Hopes are rising that a breakthrough in long-stalled negotiations on a comprehensive Caspian Sea treaty can be achieved. Representatives of the sea's five littoral states sounded optimistic notes at a recent Moscow conference on Caspian-related issues. At the same time, some cautioned that hard bargaining remained before a comprehensive pact would be ready for signing.
At the April 6 meeting in Moscow, diplomats from the five Caspian states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan explored the feasibility of holding a summit meeting later this year on the sea's territorial division. Iran proposed hosting the gathering in late 2004.
No headline-grabbing announcements or agreements came of the talks. Yet, at their conclusion, participants presented a united optimistic front that a new desire for dialogue had been found. A joint communiqué issued at the conclusion of the talks noted that "the meeting passed in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual understanding."
"There is every reason to speak about recent success," the Azerbaijani news agency Bilik Dunyasi reported Azerbaijan's Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov as saying. "The manifestation of political will has allowed the sides to advance more confidently, improve cooperation, make contributions, and expand regional ties."
The chief source of optimism is a November 2003 environmental pact the first such agreement signed by the five Caspian Basin stats since they first began to hold talks on the sea's status in 1996. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Under the environmental agreement, the Caspian states pledged to tackle such problems as industrial pollution, oil refinery and tanker leaks and the energy industry's potential environmental impact on marine life, including the endangered, caviar-producing sturgeon. The pact, some officials contend, shows that Caspian Basin states are prepared to set aside eight years of squabbling in an effort to forge consensus on territorial issues.
The three states support a formula under which Kazakhstan would end up with a 27 percent share of the Caspian Sea's territory, while Russia would receive a 19 percent share; and Azerbaijan an 18 percent share. Iran is the most vocal opponent of the Russian-backed plan. Tehran has held out for all five states receiving an equal 20 percent share. Under the Russia-backed formula, Iran would receive approximately 13 percent of the Caspian Sea's territory. Turkmenistan's position on the Caspian pact has proven hard to pin down.
Before the April discussions in Moscow, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi pointed to the November accord as model for agreements to come. "This is an important development because it proves that a consensus on one of the most important issues affecting the Caspian Sea is not only possible, but ... [is] a good model for settling all other issues of the Caspian Sea," the IRNA news agency quoted Kharrazi as saying.
Potential stumbling blocks remain concerning implementation of the environmental pact. The agreement depends primarily on a national action plan to be developed by each Caspian state. As long as disagreements exist about the division of territorial waters, little action can be expected on these plans. As a way around this obstacle, the United Nations Environment Program and the United Nations Development Program two agencies charged with administering the environmental protection scheme have suggested separate protocols that define each country's responsibilities. Even so, ratification of the convention by all five states and agreement on the protocols could take years to fulfill.
Despite the obstacles, participants in the talks see the agreement as a sign of cooperation to come. "The signing of the treaty means we can move to the next stage, work can proceed," UNDP-Tehran representative Frederick Lyons told the UN news agency IRIN. "This is very important."
While agreeing that the November environmental agreement was "a big breakthrough," Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev urged caution about the accord's impact on the broader territorial issue. "[I]t won't be possible to achieve rapid success in the Caspian settlement as there are many contradictions in the approaches of the five countries," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Tokayev as saying.
That assessment was echoed by the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which forecast in its analysis of the April 6 conference that "autonomous" energy interests would continue to hamper progress towards a Caspian Sea pact. The five Caspian states hold divergent views on how the region's abundant natural resources should be developed.
Russia and Azerbaijan are effectively competing to transport Kazakhstan's large energy reserves to Western markets. Azerbaijan wants Kazakhstan to make a significant to commitment to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline project. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Moscow wants Kazakhstan to primarily use an export network via the Russian port of Novorossiisk. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Kazakhstan, so far, has expressed an intent to keep its export options open.
Meanwhile, Turkmenistan clings to hopes for the construction of a trans-Afghan Pipeline, a 932-mile long, $3-billion conduit that would transport the country's vast natural gas supplies via Afghanistan to energy-hungry Pakistan and other world markets. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Iran, which contains the least energy-rich part of the Caspian, tends to view any oil and gas projects near its borders as a potential infringement upon its rights. Last June, Iran indicated that competition from the Caspian's four other littoral states had forced it to abandon a longstanding policy of non-development of its Caspian hydrocarbon resources so long as a treaty resolving the sea's status remained unsigned. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Iran plans to begin developing oil fields within its own undisputed territory within the next two years. At the same time, construction will begin on a pipeline running from the Caspian port of Neka to Tehran -- a card that Iran has used in the past to encourage Kazakhstan to opt for the Persian Gulf state as a shorter, more stable route to world markets than the BTC route.
Timur Onica worked as an editorial assistant at EurasiaNet. He now works for Human Rights Watch as a research assistant in the Europe and Central Asia Division.