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Russia: Moscow's New Caspian Policy?

  • Michael Lelyveld

Boston, April 7 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's new policy toward division of the Caspian Sea and export pipelines is good news for Turkmenistan, but not good enough.

Recent statements from Moscow suggest that Russia is becoming far more conciliatory toward the Caspian littoral states and their demands for a division of the sea into national sectors.

Last week, Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov confirmed the new attitude during a meeting with Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliev, saying that Moscow no longer opposes a sectoral division, despite its previous objections for more than three years.

Russia now believes that the seabed should be divided, giving the states control over petroleum resources. But the surface and the water itself should be shared to allow navigation and other uses by all states, Pastukhov said.

The change may be encouraging for Turkmenistan as it prepares to award billions of dollars in contracts for its offshore Caspian oil fields. While Moscow can do little to stop these projects in any case, its agreement will lift a legal cloud over all Caspian investment.

Russia has shown similar willingness in recent weeks to put its competition for Caspian pipeline routes on a practical rather than a political footing. Three weeks ago, and just one week before his dismissal, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said that economics, not politics would determine the pipeline choice. Last week, acting First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov sounded the same note, saying that the decision would be based "purely on economics."

Such pronouncements would be welcome indeed if they signify that Russia is ready to end its political maneuvers in the region and get down to the business of opening competitive access for exports. But in the weeks since the Chernomyrdin statement, it is gradually becoming clear what he meant.

Nemtsov's repetition of Chernomyrdin's phrases, even after the prime minister's ouster, suggests that there has been a coordinated shift in strategy on the Caspian, but no change in Russia's motives. There are also so many loopholes in the new Russian policy that the republics should be skeptical about whether it is anything more than a change in words.

For one thing, the Russian formula on dividing the Caspian would allow national ownership of the seabed, but it is not clear that it would cede jurisdiction over development because drilling platforms must be placed on the surface which would be commonly controlled. Unless an exemption is provided, the sectoral concession would be meaningless.

Moscow is also opposing construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline to join Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan on the grounds that it would pose an environmental risk. Its position on the shared control of the water would allow it to block such a pipeline which must run through it. While Russia's concern for the environment is laudable, it has shown little regard for ecology in previous petroleum development on its own territory.

U.S. energy analysts say that the point of opposing a trans-Caspian line is to block American plans for a complete east-west pipeline route, connecting not only Baku with the Turkish port of Ceyhan but joining the petroleum resources of Turkmenistan and Central Asia as well.

The implication for Turkmenistan is that Russia will continue its campaign to control the major pipeline access to the country. Without pipelines, the right to develop Caspian resources is largely academic.

Russia's intentions for the Caspian may also be seen in the plans that it has also announced to raise the capacity of its oil pipeline from Baku to Novorossiysk on the Black Sea.

Officials say they are prepared to increase the route's annual capacity to 17 million tons in the near future. By building a bypass around Chechnya, they would raise capacity to 30 million tons. When combined with Russia's opposition to trans-Caspian lines, the moves appear to be aimed at keeping just as much control over the region's resources as before.

If Russia is truly changing its policies, it should make its statements unambiguous by guaranteeing that it will not block access to the republics' resources or outlets for their exports by any means.

While Moscow's approach may be new, the results so far are the same. Turkmenistan's problems in exporting gas to Ukraine seem to demonstrate how little has changed.

Despite announcements weeks ago of an agreement in principle to allow sales of Turkmen gas to Ukraine, no shipments over Russia's pipelines have materialized. While deliveries remain stalled, Ukraine's economy has worsened, making payment less likely if shipments do take place. In the meantime Gazprom has made its own deal with Ukraine giving priority to Russian claims.

If Moscow has truly decided that economics and not politics will be the principle for the region's petroleum exports, it can show it by loosening its grip on the republics, allowing them to compete in foreign markets on the basis of fair access and transit rates.

Michael Lelyveld is national correspondent for the Journal of Commerce. This analysis was written for RFE/RL.