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Caspian: Outlook Dims For Summit

  • Michael Lelyveld

Efforts by Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to define their Caspian border have ended in open conflict again. As tensions rise, chances continue to dim for a five-nation summit to decide on a division of Caspian resources. Correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 15 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Hopes for a Caspian compromise faded further last week after Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan exchanged angry words.

The latest blow to negotiations on dividing the Caspian Sea came from Baku, as First Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov accused Turkmenistan of "arrogance" in demanding a halt to Azerbaijani offshore oil projects.

Abbasov was responding to a note from the Turkmen Foreign Ministry, which charged Baku with acting against the norms of international law by developing oil fields that are claimed by Ashgabat.

The roots of the latest row over the disputed resources can be traced to a meeting last month between Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov at the Turkic summit in Istanbul.

The two leaders declared that the time had come to end their long feud over the Caspian dividing line, offering the first glimmer of hope for a settlement in several years. Teams of experts from both sides were hastily convened in Ashgabat to settle the affair.

The dispute over a border oil field that Azerbaijan calls Kyapaz and Turkmenistan calls Serdar has been a sticking point for dividing the entire Caspian among the five shoreline states. But the result of the expert talks was a diplomatic disaster. Turkmenistan derided the Azerbaijani proposals on a dividing line as a package of old formulas that Ashgabat had previously scorned.

Instead of leading to compromise, the talks broke down as Turkmenistan renewed its claims not only to Kyapaz/Serdar, but also to fields that have been part of Azerbaijan's "deal of the century" project since 1994. Ashgabat also charged Azerbaijan with unilaterally blocking a border agreement among the five littoral states.

Last week, Abbasov rejected the Turkmen demand to stop its production in an interview with the Turan news agency, saying, "There are no legal grounds based on the norms of international law for the note from the Turkmen Foreign Ministry."

The exchange leaves the Caspian argument right back where it started, but with renewed expressions of ill will. The episode raises the question of why the meeting was called in the first place. Both sides may have believed that the other was ready to compromise.

Azerbaijan has previously shown its ability to make concessions when its greater interests are at stake. In March 2000, Aliyev gave up a portion of its transit fees from the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline to Georgia in order to strike a deal with Tbilisi after progress was stalled for several months.

Niyazov may have thought that Azerbaijan would be so eager to clear any legal clouds over its offshore projects that it would grant Turkmenistan a share in both Serdar/Kyapaz and the "deal of the century." He seems to have been badly mistaken.

An earlier rift between the two countries over shares in a trans-Caspian gas pipeline to Turkey has effectively scuttled the project. Neither side has been willing to give ground, while Azerbaijan has proceeded with plans for gas sales to Turkey on its own.

On his side, Aliyev may have thought Niyazov was ready to bargain because his plan to host a Caspian summit has essentially collapsed, having been put off first from March until April and then from April until October.

In March, Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Yelly Gurbanmuradov said his country was negotiating $10 billion worth of Caspian contracts. But oil companies are believed to be waiting for the legal problems to be solved. Both sides may have seen reasons why the other would back down, but neither seemed motivated to make the first move.

In the meantime, Kazakhstan is preparing to invite Azerbaijan to sign a bilateral Caspian border agreement, the Interfax news agency reported.

Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov argued in a letter to Kazakh Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev that "It will take additional effort and time to reach a consensus on the legal status of the Caspian on a five-party format." In other words, countries would be foolish to wait indefinitely for an overall settlement before reaching deals on their own.

That position may raise tensions further in the Caspian region.

In March, Iran and Russia signed a joint declaration in Moscow, stating that neither would recognize bilateral boundary pacts until all five nations agree. Iran is said to have sought the pledge, which Russia has since tried to discount.

But the events may be a sign that the delay in the summit may be filled with incidents that incite anger instead of steps toward a Caspian compromise.