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Caspian: Shoreline States Cancel Summit Indefinitely

  • Michael Lelyveld

Plans for a Caspian Sea summit seem to have broken down in chaos. Despite preparations for a five-nation gathering in Turkmenistan next week, the meeting on dividing the Caspian may now be delayed for at least six months. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Washington, 10 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Caspian Sea nations have abruptly cancelled a summit that was set for next week, acting only days after officials insisted that the meeting would take place as planned.

The latest postponement from 14 April until an indefinite date in the fall is another setback for efforts to divide the oil-rich waters among the five shoreline states. The summit had previously been scheduled for early March.

The announcement came from the Kremlin on 7 April following a phone call between President Vladimir Putin and Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov.

But the delay seems to have taken several participants by surprise. On 7 April, a Russian delegation in Baku seemed to have no knowledge of the postponement. Andrei Urnov, the head of Russia's Foreign Ministry group for Caspian issues, told the ITAR-TASS news agency that documents were being prepared for the summit. He did not mention any delay.

Urnov then flew to Tehran with Russia's Caspian envoy Viktor Kalyuzhny for further talks over the weekend. Iran's official news agency IRNA cited the meeting Sunday (8 April), saying at first only that the postponement had been "reported."

Similarly, at a briefing in Astana on 9 April, Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov said that his country had still not received any official notice of a change in plan, although he acknowledged the cancellation.

According to the Kremlin statement, "The presidents of Russia and Turkmenistan said they favored the continuation of intensive preparation for a Caspian summit to make sure it takes place in autumn this year."

The sudden suspension of the summit in the midst of Kalyuzhny's shuttles between capitals suggests a complete breakdown in progress toward a settlement.

While some reports blamed the long delay until the fall on scheduling problems of the five presidents, the explanation was a doubtful reason for pushing back the date by six months.

Speaking in Baku, Urnov had discussed a draft declaration containing 20 to 30 items. The document apparently covered broad principles for sharing the Caspian while falling far short of a final agreement.

But it seemed that no amount of wording could mask the differences among the five countries on how to draw their Caspian border lines. The agreement appeared to be coming apart faster than Kalyuzhny could put it together.

On 30 March, Turkmenistan Deputy Prime Minister Yelly Gurbanmuradov announced that his country was preparing to sign $10 billion worth of Caspian contracts with unnamed Western firms. These were said to include a project to develop the Serdar oilfield. The deposit in the middle of the Caspian is also claimed by Azerbaijan, which calls it Kyapaz.

The announcement came one day after Kalyuzhny's visit to Ashgabat. If the Russians knew of Turkmenistan's plan, it would have complicated their efforts to keep the summit on track. If not, it could be seen as a deliberate act to provoke Azerbaijan. Either way, the plan spelled trouble for Russia's formula to divide the Caspian seabed on a "modified median line" and share disputed areas.

Russia may not have done much better with Kazakhstan, which has previously been seen as taking Moscow's side. But the two countries have failed to settle their competing claims to three islands in the northern Caspian. The land has little value, other than as points for marking dividing lines on nearby oil fields.

Iran has been set against Moscow's plan to keep the Caspian surface in common because of concerns about the range of Russian warships. The open conflict has confused some Western analysts who see Russia and Iran as military allies.

It is unclear whether Iran had a hand in calling off the summit. The previous postponement in March was at Iran's request. This time, the delay came four days after a meeting between Niyazov and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani in Ashgabat. In March, Iran confused matters by negotiating an accord with Russia that denies legal recognition of offshore projects until a final settlement is signed.

Over the past month, Turkmenistan has wavered in its support for Iran's claim to an equal 20 percent of the Caspian, which is more than its share of the shoreline. The postponement may ease Iran's risk of being outnumbered and outmaneuvered at the summit. But the chaos of the canceled meeting offers little hope of an agreement on the Caspian anytime soon.

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