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Claiming the Caspian

Two offshore rigs at Caspian shore near Baku. An oil pipeline is at the heart of the negotiations between the Caspian Five Two offshore rigs at Caspian shore near Baku. An oil pipeline is at the heart of the negotiations between the Caspian Five
30 Jun
The so-called ‘Caspian Five’ are close to finalising the legal status of who owns what in the much-disputed Caspian Sea

One of the world’s most complex geopolitical negotiations is nearing completion. This year, the littoral states of the Caspian Sea (see map below) are expected to reach a consensus on the water body’s legal status after more than 20 years of disputes.

The Caspian is the largest inland lake in the world and holds significant resources of oil and gas, as well as 90 per cent of the world’s sturgeon population. Before the 1980s, these resources were shared between Iran and the USSR. However, the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent independence of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan brought a total of five states into the mix. The previous agreements were therefore thrown into contention. Twenty years later, the new agreement will likely follow a ‘modified median’ method, treating the Caspian as an official sea by portioning its bed according to length of coastlines.

For the agreement to be successful, two key issues will need to be solved. ‘First, Iran will need to agree with the principle used for delimitation in the northern part of the sea,’ says Stanislav Pritchin, an analyst of the region for policy research centre Chatham House. ‘It has the smallest coastline so the modified median line leaves it with 12 per cent of the waters – a significant loss compared to its historical claim.’

caspian map

Iran has often campaigned to have land ownership fall under a ‘condominium’ method that would grant each state an equal 20 per cent share of resources and wealth. ‘There are recent signs that Iran has realised this is too idealistic,’ says Pritchin. ‘As a compromise, it has begun to collaborate with neighbouring Azerbaijan over developing oil and gas projects.’ Such collaborations would not likely be reflected within any official convention, however they may be vital in persuading Iran to sign up to the agreement.

The second issue is underwater pipelines. Since the 1990s, Iran and Russia have been able to block the long-proposed undersea pipeline between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, which could supply Europe with gas. Such a pipeline would bypass Russian and Iranian routes, loosening their energy stronghold in the region. ‘They have always argued that any Caspian pipeline would require the consent of all five states,’ says Pritchin. In short, they want to the power to veto. Now, however, that conflict may be coming to an end as all Caspian states have agreed that only the permissions of those countries along a pipeline’s route would be needed. ‘A pipeline linking Turkmenistan to Europe – at least in principal – will be possible,’ he says.

After a summit in Kazakhstan in June, Russia’s state secretary Grigory Karasin said: ‘We are seriously preparing together with our partners to ensure that this convention is signed at the upcoming summit.’ The next meeting is planned for August, most likely to be held in Kazakhstan. 

This was published in the July 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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