It’s a Sea! 18 years after, the Caspian finally gets a legal status

Oct 19, 2014 12:00 AM

Against all odds, the 4th Caspian Summit that took place in Astrakhan on 29 September between the “Caspian Five” – the five littoral states of Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan – ended with rather positive advances and, for once, unexpected breakthroughs. As President Putin declared after the Summit, “we agreed on the principles of interaction”. Yet if it did not take 18 years to figure out just that, several results from the multilateral meetings will soon start bearing fruit.

The Caspian Sea gets a legal status

If not the most important point, the Caspian Five finally managed to voice a clear political formulation on the delimitation of water spaces as well as on the sea shelf, resources, and the regime of navigation and fishing. In other words, the legal status of the Caspian Sea has been fixed: the body of water is assimilated to a sea, whereby littoral states can benefit from natural resources according to the length of their coastline.

Furthermore, each country will receive an exclusive area of 15 nautical miles off their respective coasts where they will be able to extend national sovereignty. The principle of national marine sovereignty will also give them rights to extract natural resources (whether it is fish or energy) within an additional 10 nautical mile area adjacent to their exclusive area. Beyond this 25 nautical miles line, the remaining bodies of water will be considered common waters.

Now that all the points of contention have all been addressed, the 2014 political statement paves the way to the signature of the final convention on the Caspian Sea legal status. The definitive document is scheduled to be signed by the five littoral states during the next Summit in 2016 in Kazakhstan. If signed, the presence of a legal status will once and for all defuse interstate tension on the matter.

Security and defense above all

On September 26, the five neighbors agreed to “keep a stable balance of forces in the region and ensure the development of their defense capability within the limits of reasonable efficiency”, meaning that only Caspian littoral states have the right to carry out military activities at sea. At that, the principle of solving all regional military problems “exclusively among themselves” was also agreed upon. Understand keep external, non-regional military forces (understand NATO) out of the Caspian Sea.

Russia and Iran have always been adamant on this issue, and finally managed to talk Azerbaijan – and to a lesser extent Kazakhstan – into caving in to their will by keeping the Sea under their sole military control. The prospect of an American military presence or a NATO base in the Caspian is (for now at least) completely ruled out.

A new dawn for the Trans-Caspian pipeline?

With a legal status finally looming large, talks about the feasibility of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline should resurface promptly. As littoral states are granted national sovereignty over their coastline and water extensions, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are legally authorized to build the gas pipeline between the ports of Turkmenbashi and Baku, and subsequently connect it to the European-backed Southern Gas Corridor towards Turkey.

Russia, however, stands against the Trans-Caspian, as it represents a threat to its monopoly over European gas supplies. Backed by the legal status of the Sea, Baku and Ashkhabad can now argue that the pipeline concerns the national interests of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan alone. The rhetoric shan’t rebuke Russia anyhow. To make up for the lost income due to the potential construction of the Trans-Caspian, Russia is now further advancing its North-South Transport Corridor between the Caspian Sea and the Black and Baltic Seas onwards to Europe. Completely controlled by Russia, this new ship, rail, and road route could reportedly cut in half shipping distances.

At the same time, doubts can be raised concerning Turkmenistan’s genuine gas resources and its ability to deliver enough energy to Europe. Indeed, the country already increased its gas export volumes to China and Iran, sells a sizable amount of its gas to Russia, and recently started sending gas to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan – which in the end leaves little possibility for European supplies.

Other projects

The concept of a “railroad ring” around the Caspian Sea was actively discussed during the meetings: with the aim to connect the major sea ports of the five countries, such a railway will inevitably cut both time and cost of cargo transportation to an extent that still remains to be determined.

Finally, the five states signed an agreement on joint emergency prevention and response.

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