On August 10th, the Kremlin announced that an agreement had been reached on the legal status of the Caspian Sea between the five countries bordering it.
The agreement between Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan is to be signed on August 12th in the Kazakh port city of Aktau.
The Kremlin’s statement also said that the countries have been working on a resolution since 1996. Negotiations have been long and complicated. It comes after a 22-year-long dispute, which involved 51 working groups, more than 12 meetings between foreign ministers of the countries and four presidential summits.
The five presidents held their first meeting in Turkmenistan’s capital of Ashgabat in 2002. The second Caspian summit was held in the Iranian capital of Tehran in 2007, while Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku hosted the third in 2010, and Russia’s Astrakhan hosted the fourth in 2014.
The signing will be the “central event” of the summit between the Presidents of the five countries. The agreement would grant special status to the Caspian Sea, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said in an interview with Russia’s Kommersant daily. This special status will be assigned based on the sea’s “geographic, hydrological, and other features.”
Regarding the resources, Karasin commented that “The littoral states will have the full jurisdiction over resources in their sectors of the seabed,” as cited by Iran Daily.
The resources are namely trillions of dollars’ worth of hydrocarbons in the seabed, which holds about 50 billion barrels of oil and 9 trillion cubic meters of natural gas that are proven or provable, cited Radio Free Europe. There could be much more of these resources, however territorial disputes have impeded attempts at proper exploration.
Radio Free Europe also cited a draft of the agreement, which was briefly posted on Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s website in June. The draft suggested that the countries would also agree that the Caspian is a sea. This is of significance because there have been debates on whether the Caspian is a sea or a lake since 1991. Prior to 1991 there were only two countries with shorelines on the Caspian – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Iran. Following the breakup of the Union the issue of the legal status gained importance due to the emergence of the new independent states.
If it is, in fact, deemed a sea the five countries would draw lines extending from their shores to the midway point with littoral neighbors. The draft agreement posted on Medvedev’s website also included a clause that forbids the presence on the Caspian of any military forces except those of the five littoral countries. Airspace would be divided between the signatory states, and Russia’s Caspian Flotilla will be guaranteed access to the entire sea. This move will reaffirm Russia’s geopolitical dominance in the region.
The Caspian Sea is the largest enclosed body of water by area and is variously classed as the world’s largest lake or a full-fledged sea. If it is designated a lake, the rights are divided up equally, with each nation receiving 20 per cent. If, however, it is deemed to be a sea, it is split between the competing nations in proportion to each one’s share of its coastline. Iran, the major loser in the sea approach, had been resisting the definition.
Even with the absence of an agreement, the countries have developed the seabed they believe is in their region. To an extent, signing of the agreement will simply formalize what is, in fact, already happening.