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Caspian Sea: Littoral Nations Still At Odds

  • Michael Lelyveld

Turkmenistan has blasted Russian proposals for dividing the Caspian Sea and called for a summit meeting of leaders from the five shoreline nations. Instead of nearing a solution, the long-standing issue appears to have suffered further setbacks with increased frictions between the littoral states. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 5 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan criticized Russia's attempts to solve the legal issue of dividing the Caspian Sea in unusually strong terms on Tuesday, saying that Moscow's recent diplomacy has only made matters worse.

Speaking to reporters in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's representative for the Caspian, Boris Shikhmuradov, charged that his Russian counterpart, Viktor Kalyuzhny, has deepened the disagreements over dividing the Caspian's resources.

The Associated Press reported Shikhmuradov as saying that Kalyuzhny's effort has "not only not brought any progress in dividing up the sea, but has returned the Caspian negotiating process to the start of the 1990s."

The harsh statement was notable in light of Turkmenistan's heavy reliance on exporting gas to Russia. The two countries recently concluded an agreement to increase deliveries of Turkmen gas this year.

The complaint by Turkmenistan's former foreign minister follows months of friction and maneuvering since Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Kalyuzhny after demoting him from the post of energy minister four months ago. In July, Kalyuzhny launched a series of visits to each of the four other Caspian littoral countries in an effort to advance Russia's proposals. While objections from Kazakhstan were muted, the Russian plans met with opposition in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Iran.

The terms were much the same as those that Russia has been pushing since 1998. Moscow would divide the seabed of the Caspian into sectors, but not the water or its surface, creating a hybrid of national sovereignty and common control. Kalyuzhny also argued that all disputed oilfields on bilateral borders should be shared. That idea has drawn protests from Turkmenistan, which claims several Caspian oilfields on or near its presumed border with Azerbaijan.

Turkmenistan has also tried to take Iran's side in the controversy by stressing that any solution must be acceptable to Tehran. Iran, which signed two treaties on the Caspian with the Soviet Union before the breakup, has argued that it is entitled to either joint ownership or 20 percent of the waterway.

But within the broad outlines of the dispute, many other disagreements have broken out, making progress on any legal principle seem impossible. Last week, for example, Kalyuzhny told a press conference in Moscow, that the 20 percent solution would not work because it would require Kazakhstan to reduce its share from 29 percent. He did not specify the amount of the Caspian that Russia claims.

Last week, Iran's official news agency IRNA also said that an unnamed Foreign Ministry official had rejected as "unrealistic" a proposal by Turkmenistan to submit the entire issue to the United Nations. The rebuff appeared to be a setback for Ashgabat's efforts to please Tehran on the Caspian question. Turkmenistan has also been trying to increase its gas sales to Iran.

The Iranian official responded that Russia could instead divide the 50 percent share of the Soviet Union among the four successor CIS nations on the Caspian, a formula that would give them considerably less than 20 percent each. The remark may have been a sign of further annoyance with Turkmenistan, one of the CIS states. A recent analysis by the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit estimated that a line drawn along the old Soviet-Iranian frontier would leave Iran with only 12 percent.

Speaking in Ashgabat, Shikhmuradov called for "an immediate meeting of the heads of state from the Caspian littoral states," the Interfax news agency reported. He also dismissed Kalyuzhny's proposal last week for a "unified center" to control the Caspian as unlikely.

But it is not clear that a Caspian summit meeting is any more likely to place. Although Shikhmuradov said the idea was endorsed by Putin during a recent phone conversation with Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, there are few signs that the five nations are ready to break the impasse.

In August, Kalyuzhny proved unable to convene a meeting of officials from the littoral states in Russia. An expected meeting in Iran in September also did not take place. Instead, Putin may seek to line up opinion on Russia's side during a series of scheduled visits to CIS capitals between now and November.

But behind the impasse lies the suspicion that Russia's initiative is aimed not at settling the Caspian issue but at dominating it with an agreement that would allow it to block projects that compete with Moscow's aims. That concern has already delayed progress for years, making any Russian solution difficult.