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Many effusive and superlative sentiments have been expressed about the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, which was finally signed on August 12 by the leaders of the five Caspian states (Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan) in the Kazakh city of Aktau. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the event “epochal,” while his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev said the convention was nothing short of a constitution for the Caspian.
The 18-page convention, the result of twenty-two difficult years of negotiations, is, however, essentially a framework document that will still need to be fleshed out significantly with additional agreements. Only after that will it be possible to really talk about the partition of the Caspian, though some Russian and Kazakh media are already doing just that.
So what does it actually change? The main thing is that the conceptual approach to determining the Caspian’s status has changed. The decision to consider the Caspian Sea neither a sea nor a lake, in legal terms, is revolutionary. Not classifying it as a sea means the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea does not apply to the Caspian, and made it possible to extend the width of territorial waters from 12 to 15 nautical miles from the coast, and to establish a 10-mile fishing zone, as opposed to an exclusive economic zone.
Defining the Caspian as a lake, on the other hand, would have required dividing it equally between the five countries bordering on it (while seas are divided up according to the lengths of their coastlines). So now it has the status of an “intercontinental body of water.”
The search for a compromise led to the issue of definitively partitioning the bottom of the Caspian being put off until a future time. This gives Iran, which has a short coastline, the right to haggle over its share (it had long called for the Caspian to be divided up into five equal parts, taking into account the basin, bottom, and depth of the water), and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hinted during his speech at the summit in Aktau that Iran will do just that.
The five sides also rejected the idea of dividing the Caspian according to the equidistance principle, in which boundaries are determined by a median line that is equidistant from the other nations’ shores. This decision looks to have strengthened Baku’s position in its long-running dispute with Ashgabat over to whom the oil deposits in the middle of the sea belong.
Russia, in turn, has given up its veto right on the construction of the proposed Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (formally it cites ecological considerations in opposing the underwater pipeline, which would circumvent Russia and take Turkmen gas directly to Europe). Furthermore, the principles for dividing the Caspian into national sectors outlined in the convention state that construction is exclusively the business of the countries that surround the Caspian, and only those countries may determine the routes of pipelines and cables passing through their sector. In other words, Russia cannot interfere in the implementation of a Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline passing through the Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan sectors.
Like the other Caspian countries, however, Russia still has a theoretical chance of impeding the building of the Trans-Caspian. It can refer to a document signed in Moscow on July 20: the Environment Impact Assessment Protocol to the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, which was signed back in 2003. The protocol was mentioned in the joint communiqué issued at the end of the Aktau summit, but was not discussed at the summit itself.
Moscow’s readiness to give in to Ashgabat over the pipeline is linked to changes on the European gas market. If previously Moscow feared that Caspian gas could become competition for its own state gas giant Gazprom, now Turkmen supplies are more likely to compete with liquefied gas from the United States.
For Russia, just as for Iran, gas issues have been relegated to second place, while the top priority is security. Both countries are trying above all to prevent the presence in the Caspian Sea of states from outside the region, especially any military presence. This chiefly concerns the United States, and no one is attempting to hide that.
This position is enshrined in the convention, which gives Moscow and Tehran the right to express concern over plans by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to cooperate with Washington in allowing the United States to use their territory for the transit of nonmilitary cargo destined for American troops in Afghanistan. Moscow argues that using transit points in the Kazakh ports of Aktau and Kuryk in the Caspian region will enable the United States to de facto establish American military bases there, and Astana rejects these suspicions.
Iran has been no less concerned than Russia by the idea of a U.S. presence in the Caspian region since Donald Trump came to power in the United States. Tehran is concerned by neighboring Azerbaijan’s involvement in the transit of U.S. cargo to Afghanistan, and even more so by the possibility that Turkmenistan might agree to U.S. proposals to use it as a transit route, which could end up being shorter and cheaper than the current Kazakh-Uzbek route.
Tehran is particularly worried that a large part of the possible Turkmen transit route would run in close proximity to the Iran-Turkmenistan border. The convention’s ban on the presence of parties from outside the region, therefore, cannot fail to appeal to Tehran and nudge it toward compromise on other thorny issues.
Finally, the main point that made the convention on the legal status of the Caspian of great geopolitical importance for Russia is the enshrinement in it of the agreement to allow unrestricted military activity in the unpartitioned basin of the sea by the navies of each Caspian country. In other words, the right has been affirmed of the most powerful of those—Russia’s Caspian fleet—to operate on virtually all of the Caspian, except other countries’ territorial waters and fishing zones.
It’s not yet clear what the future of fishing in the Caspian will be. The countries still need to set their national quotas for catching sturgeon, on which there is currently a moratorium. It’s not clear either how those quotas will be enforced. As one Turkmen observer has noted, the moratorium has been in place for many years, but it’s enough to look at the sturgeon on sale at the markets of Ashgabat and at the advertisements for caviar and sturgeon on Turkmen social networks to realize that the moratorium in Turkmenistan doesn’t work, while the poachers, on the other hand, are hard at work.
It seems that the historic consensus that made it possible to finally determine the rules of the game in the Caspian came about more as a result of the new geopolitical conjuncture in Greater Eurasia and the striving by all sides to hastily preempt an undesirable development of events, rather than consolidation in their desire to guarantee their national interests.
On the other hand, we are seeing historic progress in the countries standing up for these interests. At the end of the nineteenth century, the width of national territorial waters in the sea was considered to be universal: just 3 nautical miles (the average distance that a cannonball could fly). At a larger distance, the coast guard couldn’t defend its ships. Now the countries on the Caspian Sea are permitted to defend waters that are five times bigger.
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