sea littoral states need now to sit down for negotiations over carving up the seabed of the Caspian Sea. Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, professor of political science and international law, told Iranian media on Tuesday (14 August) that "in the case of dividing the seabed, joint negotiations should be conducted and a reassessment should take place", adding that Iranian claims have so far been ignored and accusing Russia of acting unilaterally in the past in signing agreements with the other three post Soviet littoral states.

"They [the five littoral states] should have followed tradition to make decisions jointly, not through bilateral contracts. So this issue has put Iran in an unpleasant situation... The issue should be raised for reassessment", Tehran Times quoted the analyst as saying.

"The reconsideration should not be based on the length of the shoreline, since the contracts of 1921 and 1940 were by no means dependent on the coast length and they considered the totality of the sea as common property."

As a result, Iran's portion of the seabed and substrata resources should go beyond what is now contemplated, the expert explained. "Iran previously assumed that it shared Caspian Sea jointly with the then Soviet Union, but currently, three other countries have been added so that if they want to consider a stake, it will be a 60 to 40 share. However, what has now been clinched [by the sides] is 15 miles of coastal waters," he concluded.

It is clear that many issues related to the Caspian remain to be discussed. In the end the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Time will tell how efficient and effective the Caspian Convention will be, and its long term implications for the region.


photo: The leaders of the five Caspian Sea littoral statesd in Actau, Kazakhstan, after signing the Convention on the Caspian Sea after 22 years of negotiations.